Every genre of music has its trends and themes that come to help define the genre as unique. While some of these have come and gone with the passage of time, there are others that have become immutable within the genre and begin to influence the direction it takes in the future. In the genre of hip-hop, one of the most influential trends on the music, and therefore society as a whole, can be attributed to drugs. The prevalence of drugs in rap lyrics can be ordered into two categories: its use and its distribution. From alcohol or crack, drugs have been in raps almost since the inception of hip-hop. To some this may not mean very much, but to an involved parent this is very alarming. Children and teenagers are quite possibly the most impressionable market in the music industry so they are the most susceptible to imitating the acts of artists they look up to. Throughout this writing, I plan to point out some of the most frequently mentioned drugs in hip-hop from the early 1980s until now, address various drug trends started or sustained by various artists and highlight some of the societal impacts that they had.
When hip-hop began, it was not a widely commercialized market so rappers wrote their lyrics with more substance and positive messages in order to be remembered by their audience. This is why most of the classic examples of early rap songs seem to heed a warning (“The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5 is an archetypal example of this). This is especially due to the fact that hip-hop music began to emerge around the same time that the crack epidemic did in African-American communities. Because of the ill-effects witnessed to people who became addicted to the drug (popularly called “Baseheads” at the time since another name for crack is freebase cocaine), its use was never condoned in hip-hop because of conspiracies regarding the government’s role in introducing crack into African-American neighborhoods.
The use of cocaine and crack has never been accepted in the realm of hip-hop, however, its distribution has become a major theme in the subject matter of today. With many rappers coming from disenfranchised neighborhoods, one way to earn a lot of money quickly was to sell drugs. While this theme has always been in the background, it did not become a substantial trend in hip-hop music until about the mid-1990s, where it was common subject matter in the raps of artists like Nas, Biggie Smalls, various members of the Wu-Tang Clan, Young Jeezy, N.W.A, and many others. Now that hip-hop has become a much more commoditized genre, more and more rappers base much of their subject matter on either selling drugs or buying lavish possessions with their drug money. Below is a music video released within the past year entitled “Move That Dope” by Future. As the name implies, the song is entirely focused on selling cocaine and talking about the expensive things it’s gotten the rapper, such as a Maserati vehicle (which starts at about $120,000).
In hip-hop, appearing as a renegade on the wrong side of the law has been known to boost one’s image greatly. The irony of this is that some rappers who boast this lifestyle, such as Rick Ross, are not speaking from experience so when teens here them talk about selling drugs and desire to do the same, they risk serious federal charges all because of a false image they wanted to emulate.
Two drugs that have always been generally approved of in hip-hop are alcohol and marijuana. This is most likely due to the fact that these two drugs are the least lethal of those mentioned throughout rap. It generally seems that alcohol has been written about from the earliest years of hip-hop’s popularity. Its approval can be attributed to the fact that it’s legal, meaning that there will be little to no negativity regarding it. Marijuana itself has shown a form of growth since its earliest mentions in hip-hop. The quality of weed has increased greatly since hip-hop began and lyrics have begun to reflect this. When listening to “How to Roll a Blunt” by Redman, he never refers to the weed by any particular name. Also, he mentions picking the seeds out of the mix. Nowadays, weed and weed culture has become much more official and regulated so now it’s likely to know the name of what you’re smoking and know that if it has seeds or stems that it’s not very high quality. As seen in Ludacris’ “Blueberry Yum Yum” video, the marijuana is being grown in a greenhouse, demonstrating a much higher control in the process.
Many sources blame the high use among teenagers on the rap industry for the way the drug gets portrayed in such a positive manner. Fortunately, the side effects of marijuana are not very severe and not at all lethal, so the use of this drug amongst the youth is the least distressing.
Though one may hear about marijuana, alcohol, and the various forms of cocaine the most in hip-hop, there are still other drugs that get mentioned. As of late, the trend of abusing prescription drugs has permeated hip-hop culture, more specifically pain relievers. Possibly the most popular of these would be codeine. Codeine (with promethazine) is a sleep-inducing cough syrup that doubles as a pain reliever. Its abuse originated in Houston, Texas, where individuals would mix the drug with Sprite and Jolly Ranchers for flavor then drink the mix recreationally. It then began to spread throughout the rest of the country when it was popularized by Three 6 Mafia and UGK in 2000 with their hit “Sippin’ on Some Syrup”.
However, Codeine is derived from morphine and is an opiate, meaning it is highly addictive, difficult to quit, and comes with severe withdrawal symptoms. Some rappers, like Schoolboy Q, have admitted to struggles with addiction, while others have been seriously injured or killed by the drug. In fact, it’s been determined that one half of the rap duo UGK, Pimp C, died due to an overdose. With the rise in its approval, many rappers made songs praising the drug, while few to none would talk about its dangers; that is until Macklemore released “Otherside” in 2010.
The song actually begins with an interview with the other half of UGK, Bun B, talking about how he’s changed his subject matter regarding the drug since Pimp C’s death. Macklemore goes on to talk about how “violence, drugs, and sex sells” and talks first-hand how his battle with drug addiction almost led him to throw away his potential in the rap industry. While this song is not very popular within hip-hop, it should be an anthem in drug awareness programs for its realistic stance on recreational drug use; educating the youth about the less appealing other side of drugs.
Other than Codeine, the next most popular prescription drugs would be Oxycodone. Also an opioid in nature, Oxycodone is essentially Codeine in pill for except it’s used exclusively for pain. Around the early to mid-2000s, Schoolboy Q named his third studio album Oxymoron, partly because of the irony in being a gangster in order to provide for his daughter, but also because he used to sell Oxycodone. On the album’s 7th track entitled “Prescription/Oxymoron”, the rapper talks about his arduous battle with prescription painkillers in the first half while reflecting on when he stopped selling crack to start selling these same drugs he battled with in the second half.
The drug ecstasy used to only be associated with electronic music and underground rave scenes, but in recent times it’s crossed over into hip-hop. Through this crossover, its name changed to Molly and its formula became a bit modified but, it’s still ecstasy. The reason its named Molly now is because ecstasy is derived from the chemical compound MDMA. Molly is much purer and more potent than ecstasy because it’s MDMA on a molecular level, as opposed to being cut with whatever the dealer sees fit. Molly broke into the hip-hop scene in 2012 mostly due to rapper, Trinidad James. His breakout hit entitled “All Gold Everything” has an iconic line at 1:52, where he exclaims “Popped a Molly, I’m sweating. Woo!”
Since then, Molly has become commonplace in hip-hop music, being solidified later that year by more popular artist Tyga’s song named after the drug. Now, it’s become widely popular among college students, who commonly take it before a concert to heighten the experience. The danger of Molly is that it severely dehydrates anyone who takes it. When it just started to circulate, many were not aware of this so they would take it before a concert (an already hot place that is sure to cause much sweating) and pass out later in the night because they failed to keep hydrated.
While, much less popular than these other drugs due to its scarcity, acid has also found its way into the rap industry. In 2013, Chicago-based artist, Chance the Rapper, released a mixtape entitled Acid Rap. In the past, he’d made it clear that LSD had a favorable impact on his life so for this project, he apparently recorded a good portion of the tape while tripping. “[There] was a lot of acid involved in Acid Rap. I mean, it wasn’t too much –I’d say it was about 30 to 40 percent acid…” The interviewer later asked Chance how his particular rap style (or “flow”) has developed over the years. He remarked “I used to sound just like Kanye when I rapped because that was all I listened to. I went through my Kanye phase, went through my Eminem phase, my Lil Wayne phase, my Andre  phase. I listened to a lot of different music, and when you listen to something, it’s not really a choice of yours on whether the influence will come through – it’s inevitable”. Even an artist of the genre recognizes how, not just hip-hop but, music in general has a very persuasive nature. This poses the question: if every artist were made aware of the incredibly influential nature of their music, would they be more careful about their subject matter for the kids’ sake?
The wide appeal ingrained in hip-hop is quite possibly its greatest and most dangerous feature. With the memorable vocals, and amazing instrumentals that it produces, it would be near impossible to find a person that doesn’t appreciate at least one hip-hop. In addition to the actual music, the extravagance displayed by some of the artists in public and in their videos makes the culture as a whole a near hypnotic display. Unfortunately, this inherent appeal makes hip-hop a popular genre amongst impressionable adolescents. When they hear their role models talking about drugs in a positive manner, it’s only a matter of time before they’ll get curious and want to experiment with such drugs for a point of reference. While it is the responsibility of the parents, and not the rappers, to ensure that their children are listening to age-appropriate music, in this day and age a parent can only do so much. Information has such a ubiquitous nature nowadays that children could get exposed to any topic, regardless of the filters set in place by guardians and caretakers. Moving forward, one way to better assure that the youth will make smart decisions about drugs, despite any song lyric, would be to educate them earlier about drug awareness and the consequences of use so that they may make have a quasi-point of reference without first-hand experience.
- This is a chart depicting rates of various drug trends throughout rap on a yearly basis. I found it interesting and relevant to the topic