Contrary to popular belief, rap’s relationship with drug abuse is nothing new.
Despite the lamentations of some fans in the wake of the death of emo rapper Lil Peep two days ago, hip-hop histories and biographies are rife with tales of profuse pill popping, lean sipping, and cocaine overdoses.
From Russell Simmons to Old Dirty Bastard, rap impresarios and performers have always dabbled in the harder forms of pleasure, and many have paid the price — yesterday marked 17 years since the death of Houston legend DJ Screw from an overdose of lean.
Rap lyrics have always praised the use of drugs like molly, ecstasy, and cough syrup. Three 6 Mafia, who later won an Oscar for the song “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” from the Hustle & Flow soundtrack, released “Sippin’ On Some Syrup,” a straight-up ode to hard drugs, the same year as DJ Screw’s overdose (albeit much earlier in the calendar).
So the fans loudly bemoaning “hip-hop’s drug problem” have either been asleep for the past three decades or haven’t wanted to acknowledge what’s been there all along. Yes, rappers who emphasize this aspect, like Lil Peep, Lil Pump, or Lil Xan have risen to the top of mainstream rap consciousness lately, but the only thing that really seems to have changed is rap’s preferred perception alterer has shifted from THC to opiates.
However, there is a new trend in rap with regards to drugs, and it’s not exactly what those fans may have expected. While there are some rappers who’ve tapped into a vein of adolescent discontent and depression and seemingly popularized the use of drugs as a way to self-medicate, there are just as many, possibly even more, who have gone in the opposite direction and their platforms are huge in comparison.
Many of rap’s newer stars have become more and more vocal about sobriety and straight-edge lifestyles, not only foregoing drug references in their music but also staunchly eschewing and even verbally opposing the use of hard drugs for themselves and their fans.
While Long Beach rapper Vince Staples doesn’t shy away from references to drug use in his music, he has stated in multiple interviews that he refuses to use any drugs, including marijuana. In contrast, shortly before Lil Peep’s death, noted stoner Wiz Khalifa posted a video to his Instagram that decried the use of opiates, saying his latest album, Fly Now, Cry Later, is “not for lean sippers.”
Meanwhile, Atlanta-based DIY rapper Russ caught a net ton of flak over a t-shirt espousing an anti-drug message just last month, with nearly every so-called “emo rapper” jumping into his Twitter mentions or addressing the shirt’s message about abusing prescription medications which read, “How much Xans and Lean do you have to do before you realize you’re a f*cking loser?” However, instead of apologizing, he doubled down, saying that if the shirt’s slogan prevented even one kid from trying the drugs out of a desire to look cool, he was happy to take the online abuse.
Tyler The Creator has long enjoyed a straight-edge lifestyle despite his boisterous behavior earlier in his career. Bay Area rapper Kamaiyah questioned rappers’ dedication to drug abuse, asking “Why are you a f*cking addict?” And Lil Yachty, self-proclaimed King Of The Youth, has reiterated his own sobriety in multiple interviews and on his Twitter in the hopes of inspiring more young adults to abstain from partaking in the use of dangerous substances which have become all too easy to obtain.
In fact, one of the most popular rappers of the modern generation, Kendrick Lamar, first came on the scene with a sobriety anthem disguised as a party song. “Swimming Pools” is less about the joys of having a “pool full of liquor” and more about the consequences of both peer pressure and underage drinking. Similarly, Vic Mensa and Chance The Rapper have both engaged with the dangers of their own personal addictions, with the former crafting “Rolling Like A Stoner” to shoot down his previous engagement with pills and potions.
Actually, it might inaccurate to call this a “new” trend. Songs with anti-drug messages have existed in hip-hop almost as long as hip-hop has, with Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five releasing the disco-sampling hit “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” in 1984.
However, while rappers coming out and openly denouncing drug use wasn’t exactly unheard of through rap’s explosion of popularity through the ’90s and 2000s, at seemingly no point were there ever so many young, popular, mainstream acts willing to speak out in the way today’s stars have. If anything, it would have been considered corny to do so. Though nearly every rapper through that time period expressed some connection to “the drug game,” it was mainly an effort to garner street credibility for selling crack.
Macklemore, Will Smith, and other supposedly “clean” rappers got clowned whenever they tried to espouse positive messages in their music. Hustlers were in, and even with obligatory “Regrets”-style songs on so many of their albums, there weren’t too many who were willing to tackle the other side of that equation: All those abusers, junkies, and addicts who became trapped in the cycle of scrabbling and surviving only for their next fix.
Lil Peep’s death is unfortunate, and a symptom of a growing problem in the US. The problem is that the new drugs of choice are not exotic concoctions purchased from shady dealers in abandoned warehouses and back alleys but legal, prescription meds available over the counter at your friendly neighborhood pharmacy.
Thankfully, many of today’s young stars seem to be actively invested in protecting their fans from the adverse effects of drug abuse. While the subset of drug glorifying, tattooed mic terrorists has received a ton of press, in reality, their movements are relatively small and mostly underground.
Lil Pump is not performing on festival main stages (yet), nor do promoters seem to take any of his ilk all that seriously. Instead, it’s Yachty and his straight edge lifestyle that took over the first half of this year, and signed deals with storied, influential brands like Nautica. Their music isn’t being placed in movie trailers but Vince Staples’ music is. Kamaiyah and Tyler and Yachty are earning radio play and performing at colleges across America and taking their acts to late-night television to perform for millions.
Like every generation before them, the teens and young adults of today face challenges unique to their demographic (and can mostly point to their predecessors for screwing them over so badly). Unlike prior generations, it seems like their most vocal role models are the ones with their heads on straight, an investment in their well-being, and the tools to communicate their positive hopes for their fans directly to them. I think, for once, the kids are alright.