In the 2010 comedy film Get Him To The Greek, an early rant from Sean “Diddy” Combs perfectly sums up one of the biggest problems in the music industry. In light of the recent deaths of rappers like Lil Peep and Mac Miller, the scene, which makes light of drug addiction and substance abuse in the music business, becomes a dark and cautionary indictment of not just the labels and business partners who enable drug dependent artists, but also of the fans who clamor for artists’ darkest moments.
Diddy, in character as music mogul Sergio Roma — basically, a surreally heightened, (even more) outrageous version of Diddy himself — tasks Aaron Green (portrayed by Jonah Hill) with safely escorting British rock star Aldous Snow (played with charmingly unhinged abandon by Russell Brand) from his home in London to the Greek Theater in Los Angeles for a comeback show aimed at redeeming the rockstar of his disastrous last album. Sergio explains that Aaron will have to keep Aldous, who has recently fallen off the wagon after seven years of sobriety, perfectly balanced between his sober and inebriated states, as this is the only way he will be considered entertaining for the waiting fans.
“He’s a drug addict, Aaron,” Sergio explains. “You have to show him balance. People wanna see him fucked up, but they don’t wanna see him too fucked up. If this is fucked up and this is sober… Right here. That’s the perfect balance, right there.”
It’s played for laughs in the film, but the heart of what Diddy-as-Sergio is saying cuts through to one of the recording industry’s darkest, worst-kept secrets. In a business where manipulation and exploitation are considered best practices, unfortunately, we are all complicit in this system that chews up and spits out real people. Lonely and damaged artists like Amy Winehouse, Lil Peep, Fredo Santana, and Mac Miller need help kicking their habits, but are instead left to muddle through on their own when someone — label owners, fans, family, friends, musical peers, hell, everyone must step in.
I don’t know Mac Miller’s situation specifically, but I’ve watched enough artists suffer from addiction in my lifetime to see that the cycle plays out similarly enough. Time and time again, from Prince to Michael Jackson, from Amy Winehouse to Whitney Houston, from Lil Peep to Mac Miller, we see family, friends, label executives, managers, and others timidly admit that they “wish they’d done more.” They “wish they’d seen the signs” in time to step in.
In truth, however, We all see the signs and instead of empathy and concern, they are met with condescending derision and jokes. When Kanye West was in the middle of a pill-influenced spiral, how many of the articles and how much of the online commentary was filled with lurid speculation? A lot of it — some might even say the majority. Kanye himself turned addiction into a punchline during the run-up to his massive GOOD Music summer release schedule, famously paying thousands of dollars for the rights to use a photo of Whitney Houston’s drug-riddled bathroom counter as the cover art for Pusha T’s Daytona.
When artists do manage to get clean, they are derided still for being “less interesting” or becoming corny. A sober Eminem created Recovery, prompting fans to joke that he needed to “go back to doing drugs,” despite his open admission he’d almost died from overdose. Gucci Mane, who got clean during his most recent stint in prison, underwent a nearly miraculous physical transformation, but was met with skepticism for his latest musical output and farfetched rumors of being replaced by a clone.
Sincere, straight-edged rappers like Russ and Chance The Rapper are mocked as being too “clean,” especially when they speak out against drug abuse as Russ did with his widely ridiculed T-shirt last year (to be fair, Russ’s approach lacked nuance, something that is also desperately needed when these discussions take place).
But then, when artists pay the price for indulging their vices or self-medicating their way through trauma, we ungenerously impugn them for their bad habits. Just look at the comments that followed Lil Peep’s passing on this very site. So many anonymous internet trolls are so quick to comment that artists deserve what happens to them, or resort to played-out, unfunny feigned ignorance of the artists’ work, as if that person, that human being, were a nonentity, unworthy of sympathy or even acknowledgment because of some face tattoos or personal musical preference. It’s disgusting and it only reflects our failings as a society; caring should not be considered corny and cynicism is not the same as wit.
Later in Get Him To The Greek, after a series of drug-fueled shenanigans have cost Aaron and Aldous nearly everything from their personal relationships to their continued employment, they have a sincere moment of vulnerability where they just talk. Aldous admits that he is lonely and depressed, that his drug use is an attempt to numb himself to the pain and loss caused by his own self-destructive actions. Aaron, in a show of genuine empathy and care, explains that Aldous’ drug use only makes things worse — it is, in fact, killing him (and very nearly does shortly before their heart-to-heart). In the end, the two break from Pinnacle Records and Sergio’s toxic influence to make music independently, so that they can create without the sort of pressures foisted upon artists by the major label system and under the radar of a music press that feeds uncaringly on artists’ personal struggles and failures.
There’s a lesson in the film’s ending as well: We need to take better care of each other. It’s so easy to get caught up in the chase for for virality, for validation, for entertainment value, that we can forget that these artists don’t really belong to us as a public entity always thirsty to feed the fame monster. They are human beings, who’ve often experienced trauma and emotional turbulence (especially in hip-hop); as much as their music speaks to our human need to feel understand and seen, they need someone to do the same for them. That can be anyone from business partners, friends and family, and fans who love the art that these rappers and singers produce.
One of the many, many artists to pay tribute to Mac’s memory in the wake of passing was French Montana, who posted an excerpt from The Fader‘s Mac Miller documentary, Stopped Making Excuses of the two artists sharing studio time as French tries to warn Mac away from partaking in a dose of lean — prescription-strength cough syrup mixed with soda — telling him, “Listen to me. I’m your brother. This right here… you’re gonna miss a couple shows.” Everyone is all smiles, joking and laughing as Mac proceeds to pour up — the truth was told, but in jest. Now, though, the joke is over and Mac is gone. Imagine if everyone in the studio that night had known just how serious the truth really was.