Hip Hop’s Drug Culture is Tone Deaf to the Nation’s Opioid Crisis

Gustav Åhr was 21 years old when he died of a Xanax fueled drug overdose in November of 2017. You may have heard of him by his stage name, Lil Peep. While fast living and a face canvased by tattoos gave Åhr the appearance of being much older, make no mistake that he was a kid; depressed, deeply troubled, and addicted. Lil Peep’s untimely and tragic death is, sadly, far from an isolated incident. His death is the latest in hip hop’s legacy of gone-to-soon talents taken by drug overdoses. In today’s diverse and multi-layered hip hop culture, the prominence of prescription drug abuse is a mainstream aspect of the greater landscape, particularly among the industry’s youngest artists and fans. This aspect of hip hop is especially troubling in light of the nation’s current struggle with prescription opioid addiction.

Hip hop is a massive culture and a global community. Within that community exist various sects and subcultures all adhering to their own unique ethos and aesthetics. From conscious rap to trap music, the hip hop world is as much, if not more varied than any musical genre or sector of popular culture. That said, there exists within all variations of hip hop a cultural reference point to the world of illegal drug use. There is an unbreakable bond between hip hop and drugs. Rap as an art form was born, and largely reflective, of lower income urban communities of color. These are communities that have long battled with drug crises, from crack and heroin to modern day prescriptions pills. Still, the intent of drug references in urban music, dating back to the blues and jazz of the early 20th century, was not to fetishize but to confront. 1980’s hip hop discusses crack sales and the economics of the drug game at length, but artists rarely boasted openly of their own addictions. While the drug fiend played a prominent role in early hip hop lore, it was typically as a cautionary tale or modern-day court jester. NWA’s 1988 track, “Dopeman”, paints Eazy-E’s drug dealing anti-hero as a despicable trickster, slinging deadly product to strung out crack-heads.

In the 1990’s however, the narrative and semi-biographical nature of hip hop evolved into an era of artistic discovery through psychedelic experimentation. Much like rock-n-roll culture of the sixties and seventies, nineties hip hop used drugs as an expressive medium. Perhaps nowhere was this marriage of drugs and music more prominent than in Houston, Texas, where the regional practice of recreational codeine abuse gave way to the creation of chopped and screwed hip hop. Robert Earl Davis Jr, aka DJ Screw, popularized the use of codeine cough syrup mixed with Sprite soda, aka Lean, between the years of 1990-1993*. It was during this time that Davis invented a style of hip hop he coined, chopped and screwed. By slowing existing tracks down to a snail’s pace, then chopping and scratching the vocals, Screw was simulating the psychological effects of a codeine high. He created a full-fledged cultural phenomenon, one that still defines the hip hop landscape of the south, and eventually penetrated into both east and west coast music. In November 2000, seven years after the release of his first studio mix tape, Robert Davis was found dead in his Houston recording studio after suffering an accidental drug and alcohol overdose. Heavy amounts of codeine were found in his system.

Following the death of Screw, codeine’s grip on southern music only tightened, eventually taking the lives of Screw’s friends and collaborators Big Moe and Pimp C. Today, codeine abuse is still prominent, if not compulsive, among hip hop artists in the south. It also enjoys mainstream acceptance into the greater culture. Harlem artist ASAP Rocky raps often about the drug and about Screw’s influence on his life. His wildly popular rap group, ASAP Mob, was co-founded by Rocky’s close friend and business partner ASAP Yams, who died of a drug overdose in 2015; an overdose that was in part caused by codeine.

But narcotic cough syrup is not the only prescription drug that has found its way into the annals of rap history and contemporary culture. In more recent years, prescription painkillers, antidepressants, and sleep aids have become popular subjects of discussion in the lyrics of the industry’s most influential artists. Lil Wayne, Future, ASAP Rocky, and scores of other artists rap almost exclusively about their compulsive and destructive drug habits. But the line between confessional artistry and brazen celebration has become almost invisibly thin. Future’s hit song, “Mask Off”, features the repeating hook, “Percocet, Molly, Percocet,” over and over. A lyric that is loudly and obliviously chanted by thousands of adoring fans at Future’s performances. Although the song itself is about the artist’s struggles with addiction, synonymizing the admittance of a drug habit with the removal of a metaphorical mask, the meaning is lost on a fan base caught up in a culture that glorifies those drugs.

Lil Peep’s music also heavily referenced his drug abuse as a symptom of deep depression and loneliness. Sadly, while he was alive, his fans and the industry alike tended to miss the point, obsessed with his bad boy persona and teen heart-throb magnetism. Lil Peep failed to make drugs seem dangerous. Instead he made them seem cool, even after his death. And therein lies the problem. Hip hop’s prescription drug fetish is peaking at a time when the nation is battling the worst drug crisis in American history. Rates of opioid related deaths are climbing and have been climbing for years. America is battling an addiction crisis that is killing over 100 people per day. Meanwhile, stadiums full of Future fans sing “Percocet, Molly, Percocet,” while completely missing the artist’s thinly veiled cry for help.

What we as fans must now consider, is that hip hop’s drug problem is multi-facetted. It is not simply a matter of artists abusing and dying from prescriptions drugs, but rather the distorted image of what drug addiction looks like. Most drug addicts are not famous millionaires snorting lines of Xanax in a Las Vegas suite. They are poor, working-class slobs shooting heroin with a dirty needle. Whatever enviable outer lives DJ Screw and Lil Peep led under their stage names, Robert Davis and Gustav Åhr died as painfully, as scared, and as alone as the millions of addicts that came before and will inevitably follow. Given its massive global influence, it is past time for the greater hip hop community to speak out against its own drug culture and condemn both the artists and fans that so boldly glorify prescription drug abuse. In the context of the crisis surrounding these drugs, a culture as prominent and essential as hip hop has a responsibility to affect change. Though rap music may be rooted in counter culture movements and anti-establishment rebellion, today’s rap industry is as much a part of the global zeitgeist as any aspect of human culture. As a result, the industry bares a social responsibility to shape public opinion and individual action on matters as severe as a national and humanitarian drug crisis.

* Screw did not invent Lean, but he is widely credited with introducing the codeine lifestyle to mainstream hip hop, particularly through his unique brand of hip hop.

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