Getting the Message: Hip-hop Reports on the Drug War
Chapter 5: Hip-hop and the Drug War
by Deborah Peterson Small
Music and drugs are fellow travelers. Music is a universal medium of expression. Drugs have been used throughout human history by people of all ages. Both stir emotion and moods, and can alter one’s state of mind in minutes. Music is a particularly favored medium of youth. Throughout modern history music has provided a means for young people to express their concerns and angst. Illicit drug use is also a common experience of youth, particularly in the United States. According to the most recent Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey more than 45% of all high school seniors reported using an illicit drug in their lifetime. Consequently, it is no exaggeration to say that music, drugs, and youth travel in the same circles.
Hip-hop began as an urban movement encompassing rap music, break dancing, graffiti art, and fashion – created in New York City during the late 1970s, it reflected the hopes and aspirations as well as the many challenges facing inner-city youth. Its dominant feature is “rap” (performed by MCs – aka ‘masters of ceremonies’)—a discursive oral art form that traces its roots to the griots of West Africa.1 In its purest form, known as “freestyling,” rap is about creating extemporaneous poetry delivered to rhythmic beats. A rapper is distinguished by verbal agility, demonstrated in competitive ‘battles’. DJs (disc jockeys) create the soundtrack of hip-hop by sampling parts of existing songs, looping them, and adding new sounds to create music to rap to. Break-dancing is competitive street dancing consisting of elements demonstrating physical agility and strength. Graffiti is a popular method utilized by young urban artists to communicate identity, expression, and ideas through drawings, markings, and messages painted, written, or scratched on a wall or surface (in New York City, the surface was often subway trains).
The advent of hip-hop coincided with the escalation of the “war on drugs” in the United States in the early 1980s. In response to concern over growth of the illicit drug trade and increasing use of smokable cocaine (known as “crack” or “rocks”) in inner-city communities, Congress passed new laws that intensified the “war on drugs” and in short time, state legislators followed suit. At both the federal and state levels, lawmakers adopted expansive definitions of “drug-related crimes” and required imposition of harsh sentences aimed at keeping individuals with any connection to drugs behind bars for longer periods of time. Despite the reality of problematic drug use among every socioeconomic and demographic group, these new laws would be enforced most vigorously in poor black and Latino communities—with devastating effects on multiple generations of men, women, and children.
A frequent justification given by U.S. officials for enacting such “get tough” approaches is the need to protect vulnerable youth from drugs, drug sellers, and drug-related crime. Ironically, the expanding definition of “drug-related crimes” increasingly ensnared juveniles charged and prosecuted as adults for drug offenses. Not surprisingly, black youth are disproportionately represented among youth arrested and charged with drug offenses and among juveniles prosecuted as adults for drug offenses, despite consistent evidence that black youth have a lower rate of illicit drug use than their white counterparts. According to the most recent MTF survey:
Among the most dramatic and interesting subgroup differences are those found among the three largest racial/ethnic groups—Whites, African Americans, and Hispanics. Contrary to popular assumption, at all three grade levels African-American students have substantially lower rates of use of most licit and illicit drugs than do Whites. These include any illicit drug use, most of the specific illicit drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes.2 [emphasis added]
Over the past three decades, legislators throughout the United States have adopted a variety of policies that send more minority youth to criminal court. These measures include: lowering the age at which juveniles can be prosecuted as adults; expanding the categories of crimes for which youth are automatically prosecuted in criminal court; giving prosecutors the exclusive authority to decide which juveniles are charged as adults; and limiting the discretion of judges to overturn decisions by prosecutors and law enforcement officials. The effect of these policies has been dramatic, nowhere more so than in New York (the first state to adopt long mandatory drug sentencing) and California, which have the distinction of sending more young black and Latino men to prison each year than graduate from their state colleges and universities. Not surprisingly, New York and California have been at the center of major developments in the history of hip-hop.
Much has been written regarding the dramatic growth in the U.S. prison population; the role of punitive drug policies in fueling this growth; and the racially disparate consequences of drug law enforcement on poor black communities. In addition to the numerous books, articles, reports, and research studies chronicling these developments, stories of the drug war and its impact pervade hip-hop music. Anyone seeking to understand the effects of decades of drug law enforcement on poor minority youth should listen to the lyrics and music of the generations of young people who have lived on the frontlines of the U.S. “war on drugs.”
Delivering the Message: News from the Streets to the Ears of the World
Hip-hop was created by alienated and marginalized youth seeking to tell their stories. In the 1980s, rappers used hip-hop to express their disillusionment, despair, anger, and impatience about what was happening to them and their communities. Hip-hop music revealed the not-so-hidden consequences of growing income inequality.
One of the first consciously political hip-hop recordings was “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Released in 1983, it is a musical exhortation against complacency in the face of growing poverty and desperation. Its opening lines paint a bleak but honest picture of daily life in many ghettoized communities:
Broken glass everywhere People pissing on the stairs, you know they just don’t care I can’t take the smell, I can’t take the noise Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice Rats in the front room, roaches in the back Junkies in the alley with the baseball bat
A later verse explains how childhood deprivation, living second rate, often leads to involvement in the criminal justice system. The lack of options for such children is acutely observed – their environment mirroring their future – one great big alley way.
You’ll admire all the number book takers Thugs, pimps, pushers and the big money makers Driving big cars, spending twenties and tens And you wanna grow up to be just like them
The attraction of criminality set against such a bleak outlook is clear. The song, however, is a warning. It predicts the loss of education, violence and inevitable incarceration. It predicts the loss of youth. Its chorus could not be more explicit or poetic in describing the artists’ feelings about this: Don’t push me cause I’m close to the edge.
The issues addressed in “The Message”: poor living conditions; dearth of positive male role models; non-engagement with education; chronic unemployment; the lure of criminality; police brutality; and incarceration are recurring themes in hip-hop music and culture.
Crack Game: Dealing Drugs, Employment Opportunity for the Discarded
Hip-hop developed during a period of extraordinary economic transition—the flight of manufacturing and other traditional businesses from urban areas left a significant portion of young men with minimal employment prospects. Black and Latino males with poor grades and especially those who dropped out of school, faced a hostile and competitive labor market—long periods of unemployment soon became the norm. Into this vacuum stepped drug cartels that saw in these young men a ready labor pool with direct ties to new, lucrative markets and considerable drive to make enough money to get out of their ghetto neighborhoods. The economic pressures that compel many young black and Latino men to enter the illicit drug market are described repeatedly in hip-hop music.
In “Love’s Gonna Get’ Cha/Material Love” (1990) KRS-One tells a compelling story of coming of age into the drug business, rapping about growing up poor and being lured by the opportunity to make money to help his family.
Every day I see my mother struggling, now it’s time I’ve got to do something, says the narrator, describing then the embarrassment of rejection from work and the degradation of menial jobs. Easy money comes in the form of a quick delivery for a local dealer – I do it once, I do it twice, now there’s steak with the beans and rice… my family’s happy everything is new, now tell me what the fuck am I supposed to do?
The narrator soon becomes a moderately successful drug dealer able to provide for his family and enjoy some of the finer things in life for a while, but a beef with a rival dealer results in the shooting of his brother leading to a gun battle that results in the police killing two of his friends.
Most politicians, community leaders, and media portrayed young minority men involved in the street drug trade as lazy, irresponsible parasites. As the drug war raged on through the 1980s and 1990s, hip-hop artists responded to the demonization of drug dealers by pointing to the hypocrisy of a system that rewarded wealth and power regardless of the method by which it was acquired and yet penalized black men who sought the same by utilizing the few economic options available to them.
In “I Want to Talk to You” (1999), Nas—considered by music critics one of the most lyrically gifted hip-hop artists—challenges the prevailing condemnation of drug dealing, asserting that for many it is a means of survival amidst a desert of other options – Niggaz gotta go create his own job. He asks the nation’s political leaders what they would do in the same situation:
Mr. Mayor imagine this was your backyard/Mr. Governor imagine it’s your kids that starved. And he implicates them in the situation facing young black men, explaining in so few words how racism, capitalism and class make involvement in criminality all but unavoidable: all I got is what you left me with, I’m gonna get it
In “Manifesto” (1998), Talib Kweli tells the truth succinctly:
Supply and the demand it’s all capitalism People don’t sell crack cause they like to see blacks smoke People sell crack cause they broke
The rise of hip-hop came at a time when the U.S. music industry was in transition. New technologies brought unanticipated changes—affecting record sales and profits. Hip-hop provided a much needed boost to an ailing industry with its new sounds, creativity, and energy. The commercial success of hip-hop correspondingly provided economic opportunities for marginalized black men at a time when other employment options were becoming scarce. One group well positioned to seize the opportunities hip-hop provided for financial reward was ghetto entrepreneurs (aka drug dealers). Ironically, some of the most successful and well-known hip- hop moguls were involved in the illicit drug economy early in life. Many leveraged the proceeds from illegal drugs to finance their start in the music industry. This path, followed by Russell Simmons, Jay-Z, Master P, Nas, Notorious B.I.G., Eazy-E, Suge Knight, 50 Cent, Lil Wayne, and countless others, has led generations of hip-hop fans throughout America to believe that if you are smart and lucky, selling drugs can be a step towards establishing a successful music career.
In “Drug Dealer” (1992), KRS-One makes the point that historically profits from crime have eased the path for many upwardly mobile Americans:
Drug dealer, understand historical fact Every race got ahead from selling drugs except Black We are under attack here’s another cold fact In the 30s and 40s the drug dealer wasn’t Black They were Jewish, Italian, Irish, Polish etc., etcetera Now in the 90s their lives are a lot better
Thugs with Drugs: The Rise of Gangster Rap
We treat this rap shit just like handlin weight
JAY-Z, “Rap Game/Crack Game” (1997)
Given the relationship between hip-hop music and street drug culture it’s not surprising that rap lyrics reference the many similarities between the music and drug business. The economic success of hip-hop music and culture created a new path to escape ghetto life. While many inner-city youth dreamed of a career in professional sports, achieving it required extraordinary physical attributes and gifts few are born with. Hip-hop provided the promise of fame and fortune to the verbally gifted who didn’t sing or dance. Anyone with the ability to write and deliver rhymes or create new beats could ostensibly become a star. As hip-hop continued to grow in popularity and influence, the numbers of young black men and women who sought to ride the hip-hop train to fame grew exponentially. However, as is true in many markets, the proliferation of hip-hop talent made it easy for the industry to exploit new and unsophisticated artists. Many artists were unaware that the commercial success of hip-hop culture was built on appealing to a different demographic than the group the music was initially created for. Record companies discovered a highly lucrative market for hip-hop in alienated suburban white youth who reveled in the violence, misogyny and criminality expressed in some hip-hop music which they adopted as the authentic experience of inner-city youth. By some estimates, 80 percent of hip-hop music is bought by white youth.
The genre of hip-hop music most appealing to alienated white youth is “gangster rap,” celebrating the lifestyle commonly associated with gamblers, gangsters, pimps, hustlers, and drug traffickers. Its essence is selfish, misogynistic, violent, materialistic, and amoral. Gangster rap first developed in Los Angeles and is directly related to the growing involvement of LA gangs (primarily the Crips and Bloods) in the drug trade. The group that put gangster rap on the map was N.W.A. (Niggaz with Attitude). By taking on the hated “N word” (nigger) and the negative characteristics associated with it, the group was declaring itself outside contemporary society—both white and black. By adding the description “with Attitude,” they were serving notice that, like gangsters, they were dangerous and not to be messed with. One of the founding members, Eazy-E, initially conceived of the group and the record label they started as a way to launder the money he made selling drugs. As gangster rap grew in notoriety and profits, many hip-hop artists promoting themselves as “gangster rappers” conspicuously took the names and aliases of well-known mafia and drug cartel leaders (e.g., Junior Mafia, Noriega, Gambino, Escobar) to establish their affinity with those choosing to live by the “Code of the Streets” (1994) as described by Gang Starr:
I’ll organize some brothers and get some crazy loot Selling d-r-u-g-s and clocking dollars, troop Cause the phat dough, yo, that suits me fine I gotta have it so I can leave behind
The mad poverty, never having always needing If a sucker steps up, then I leave him bleeding … You gotta be a pro, do what you know
When you’re dealing with the code of the streets
The Wu-Tang Clan succinctly summed up the prevailing value in the United States, when they proclaimed in their mega-hit “C.R.E.A.M.” (1994), “Cash Rules Everything Around Me, Get the Money, Dollar, Dollar Bills Y’all.” Gangster rap celebrates this lifestyle with its promise of quick financial gain and easy sexual conquests. However, it is worth noting that aside from the prevalence of guns, the sentiments and attitudes reflected in gangster
rap are very similar to the values and behavior that have prevailed on Wall Street over the past three decades. “Greed is good,” has been the dominant ethos of mainstream financiers who made billions selling toxic products to unwitting customers who became addicted to the financial “high” of increasing profits and cheap borrowed money, no matter how risky. Unlike the titans of Wall Street who were rescued from the consequences of their follies by the federal government and successfully avoided prosecution, today’s rappers are increasingly caught in a trap partly of their own making. Establishing one’s criminal bona fides has become a prerequisite for legitimacy as a gangster rapper, and artists vie to exceed each other in verbal boasts of flouting the law. Prosecutors have become creative at using the lyrics of gangster rappers as evidence of criminal activity, leading to several high-profile prosecutions.
In reality, the life of the average street drug dealer is often harsh, dangerous, and financially unrewarding. This is well-described in “Last Dayz” by Onyx (1995). Beginning with a line borrowed from the 1993 film Menace II Society – I’m America’s nightmare, young black and just don’t give a fuck – the track describes a life of zero options, crime and violence. There are messages of suicide – thinking of taking my own life, might as well – and violent ends – and I’ll probably bite the bullet cause I live by the gun. Perhaps most striking, however, is the sense of resignation. The chorus sums it up:
It’s life on the edge, a dangerous way of livin, never givin a shit cause we livin in it – we never givin a shit cause we living in it
The opportunity to earn big money as a street-level drug dealer is almost as elusive for most black and Latino men as making it into professional sports. Several studies suggest the average street drug dealer earns slightly more than minimum wage and receives no extras for the safety hazards associated with the job (e.g., gunshots, beat-downs, theft), or
compensation if hurt or arrested.
“Sound of Da Police”: Hip-hop on Law Enforcement
The rise of hip-hop paralleled the exponential growth of imprisonment fueled by drug law enforcement. Hip-hop expresses the sentiments of minority inner-city youth who profoundly distrust the criminal justice system. This distrust begins with law enforcement. The police are viewed by many as a legal gang with which minority youth are perpetually at war.
In “Sound of da Police” (1993), KRS-One expands the critique of police harassment suggested at the end of “The Message” with a direct attack that connects modern-day police practices with the behavior of plantation overseers during chattel slavery:
Take the word “overseer,” like a sample Repeat it very quickly in a crew for example Overseer, Overseer, Overseer, Overseer! Officer, Officer, Officer, Officer!
Yeah, officer from overseer You need a little clarity? Check the similarity! …
The overseer had the right to get ill And if you fought back, the overseer had the right to kill The officer has the right to arrest And if you fight back they put a hole in your chest!
N.W.A. (Niggaz with Attitude) gained fame and notoriety for expressing the absolute contempt many young black Angelenos had for the Los Angeles Police Department,
which was considered to be brutal and corrupt. In “Fuck tha Police” (1988) the group holds a mock trial where they find the police guilty of multiple crimes against young black men from Compton. They describe harassment:
Fuckin with me cuz I’m a teenager With a little bit of gold and a pager Searchin my car, lookin for the product Thinkin every nigga is sellin narcotics
And racially-motivated violence, accusing the police of claiming the authority to kill a minority.
Bass, How Low Can You Go? Hip-Hop on Drug Addiction
“Bass, How Low Can You Go?” is the famous double entendre opening to Public Enemy’s 1988 album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.4 Bass, of course, refers to a male vocal range, the bass guitar, the bass drum, a bass line. Base, on the other hand, refers to freebase. “White Lines” (1983) by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, however, was one of the first hip-hop songs to address the problem of drug addiction—in particular, the growing menace posed by cocaine, specifically freebasing.
Ticket to ride, white line highway Tell all your friends, they can go my way Pay your toll, sell your soul Pound for pound costs more than gold The longer you stay, the more you pay My white lines go a long way Either up your nose or through your vein With nothin to gain except killin’ your brain
While drinking and cannabis smoking are often glorified in gangster rap (for example the entire “Doggystyle” album by Snoop Doggy Dogg, 1993), this is not reflective of hip hop more
broadly. “I Need Drugs” (2000) is an amusingly ironic ode to crack cocaine addiction by Necro. While funny in places, it glorifies nothing. If anything, the core message is a sense of shame:
I ain’t got no pride, While buying the shit I’m lying to myself telling the runner I’m trying to quit It’s all make believe, I pretend that I’m true When you give me credit, I’ll dodge you every chance that I get to Even if its good, I’ll sniff it up in a minute Beep you back and complain that you put too much cut in it
What We Seeing is…: Hip-hop on Prison
Public Enemy’s “Bring the Noise,” quoted above, relates not only to addiction but also to the drug trade and prisons. “Bass, how low can you go?” is the question. “Death row, what a brother know” is the answer. In just twelve words, Chuck D had drawn the connection between drugs, addiction, the consequences of involvement in the drug trade and the violence that surrounds it for young black men. Throughout the many genres of hip-hop music, there are messages about prison and prison life. While gangster rap is best known for its glorification of drug dealing, gang banging, and lifestyles of hedonistic criminality, many of the same groups that made gangster rap popular also rap about prison life, much based on personal experience. Hip-hop artists who have been through the criminal justice system are too numerous to count, a reflection of the prevalence of incarceration among young black men. Since “The Message,” hip-hop music has included tales of incarceration.
In “Locked in Spofford” (1993) Mobb Deep describes juvenile detention and violent necessities of getting by – Here, it takes a lot of heart to live… Niggaz got me fightin for my life, cause shit is real. DMX, meanwhile, describes the revolving door of the criminal justice system and lock- down in maximum security in 2001′s “Who We Be”:
The release, the warning, “Try not to get in trouble” The snitches, the odds, probation, parole The new charge, the bail, the warrant, the hole …
The twenty-three hours that’s locked, the one hour that’s not The silence, the dark, the mind, so fragile
Ludacris’ “Do Your Time” (2006) develops this theme. The track is a call to those incarcerated to endure:
I’d dream that I could tell Martin Luther we made it But half of my black brothers are still incarcerated … If you doin 25 to life—stay up homie.
I got your money on ice so—stay up homie If you locked in the box keep makin it through Do your time (do your time) don’t let your time do you
In and imaginative take on the subject Nas, “Last Words” (1999), writes from the perspective of the prison, describing its relationship with the inmates that inhabit its world. The approach amplifies the experience for the listener, and brings home the reality of prison, in particular, the utter lack of privacy
Convicts think they alone but if they listen close They can hear me groan touch the wall feel my pulse All the pictures you put up is stuck to my skin I hear ya prayers (even when ya whisperin) …
And the erosion of dignity:
I saw too many inmates fallin apart Call for the guards to let them out at night when it’s dark … No remorse for your tears I seen em too often
When you cry I make you feel alive inside a coffin
It is difficult to fully appreciate the impact of hip-hop culture on generations of young men of color growing up in the era of the modern “war on drugs” in the United States. Rather than attempting to encapsulate it, I leave it to the eloquent words contained in the following quotation from Aneraé “X-Raided” Brown, a California inmate:
I am the fabled crack baby. A boy who became a teen during what some argue was one of the roughest, most dangerous periods in U.S. history. I turned 14 in 1988, a black boy, a fledgling member of the notorious Crip gang, trying to learn how to fly, in the wrong direction, unknowingly, with lead wings. Pistols, cocaine, HIV/AIDS, the Cold War; how those things became the concerns of a 14 year old . . . God only knows. A boy who learned by what he decried, I was an impressionable teen absorbing the teachings that emanated from the conditions I saw on a daily basis, which included police brutality, the devastation of the gang and crack epidemics on the black community, and an overall fear and disdain of both white people and law enforcement, issues which were largely ignored by the mainstream media. The only journalistic reports being published that addressed these matters to reach my eyes and ears were coming to me in the form of hip- hop music, videos, movies and magazines . . . and the strongest voices of all, which came from a few little groups you may have heard of that went by the names of Public Enemy, NWA, and the Geto Boys. They were, to the streets, what The Beatles were to white folk. What James Brown, Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye were to older black folk. They were the voices of our generation. Chuck D and Ice Cube’s voices are as recognizable to us as Paul McCartney and John Lennon’s are to, say, a Baby Boomer, for perspective. “Fight the Power,” “Fu*k the Police”—You know Chuck D and Ice Cube’s voices and the sounds of Dr. Dre and The Bomb Squad, even if you do not know their names and faces.5
Deborah Peterson Small is the founder and Executive Director of Break the Chains: Communities of Color and the War on Drugs, based in the United States.
1. A griot is a African poet, musician and oral historian.
2. Johnston, L. D., OʼMalley, P. M., Bachman, J. G., &Schulenberg, J. E. (2011). Monitoring the Future national results on adolescent drug use: Overview of key findings, 2010. Ann Arbor: Institute for Social Research, The University of Michigan, p. 50.
3. Guns are not a vicarious thrill but a fact of life—the number-one cause of death for young black men, especially those involved in drug- related activities. Nor is going to prison just tough-guy talk but a general eventuality, since one in four black men will do time at some point in their lives, usually while young.
4. This is the opening line to the song “Bring the Noise.”
5. Aneraé “‘X-Raided’ Brown, Black History Month: A Convict’s Perspective,” www.amoeba.com/blog/ 2009/02/jamoeblog/black-history-month-a-convict-s-perspective-pt-1-longtime-incarcerated-california- rap-artist-x-raided-offers-his-perspective-.html.