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Drugs and hip hop: excusing and exploiting substance abuse from N.W.A. to Future

Charting the rise of hip hop culture in the 70s and 80s — music, film, street art, dancing — and its continued impact on popular culture today.

On Future’s latest slate of Midas-touched releases – Beast Mode, 56 Nights and more recently Dirty Sprite 2 – it’s clear that the man is unraveling. Through a shining prism of sparkling, head-spinning beats, the rapper from Atlanta guides us through his state of mind, a fairly frenetic space that reveals itself as a garbled stream of consciousness, touching on topics from police brutality to female conquests in a way that’s almost unintelligible yet wholly intoxicating. This is garden variety Future for the most part, the celebratory proclamations of a rapper who’s cut through to the mainstream, yet beneath the constant party vibes there emerges a different insight, one that hones in on Future’s talk of pharmaceuticals and the drug-riddled (Gucci) flip-flopping that occurs with regards to his codeine codependency.

On the one hand it’s obvious that Future is indebted to drugs, as his art form stems from an altered mind state that is seeks pleasure above all. His beats and cadence are extravagant and glorious in ways that might only be found at the bottom of a red cup, and his successes are built upon the crafting of his signature style through this process.

On the other hand, however, there are moments when Future lets slip the struggle and gives us a peek into the darker side of the drugs. Some of that has to do with his sexual endeavors becoming dispassionate and robotic due to constant inebriation, but most of it has to do with the volume of references to lean, blunts and pills.

There’s codeine in his piss on DS2’s opener “I Thought It Was a Drought”, he’s infatuated with cough syrup and the death of A$AP Yams on “Slave Master” and on “Blood on the Money” Future straight up admits he can’t give up “that Easter Pink”. There’s a sadness to his tone, a kind of desperation behind his decadence that gives insight into a seemingly bigger issue.

Why do we applaud and celebrate the drug use when it publicly becomes a problem? This isn’t a dilemma attached solely to Future’s drug struggles, but many rappers in general, particularly those who rely on the drugs to hone and sharpen their craft. Why is it that we ignore the problem of drug abuse in the hip hop community until it’s too late? Why do we rejoice in public self-destruction? There are a multitude of reasons behind this strange sociological phenomenon, but perhaps the most disturbing one might have something to do with how we’ve turned a legitimate issue of abuse and dependency into a commercial enterprise, a shift that happened long ago and is now commonplace. In some ways we have been profiting off pain and substance abuse, a dynamic that is slightly disturbing to say the least.

Obviously this isn’t just a problem for hip hop. I’m instantly reminded of the recent documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, a film that chronicles the ways in which public self-destruction proliferate in music at large, and the martyrdom that results. Hip hop, however, has always held an odd relationship with anti-establishment ideals, existing much of the time as a platform for alternative and disenfranchised voices and practices, be they violence, sexuality, politics and, of course, drug use.

The genre also has its own fair share of Cobain-esque characters: UGK member Pimp C’s promethazine/codeine cocktail overdose, DJ Screw’s death in late 2000 and, most publicly, Lil Wayne’s brush with death in 2012-13, which, while eventually being confirmed as not being drug related, was certainly portrayed as such in the media, illuminating our desire to watch him crash and burn in a drug-induced stupor.

Many contemporary rappers are making similar stops: iLOVEMAKONNEN appears to only be able to record when tripping on shrooms; ScHoolboy Q is stoned at almost every moment of every day and even Young Thug seems to be lean personified. They are all successful because of their drug use, be it in their being high while making the music or rapping emphatically about altered states, but where does that train derail? And more importantly, do we want it to? In thinking about this, I have to ask myself, where does this compulsion to watch artists self-destruct come from? As hard as that phenomenon is to pinpoint, I think it might have something to do with N.W.A.

I mentioned earlier about the ways in which African-American identity struggles and anti-establishment ideals have became a commercial enterprise, and while there would certainly be examples that pre-date N.W.A’s raucous impact, Compton’s favourite bad boys are a clear embodiment of how profit can be extracted from such concerns. A commercial and critical success, Straight Outta Compton is still regarded as one of the touchstones of the formation of gangster rap and retains a clear lineage throughout hip hop history, particularly when looking at its evolution into the sort of hyper-commerciality that occurred in the genre in the early 2000s.

This relationship between illicit behaviour and profiteering is at the centre of contemporary hip hop, particularly the modern phenomenon of trap music, a sub-genre whose title is shared with stash houses for drug dealers. Trap music is the byproduct of N.W.A. and hip hop’s commercial successes in the sense that almost all of its signifiers and subjects swim in illegality, worn as a badge of honour. The fact that corporate America profited off the recurring themes of violence, sex and, yes, drug use in hip hop music has led to a strange timeline of evolving behavioural patterns that equate these ideals with success, a fact that has led artists and listeners (like myself) into a form of conditioning that makes this music and its content enjoyable to listen to and experience.

As if that wasn’t bad enough for the individuals behind the microphones and mixing desks, there is also cause for concern for the ways in which these artists’ substance abuses become public, especially when we consider the relationship between the artist and their fans on social media. There’s some truth to OG Maco’s recent outcry against Future’s influence on his fans; the fact that his protest occurred on Twitter is of course an added bonus. OG Maco’s words on the one hand are a simplified look at a very complex problem, but on the other they are an observation of the contemporary end product of a phenomenon that began many years ago. Drugs are illegal, illegality is cool, cool sells, people profit and lives get destroyed.

As odd as it may seem I worry about Future and his drug binging, yet at the same time I also indulge in his display of debauchery. I live vicariously through his experience allowing him to be the guinea pig that I cannot, which, on some level, is just as disturbed. While there certainly exists a new empathy for artists via social media channels having closed the gap between the musician and their followers, there still exists a part of me that has no problem listening to Future disintegrate into a microphone. While I grapple with this dichotomy of emotion, I encourage you to do the same, perhaps with the excellent Dirty Sprite 2 on in the background. Maybe art was meant to be messy.

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