In the late 1880’s, a German organic chemist named Richard Willstätter worked with a research team to successfully synthesize the first molecule of cocaine. Over 100 years later, the use and distribution of cocaine as an illicit recreational drug has become a hotbed of socioeconomic, political, and criminological controversy. Since the 1980’s, the relationship between Hip Hop music and cocaine, also known as “cane”, “snow”, and “white girl” among other monikers, has vacillated between antagonistic and symbiotic. The song “White Lines” is the first song to speak to the dangers of snorting cocaine, but unfortunately the song was more embraced as an anthem in support of its usage. During the 1980’s, crack cocaine emerged as a cheap alternative to snorting or free-basing cocaine. Despite the myth that crack cocaine is somehow worse or more addictive than powder cocaine, they are chemically the same and have similar affects. However, cocaine reaches the brain much more quickly when it is smoked versus when it is snorted, which leads to a faster, more intense, and shorter-lived high and thus a more immediate desire for more doses.
As the crack cocaine industry in urban communities was tremendously lucrative, large-scale crack dealers became embodiments of the “American Dream” by driving luxury cars, wearing expensive clothing and jewelry, and displaying other indicators of wealth, and were extremely conspicuous in the poor neighborhoods in which they worked. Many Hip Hop artists emulated the style of these dealers in the development of their stage personas. Some of the early Hip Hop artists’ stage names made references to powder or crack cocaine, such as Kurtis Blow and Coke La Rock. This trend continues today with the likes of Peedi Crakk, Fat Joe aka Joey Crack, and Honey Cocaine. Many Hip Hop artists have admitted to trying crack cocaine at least once when it first emerged on the urban scene before its destructive effects on the people around them led them to avoid it. DMX is the only high-profile rapper to date that has been widely featured in the media for purportedly using crack cocaine habitually.
Cocaine is a stimulant that produces a euphoric feeling of mental alertness and hyperstimulation. It prevents the reuptake of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin in the brain. These neurotransmitters lead to feelings of euphoria, energy, and confidence and these pleasurable feelings are at the root of the addictiveness of cocaine and other drugs. Cocaine can also cause irritability, restlessness, anxiety, and paranoia. The long-term use of cocaine can lead to depression, heart attack and/or arrhythmia, seizures, headaches, nausea, and abdominal pain. Cocaine can also greatly increase the risk of cerebrovascular disease or stroke. In his book “Stroke Diaries”, Dr. Olajide Williams, the founder and president of Hip Hop Public Health, explains the relationship between cocaine and stroke risk. According to the book, cocaine causes “massive surges in blood pressure, severe constriction of brain arteries, and alteration of blood clotting properties”, all which contribute to increased stroke risk. Oftentimes, the strokes experienced by younger patients are cocaine-associated. Dr. Williams also notes that, in 2007, the “Monitoring the Future Survey” conducted by The National Institute on Drug Abuse found that by 12th grade, almost 8% of high school students has used some form of cocaine. Half of these students used crack cocaine. If consumed for long periods of time or in very large doses, particularly if injected or mixed with other substances such as heroin, cocaine can be lethal and is implicated in thousands of deaths annually.
Once it was introduced into urban communities throughout the country, it did not take long before the crack epidemic claimed and destroyed thousands of lives. Crack cocaine has largely been implicated in the dissipation of the Black Panther Party, leading to several conspiracy theories regarding government involvement in its distribution, as well as the rise of the Bloods and Crips gang empires. Many Hip Hop songs including ”Monster Crack” by Kool Moe Dee, “Night of the Living Bassheads” by Public Enemy., and “Close the Crackhouse” by Professor X and others actively campaigned against the proliferation of crack cocaine in urban communities. The movie “New Jack City” was one of the first movies featuring Hip Hop artists as actors and a Hip Hop soundtrack that spoke to the devastation that crack cocaine inflicted upon urban neighborhoods as well as the lavish lifestyles embraced and glorified by the drug kingpins. The efforts of these early Hip Hop artists helped to greatly curb the prevalence of crack in urban communities, although it still maintains a significant presence.
In addition to extinguishing or devastating the lives of the people who used crack cocaine, the sale of crack cocaine and resultant prosecution under the law led to the arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment of thousands of young men of color who used the sale of crack cocaine as a means of which to escape the suffocating poverty of the ghetto. Because of the public outcry resulting from the devastating effects of crack distribution and consumption on urban neighborhoods, Congress enacted a 100 to 1 disparity in the prosecution of the sale of crack versus powder cocaine. Under this legislation, the sale of 50 grams of crack drew the same mandatory minimum sentence, 10 years, as the sale of 5,000 grams of powder cocaine. This disparity disproportionately affected the Black community, and caused generations of Black people to become lost to the criminal justice system. Also, this legislation has no doubt contributed to the pervasiveness of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Black community as well as the significant downward economic mobility of almost half of the African-Americans whose parents were middle-class at the end of the 1960’s. Some of those young Black people were not caught, or upon release from prison, then went on to become very successful Hip Hop artists, producers, and executives.
The “rags to riches” story of evolution from a crack dealer to a Hip Hop icon is widely promulgated through Hip Hop music. Artists that used to “slang rocks” and have told this story in their music include Jay-Z, The Notorious B.I.G., Snoop Dogg, T.I., Master P, Slim Thug, Game, Baby aka Birdman, Young Jeezy, Eazy-E, 50 Cent, members of the Wu-Tang Clan and Cypress Hill, and Clipse, among many others. Some of the first independently-owned Hip Hop record companies such as Master P’s No Limit Records and Eazy-E’s Ruthless Records were started with profits from the sale of crack cocaine. Nas’ declaration in the song “Represent” that “somehow the rap game reminds [him] of the crack game” speaks to the fact that the street smarts and business acumen derived from selling crack is arguably what allowed many of these artists to achieve success in the music industry. For example, West Coast Hip Hop icon Too $hort explicitly stated that when he first started out in the music industry, he envisioned his albums as bags of cocaine slated for distribution.
Although many Hip Hop artists that talk about selling crack in their music never actually did sell crack or sold it on a smaller scale than their lyrics would suggest, Hip Hop has become a prime example of art imitating life. Many Hip Hop artists’ descriptions of their fictional or greatly embellished accounts of crack sales are personified by “Freeway” Ricky Ross. “Freeway” Ricky Ross, who was once referred to as “The Wal-Mart of Crack” in Los Angeles of the 1980’s, was one of the largest cocaine distributors in the history of the United States. A Philadelphia-based artist named “Freeway”, who was once signed to Rocafella Records, derived his name from “Freeway” Ricky Ross. Miami-based rapper Rick Ross, born Williams Leonard Roberts II, also took his name from “Freeway” Ricky Ross. However, Rick Ross has no history in selling cocaine, although the large majority of his lyrics chronicle the life of a drug dealer. In fact, Rick Ross is a former correctional officer. “Freeway” Ricky Ross has openly criticized Rick Ross for stealing his name and his identity in the development of his Hip Hop persona and in the pursuit of commercial success in the music industry. Interestingly, Rick Ross’s fans are not concerned that his lyrics are not representative of his reality. As a further blow to “Freeway”, his recent lawsuit against Rick Ross for the use of his name was thrown out in court, and Rick Ross now owns the trademark to his rap name, which is “Freeway’s” actual name.
For every Hip Hop artist that fabricates his or her drug dealer lifestyle, there is a Hip Hop artist or executive that actually lives and embraces it. There have been several Hip Hop executives that have been arrested, indicted, and imprisoned for cocaine trafficking. John Forte, once a star in Wyclef Jean’s Refugee Camp, was arrested in 2000 at Newark International Airport for accepting a briefcase contained $1.4 million worth of liquid cocaine and was sentenced to 14 years in prison. A week ago, Houston-based Hip Hop record label executive Duane “Big Hump” Hobbs, founder of Sucka Free Records, pleaded guilty to involvement in a cocaine distribution ring over a 15-year period and faces a minimum sentence of 10 years in prison. James “Jimmy Henchman” Rosemond, the alleged mastermind behind the 1994 shooting of Tupac Shakur and the owner of Czar Entertainment which has represented Game, Too $hort, Akon, Sean Kingston, Salt-n-Pepa, Brandy, and other artists, was arrested by DEA agents in June 2011 along with members of his distribution team for cocaine trafficking. He used “road cases” that are used to transport musical equipment to ship kilos of cocaine cross-country, and used his connections in Hip Hop to maintain the extensive operation over a period of several years. He now faces life in prison without the possibility of parole. There is no doubt that the cocaine distribution operations of these men have damaged or ended thousands of lives. However, the artistic portrayals of their actions that are so commonplace in the narrative of Hip Hop justifies if not celebrates them.
Recently, Hip Hop has evolved again from speaking disparagingly about crack cocaine, to the “rags to riches” story of transforming from a street hustler selling crack cocaine into a Hip Hop icon or mogul, to glorifying the actual use of powder cocaine as an indication of one’s acquired wealth and status. Cocaine is largely considered a rich person’s drug, often associated with Hollywood actors and business executives on Wall Street. Thereby, Hip Hop artists have begun to boast of its use and possession as part of a glamorously extravagant party lifestyle that can only be afforded to the rich, famous, and successful. Kanye West (“Coke on her black skin made it striped like a zebra/I call that Jungle Fever” –No Church in the Wild) and Rick Ross (“Rosé, that’s my nickname/Cocaine runnin in my big vein” –B.M.F.) are among several current Hip Hop artists that have boasted of using cocaine in their lyrics.
Scott Storch is a Hip Hop producer who at one time produced music for some of the hottest artists in Hip Hop and R&B including Busta Rhymes, 50 Cent, Dr. Dre and Snoop, Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake, and Chris Brown. He was also famous for dating Paris Hilton. However, once a friend introduced him to coke snorting at a party in 2005, his fall from grace was rapid and dramatic. He became addicted almost immediately, and was snorting at least an eight-ball every day while simultaneously blowing through his multimillion dollar fortune. He eventually ended up in rehab, lost many of his “friends” and business associates, and faces foreclosure on his Miami home. He contends that he did not make any good music while he was high on cocaine. He is now producing beats for Gucci Mane, an up-and-coming Hip Hop artist from Atlanta, and trying to get his life back on track.
As Hip Hop serves as the “CNN of the ghetto” as once decried by Chuck D of Public Enemy, it can be argued that the glorification of the sale of crack cocaine by Hip Hop artists is merely artistic journalism: revealing what’s really going on in the street. However, it can also be argued that members of younger generations of color living in urban communities who are already subject to the temptation may be further encouraged by the music produced and images projected by these Hip Hop artists to consider selling drugs as a viable option on the way to achieving the American Dream. The glorification and justification of drug dealing in Hip Hop highlights the ugliest aspects of capitalism: sacrificing the well-being of others to advance oneself. Now, the glorification of the use of powder cocaine as part of a successful Hip Hop lifestyle strengthens another scourge of Pandora’s Box of wealth and fame. It may also encourage people to try powder cocaine who otherwise would not have an interest in its use, leaving them vulnerable to addiction and its injurious physical, mental, and socioeconomic consequences. The promotion of the use of cocaine and other drugs in Hip Hop such as ecstasy and codeine-based cough syrup is alarming and dangerous, and the artists as well as the individuals responsible for the production and distribution of the music must be held accountable for the spread of this pestilence. But ultimately, the onus is on governmental authorities to effectively obstruct the illegal drug trade, administer appropriate justice to those that sustain it, provide adequate services to its victims, and afford more opportunities for socioeconomic advancement that exclude it.
Hip Hop Public Health (HHPH) aims to expand upon the strength of Hip Hop to rail against the menaces that affect its listeners, as was exerted in the 1980’s and 1990’s in retarding the growth of the crack epidemic. HHPH strives to encourage the children who participate in its programs to value and protect their health and the health of their loved ones and communities. However, during HHPH programs, children are also encouraged to follow their dreams and continue their education. It is hoped that these messages will help to discourage the children from using and/or selling cocaine and other drugs in the future. As HHPH works to add messages of health to the narrative of Hip Hop, we call on individuals to do all they can to discourage cocaine proliferation in our communities. Whether participating in or donating to organizations that mentor youth, supporting rehabilitation programs for drug offenders in the criminal justice system, applying pressure to elected officials to effectively curb cocaine distribution on national and international levels as well as local and state, or writing letters to offending artists, producers, and executives, a collective effort on behalf of all concerned parties is needed to ensure that white lines blow away.