A serious health issue among members of the Hip Hop community and its followers is substance abuse. While alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and ecstasy are used by many Hip Hop artists, there is another substance that is also common, particularly among Southern-based Hip Hop artists, that is legal, very accessible, and potentially lethal: cough syrup. Known by many names such as “purple drank”, “sizzurp”, and “lean”, recreationally-consumed cough syrup first gave rise in Texas and was popularized by Hip Hop artists such as DJ Screw and UGK (Underground Kings). The syrup is often combined with alcohol, soda, juice, and other mixers, and usually has a bright color that is commonly referenced in Hip Hop songs. Artists including Lil Wayne, Drake, Soulja Boy, Three 6 Mafia, and Pall Wall are among those that speak of the consumption of cough syrup in their music.
The active ingredients consumed are dextromethorphan (DXM) and/or promethazine, which is found in over-the-counter cough syrups such as Robitussin, and codeine, which is found in cough syrups that are only available via prescription. When taken recreationally, these medications cause a drowsy, slowed-down feeling of euphoria. Heavy consumption can also lead to drowsiness, hallucinations, strange behavior, and the inhibition of respiratory function.
That slowed-down euphoric feeling has been captured in the “chopped and screwed” style that was developed by DJ Screw in 1990. “Chopped and screwed” is a technique in which Hip Hop songs and albums are greatly slowed down to 60-70 beats per minute while other parts of the beat are skipped or altered. Though DJ Screw claims to have been high on marijuana when he developed the style, individuals that are high on syrup appreciate the style as they claim it compliments the slowed-down feeling of the high.
Eventually, this dangerous cultural phenomenon began to take its toll on the Southern Hip Hop community. On November 16, 2000, DJ Screw, real name Robert Earl Davis, died of an overdose of codeine, alcohol, and other substances. On October 15, 2007, Big Moe, real name Kenneth Moore, of the Screwed Up Click, which was formed as a result of the popularity of DJ Screw’s “chopped and screwed” technique, died at the age of 33 from a heart attack. On December 4, 2007, Pimp C, real name Chad Lamont Butler, of UGK died of an overdose of codeine in combination with complications from sleep apnea. All three of these deaths were linked to the recreational consumption of cough syrup.
Unfortunately, young people are beginning to follow in the footsteps of these artists and are consuming syrup recreationally, as it is much more accessible to them than alcohol and other illicit substances. According to a 2006 survey conducted by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, 3.6 percent of 8th graders, 5.3 percent of 10th graders, and 5.5 percent of 12th graders admitting to abusing cough medicine.
Shortly after the death of Pimp C, Lil Wayne came under fire for his open consumption of syrup. He was often seen carrying a white cup, which is the general symbol in Hip Hop for syrup consumption. He responded defensively, and said that he would not stop consuming syrup in part because the withdrawal symptoms, including severe stomach pain, were too intense. He eventually stopped consuming syrup altogether in 2010. Some speculate that his decision to quit was due to his incarceration and the lack of availability of syrup in prison. Regardless of the reason, he most likely added several years to his life.
Bun B, Pimp C’s longtime friend and the second half of UGK, has made efforts to discourage the use of syrup and to promote health amongst revelers in the Hip Hop culture of the South. Bun B himself stopped consuming syrup, also in part because of the stomach pain associated with codeine withdrawal. He no longer includes references to drinking syrup in his music. He has also joined forces with Pimp C’s widow, Chinara Butler, to host the annual Pimp C Health Fair in Houston, Texas. The 3rd annual celebration of Pimp C’s life was held on December 10th of this year, and featured a UGK/Pimp C memorial exhibit, HIV and STD screenings, immunizations, a raffle, and an art contest. The proceeds of the event benefit the Butler Scholarship Fund.
The HHPH team is currently developing an initiative targeting middle and high school students that will address the pervasiveness of substance abuse in Hip Hop and the health dangers of the consumption of syrup and other substances. It is imperative that young people are educated at an early age of these dangers. It is hoped that future generations of Hip Hop artists will begin to reverse the trend of the glorification of substance abuse in Hip Hop music for the sake of our communities in every region of the U.S. and beyond. We truly believe that in the face of tragedy, we will triumph.