How did you get all of your material shit?
Did you get it through rapping?
Everything through rap.
So all the ki’s and stuff like that, it’s just rhyming?
I never had nothing to do with no ki’s, no shit like that.
—Nasir Jones, interview (1996)
Crack is wack.
It may be hard for younger readers to believe, but at one point, this was the predominant philosophy in hip-hop’s musical output, if not in the life of the community. For instance, in 1983, Melle Mel released “White Lines (Don’t Do It),” which was meant to serve as a cautionary tale. But, even then, a conflict existed. According to legend, the song began as a celebration of cocaine use, not an admonition, and Mel was rumored to be skied-out during its recording. Tellingly, the tune sounds like a powdered trip through the Alps, with its stentorian, adrenergic bass line, exhortations to “Get higher, baby,” and odelike chorus. Even the song’s video—directed by Spike Lee and starring Laurence (then Larry) Fishburne—showcases a Flashdance-like interpretive dance troupe catching the sniffies in a dressing room, a highway of snow running down a topless girl’s spine and into her ass crack, and an abundance of pretty neon splashes. It plays more like an advertisement than a PSA.
This can be seen as the beginning of rap’s long and conflicted relationship with cocaine. Rappers DMX, the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Field Mob’s Smoke have all been involved in high-profile arrests in which they were discovered in possession of crack cocaine that was allegedly for personal use. Philly’s Beanie Sigel, who has undergone counseling at a drug treatment facility, and Staten Island’s Raekwon have rhymed in the past about doing hard drugs. But, overwhelmingly, hip-hop’s tales have centered on the sale of narcotics, not the use.
In today’s rap, it seems as if the world revolves around the trade of crack cocaine and all the highs and lows endemic to a marriage of unbridled aspiration and deep despair. From artists such as Lil Wayne—who, having been under the wing of Cash Money Records since he was knee-high to a kilo, has no verifiable trafficking history to speak of—to Juelz Santana (he of the memorable moniker “Human Crack in the Flesh”) and his Dipset ilk, cocaine rap is the choice of the new generation. Even an artist like Busta Rhymes, known mostly for feel-good party anthems throughout his long career, chose to play up his stint in the drug game for the run-up to his latest album, The Big Bang, and jumped on the beat from Rick Ross’ “Hustlin’,” bragging about “that inconceivable guap” he made selling cocaina during the Reagan era.
Authenticity, of course, is put at a premium in hip-hop. But while a number of today’s iceman MCs have legitimate records of drug dealing, their rhymes relay the honest truth. Real or not, the stories told in the music don’t often delve past the fiduciary gains of the drug trade. From form to function to focus, cocaine rap has fallen under the auspices of style and design: Flows trump subject matter, thrills beat insight, and the gaud gained is more important than the lives lost. The game has become trapped in the trap, and it’s dope-boy tragic.
NEVER SOLD COCAINE IN MY LIFE, BUT I’M STILL THE FUCKIN’ MAN
—CHRISTOPHER BRIDGES, “WAR WITH GOD” (2006)
The illicit mythos created by snow-shoveling stars is so dominant over the current rap scene that artists such as OutKast and Little Brother are revered by many simply because they eschew crack narratives. Of course, such artists find themselves in a precarious position when faced with the topic so prevalent in the work of peers. While the so-called conscious rappers are often quick to criticize the genre as a whole—attacking the dominant stylistic sameness, the monotonous tunnel vision exhibited by the slinger-songwriters’ one-dimensional subject matter—whether due to politics, free-speech beliefs or an understanding of the complex realities of their colleagues, they’re usually hard-pressed to call anyone out by name. In fact, by and large, it is the conscious artists who are making the best arguments in support of their supposed opposites. For every trap Republican rehashing Chuck D’s overworn analogy about rap as the ghetto’s CNN or paraphrasing Nino Brown’s courtroom speech about Negroes’ not owning boats, planes or gun factories, there’s an Immortal Technique or a Mos Def breaking down the drug trade on a macro level, tackling geopolitics, connecting cocaine rap to Afghan wars and South American revolutions. Undeniably, the emotional backstory of a song like Lupe Fiasco’s “Kick, Push II” articulates a stronger defense of Young Jeezy and Rick Ross than anything ever put to wax by, well, Young Jeezy or Rick Ross.
THE STREETS IS A SHORT STOP: EITHER YOU SLINGIN’ CRACK ROCK OR YOU GOT A WICKED JUMP SHOT
—CHRISTOPHER WALLACE, “THINGS DONE CHANGED” (1994)
While it would be fallacious to use the mores of an entertainment medium to convey wholly valid observations of the Black experience, what crack rap implies about reality cannot be ignored. On his debut album, Jay-Z rhymed that, “All us Blacks got is sports and entertainment,” and whether art has imitated life or life has imitated art, the statement seems to have been taken on as a mantra by a generation—with the idea that drug selling is a last, but viable, alternative. A more perilous option, but one much more feasible, at least in terms of finding actual employment. As the Clipse’s Pusha T once rhymed, young Black males “only know two ways of gettin’—either rap or unwrap.” Despite recent efforts by an artist like Killer Mike, who is fervently working to flesh out the Southern d-boy caricature into a full-fledged human being, the trap star remains mostly an optionless hero. “It’s hard being young from the slums, eatin’ five-cent gums, not knowin’ where your meal’s comin’ from,” the Notorious B.I.G. rhymed on Ready to Die. The idea that UPS was hiring, as Biz Markie once noted, seems to have evaporated from the list of choices. So has trade school, driving a cab or getting a college education.
Perhaps most disturbing of all is that narcotics are no longer being presented as simply a way out of the ghetto, but as a practical road to real-life riches. On Ready to Die, Big was all too happy to leave the street life behind. “I’m doin’ rhymes now,” he stated. “Fuck the crimes now. Come on the Ave. I’m real hard to find now.” But by his second album, perhaps due to a realization that the music industry is a one-sided relationship, with the artist as an underpaid whore, he’d revamped his image. Though he was, by all accounts, never more than a midlevel hustler, he emerged as a boss in his rhymes, boasting that he, “In ’88, sold more powder than Johnson & Johnson.” The underlying dispatch was that the Notorious B.I.G. was not simply the alias of Chris Wallace, but the cover of the Black Frank White, the Verbal Kint to a man who was not primarily a rapper, but a drug lord.
This article is a preview.
Read the rest of our essay on cocaine rap in XXL’s
December 2006 issue (#87)