When we think of the relationship between drugs and music, many of us recall images of Jimi Hendrix on stage at Woodstock or the wild antics of The Rolling Stones. While for decades many have associated drug culture with rock and roll music, the modern generation of music has played a significant role in shifting this perception. Most notably, hip hop and rap music have become what many associate drug culture with today, and it’s not without cause. For better or worse, rap music and drugs are inextricably linked, and how this genre approaches substance abuse is indicative of not only the lives of those in poverty in America, but also how drugs shape the image of wealth and luxury for the most successful of rap musicians.
Rap music, like jazz, is a uniquely American invention, and saw its birth on the streets of The Bronx in New York City during the 1970s, but its story begins far earlier in the days of Prohibition. From 1920 to the early 30s, gangs in the southern Bronx made livings of off smuggling in illegal shipments of alcohol. This, in turn, caused the area to become impoverished virtually overnight due to gang violence and rampant alcohol abuse. This lead to many of the middle to upper class citizens of The Bronx to leave for the other boroughs of New York City. The flight of these individuals during the 1930s to the 1960s left only lower income African Americans and Hispanics in The Bronx, and property value began to decline due to a mixture of now-vacant housing and many viewing the area as crime-ridden. In the 1970s, to help combat poverty and homelessness, construction on project housing began. However, this only played a role in increasing poverty and crime in the area. Substance abuse and drug trafficking were extremely common, and for many were a way of life or an avenue to provide for themselves or their families. While substance abuse was rampant, the sense of community offered by the housing projects was unparalleled, and resulted in block parties and get-togethers becoming a staple of inner-city culture. During this time, DJs playing music for these parties needed a way to extend their music, and decided to extend the percussive breaks in songs to make their sets seem longer. Eventually, the introduction of poetry spoken over the beats helped create hip hop as we know it today. However, while some of this rhyming was simple wordplay and fun, it evolved into a voice for a disenfranchised community, and allowed them to speak about the culture and hardships they were familiar with.
Most notable amongst early rap music was speaking about the hardships of life in the American ghetto. Influential artists like Grandmaster Flash introduced middle class Americans to the struggles of the impoverished black community by rapping about how substance abuse, drug trafficking, and the current culture in America were holding their communities back. This evolved into harder, more gritty rap music known as gangster rap, which originated in the poorest communities in south-central Los Angeles. Here, drug trafficking, gang violence, and substance abuse were destroying communities, and many of those involved saw rap music as a way to not only have a voice and be able to speak about their struggles, but also as a lucrative opportunity to escape the cycle of gang violence and drug trafficking.
Drug use and trafficking are grim realities of impoverished communities across America, and rap music gave many who had never had a voice in American culture an opportunity to speak on these issues that many of us never see. While musically it may not be everyone’s taste, rap and hip hop offer a glimpse into a world dominated by the selling and misuse of drugs. We can see through this genre how poverty and drug use are intrinsically linked, and more importantly, those who in the past have been denied a voice in America are given one through rap and hip hop.