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Hip Hop and Sobriety: No Dope is Dope

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By Cameron Turner

04/04/14

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The happiness he felt on the road carried over into the studio. Kid Cudi recorded his new album, Satellite Flight, completely clean. That experience took him back to the creativity of his pre-addiction days, back when he was an up-and-comer who was too broke to buy coke and booze. “It reminded me of the power that comes from having a sober mind. The music benefits a great deal. It was something that I was surprised about,” Cudi tells Complex. 

Another hip hop luminary who discovered that sobriety enhances his art is Scott Storch. The megaproducer who sculpted hits for performers like Fat Joe ("Lean Back"), 50 Cent ("Candy Shop"), and Justin Timberlake ("Cry Me A River") is back in the studio after taking a personal leave of absence. Storch tells XXL that it's a new day and he's feeling good. "It’s a healthy environment that I am in...and getting deeper in my sobriety, etc. Things become more vivid and clear. It’s like muscle memory. It all comes back. Slowly but surely, my love came back for the music as well."

To a large extent, hip hop’s current emphasis on clean living can be traced back to Eminem who rapped about his personal struggle with drugs on the confessional albums Relapse (2009) and Recovery (2010). Em even rocked an AA triangle-in-circle pendant on the 2011 Grammys where Recovery was named best rap album and where he won best rap performance for the personal empowerment anthem “Not Afraid.” And when his Shady Records partner, Joe Budden, got sprung, Eminem was there to help him clean up.    

Urging others to get clean and sober is also a crusade for rap’s reigning Grammy king. The format-crossing success of the number one singles, “Thrift Shop” and “Can’t Hold Us” along with through-the-roof sales of the album, The Heist, catapulted Macklemore and his DJ/producer partner Ryan Lewis into the upper echelon of the rap game. All that fan and critic love led to big wins during awards seasons, culminating in a quartet of Grammys (including best new artist and best rap album). The superstar spotlight also gave the Seattle emcee a big stage for his pro-sober message, which he shared through autobiographical tracks detailing his years of addiction and struggle to stay clean. In the song “Otherside,” Macklemore laments how drugs ruined close relationships and shattered his spirit:  

Cheating and lying, friendships cease, no peace in the mind 

Stealing and taking anything to fix the pieces inside 

Broken, hopeless, headed nowhere 

Only motivation for what the dealer’s supplying

Trashing drugs’ image of fun and glamor, Macklemore warns of the inevitable dead end:  

There’s no way to glorify this pavement. 

Syrup, Percocet, and an eighth a day

Will leave you broke, depressed, and emotionally vacant

After years of heavy drug use, and at his dad’s urging, Macklemore checked himself into rehab in 2008. He stayed clean for three years before briefly relapsing in 2011. So, he knows how hard it is to battle addiction. In the confessional track “Starting Over,” Macklemore rhymes about “fighting demons” and the shame of the moment when “you tell your dad you relapsed then look him directly into his face.” Macklemore wraps up his rap by volunteering to be a role model: “If I can be an example of getting sober, then I can be an example of starting over.”

Just how deeply these clean and sober rappers will penetrate the music industry mainstream remains unclear. Casual and celebratory references to alcohol and drugs continue to pop up in all genres of popular music.  But by standing up for sobriety, this group of trend-challenging artists is carving out a new definition of cool by providing truth in an industry built on image and illusion.  

Cameron Turner is a writer based in Los Angeles.

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