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Hip Hop and Sobriety: No Dope is Dope

A few big hip hop stars are swimming against the tsunami of pro-dope lyrics and artist lifestyles, seeking to make it "dope" (cool) to follow their lead. 

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By Cameron Turner

04/04/14

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“Something 'bout Mary she gone off that Molly/Now the whole party is melted like Dalí.”  

That’s how Kanye West celebrates crystallized MDMA, the party drug du jour, on his song, "Mercy."

2 Chainz has similar praise for the ecstasy-esque drug on Nicki Minaj’s "Beez In The Trap" wherein he rhymes: “Got your girl on molly and we smokin' loud and drinkin'/ Got my top back so you can see what I been thinkin'." And Rihanna’s chart-busting anthem "Diamonds," applauds both molly and booze while summing up the myth of invincibility that drives devotees of the indulgent rock star lifestyle. With blinders firmly in place, Ri Ri boasts

Palms rise to the universe

As we moonshine and molly 

Feel the warmth, we’ll never die

We’re like diamonds in the sky

Of course people do die from substance abuse. But despite the long and tragic roster of creative people whose careers and lives have disintegrated due to dope and alcohol abuse, drugs of every description remain a celebrated and definitive feature of entertainment culture. But a few high profile hip hop artists are swimming against the tsunami of social acceptance. By going public about their sober lifestyles, performers like Joe Budden, Kendrick Lamar, Kid Cudi, and quadruple Grammy winner Macklemore aren’t merely telling their personal stories of survival—they’re also trying to change the culture by urging others in the hip hop nation to stay out of the substance trap.

That experience is not only messing up lives, its also diluting the originality of hip hop.

Joe Budden doesn’t think molly is cute. The rapper and reality show star blew 12-plus years of sobriety by messing with MDMA and he almost ran his life into a ditch. Budden spoke about his relapse with molly on VH1’s Love & Hip Hop: New York, and he opened up further during a TV news interview last year. The Shady Records emcee told Fox 5 News: “I didn’t see a problem with the fact that maybe five days would go by without sleeping. I didn’t see a problem with the fact that maybe I was hallucinating at times. I didn’t see a problem with the fact that I just couldn’t get up and walk sometimes. It just altered your thinking process dramatically, and for a thinker like myself, that was like nothing I’d ever experienced before.” 

That experience is not only messing up lives, its also diluting the originality of hip hop. So says Kendrick Lamar who closed his video for “B**ch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” with the slogan “Death to molly.” The breakout West Coast rapper then told Rolling Stone that, "When everybody consciously now uses this term or this phrase and putting it in lyrics, it waters the culture down."

Kendrick Lamar got scared straight early in life. As a child the Compton, California emcee saw enough alcohol abuse among his parents and their friends to know that he wanted no part of that hard partying lifestyle. Appearing on The Arsenio Hall Show last September, Lamar explained, "My parents are fairly young so I actually grew up with 'em and I was in the house when they partied and had fun. I seen the different vices that was in the house.” Watching all that liquor flow when he was a kid, then seeing his teenage peers binge left and right led Lamar to create his huge debut single, “Swimming Pools (Drank),” wherein he rhymes about finding the inner strength to resist pressure to "get a swimming pool full of liquor, then you dive in it."  

Verse two of the track has Kendrick being confronted by his conscience which tells him, “…if you do not hear me, then you will be history, I know that you're nauseous right now and I'm hopin' to lead you to victory.”  Kendrick decides, “If I take another one down, I'ma drown in some poison, abusin' my limit.” Breaking the song down to Arsenio, Lamar explained, “I wanted to actually have it where I put it in the air where you can be a drinker who's aware or you can be an alcoholic…I was having fun but at the same time it was a message.” 

Like the peer-pressuring antagonists of Kendrick Lamar's song, Kid Cudi knows what it's like to dive into pools of booze. He had quit cocaine long before and when his doctor told him that liquor had enlarged his liver, Cudi knew he had to stop drinking as well. He sobered up before his last tour and he disproved a myth in the process. Drug and alcohol abusing artists have claimed for generations that being on something enhances their creativity. But being on the road substance free actually freed up Kid Cudi's creativity. He told Complex magazine, “I was sober from alcohol and the whole show benefited from that—the energy and everything. I was the happiest I had ever been on tour.” 

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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