John Oliver, an HBO comedian, recently placed a spotlight on the issue of opioid abuse in America. He pointed out 30,000 people die in America every year from overdoses and 2.6 million Americans struggle with addiction. That is almost an entire percentage point of the American population. His spotlight reminded me of a trend in hip hop culture of artists acknowledging and raising awareness about drug abuse.
The story of this shift in hip hop began in 2007 in a California hotel room. Chad Butler, a member of the hip hop duo UGK under the name Pimp C, was found dead from a codeine overdose. Bun B, the other half of UGK, said in an interview after the passing of Pimp C, “it’s a little bit more than the music. I think it’s gonna start affecting the personal lives of a lot of artists and people…” He turned out to be almost prophetic.
At the time of Pimp C’s death Macklemore was struggling with substance abuse, specifically codeine. He got clean in 2008 and released the song Otherside in 2010. Otherside captured the problems with hip hop culture at the time using a guitar riff from the Red Hot Chili Peppers song of the same name and a recording of Bun B speaking about the death of Pimp C. Macklemore admits to looking up to artists like Lil Wayne and trying to emulate them, leading to his own substance abuse in lines like: “That’s the same stuff Weezy’s sipping huh / And tons of other rappers that be spitting hard.” Bun B’s words come back here as Lil’ Wayne was hospitalised in 2013 for opioid related seizures. Macklemore puts to paper the disconnect between the glorified drug use of hip hop and the true reality.
In 2014, scHoolboy Q released an album entitled OXYmoron which included the song Prescription/Oxymoron which tells Qs story of selling and using prescription drugs. His track is an equally potent story to Otherside, including interludes of Q’s daughter trying to wake him up. Q says that he was selling to support his daughter and the song is about the consequences of doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. In interviews, he talked about how just one pill started the problem: “The dude was the devil that gave me that pill. I was the devil in Seattle when I was selling people those pills.” One of Qs close friends, Kendrick Lamar, has also brought up substance abuse in his music, noteable on the track Alright where he raps “painkillers only put me in a twilight.”
Macklemore returned this year with two songs, Kevin and Drug Dealer, in which he takes a hard stance against Big Pharma. Kevin tells the story of a man Macklemore met in rehab who overdosed after recording with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. Macklemore promised him the session if he made it 2 weeks while clean. Macklemore recounts the aftermath, “I dropped him off at his home and I got a call from his sister the next day and she told me that Kevin had overdosed. He was 20 years old. He got home and celebrated and never woke up from that.” The original recording of Otherside included the line “I’ve seen OxyContin take 3 lives” since Kevin’s death that number has been updated to 6. Drug Dealer lists off notable figures which America lost to the current epidemic: Prince, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse, Heath Ledger, Pimp C, A$AP Yams, and DJ AM.
Drug Dealer was taken from a documentary Macklemore made about substance abuse which included him speaking with President Obama. Hip Hop recognized an issue which is only now being recognized by the majority of America. Raising awareness has helped establish prescription drug monitoring programmes nationwide, sparked the CDC targeting of overprescription, and given many people dealing with these issue hope.