After a recent show, rising hip-hop artist Russ was seen sporting a custom T-shirt emblazoned with an anti-drug message that proved to be quite polarizing. Russ pulled his chains aside in the photo he shared on social to make sure everyone could read his bold stance on opiates and benzodiazepines.
The problem many had with the statement Russ made wasn’t the underlying goal of decreasing pharmaceutical dependency, especially in younger generations, but the way the message was expressed. One thing that has become increasingly clear as the opioid epidemic has exploded in scope is that addiction is far easier to kill with support than shame.
One prominent artist who has notoriously indulged in his fair share of liquid codeine and other assorted dangerous substances is Chicago’s Fredo Santana, whose music features “syrup” sipping quite prominently. Fredo replied to Russ and other critics of his drug use on Twitter with a personal justification for his harmful habits.
As humans, we seek therapeutic relief instinctively, whether for physical pain or internal agony. A result of our desire to avoid anguish, the relatively new concept of pain as a 5th vital sign has led to mass overprescribing across the nation to quell our collective hurt, which in turn has created a generation of addicts like this country has never seen before. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, 4 out of 5 heroin addicts began their opioid dependency by abusing prescription painkillers.
Music content, especially in a genre like hip-hop that champions authenticity and honest storytelling, tends to reflect the nature of an artist’s surroundings — for better or worse. If an artist is addicted to Xanax or Percocets, it will likely come up in their music. And it sells, because songwriting is supposed to be, if nothing else, relatable.
The following graph displays the prevalence of the terms “xan,” “syrup,” “perc,” and “pills” in hip-hop songs over the last quarter-century. As you can see, things have escalated quickly.
But how sustainable is a music career built around singing the praises of poison? If authenticity is king and addiction sells, how does an artist maintain that lifestyle over the long-term arc of a career and life?
They cannot and do not.
During his three-year stint in prison, Atlanta rapper and noted promethazine aficionado Gucci Mane had no choice but to quit cold turkey. The newly-sober Guwop replaced his pour-up habit with a literature obsession and absorbed lessons from the Bible, Malcolm Gladwell, Deepak Chopra, and others. The transformative experience resulted in Gucci attaining a level of success he had never seen before his release from prison. The journals Gucci penned while locked up have also gone through a major transformation after being turned into the first-time author’s new bestselling autobiography, “Mr. Davis.”
Whether the subject is Gucci, or Mac Miller, who was struggling with lean addiction before legendary producer Rick Rubin helped him get clean two years ago, the trend is clear. Wellness and self-help have replaced many of the self-destructive themes artists pen songs about, creating a culture that embraces growth and healthy living rather than casting it aside for not being “cool.”
Chicago phenom Lucki used to have a longer rap name, for example. When the then-high school student burst on the scene with his Alternative Trap project a few years ago, the rising star was known as Lucki Eck$, a subtle nod to Xanax. The sound was supremely unique, yet the prevailing theme of the story was one we had heard before, unfortunately.
Lucki spoke about his abuse of Xanax on the “No Jumper” podcast, where he explained, “I quit Xans because Xans fuck with your emotions and shit. They had me psyched out, had me in the hospital. I used to really do at least eight bars a day. My tolerance was so high, if I was off like six bars, three bars, I’d be like, ‘I’m not even high.’”
“It was the lowest point in my life,” Lucki added.
I recently spoke with Lucki, who has since reigned in the Xanax use that was seemingly holding him back. This year, Lucki made a triumphant return to the forefront of hip-hop’s promising new wave with the release of Watch My Back, a project that fans and critics have showered with acclaim since its debut. I reached out to Lucki to discuss the shirt Russ wore and why rappers today are expressing their harmful drug use so freely.
Marijuana.com (MJ): What was your initial reaction when you saw the shirt Russ was wearing?
Lucki: I feel like that was super insensitive. He is correct about drugs being shit, but if he is so beyond the drugs, this should be beneath him. I don’t know a lot about him, but for somebody that went through a struggle to make it to success, he should be able to understand any kind of struggle.
MJ: Were you addicted to Xanax, and what kind of role does addiction play in songwriting?
Lucki: I never saw it as an addiction, just kind of a weakness. Some people aren’t addicted, it’s just planet Earth and people do drugs. But even the people speaking about drug use to the point where it seems they are “glorifying” it, it is still a struggle for them. Some artists glorify using because they’re actually ashamed and subconsciously trying to cover it up.
MJ: Why has the theme of drugs in music been so prominent?
Lucki: This shit is not new. What we’re seeing is a bunch of teenagers and young adults all getting famous at once, so it is exposing the lifestyle of Black kids that don’t gangbang and didn’t grow up with the typical struggle. We’re seeing the product of Black suburbia, really.
Another artist who at least partly built a career on penning clever wordplay around his partying ways and frequent drug abuse, Chris Webby had an epiphany last year and broke up with his demons — quite literally.
In the Connecticut rapper’s song “Chemical Romance,” Webby receives voicemails from his former addictions, and he replies by writing each substance a scathing breakup letter.
We caught up with Webby to talk about the soul-bearing song and the changes he’s made for the better.
MJ: Rap has been gravitating back toward the raw storytelling that was once so common, with more and more rappers unloading about their veganism, drug habits, sexuality, etc. You’ve always had a strong pen, but did this new era of thought-provoking hip-hop inspire you to open up the way you did on “Chemical Romance?”
Chris Webby: Regardless of what’s going on around rap, that was a song that needed to be written and made for my own therapeutic benefit. Sometimes you have to really say something to bring it to fruition, and I was at a point where I had run my course with drugs. And I’m not even saying I’ve been perfect since I wrote the song or anything like that. I don’t have the type of addictive nature where I become powerless to things, I had just reached a point where it was affecting me, my overall happiness, and my business.
MJ: Where does marijuana fall into that equation or you?
Webby: It really comes down to focus. I don’t consider weed a drug, but even with smoking, I can’t get high as fuck when I wake up anymore because I have a bunch of shit to do. But when all of that stuff is done, it becomes a reward system. If I’m in the studio and need to get in that mindset, then I can smoke weed all day. But when I’m dealing with the business side of things, I need to be on-point and retain information. As I get older, I just need to do everything in my power to play to my strengths and avoid the things I know are my weaknesses.
MJ: How do you feel about a lot of the new music glorifying prescription painkiller abuse?
Webby: There is nothing good about those drugs, and you can’t act like they are cool in front of kids. That’s where I do step in like the “Rap Dad” and say, “No, Future, that isn’t cool.” We do have a voice and we can’t use it to spread that message to kids. With Eminem, there was an element of humor, and I tried to take that approach as well. But when you’re just saying that you drink lean over and over again, it’s crazy.
MJ: There are a half-million people every month hearing your message just on Spotify. Does the weight of that affect you when you write or tell a really personal story?
Webby: I’m always my toughest critic. I’m over here stressing over little aspects of the music, so when I tour and meet these kids that tell me the music truly helped them, it reminds me why I’m even doing it. That connection is so vital, and these people really live their lives to this soundtrack. Whether they’re in a down mood and use it to ride those feelings out, or they’re out partying, they have something to listen to. I get in my own head, man, I always have. My fans really keep me going, honestly.
MJ: What has been the fan response to “Chemical Romance?”
Webby: It has been very powerful, a lot of people have reached out and said that song made them realize certain things about themselves and let them avoid the tailspin. If I can use my experiences to help a few people out there, that’s what I’m here to do. I’m happy to use my gift to help people come to terms with things in their own lives, and use that music to push through whatever it is they’re dealing with. Even if I’m just talking about the struggles of making it as an independent rapper, anyone with a job in any field can take that energy and emotion and apply it to their situation. That’s amazing to me.
MJ: In the song, you write breakup letters to these drugs, so can you tell me how quitting a drug is similar to leaving a relationship?
Webby: To me, it was easier than writing a song about any girl I’ve ever been with. These were real feelings I had and it had to be said. I channeled something deep within myself and really had to take a step back to reflect on some of these life experiences. When I really looked at my habits and finally said it was time, it felt like a real breakup to me. She did me really dirty.
MJ: Do you lose a certain percentage of your fans that were listening to you as a soundtrack to their own drug use?
Webby: For sure, and I don’t think anybody that is choosing to continue doing drugs will hold it against me. I’m not preaching about Narcotics Anonymous in my music or anything, I’m just saying how I feel personally. But honestly, a lot of the people who grew up listening to me and doing the things I was rapping about while I was doing them, probably aren’t doing them anymore either. Either that, or they’re creeping up on that point in life where they’re going to realize they can’t do it forever.
MJ: As we try to wean the country off of its pharmaceutical dependency, how can we use marijuana as a resource?
Webby: We can definitely use weed for so many different things. First of all, hemp has like a million different uses, and that’s part of the reason it was banned in the first place. Hemp was troublesome to a lot of different industries and that had nothing to do with smoking it. Secondly, I think one of the most positive things going on in the world today is how marijuana is becoming increasingly accepted in the mainstream. It’s amazing that laws are changing and people aren’t going to jail for extended periods of time just for having weed on them. My only concern with this transition into commercialization is that with mass consumption comes cost-cutting and pesticides and other harmful stuff we’re not expecting to be on our weed. The last thing we need is for Monsanto to be manufacturing marijuana seeds. However, the marijuana culture is very tight-knit and will do whatever they have to to make sure that doesn’t happen. Since it hasn’t totally happened yet, I feel like we can still prevent it, but it’s definitely scary to think weed could become like corn. But at the end of the day, I love that I can drive around with weed and not worry about getting locked up.
MJ: Do you or anybody close to you use cannabis medicinally?
Webby: Absolutely, I use CBD myself. I got some capsules while touring in Colorado when I had some serious muscle pain and it helped immensely. So between my own experience and hearing so many stories around the world about the numerous benefits, it boggles my mind that we still have to have the legalization conversation today.
MJ: There’s a big study going on in your home state of Connecticut where a surgeon from Saint Francis Hospital is testing the effectiveness of medical marijuana as a replacement for opioid painkillers in patients with broken ribs, which didn’t seem possible even a few years ago.
Webby: It’s really great because although I know there are some levels of pain that even the strongest weed can’t help treat, a lot of people are being overprescribed these painkillers and it has to stop. Medical marijuana is a much better option that won’t ruin their life up. These pharmaceutical companies know damn well that if a doctor prescribes a 60-day supply of Percocets to a patient who got their wisdom teeth out that they have a fifty-fifty shot at a lifelong customer. It’s pretty depressing, honestly.
MJ: As the stigma of marijuana begins to wash away, what is the “new stoner” to you?
Webby: Obviously some people do lie around eating chips and watching TV — and I do that sometimes, don’t get me wrong — but the people who do that all the time were probably already going to do that all the time. A lot of marijuana users are extremely productive. I can’t smoke all that much during the day anymore because I have a lot to get done, but I know people that can burn all day and function like airline pilots. Everyone is affected differently by marijuana, so you just have to find what works for you. If I was smoking blunts 24/7, my career would spiral out of control, but some people get it done. There are so many successful people regularly using cannabis in this world, and there always has been. But they’d rather show you a teenager melting into the couch.
MJ: How do you typically use marijuana now?
Webby: It’s great for creativity for me, definitely boosts my productivity in the studio. I use an oil pen to round out the edges during the day sometimes, but I can’t go too overboard. I tend to stick with Sativas unless I’m watching a movie or something and want to chill out. I’m real hit or miss with edibles because I’ve had some experiences that were far more intense than anything I would’ve signed up for, but now that there’s more regulation and better packaging, I’m coming back around a little bit. I ate a gummy last night and felt great all night, I just don’t want to eat a random brownie where I don’t know how much THC is in it and feel like my legs are falling off. And it was never a gateway drug for me, I was just curious about other drugs on my own. But smoking weed around the world has been a blessing, I usually get the best bud in Cali, Colorado, or Canada.
MJ: Where’s the toughest place for you to find weed on tour?
Webby: To be honest with you, it’s never hard for me to find weed at a Chris Webby show. [laughs]The fans usually come out with their best stuff for me, so it’s not too difficult to find. I always appreciate it, because rolling something up after doing a show and meet-and-greet is always a blessing. I was actually just up in Maine on tour and went to go check out a homie’s greenhouse, and they have a whole weed empire growing up there at Brigid Farms. They hooked it up with a whole bunch of cartridges because I have trouble getting those on the East Coast.
MJ: Was alcohol more of a gateway drug for you than weed ever was?
Webby: If I’m drinking, I’m far more inclined to do something I shouldn’t than if I was just smoking weed — no doubt about it. Alcohol definitely acts as more of a gateway drug than weed, which makes it even crazier that alcohol is legal but weed is not. It doesn’t make sense to me why anyone would want this plant to be illegal. There’s liquor stores literally everywhere, it’s crazy. I just can’t fathom how people see it so differently. Like it’s unreal that the government just recently renewed marijuana as a Schedule I drug. The fact that weed sits next to drugs you can overdose on doesn’t make one iota of sense.
While it is imperative that we improve the message in our music to provide better guidance to younger generations trying to navigate the pitfalls of life, it is unfair to ask songwriters to refrain from giving listeners an honest account of their life. When T.I. visited “The Daily Show” last year, Trevor Noah asked him why rappers so frequently glorify violence in their music.
The Atlanta-native replied, “I think people need to take into consideration that Hip Hop traditionally has always been a reflection of the environment the artist had to endure before he made it to where he was. So if you want to change the content of the music, change the environment of the artist and he won’t have such negative things to say.”
Tip was referring to the senseless bloodshed that so often appears in rap lyrics, but this sentiment also applies to drugs. If we erase the underlying problem within the medical community that allows so many of these artists (and humans in general) to get their hands on bogus prescriptions to either use or sell, it would only be a matter of time before you choke out the supply and start fixing the actual issue at hand. Then, as the world epidemic subsides, art will imitate life as it always does.
Cover image courtesy of johnofhammond
Additional contributions by Miranda Davinroy