The Yay Area’s White Lines

A sobering look at cocaine usage in hip-hop.

Back in 1989, we had “Ghetto Music.” In 2007, we have “Trap Rap.” In those eighteen years, inner-city life has only become more hazardous — despite tough-on-crime politicians, preemptive legislation (like Prop. 21), and high rates of incarceration for young people of color — while consciousness has fallen by the wayside. Afrocentricity is no longer in favor, and with its decline, hip-hop’s moral compass has been lost. Once upon a time, Public Enemy’s anticrack opus “Night of the Living Baseheads” could inspire outrage and concern (and be in heavy rotation on MTV). Nowadays, Rick Ross proclaims “Everyday I’m Hustlin'” while Young Jeezy calls himself the “Snowman” and barely an eyeball blinks.

When, exactly, did hip-hop get so coked out? In truth, white lines have always run through the inner city, but they weren’t always so visible. In Yes Yes Y’All, Jim Fricke and Charlie Ahearn’s oral history of old-school hip-hop, DJ Tony Tone of Cold Crush Brothers describes the scene at Kool Herc’s Hevalo club, circa 1974: “It was a party atmosphere. If it was [hard] drugs, I didn’t realize it. … There was some drinking, but as far as drugs, it wasn’t out in the open.”

President Reagan’s “War on Drugs” resulted in an influx of cocaine from Latin America into the United States, which defined the ’80s as much as bad hairdos, Zubaz, and new wave music. Still, the earliest rap songs to reference cocaine use contained antidrug messages, such as Grandmaster Melle Mel’s “White Lines” (1983) and Too $hort’s “Girl (That’s Your Life)” (1985). By the mid-’80s, a deadly new form of cocaine called crack became a ghetto phenomenon, and after the epidemic spread nationally, songs like Boogie Down Productions’ “P Is Free” (1987), Masters of Ceremony’s “Cracked Out” (1988), Shinehead’s “Gimme No Crack” (1988) and Brand Nubian’s “Slow Down” (1990) all portrayed the drug as a menace.

Throughout the ’90s, as inner-city conditions continued to worsen, sheer economics — combined with the rise of gangsta rap (which launched a million NWA wanna-bes) — resulted in a get-yo-hustle-on-by-any-means ethic. It was around this time that the Bay Area became known as the “Yay Area,” and cocaine references became more prevalent in its rappers’ product, from Mac Mall’s Illegal Business? to Richie Rich’s “1/2 Thang,” from E-40’s The Mail Man to C-Bo’s “Birds in the Kitchen” and the Young D-Boyz’ “Sellin’ Cocaine as Usual.” It still wasn’t cool to smoke crack — as Flavor Flav, the Pharcyde’s Fatlip, and Pookie from New Jack City can testify — but it was no longer taboo to rap about dealing drugs, as the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ten Crack Commandments” and E-40’s “Hope I Don’t Go Back (to Slangin’ Yayo)” made plain.

By 2003, gangsta rap had long since gone corporate, but with the help of a drug dealer turned rapper from Queens named Curtis Jackson — better known as 50 Cent — it became mainstream. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the multiplatinum success of his album Get Rich or Die Trying was followed by an explosion of drug-laced rap across the board. What is surprising, however, were the national ad campaigns, such as the one for Lugz’ Birdman shoe that promoted coke rap without questioning its inherently illegal premise.

In 2005, E.D.I. of the Outlawz told Murder Dog magazine, “What’s popular today in rap is the cocaine flow. Everybody is running around talking about the birds they sold and the weight they got. Selling dope, rappers give a distorted picture of that game. It’s almost like it’s beautiful, like it’s a glorious thing.” He sure seems prescient today, because this trend toward glorifying the sale of narcotics, specifically crack, has only increased. These days, coke rap is hitting suburban kids across America, while mainstream pop-culture outlets seemingly far removed from the effects of this inner-city epidemic celebrate it as the next big trend in hip-hop.

Blender magazine’s March 2007 issue, for instance, featured Virginian “drug kingpins” the Clipse in a wink-wink, nudge-nudge spread entitled “How to Start Your Own Business,” which contained such helpful entrepreneurial advice as “Build a Client Base,” “Mark Your Territory,” and “Excel in Customer Service.” Pusha-T and Malice are wearing business suits like “normal” folks, but the joke’s on them — Blender readers don’t have to deal with the consequences of “grinding,” such as addiction, crack-related crime, gun violence, and incarceration. That same issue featured a five-page Q&A on Young Jeezy, described as a “crack-slangin’ Atlanta MC” who’ll “answer your questions about snitching, the afterlife, and, of course, slanging crack.”

At least Ozone magazine kept it real in its recent “Drug Issue.” Along with articles on how to rob a stash house and hip-hop’s infatuation with Scarface was a feature called “Crackhead Confessions,” which interviewed actual crackheads in Atlanta. One such individual, “Daniel,” who claims to have bought crack from several trap-rappers, says these dealers turned artists forgot about their onetime customers once they got famous. “They could just bring back fifty peanut-butter sandwiches,” he laments, adding, “Fuck the young rap guys … they are glorifying the wrong things.” His testimonial is a sobering reminder that no matter how you spin it, crack rap is nothing to celebrate.

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