A-Trak - License to Pill
A-Trak’s Open Letter About Drugs In Hip-Hop
I don’t know anything about drugs. Never tried them. Yet as I write this, I am trying to sign a group with a song called “Bath Salts” and an album titled “D.R.U.G.S.”. Danny Brown, my record label’s marquee artist, calls himself the Adderall Admiral, openly does interviews high on Molly and raps, “it’s a miracle I’m living.” I happen to think he is one of the most enthralling artists out. How do I reconcile my respect for Danny and the fact that so many of his wildly creative and entertaining songs revolve around drug usage?
I believe hip-hop has entered its psychedelic age. Turn on the radio: Molly, Xanax and cough syrup references are ubiquitous. One of the most acclaimed new mixtapes out is matter-of-factly titled Acid Rap. The spiritual guru of the era is the Juicy J, a Memphis veteran whose group Three 6 Mafia helped shape the sound of Southern rap. His hedonistic songs are anchored by irresistible hooks, hypnotic beats and jovial rallying cries. I have no idea what he’s rapping about, but the lullaby cadence of his music draws me in. Not everyone is as light-hearted as the Juiceman though. In the R&B outfit The Weeknd, singer Abel Tesfaye spins disturbing, dark tales of cocaine and abandon, but that’s a genuine breakthrough in a genre that rarely strayed away from the themes of romance. Tesfaye is daring not only in his subject matter but also in his choice of avant-garde production, thereby pushing R&B forward.
It takes more than a reference to MDMA to keep up with the times, though. Hearing Ludacris and Juelz Santana’s Molly raps du jour make me cough up the word “bandwagon” – no promethazine needed. Just think: if Rick Ross said no to drugs he’d still be slinging Reeboks. But for the most part, what I’m noticing is a level of abstraction that has helped rap reach a further orbit of expressionism. The genre hasn’t felt this free since the Daisy Age. It may have started with Lil Wayne’s 2008 masterpiece of stream-of-consciousness rap “A Milli,” although I would also credit Lil B’s “based” style for opening this generation’s minds. Is it all due to the unshackling and relaxing effect of drugs? Probably not. But one can’t deny that the current climate of trippy and experimental mainstream rap has coincided with the breaking down of geographic and sexual prejudices in a notoriously territorial and homophobic culture.
That said, the closer I get drawn into it, the more I tend to wonder whether I am just enjoying this music from a safe arm’s length as I silently endorse it? Is there any hypocrisy in the fact that I, clearly not an advocate of drug use, made a track with Juicy J and Danny called “Piss Test”? We don’t appreciate rap songs based on the moral value of their lyrics, but rather on their artistic merit. Danny and Juicy are part of a long tradition of great, unhinged rap. Yet for all the talk about syrup and Molly, it seems like we’re only being exposed to a partial, romanticized account. Rap went from glorifying selling hard drugs to glamorizing their effects. And beneath the surface there may be a profound lack of understanding of these substances.
What worries me is the unspoken aspect of the story; that is the real elephant in the room. Just recently, Lil Wayne almost died from multiple seizures, yet he vehemently denies that there was a relation to his codeine intake. When legendary Houston rapper Pimp C passed away, the cause of death remained hush. Closer to home, my good friend DJ AM died from a drug overdose four years ago at the height of his fame. There needs to be more open dialogue about this. It won’t stop us from enjoying the music. A handful of rappers have spoken out: Kendrick Lamar ends his “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” video with a coffin lowered into the ground and “Death To Molly” written above it, and Rhymefest calls the drug a “crack pill.” While that analogy may be oversimplified, I believe that any conversation on this matter is healthy. I even think the pill popping Trinidad James himself deserves a smart interview (you know, make him sweat a little). He probably has more insight than we think. My stance is: we can rap about it, but let’s also talk about it.