“A drug habit like Philip Hoffman will probably put me in a coffin.” With those chilling, ominous lyrics from “What Do You Do,” a song from his 2014 album Faces, Mac Miller sadly foreshadowed his own death. The Pittsburgh rapper/producer/singer died at age 26 last week (Sept. 7) from an apparent overdose. But Mac is part of a harrowing reality: hip-hop is losing rising icons every day to the glamorization and social acceptance of drugs—particularly opioids. Unlike the crack epidemic of the late ‘80s and ‘90s where mainly black and Latino addicts who were arrested for possession and had the book thrown at them in court, opioid addicts of today are getting much more rehabilitative treatment. (Needle exchange programs, overdose-reversing medications, and hospital detox programs are just a few of the resources that have popped up over the years.) Despite these corrective programs, opioid addiction is getting harder to contain. But is the increasing spread of opioid addiction specifically within the hip-hop community getting ignored?
Whenever a rising hip-hop star’s life gets cut short in this way, it’s triggering for people like Chace Infinite, who manages A$AP Rocky and has served as an integral part of ASAP Mob’s meteoric rise. Several members of ASAP were cool with and collaborated with Mac, and Chace suspects that he, like many of his peers, were introduced to drugs with the sole intention of having a good time. “Mac was a great, great person, man,” he says. He is reminded of the loss of ASAP Mob founder ASAP Yams, who also died in 2015 from an overdose, according to a medical examiner, through the same lens. “Yams didn’t mean to do that sh*t man. These are kids, and men, who don’t understand the danger.”
There are many reasons why the danger of various opioids—Xanax, Percocet, oxycodone, codeine—doesn’t seem real to the many hip-hop artists who try it. Meek Mill told the hosts of The Breakfast Club that his Percocet habit began after having dental surgery. The thought of becoming addicted hadn’t crossed his mind because, well, this was a doctor-prescribed substance after all. To add a more complicated layer, transparency about his drug addiction could’ve cost him his freedom as someone on probation. Thankfully, he was able to seek rehab and kick the habit at the encouragement of his probation officer. Beyond that, the stamp of social approval makes opioids a more attractive option. “It’s an aspirational thing. It sounds weird that you would aspire to do a drug, but it’s about social status,” Chace further explains. “You can do pills and not smell like you would with weed. You can drink lean in front of people and not look like you’re doing a drug.” Contrary to what people might assume, he says the rise of opioids isn’t some new phenomenon in hip-hop, but rather a mirror reflection of its accessibility. “It’s cyclical. Just like brussels sprouts or quinoa, the sh*t’s popular for a reason.”
“Popular” is an understatement for how prevalent pill poppin’ and lean sippin’ has become within the culture. Since 2008, the United States has consumed more narcotics than any other country in the world. Hip-hop only mirrors a larger problem, but rappers receive far less sympathy in the media because of the urban audience they serve. Drug references are embedded within an astonishing amount of rap songs in the last five years. Future’s “Mask Off” was an unapologetic ode to his favorite party drugs molly and Percocet. Even with lyrics like, “I just took a piss and I seen codeine coming out / we got purple Actavis, I thought it was a drought,” Future told French outlet Clique that he glorifies drug use way more than he participates in it (a revelation he’s gotten dinged for by the likes of N.O.R.E., Vic Mensa and OG Maco). Future isn’t the only rapper celebrating—Migos, Kanye West, Lil’ Wayne, Rick Ross, Drake, Lil’ Uzi Vert, Nicki Minaj, Lil’ Pump, ScHoolboy Q and The Weekend make up just a short list of major selling rappers who have had major hits littered with veiled and blatant drug references.
Commonly, you’ll hear hip-hop references about a codeine cocktail known as “lean.” Popularized by Houston’s late DJ Screw, the prescription-strength cough syrup is commonly mixed with Sprite and/or candy and gives the user an extremely relaxed and euphoric feeling. In the early 2000’s, you’d be hard pressed to find a Southern rapper whose double cup wasn’t filled to the brim with “sizzurp.” Few were aware of the consequences, though. The drug would go on to claim the lives of DJ Screw, Pimp C, Fredo Santana, and ASAP Yams. Lil’ Wayne ended up in intensive care after a series of seizures almost killed him. The culprit was suspected to be his near decade-long lean use, though Wayne at the time pointed to the fact that he’s been diagnosed with epilepsy. Years before that, he’d admitted that trying to kick his lean habit felt like “death in his stomach.”
Ex-lean users describe similar withdrawal symptoms that are as bad as, or worse than heroin. Lil’ Boosie admitted to sipping 32 ounces of codeine a day at the height of his addiction—going as far as to lace his cigarettes and blunts with the syrupy substance. Weaning off sent him in and out of the hospital. “I was down bad on codeine, and I put everybody on it,” he’d said. Trippie Redd described the drink as “liquid heroin” after experiencing painful stomach aches, severe constipation, cold sweats and nausea after trying and quitting lean all within a week. Rising Atlanta rapper Lil’ Baby turned to lean as an alternative to weed because it could go undetected in his parole mandated drug tests. He was urged to stop at the news of Fredo Santana’s death. “I didn’t know him or nothing, but I felt that,” he said. Gucci Mane spoke with the hosts of Highly Questionable on ESPN about the horrifying physical and mental symptoms of “drying out” of lean in prison. “It’s probably the worst feeling in the world, he said. “It tears your body down. It tears your mind down. It was just terrible, terrible pain.” His striking physical transformation came after dropping down from a bloated 290 pounds but says he might have died if prison hadn’t forced him off his drink of choice.
“It’s an aspirational thing. It sounds weird that you would aspire to do a drug, but it’s about social status.” —Chace Infinite
Mac Miller relied heavily on drugs, lean specifically, to cope with the stress of his 2012 Macadelic tour. While this is common for young stars who spend grueling months on the road, the problem is intensified when artists begin mixing substances—a common mistake Chace attributes to misinformation.
“With opiates, people don’t have any education. This is why Yam’s mother started the ASAP Foundation – to teach kids the dangers of mixing these drugs,” he said. “These are prescription drugs that are given out by a medical professional who is trained. Your dosage is based on your body weight and a whole bunch of different medical factors. If you’re a kid just looking to get f**ked up, you’re not asking those types of questions.”
When it comes to the pills, you might as well be playing Russian roulette. According to the Center for Disease Control, opioid-related hospitalizations are rising at alarming rates across the country. A report published in March 2018 cites that opioid overdoses rose 30 percent in all parts of the U.S. from July 2016 through September 2017. This has less to do with an uptick in users and more to do with the rise in counterfeit pills coming from China and Mexico that contain lethal additives like fentanyl. CDC director Anne Schuchat said that the root cause seems to be illegitimate and highly potent opioids like the fentanyl-laced Xanax that killed emo/hip-hop artist Lil’ Peep.
“We think that the number of people addicted to opioids is relatively stable. But the substances are more dangerous than five years ago,” she told WKMS. “The margin of error for taking one of these substances is small now and people may not know what they have.”
Thanks to developments in medicine, OD’s can be stopped by drugs like Naloxone which reverse fatal overdoses if injected in time. But many drug counselors feel this is only a band-aid fix to a devastating problem.
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Many rappers are convinced that they have full control of their opioid intake, that they can start and stop their recreational use at any time. Seeing a rapper grip a double Styrofoam cup isn’t as jarring as it should be, because it’s a staple prop in our culture. But there are some rappers who have already begun to be change agents. J. Cole’s 2018 album KOD—one of the three known acronyms stand for Kids On Drugs—was a necessary probe at the substance-fueled culture of today’s rap music. We simply can’t dispute the timeliness of this message.
Cole dedicated his recent KOD Vegas tour stop to Mac Miller while addressing the traumas young people experience that make them yearn for escapism through drugs. “Every day people die and never get a chance to deal with their sh*t. They never even knew they was supposed to. I’m trying to deal with my sh*t right now.”
So how do hip-hop artists, and those who love them, deal with this collective problem? It’s a loaded question, but perhaps it starts with more rappers speaking out about their experience kicking their habits, much like Bay Area rapper Mozzy did when he launched the KickDaCup Challenge on Instagram. If everyone can do their part to de-normalize the use of opiates and speak openly about healing the mental health issues at the root of codependency, we can avoid having to bury another legend.