In her first article for #itchysilk, the erudite Georgia Chambers analyses the popular name checking of the drug MDMA within contemporary hip-hop.
Unlike hip-hop tracks of yesteryear where cannabis name checking occurred because it was one of the drugs of choice within black culture, Georgia Chambers argues that MDMA use is minimal within black culture and in fact is more prevalent within white culture. Unsurprisingly it begs the question-why is it name checked consistently within black culture when it's not the drug of choice?
Georgia argues and arrives at an interesting thought: MDMA (the drug of choice for the white middle class), has everything to do with reinforcing black sterotypes.
Hip-Hop has always had a consistent, if not fluctuating relationship with drugs. In the 1980s, crack cocaine made its way into urban US black communities and this, coupled with the War on Drugs, made black culture and drug culture, particularly in the criminal sense of the word, suddenly inseparable.
Hip-Hop artists started narrating the epidemic they saw unfolding in front of them in their lyrics. Many hardcore hip-hop fans will remember Grandmaster Melle Mel's White Lines (Don't Do It) (1984) an anti-drug track disguised as a party anthem. Elsewhere, Kool Moe Dee warned of the “devil” that was crack cocaine wreaking havoc on African-American communities in his song Crack Monster (1986).
Marijuana saw a boost in popularity in 1990s hip-hop and became the widely accepted drug among black communities, with the arrival of Dr Dre's The Chronic (1992). According to Genius, marijuana peaked in 1993 as the most popular drug in hip-hop.
Fast-forward to the 2000s and codeine, a painkiller usually drunk in cough syrup form, became the cause of overdoses from the likes of DJ Screw and UGK's Pimp C. Then there was a drug hype that no-one saw coming and fascinated the hip-hop industry- MDMA.
Historically, MDMA, which gives users a feeling of euphoria and enough energy to dance into the early hours of the morning, was associated with the rave culture of the 80s and 90s, which saw revellers flock to underground basements to listen to the entrancing trips of acid house.
Before the renaissance of acid house, DJs wouldn't play white artists as people had little interest outside of black American imports. Inadvertently, the acid house scene became a white space and by association, MDMA became a “white” drug. This isn't just a wild assumption. It's a fact that rates of class A drugs are higher among people from white backgrounds. Cannabis usage is higher amongst black communities, largely due to a perception that it is safer than other drugs and because of its cultural link with Rastafarianism. For these reasons, ecstasy and hip-hop seemed like an unlikely pairing, that is until D12's Purple Pills (2001) spearheaded by Eminem's verses about “blue and yellow purple pills,” peaked at number nineteen on the Billboard Top 100 when it was released. An unlikely pairing indeed- but it was one that clearly sold.
MDMA catapulted its way into popular hip-hop songs such as Kanye's Mercy (2012) and Jay-Z's Empire State of Mind (2009)- his most commercially successful track to date. This was around the time that black culture became very en vogue with white artists, as the world witnessed with the unfortunate revival of Miley Cyrus. In her comeback hit We Can't Stop (2013) she is seen with grills on her teeth, twerking with African-American women and singing about “dancing with Molly,” repeating things she had seen in hip-hop music videos as if they were the pinnacles of the culture she was appropriating.
But hip-hop's love for MDMA simply wasn't reflected in black culture and to this day many of my black friends would never touch it, citing fear of its potential dangers or, as my cousin put it “that shit is a white people ting.”
Interestingly, even the artists themselves don't infer that they take MDMA themselves, or even advocate its usage. In West's Mercy, he raps: “somethin' ‘bout Mary, she gone off that Molly/Now the whole party is melting like Dali” noting how “Mary” (also a slang term for marijuana) stands out from the crowd because she seems to be the only one not on Molly. Likewise, in Tyga's inconspicuously titled Molly (2013) Wiz Khalifa raps about bringing “a whole pound of Mary” to the party. It's known that Khalifa doesn't like Molly, so his verse seems to be about his love for marijuana in amongst a party full of people who are hooked on Mary's distant cousin. And if you happen to go to a party with the formidable Cardi B, she'll have “your bitch on Molly,”- as foretold in Bariter Cardi (2017).
Popular hip-hop is in danger of cementing a one-dimensional image of black culture which it has fought hard to dispel.
The reality is that MDMA usage in black culture is far from rampant- so why the drive to continuously name-check it in hip-hop? I think that these tracks aren't meant to reflect or even appeal to black people at all. Think about it- commercial hip-hop is having its heyday. In 2017, Neilsen reported that for the first time in history, hip-hop was the biggest music genre in the US. Spotify also reported that hip-hop as a genre had increased by 74% globally in 2017. Some of the reasons behind this boom are due to social media heralding the rise of homegrown hip-hop and grime artists. There is the so-called Black Renaissance shaping black artistry right now-kendrick lamar winning the Pulitzer Prize for DAMN (2017) being a defining moment. However, you can't ignore the certain characteristics that commercial hip-hop has to follow for success.
Whether its; gang violence, misogyny, drugs or dirty money, middle-class white kids tend to listen to hip-hop music which latches on to these stereotypes even though they are not representative of the entirety of black culture. Popping a pill is just the newest stereotype to drop. As J. Cole points out in his track 1985 (Intro to “The Fall Off”) (2018) which is thought to be a dig at mumble rapper lil' Pump, he raps:
“These white kids love that you don't give a fuck/cause that's exactly what's expected when your skin black/they wanna see you dab, they wanna see you pop a pill/they wanna see you tatted from your face to your heels /and somewhere deep down, fuck it, I gotta keep it real/they wanna be black and think your song is how it feels.”
Popular hip-hop is in danger of cementing a one-dimensional image of black culture which it has fought to dispel. Prescription pills like Xanax frame the zeitgeist of tracks like Future's Mask Off (2017) and Lil' Pump's excruciatingly irritating Gucci Gang (2017). They show that drug-taking stereotypes, (amongst others), don't show any sign of fading out. Hip-hop has always reflected black culture, but it's time to question for whose benefit.
Featured image by? (we are keen to credit).