WHY DO YOU THINK THEY CALL IT DOPE?

HIP-HOP IS GOING TO POT. LITERALLY.

Without drugs, there'd be no such thing as popular music. Virtually every major form of tonal exploration in this country has gotten a good measure of spunk from a particular drug of choice--bluegrass and corn liquor, folk and caffeine, techno and ecstasy, jazz and heroin, reggae and pot, rock and everything.

Three of the brightest musical stars--Hank Williams, Elvis and Charlie Parker--left a particularly long trail of broken liquor bottles, empty vials and spent syringes behind. The only genre that immediately comes to mind for its antidrug stance, straight-edge punk, turned out to be a blip on the musical time line.

Until recently, there was one genre of music that couldn't find a favorite drug to do time with--hip-hop. In its beginnings, hip-hop had taken a tsk tsk approach to drugs. Melle Mel's 1983 anticoke rant "White Lines (Don't Don't Do It)" was a prototype of the now-ubiquitous anticrack song. When crack began to destroy black communities, socially conscious rappers saw it as their duty to cluck against both the supply and demand. Public Enemy's "Night of the Living Baseheads," perhaps the funkiest anticrack anthem, incidentally also coined the argument that today's pothead will become tomorrow's crack addict, a theory no doubt odious to marijuana mavens.

More recently, malt liquor has drawn the spotlight as the drug to debate about in hip-hop circles. Though the alcohol family has arguably wreaked as much--if not more--havoc as crack, malt liquor has split those who lined up on the same side of the crack question. Where one rapper was pimping for it (Ice Cube in his ads for his favorite brew), another was preaching against it (Chuck D in P.E.'s "1 Million Bottlebags").

Marijuana, though, is the first mind-bender to get a nearly unanimous thumbs-up from the hip-hop community. The reason is pretty obvious. Hint: It's the same color as cannabis. Like black sexuality and high-powered weaponry before it, marijuana is a lyrical subject guaranteed to scare the bejesus out of suburban parents while simultaneously sending their kids to record stores in search of vicarious rebellion. Two No. 1 albums and another double-platinum disc have prominently featured weed in the cover photo or title and the lyrics. The first, Ice Cube's The Predator, featured a cover photo of the L.A. gangsta puffing not so peacefully on a pipe one can assume wasn't filled with tobacco. Then Cube's former N.W.A group mate Dr. Dre hit No. 3 with the double-platinum The Chronic, a disc named for a particularly potent strain of weed.

The latest act to parlay the hip-hop/pot love connection into the best-selling album in the country is Cypress Hill, with its latest disc Black Sunday. While using the mystique of drugs to hook listeners is nothing new (the Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," the Velvet Underground's "Heroin"), not since the heyday of reggae forefathers Bob Marley and Peter Tosh has a group of pop acts advertised its allegiance to pot so blatantly.

Despite this new philosophical/marketing connection between hip-hop and pot, the relationship wasn't always so bottom-line cynical. Long before pot became a sales tool, you could find widespread evidence rappers were doing major bongs. Rolling Stone noted in its recent review of Cypress Hill's new album that both Schoolly D and Boogie Down Productions were down with buds way back. The Beastie Boys heartily celebrated pot on their 1986 debut LP Licensed to Ill and featured what may be the first example of a recorded bong hit on their 1989 follow-up, Paul's Boutique.

But embarrassingly often these days, you see hip-hop acts scrambling to jump on the reefer bandwagon. Ask them if they're trendmongers, and you can bet they'll swear they were smoking the stuff before they came up with their first rhyme. It's just that they've never felt the need to rap about it.

On 1988's Straight Outta Compton, N.W.A's favorite way of getting loaded was 40-ounce shots of malt liquor, the quintessential B-boy brew. On one Compton song, the Ice Cube-penned "Express Yourself," then-N.W.A producer Dr. Dre even disses pot: "Yo, I don't smoke weed . . . /Cause it's known to give a brother brain damage." Then last year, Ice Cube suddenly decided to smoke a bowl in his album cover portrait. Next, Dr. Dre happened to name his solo debut (The Chronic) after his favorite brand of herb.

House of Pain's Everlast is another expert in marijuana chic. His 1990 solo album, Forever Everlasting, has the rapper getting high on Jesus far more often than on pot. A couple years later, on House of Pain's self-titled debut, you can't listen for more than a few minutes without the rapper boasting of his blunted exploits like he's channeling from Peter Tosh.

In all, there's probably only one perpetually stoned act whose motives aren't too skunky--Cypress Hill. The group's 1991 eponymous debut album, emblazoned with the logo of a skull sporting a marijuana-leaf tattoo, is to pot-laced hip-hop what Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols was to punk. Cuts like "Light Another," "Stoned Is the Way of the Walk" and "Something for the Blunted" comprehensively document Cypress' hard-on for hemp. "Stoned Is the Way of the Walk" displays lead rapper B-Real's love for Mary Jane. A female dealer from the hood offers Real a baggie if he'll service her. The proposal shocks the rapper, who turns it down on the grounds that it would be "demeaning" to him.

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