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Rap and Roll (and Fold)

Each performer on the "Up in Smoke" tour, which "rolls" into Phoenix this week, is of the belief that weed, like rap, is not a fad to be thrown out with yesterday's resin. These acts are proud of their foggy legacies. Advertisements for the tour feature a huge, metallic-looking cannabis...
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Each performer on the "Up in Smoke" tour, which "rolls" into Phoenix this week, is of the belief that weed, like rap, is not a fad to be thrown out with yesterday's resin. These acts are proud of their foggy legacies. Advertisements for the tour feature a huge, metallic-looking cannabis leaf over which the faces of performers Dr. Dre, Eminem, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, Xzibit and Warren G. are superimposed. It's as if they're all physically united in the -- to use the Dre lyric -- "shit I can just kick back to, smoke a fat-ass joint to." Gibraltar may crumble, the Rockies may tumble, but their allegiance to marijuana is here to stay.

The narcotic means many things to many rappers, over and above simple rebelliousness. It's integral to most of their lyrical narratives -- and it may have once been a legitimate reflection of their lives, back before "police brutality" wasn't a term used to describe what they did to their security guard when he brought them Diet Coke instead of regular. Smoking ganja took the edges off what could have been dead-end lives, either behind bars or on the streets. Weed was also cheap; and if any of the SoCal rappers were dealing crack, as many claimed to, toking weed allowed them to follow the dealer's credo to a T: Don't play with your own rocks.

Sonically, the drug affected some rappers' deliveries, as well. Various Dre tracks are clouded with the scripted-but-natural sounds of Dre and his cohorts sucking in air or talking about scoring some choice dope. While others, like DJ Screw, took the influence of the drug to an all-time artistic high. Since cannabis is a depressant, which means it is a type of drug that dulls your senses and decreases your heart rate, Screw took some old records he was mixing together at the time and slowed their tempos down to, sometimes, simple moans. The effect gave the impression that Screw stuck a joint in the center hole of each record, making it inhale. Talk about everybody must get stoned. Everything must get stoned. In a world of stoners, smoking weed is an act of belonging, not rebelling.

Like it or not, stereotypes are a necessity, especially for commercial rappers like Dre, Dogg and Eminem. On monolithic radio, there's no time to take on new ideas or spell out adventurous verbal conceits. Songs must either concern bitches, niggas, gunfire, cash or weed, or they're probably not going to work. This type of rap, including some of the aforementioned's material, usually amounts to nothing more than musical caricature. Yet a major MC like Dre can still pull it off, sometimes without a trace of insincerity. It's in his delivery -- strong, undiluted and tough. And because rappers like Dre, Ice Cube and Warren G. were some of the first to use weed as an inspiration, sometimes even as leitmotifs throughout entire albums, these cats have primacy over the territory. When younger MCs boast about their THC intake, they just come across as secondhand smoke.

After the purple haze of the '60s lifted like some bad Beat generation hangover, cannabis suffered a major depreciation in value as the favored pop-culture point of departure. In music, no artist picked up on the act of inhaling (really inhaling -- not Clinton-lipping, but Al Gorgin' on it) as a form of subversive behavior worth singing and/or bragging about. What was all the rage in the jungles of Khe Sanh and the dorm rooms at Stanford, back when Kesey's electric Kool-Aid acid tests had flower-children sprouting imaginary wings, had become blasé a decade later with the advent of designer drugs, like heroin and she-don't-lie, she-don't-lie, she-don't-lie . . . cocaine. Dirty and less mind-altering than other party aids, toking was something no entertainer or aesthete either admitted to doing or did throughout most of the late-1970s and '80s.

Then gangsta rap came along.

The time was the late 1980s, after Jazzercise and trickle-down economics had gone the way of parachute pants and neon hoop earrings. Sprouting up along the ghettos of South Central L.A. were black youths with antisocial antics on their minds and anti-establishment lyrics in their mouths. And blunts. Lots of 'em. When N.W.A. exploded nationally with its major-label debut, which featured the song "Fuck tha Police," the rappers aggressively discarded the upper-class methods of getting high and established their own. Gang bangers liked malt liquor and pot. And if you wanted to hang -- in your car along the Sunset Strip or vicariously in your Mulholland Falls bedroom -- you had to choose from either St. Ides or Olde-E and buds or no buds. "Ever since I was a youth," raps N.W.A.'s Ice Cube on "Fuck tha Police," "I smoked weed out." The New Weed Order had begun.

Like a huge toke of hydro, the N.W.O. still stands strong, perhaps stronger than ever. Efforts to follow California and Arizona's lead to legalize mary jane (if only for medical purposes) have picked up steam among other states, and with the return to '60s styles in music and fashion, smoking ganja looks like the perfect accessory. The Compton clan that birthed the illustrious careers of Dr. Dre and, later, Snoop Dogg, is staying true to its greatest, greenest inspiration, even trying to get others to dabble in the joy through song.

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