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.
High Times, the monthly marijuana aficionado's bible that counts Everlast among its subscribers, as the rapper proudly noted on the House of Pain album, credits Cypress with spawning the red-eyed revolution in hip-hop. Indeed, Cypress' blunt-fueled raps have sparked a mini-industry vital enough for the magazine to set aside a whole page in its September issue to rate albums on a scale of one to five bongs. Cypress itself is benefiting as much as anyone from the cash crop it's hybridized, scoring a No. 1 album and headlining what could be called the America's Most Blunted Tour with fellow stoners House of Pain and Funkdoobiest.
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Meanwhile, Cypress' B-Real has emerged as the first superstar of the genre, arguably the highest-profile pot smoker in all of popular music, or maybe in all the world, if we're not counting presidents. When Black Sunday's water-pipe ode "Hits From the Bong" dropped, it apparently got legions of hip-hop n' hemp lovers to recycle their rolling papers and head straight to their local smoke shop for more upstanding smoking paraphernalia. B-Real's lyrical announcement was major news to High Times, which featured an interview with the rapper in its September issue accompanied by a cover headline that screamed: "B-REAL SPEAKS: BLUNTS OUT, BONGS IN, SO PACK THE PIPE." The story behind B-Real's bong-shell? The new song, he tells High Times, "introduces people to a much cleaner and healthier way of smoking."
But "Hits From the Bong" isn't the only dope public service announcement that Cypress Hill's recorded. An interlude on Black Sunday titled "Legalize It," which echoes the title of Peter Tosh's debut album, recites a list of reasons to take pot off the black market. Like many potheads, Cypress Hill likes to argue for the nonintoxicating uses of hemp, hoping to trick lawmakers into legalizing the herb because it's four times more efficient than trees for producing paper. On the inside cover of Black Sunday, there's even a list of 11 factoids designed to turn on people like Jesse Helms, including this revolutionary bit of U.S. history: "George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp." This is ostensibly to prove to everyone B-Real doesn't like pot just because it gives him a great buzz.
Don't look for hip-hop's newfound fascination with the drug to suddenly persuade Bill Clinton or anyone else over 30 to inhale, though. According to High Times, MTV blurred the pot leaf in Dr. Dre's "Nuthin' but a 'G' Thang" video. B-Real also told the magazine Cypress Hill's "Stoned Is the Way of the Walk" video was too pot-heavy for the network. Marijuana's reputation as a peaceful drug also took a blow in a Times account of unruly behavior by hip-hop fans at the 20th Annual Smoke-In in New York's Washington Square Park. The magazine reported hip-hop-loving youths went berserk at the event, heckling one non-hip-hop performer and hurling beer bottles at the stage. Indeed, the music of hip-hop potheads like Cypress Hill, Dre and Cube is anything but mellow. Even if they're lighting up more and more these days, the rappers are still more enamored with Glocks and AKs than pot.
Ultimately, as in rock n' roll, all this trendiness is bound to turn pathetic when it falls out of fashion, like David Crosby or Vince Neil pretending to wallow in sorrow as part of their addiction treatment. It's easy to see B-Real and Everlast 20 years from now in an MTV antipot spot, looking earnestly off-camera and telling us all in a slurred voice they wished they had paid closer attention to the fate of Paul McCartney.