Music has always been more than just what you hear in your headphones. A genre of music is also a genre of movement, a genre of style, a genre of trend. And, where there is a trend there is a following.
Mod music was a movement – your Uncle Tony with the long sideburns, short fringe and Ben Sherman overcoat was actually not an Amish preacher after all – he was a Mod. Punk was a movement – you could spot a punk listener a mile off: studded something, leather everything, men and women clad in heavy makeup saying no to the police (and to Sting as well). 90’s hip-hop was a movement – baggy jeans, baseball caps, bling and bud would probably be on the shopping list for a Big L listener. Of course, not all listeners fitted these demographics, but music genres definitely have their trends, and they definitely have their followers.
Since the 90’s, American mainstream hip-hop has morphed from boom-bap gangster rap into a completely different beast. A generation of “Soundcloud rappers” are breaking the internet with their take on Atlanta’s trap beats with double or even triple-time hi-hats between bass kicks.
The movement is led by a generation of very young stars, such as Lil Pump, 6ix 9ine, Trippie Red, to name a few. Some hip-hop veterans have been quick to pass judgement on the new scene, proclaiming its lack of meaningful lyrics and over-production. And, although I agree, in the main, that a lot of this music is trash, I believe that this new scene is deeply problematic to a point way beyond its possible musical shortcomings.
To deny that drug use has been rife in the music business for years would be obtuse; just by listening to a record by The Beatles or Pink Floyd you know they took lots of LSD. The big guns like The Rolling Stones and Fleetwood Mac had their fair share of cocaine binges, and even some of music’s top names were using heroin. Barbiturates, which were a powerful sleeping pill, took the lives of Marilyn Monroe and Jimi Hendrix. Drugs have always been rife in music.
Today, a lot of the new hip-hop artists are taking Xanax (a prescription-based benzodiazepine medicine, medically known as alprazolam) and drinking lean (a liquid concoction of sprite and codeine). Substances such as these have been popularised by the new generation of hip-hop artists – there’s even a rapper called Lil Xan for fuck’s sake. Often, a lot of their music is an ode to these substances, and a recent BBC3 short film documented how those that take these substances believe that they help pave a certain creative pathway in order to produce a certain type of song.
But Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was about acid, so it’s fine right? Wrong. There is a whole plethora of differences between The Beatles subtly mentioning LSD or the Rolling Stones smashing coke and modern rappers explicitly glorifying opiates and benzos; one is that prescription drugs are the biggest killer in America. Cocaine and heroin combined caused fewer deaths than prescription drugs in the United Kingdom in 2013, and fewer deaths than prescription opiates alone in the United States in 2008. These figures have rocketed exponentially since these findings, and deaths caused directly by the chemicals found in The Beatles’ beloved LSD come to a whopping zero.
Secondly, most of these rappers are barely adults. They are literally so young that some of them are not legally able to drink alcohol in the States. Naturally, this means that their fanbase is young, too. My 15-year-old brother has listened to this kind of music for a while – and you have to be an idiot not to see the difference between your parents giggling at subtle drug references in The Beatles’ songs and your brothers’ mates singing the lyrics “Keep a bag of xannies if you tryna join the family”.
But it’s just music – the listeners are capable of making their own choices and it’s their responsibility to not take these drugs, right? Wrong, again. A lot of the listeners to modern hip-hop are young enough to try these drugs based on the logic that Lil Xan takes them and he’s still alive. They are also young enough to be influenced directly by the lyrics of what they listen to – curiosity to try things is a natural instinct, and the chances are that if they go and buy a Xanax pill from the street, it’s fake.
A Xanax ‘bar’ bought commonly from dealers contains two to four times the dose of a prescribed Xanax pill. Some are also cut with harmful agents, putting you at a considerable risk of serious health issues. Young rapper Lil Peep recently died from taking fake Xanax pills laced with Fentonyl, a toxic substance that was found in a batch of pills.
I also genuinely believe that being dosed up on prescription medication does NOT bolster your creativity as an artist, but in fact nulls it. I can confidently vouch that during a benzo binge, your brain is blank, uninspired and neutral – void of any creative spark that you may have when not taking them. Furthermore, after stopping taking them, you may well be hit by a very big dip in your mental health.
Post-acute-withdrawal-symptoms, or PAWS, are when your body and mind react to the absence of the substance that it has been used to. These are symptoms of withdrawal that follow from the acute withdrawal phase and can last for months on end, meaning a relapse is very possible and attractive. These drugs literally take a strong hold of your body and your brain, and when they are combined with alcohol, can be fatal even in small doses.
Now, I genuinely believe that this, amongst a plethora of other factors (social media, toxic masculinity) is why so many of our youth today suffer from depression and mental health issues. These drugs are meant to reduce anxiety, that is their purpose. So, if someone who is not suffering from mental health issues starts taking Xanax, they are prone to experiencing negative mental effects if they ever come off it, because their body and mind has come to depend upon it.
In our post-modern culture, we swim in a pool rife with anxiety and depression. There is an aura of doom and gloom for the young people of today, and there are two channels that people can use as outlets for a low price and a maximal serotonin kick: social media and self-medication.
It is crystal clear that the glorification of Xanax is caused by deeper problematic issues in our society – but that is a whole different discussion in itself. What we need to do is to discourage prescription drug use as a form of recreation, and with this, we can see that a large part of the responsibility lies with those who are older and understand more about the dangers of these drugs – these are the people who must get the message across to young people who are not mature enough to make the right choices.
I could go on for hours about the health risks of benzodiazepines, but the main message of this piece is that I believe that a large chunk of mainstream modern hip-hop trivialises a very serious substance and poses a severe threat to the physical and mental health of its young listening demographic. If this is the music that you like, you should not stop listening to it because of its message – but you should understand that music is art and not gospel.
If you are reading this and considering taking any prescription medications, do not do it without a doctor’s backing. Your favourite rapper might take them and still be alive, but like Mac Miller, Lil Peep, Prince, A$AP Yams and DJ Screw, they may not be tomorrow. Listen to music with a pinch of salt, and don’t let lyrics take over logic.
Words by Will McCartney