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Drug term trends in American hip-hop lyrics

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Purpose – Many young people around the world embrace hip-hop music and culture. Since the genre’s conception in the 1970s, hip-hop music and lyrics have made regular references to drugs. Understanding the relevance of these documented trends is important, especially as adolescence is a period of high risk for substance misuse. The purpose of this paper is to explore how and possibly why different lyrical trends in hip-hop music have emerged, risen and fallen out of popularity by examining word usage frequency of drug terminology in hip-hop lyrics spanning several decades of this genre. Design/methodology/approach – Electronic searches were completed using an open source database known as Rap Genius Rap Stats, which contains verified annotations and text. Word frequency was plotted against time using data available from 1988 to 2015. Word frequency was defined as a percentage of the number of hip-hop songs containing a specific drug-term (per year) based on the number of hip-hop songs recorded/produced (that year). Standardized “medical/pharmaceutical” terminologies and common “street” terminologies were plotted independently for time series visualization. Drug terms were represented using the highest frequency search term. Generic “street” terms with multiple meanings were excluded. Findings – As might be predicted, the usage of “street” terms in hip-hop lyrics was more frequently observed than the usage of “medical/pharmaceutical” terms. An exception was the term “crack”, which was included in both plots as this word could be referenced as a “street” term and as a “medical/pharmaceutical” term. The authors observed larger fluctuations in “street” term usage across time relative to only slight fluctuations of “medical/pharmaceutical” term usage across time. Originality/value – In this study, the authors illustrate several drug terminology trends in hip-hop lyrics. The authors discuss some of the socio-political, socio-demographic and geographical implications that may have influenced these trends, such as the rise of the “street” term molly that emerged when references to molly made by hip-hop artists became increasingly popular and a more suburban demographic transpired. This preliminary work may help to enhance two-way youth-oriented communication between health care professionals and service users, possibly improving the translation of drug-related medical messages. The preliminary work may also inform future research to consider whether such lyrical trends precede or follow changes in population substance use.
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Drug term trends in American hip-hop lyrics
Becky Inkster and Akeem Sule
Dr Becky Inkster is based at the
Department of Psychiatry,
University of Cambridge,
Cambridge, UK; Wolfson
College, University of
Cambridge, Cambridge, UK
and Cambridgeshire &
Peterborough NHS Foundation
Trust, Cambridge, UK.
Dr Akeem Sule is based at
Cumbria Partnership NHS
Foundation Trust, Cumbria,
UK; South Essex Partnership
University NHS Foundation
Trust, Essex, UK; Department
of Psychiatry, University of
Cambridge, Cambridge, UK
and Wolfson College, University
of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK.
Abstract
Purpose Many young people around the world embrace hip-hop music and culture. Since the genres
conception in the 1970s, hip-hop music and lyrics have made regular references to drugs. Understanding the
relevance of these documented trends is important, especially as adolescence is a period of high risk for
substance misuse. The purpose of this paper is to explore how and possibly why different lyrical trends in
hip-hop music have emerged, risen and fallen out of popularity by examining word usage frequency of drug
terminology in hip-hop lyrics spanning several decades of this genre.
Design/methodology/approach Electronic searches were completed using an open source
database known as Rap Genius Rap Stats, which contains verified annotations and text. Word frequency
was plotted against time using data available from 1988 to 2015. Word frequency was defined as a
percentage of the number of hip-hop songs containing a specific drug-term (per year) based on the number
of hip-hop songs recorded/produced (that year). Standardized medical/pharmaceuticalterminologies
and common streetterminologies were plotted independently for time series visualization. Drug terms
were represented using the highest frequency search term. Generic streetterms with multiple meanings
were excluded.
Findings As might be predicted, the usage of streetterms in hip-hop lyrics was more frequently observed
than the usage of medical/pharmaceuticalterms. An exception was the term crack, which was included in
both plots as this word could be referenced as a streetterm and as a medical/pharmaceuticalterm.
The authors observed larger fluctuations in streetterm usage across time relative to only slight fluctuations
of medical/pharmaceuticalterm usage across time.
Originality/value In this study, the authors illustrate several drug terminology trends in hip-hop lyrics.
The authors discuss some of the socio-political, socio-demographic and geographical implications that may
have influenced these trends, such as the rise of the streetterm molly that emerged when references to
molly made by hip-hop artists became increasingly popular and a more suburban demographic transpired.
This preliminary work may help to enhance two-way youth-oriented communication between health care
professionals and service users, possibly improving the translation of drug-related medical messages. The
preliminary work may also inform future research to consider whether such lyrical trends precede or follow
changes in population substance use.
Keywords Codeine, Ecstasy, Hip-hop, Lyrics, Cocaine, Crack, Promethazine
Paper type Research paper
Introduction
Drug culture has influenced a wide range of music genres. In particular, drug terminology has
been documented regularly in hip-hop lyrics since the genres conception in the early 1970s.
A striking demonstration of this phenomenon occurred in the mid-1980s into the 1990s when
crack-cocaine surged through inner cities of America (Reinarman, 1997). Hip-hop artists
became street epidemiologistswho witnessed and documented these toxic environments.
Symbiotic relationships developed between drug dealers and rappers, which transformed
hip-hop culture. Many dealers-turned-rappersdescribed the pervasiveness of this highly
addictive substance that was destroying their communities. Several influential hip-hop artists
began campaigning against the crack gameby promoting socio-politically conscious lyrics.
Received 19 May 2015
Revised 19 May 2015
Accepted 20 May 2015
DOI 10.1108/JPMH-05-2015-0019 VOL. 14 NO. 3 2015, pp. 169-173, © Emerald Group Publishing Limited, ISSN 1746-5729
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JOURNAL OF PUBLIC MENTAL HEALTH
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PA GE 1 6 9
The early 1990s marked the rise of the Golden Age of Hip-Hopwhen hip-hop music attained
worldwide popularity, prompting the mainstream usage of other drug terms, in particular, cannabis
(a.k.a., weed, indo, chronic).
From hip-hops conception to current trends, its lyrics have reflected significant shifts in drug
culture. This paper explores the frequency of word usage of drug terminology in hip-hop lyrics
spanning three decades of the genre. We explore how and possibly why different lyrical trends
have emerged, risen and fallen out of popularity.
This paper aims to provide clinicians and other mental health care professionals with an overview
of evolving drug terminology as documented in hip-hop lyrics. Many young people throughout the
world embrace hip-hop culture and so the information presented here might assist with the
engagement of service users who listen to this genre and it might enhance the receptiveness of
young people when receiving medical information about substances of abuse.
Method
We performed electronic searches using the Rap Genius Rap Stats database with verified
annotations and text. We constructed two plots showing word frequency on the y-axis against time
on the x-axis from 1988 to 2015. Word frequency was defined as a percentage of the number of hip-
hop songs containing a specific drug term (per year) based on the number of hip-hop songs
recorded/produced (that year). Figure 1 is a plot of standardized medical/pharmacological
terminology (i.e. ecstasy, alcohol, cannabis, crack, cocaine, codeine, promethazine) whereas
Figure 2 uses common streetterminology (e.g. molly, liquor, weed, crack, coke, crunk, sizzurp).
The order in which the key words are plotted is the same in both figures (i.e. molly relates to
ecstasy etc.), except for the streetterms crunk and sizzurp that are defined later. For each drug
we have illustrated the term with the highest frequency. Generic streetterms with multiple
meanings were excluded. For example, heroin is also known as brownas well as dope; these
terms were excluded because the former also represents colourand the latter can also mean
cannabisor exciting and cool. We included crack and cocaine as separate key words
because cocaine in its powder form is mainly snorted, injected or rubbed on the gums whereas
crack-cocaine is mainly smoked.
Results
First, we observed clear disparities between medical/pharmaceuticaland streetterm
frequencies (Figure 1 vs Figure 2). It is not surprising that streetterms are referenced more
frequently in hip-hop lyrics; however, these differences reaffirm the need for practitioners and
Figure 1 Medical/pharmaceuticaldrug terms referenced in rap lyrics
ecstasy, alcohol, cannabis, crack, cocaine, codeine, promethazine
0.05%
0.04%
0.03%
0.02%
0.01%
0%
1990 1995 2000 2005 2010 2015
codeine
genius.com/ rapstats
cocainecrackcannabisalcoholecstasy
promethazine
Rap Word Frequency
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mental health care professionals to be aware of such disparities and to make efforts to learn youth
appropriate drug terminology. Second, we observed very little fluctuation of medical/
pharmaceuticalterm usage across time (excluding crack). In contrast, large fluctuations are
observed amongst streetterms.
Discussion
Not surprisingly, there is a strong disparity between medical/pharmaceuticaland street
terms for substances of abuse amongst hip-hop lyrics. Therefore, we recommend that
practitioners and mental health workers familiarize themselves with youth-focused drug
terminologies. This awareness might enhance dialogues with service users who relate to
hip-hop culture and might improve the translation of medical messages about drug toxicity,
tolerance, vulnerability, and the dangers of mixing drugs, especially while the adolescent brain
is still maturing.
We highlight certain drug term trends and speculate about factors that might have contributed to
these changes, including socio-political and geographical influences. Molly is a purepowdered
or crystallized form of MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine, which is similar to
ecstasy) known for inducing euphoria. The frequency of the streetterm molly has risen sharply
since approximately 2010, when references to molly made by certain hip-hop artists became
increasingly popular, such as: Tyga, Wiz Khalifa, Juicy J, French Montana, Trinidad James,
Danny Brown, etc. This trend was preceded by an initial early-to-mid 2000s localized trend, likely
due to the prominence of artist, Mac Dre, the ecstasy pioneerwho started the thizz hyphy
movementin San Franciscos Bay Area, California, USA. Other artists from the Bay Area hyphy
movementcampaigned for this drug. Notably, hip-hop culture was once predominantly affiliated
with inner-city African-American listeners, but now reaches broader demographics in more
suburban environments (Johnston et al., 2006).
There was a substantial increase in use of street terms crunkand sizzurpin the early 2000s
peaking around mid-2000s, during the emergence and dominance of southern hip-hop across
America. References to these drugs have since declined significantly, but popular culture still
promotes its use somewhat. Crunk(a.k.a. crunk juice, crazy drunk, etc.) is an alcoholic energy
drink typically mixed with red bull, and is similar to wine in alcoholic strength. Crunkwas
popularized by Southern American hip-hop artists, especially Lil Jon. Sizzurp(a.k.a. purple
drank, lean, syrup etc.) is a combination drink typically composed of prescription strength cough
syrup (i.e. promethazine and codeine), mixed with soft drinks, and flavoured candy. It is known for
its euphoric effects, drowsiness and motor impairments. Southern American rappers famous for
its introduction include DJ Screw and Pimp C who are both deceased, with theories linking their
Figure 2 Streetdrug terms referenced in rap lyrics
0.05%
molly, liquor, weed, crack, coke, crunk, sizzurp
0.04%
0.03%
0.02%
0.01%
0% 1990 1995 2000 2005 2010 2015
genius.com/ rapstats
crackweedliquormolly coke crunk sizzur p
Rap Word Frequency
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deaths to these prescription drugs. Another southern rapper, Lil Wayne, experienced multiple
seizures leading to intensive care hospitalization with speculations that sizzurp was a key
contributing factor. Promethazine is a sedating antihistamine and health warnings state that this
drug must be used with caution for patients with epilepsy.
The term weedsurged during hip-hops Golden Age in the early 1990s. It peaked again in the
late 2000s, possibly in relation to socio-political changes (i.e. decriminalization). References to
liquor (i.e. alcohol) remained consistent across time, likely due to this legal substance being
affordable and very accessible. Certain pharmaceutical/prescription drug terms increased in
usage in the early-mid 2000s (data not shown) during Eminems uprising and current trends have
shown increases in references to drugs such as Xanax (e.g. by the artist, Drake cant leave the
crib without some Xanax). The frequencies of such terms are relatively low compared to the drug
key words included in our search.
While many hip-hop artists reflect on actual drug trends in their communities, there are some
important caveats that need to be emphasized and we caution readers not to over-interpret these
figures. It remains entirely debatable whether hip-hop artists are accurately reflecting and
documenting their environment (as street epidemiologists) or whether they are referencing
popular drug trends for other purposes. For example, the popularity of molly in lyrics may partly
reflect attempts to gain popularity and increase record sales rather than reflect the artists
personal drug taking experiences. Furthermore, we are not suggesting that word frequency is
necessarily indicative of drug taking within the hip-hop community and other substances not
mentioned regularly in hip-hop lyrics also need to be included in discussions with young people.
Nonetheless, it is vital that medical knowledge is readily available in an accessible manner.
We also encourage practitioners and mental health care workers to familiarize themselves with
hip-hop artists and lyrics that promote anti-drug messages. Examples include the anti-sizzurp
statement by renowned artist, Nas: I dont lean, no codeine, promethazineand Kendrick Lamar
arguably the best hip-hop artist of the decade who goes as far as suggesting Death to Molly
in his music video that holds a funeral for the drug.
References
Crack in America (1997), Demon Drugs and Social Justice, University of California Press, Craig Reinarman.
Johnston, L.D., OMalley, P.M., Bachman, J.G. and Schulenberg, J.E. (2006), Monitoring the Future National
Results on Adolescent Drug Use: Overview of Key Findings (NIH Publication No. 06-5882), National Institute
on Drug Abuse, Bethesda, MD.
Reinarman, C. and Levine, H.G. (1997), Crack in America: Demons, Drugs and Social Justice, University of
California Press, CA.
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Corresponding author
Dr Becky Inkster can be contacted at: hiphopsych@gmail.com
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Demon Drugs and Social Justice
  • America Crack In
Crack in America (1997), Demon Drugs and Social Justice, University of California Press, Craig Reinarman.
  • C Reinarman
  • H G Levine
Reinarman, C. and Levine, H.G. (1997), Crack in America: Demons, Drugs and Social Justice, University of California Press, CA. Web References http://dangerousminds.net/comments/death_by_sizzurp_dj_screw_and_the_lethal_purple_drank_hip-hop_subculture_of (accessed September 1, 2015).