Born in the Bronx in the 1970s, original hip hop culture was all about being positive and breaking boundaries. It evangelised the idea of making the most out of your lot and believing in the possibility of change.
From Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, who chronicled the problems of life in America, and the more militant Public Enemy, who railed against the racism in American society, to the fun and anthemic feel of hits by Run DMC, hip hop music conveyed a provocative but positive message.
However, the gangsta rap phenomenon of the late 80s and early 90s saw hip hop become a commercially lucrative genre, while also leading it in a more dangerous direction: hip hop, and rap music in general, was becoming closely associated with substance abuse and violence. Indeed, hip hop had begun to show the same symptoms as people suffering from addiction: low self-esteem and a resort to violence and abuse as a coping strategy.
Cleaning up Their Act
In recent years things have started to look up for the genre, and it’s all thanks to some personal stories of recovery.
Rappers such as New York legend DMX and Southern rap veteran Lil Wayne began to talk about their addiction problems. Lil Wayne was also one of the few rappers to talk publicly of the dangers of “zyrup”, a mix of cough syrup and codeine that’s very popular in Southern states like his native Louisiana, describing it as “death in the stomach”.
Another rapper that has spoken of his problem with addiction is the Seattle-born Macklemore. In an interview, he describes how he started abusing alcohol and drugs when aged 13 and how his father encouraged him to go into rehab when he was 25. His addiction was starting to affect his ability to compose rhymes:
“I wanted to get clean, I knew that my highest potential, that the place where I was most spiritual, most rich in terms of my life and my livelihood, in my art and my creativity, was when I was sober.”
With his newfound, recovery-fuelled optimism, Macklemore has brought a breath of fresh air into the genre. His recent music contains no gang culture references and is bringing back the feel-good factor and tongue-in-cheek vibe of old school hip hop.
His biggest hit, Thrift Shop, which is reminiscent of RUN-DMC’s My Adidas, is about the thin line between a love of fashion and becoming obsessed with second-hand clothes stores. He also broke boundaries by being one of the first rappers to speak out against homophobia in the beautiful and touching track Same Love.
Recovery as a Muse
For some rappers, recovery has become their main source of inspiration. Perhaps the best example of this is rap superstar Eminem. Addicted to prescription drugs, he first checked in to rehab in 2005, though it wasn’t until 2007 and a near fatal methadone overdose that Eminem felt ready to tackle his addiction head on.
His 2012 comeback album Recovery sees him talking openly about his addiction. In Not Afraid, the American rapper talks about how his family and his fans helped him turn his back on drugs. The chorus appears to reference the support provided by NA meetings:
“Everybody come take my hand/We’ll walk this road together, through the storm”
Eminem has been sober since 2008 and is now enjoying more success than ever before.
Photo source: Wikimedia Commons
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Page published: May 26, 2015. Page last reviewed and clinically fact-checked November 10, 2021