As Nas rhymed on the recent song “Triple Beam Dreams”: “I would be Ivy League if America played fair.” Instead, he’s trapped in a virtual prison. “New York is like an island, a big Riker’s Island,” he says in another recent song, “The Don.”
In the early 1980s, most of the socially conscious hiphop records mentioned drugs as one of the many problems affecting black Americans, not the central one. When they did touch on drugs, they were almost always depicted negatively; doing drugs was a character failing, and the songs usually portrayed the speaker as a bystander trapped in a ghetto, observing it, not participating in its ills. They were like griots, storytellers. Take Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message,” which begins: “Broken glass everywhere!” — a mirroring James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling’s “broken window theory,” which holds that a building with broken windows invites serious crime because it signals neglect. The song offers a litany of societal ills, with drugs being just one of them.
Run-DMC’s 1983 hit “It’s Like That” follows that pattern, discussing inner-city troubles from a bystander’s perspective and focusing on economic woes, not drugs. “Unemployment at a record high,” Run begins, and he and DMC go on to rhyme about dropouts, homelessness and street violence, never overtly mentioning drugs.
Grandmaster Melle Mel’s “White Lines” from 1983 is one of the few early hip-hop songs to deal directly with drugs. Mel focuses on cocaine rather than crack, which was not yet a major problem in American cities. Mel speaks in the first person and breaks the bystander norm, taking on the role of a user, although ultimately as an artistic device rather than truly implicating himself as later MCs would. And he uses the song to implore listeners to avoid cocaine — unlike so many future MCs who would try to make selling and using drugs look sexy.
Hip-hop’s journey between those two mind-sets happened as the unemployment rate among black men soared to twice the level among whites, passing 21 percent in 1983. A year later, the FBI’s antidrug funding increased more than tenfold — just in time for the start of the crack epidemic in 1985. (That’s right, the war on drugs was declared before the crack epidemic began.) The battle helped bolster Reagan’s tough-guy image; he was a valiant hero fighting wild black criminals. “Blame Reagan for makin’ me into a monster,” Jay-Z rhymed on the 2007 song “Blue Magic.” “Blame Oliver North and Iran-contra/ I ran contraband that they sponsored.”