Whether or not he actually did quit in 2009, the culture of which Wayne speaks traces its roots back to Houston and got started long before he was born. “For us it’s not new,” says Ray Andrews, the director of Houston Crackdown, an anti-drug task force run by the Mayor’s Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security. “When I was growing up in Houston, the whole cough syrup thing was happening back then. I don’t want to say my age but I’m talking about the early ’70s. And seemingly it’s had a resurgence of late.”
It goes by many names these days. They call it mud, Texas tea, lean, purple stuff. If you’re in the streets walking around and somebody says ‘Hey man, you need an oil change?’ they’re probably not talking about your car.
—Dr. Ronald Peters
Dr. Ronald Peters at the University of Texas School of Public Health specializes in “inner city kids and the ways that they self-medicate.” He has done extensive research into the cough syrup culture in the South. “Just like hip-hop music started in the Bronx and then diffused throughout the world, codeine-promethazine started here in Houston," he explains. "In the ’70s you had a lot of old-school cats that would use Robitussin with codeine and cut it with beer, and they started selling it. A lot of guys started seeing their uncles and fathers doing that and they looked up to them. Then something new came out, which was codeine-promethazine. That was desired more than the other cough syrups because it had three different substances in it. It had alcohol which is a depressant, it had promethazine which is an antihistamine. And then it had codeine, which is an opiate. So you’re getting three different substances at once. It goes by many names these days. They call it mud, Texas tea, lean, purple stuff. If you’re in the streets walking around and somebody says ‘Hey man, you need an oil change?’ they’re probably not talking about your car.”
Around the same time this new and improved form of cough syrup was hitting the street, an innovative new style of music was on the rise in Houston. Robert Davis, aka DJ Screw, came up with a woozy slowed-down sound that seemed tailor-made to match the cough-syrup buzz. His “chopped and screwed” mixtapes soon became the official soundtrack of H-Town and were inextricably linked with sizzurp. “If you study the phenomenon, DJ Screw promoted this lifestyle,” says Ray Andrews. “He’s no longer with us. I tend to attribute the height of this phenomenon to DJ Screw and chopped and screwed music.”
Dr. Peters is not so quick to blame the music: “Many of us consider Robert Davis to be the King of the South, one of the best DJs in the history of hip-hop. His music was simply telling people what was going on, telling stories of codeine-promethazine. Hip-hop music is an educational instrument that’s helpful to parents who want to know what their kids are being exposed in their particular communities.”
Whether or not rap contributed to the problem, this much is certain: the untimely deaths of DJ Screw, Houston rapper Big Moe, and Pimp C of UGK have all been attributed to cough syrup abuse. Dr. Peters does concede that the rise of Houston rap helped spread the gospel of sizzurp. “Concurrently the focal point of hip-hop music shifted from the east and west coasts to the southern states, so our music and our culture was spread throughout the world. Then you had people in Amsterdam wanting to know what was purple stuff, what was oil, what was lean—and trying to experiment with this particular substance because of its diffusion through the music.”
Any syrup user will tell you, man, your bowels aren't right when you first get on that syrup. I'm almost forty right now. I don't sip at all. I haven't sipped in years.
—OG Ron C
Although Houston may forever be considered the sizzurp mecca, not everybody involved in Texas rap is a cough syrup abuser. OG Ron C, the co-founder of Swisha House Records and ChopNotSlop, an Internet site dedicated to the memory of DJ Screw, does not mess with the stuff. “That was the fastest fad I ever had,” he told David Drake in a 2012 interview. “It probably lasted, with me, a month and a half. You've got to develop an immune system to it. It don't have your bowels right at first. When you first get on that syrup, your bowels are not right. [Laughs.] Any syrup user will tell you, man, your bowels aren't right when you first get on that syrup. I'm almost forty right now. I don't sip at all. I haven't sipped in years. But will I? If somebody say, just have a little sip or something, if I go somewhere with Drake or A$AP Rocky and they want to pour up something, I might have a little sip with them or something like that. But I'm not the person that's gonna be like, Hey man, let's go! Naaah, that's been played out with me.”
On the other hand, New York rapper A$AP Ferg does not smoke marijuana but he enjoys drinking “lean,” a concoction that typically includes fruit punch, soda, hard candy, and prescription cough syrup. “I just fuck with lean because lean makes me feel good,” Ferg recently told Insanul Ahmed. “I’m not an advocate for it, but me personally, that’s what I prefer. People are scared of that shit like it’s like taking heroin or something. Motherfucker I sipped lean one time in Houston and Rocky, you know how he be wearing those Rick Owens, them shits that look like the Jordan 13s? It looked like triangles on his feet. That nigga was jumping on stage to the 'Trilla' beat, rapping, the whole shit what so tripped out I felt like he was a character in Mario or some shit. I was like, this motherfucker is like a very rare character from Mario. It was crazy.”