When the crack epidemic first hit Los Angeles in 1983, it embedded itself into the city’s fabric. Ravaging neighborhoods and taking lives, the crack explosion would eventually move beyond South Central and leave its mark on communities, politics and culture across America for decades to come. In 2007, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported that there were 167,914 admissions to treatment centers due to crack cocaine addiction in the United States alone.
But before the horrors of the drug were as widely known, the day-to-day realities of the crack epidemic were mainly told through the emerging art form that we would come to know as hip-hop. Stories of d-boys, battering rams, junkies, and police brutality went from inner city knowledge to widespread broadcasts over radio waves and on music television, atop pummeling beats and turntable scratches.
On Wednesday, July 5th at 10 p.m., FX will debut its newest original series, Snowfall, from executive producer John Singleton (Boyz N the Hood). Based in South Central Los Angeles, Snowfall portrays the origins of the crack epidemic through a fictionalized account of several characters that aim to get rich or die trying during the drug’s earliest days. In anticipation of the show’s premiere, we teamed up with West Coast hip-hop staple Nipsey Hussle to break down 11 of the best rap songs influenced by the crack epidemic and how they brought the truth into national consciousness.
Watch Nipsey talk about his relationship to the greatest crack-influenced rap songs in the video below and then scroll down to read the messages between the rhymes.
Coming straight out of Compton before N.W.A., Toddy Tee emerged in 1985 as one of the first MCs to introduce street and drug chronicles to hip-hop music. His 1985 cut “Batterram,” was one of the first tracks to address the military grade armored tanks, known as battering rams that were deployed by Daryl Gates and the LAPD in an effort to mow down suspected “rock” houses. Gates was the Chief of the LAPD from 1978 to 1992 and is credited as the father of the SWAT team and militarized police tactics. Tanks would often aggressively plow through innocent civilians’ homes after the police received “bad tips” – a textbook example of racial profiling.
They’d [literally] come [and] knock the walls down off your house. That was before I was breaking laws. I was eating grilled cheese sandwiches at my Granny’s house [back then]. I wasn’t doing anything illegal so I didn’t think they were coming for us. But you would drive down the block and see a house with a big ass hole in the wall ‘cause they just got hit. It’d be taped off, abandoned [and] that was regular.
In 1988, songs about the crack epidemic were confined to album cuts and only available in audio form – that is until Public Enemy brought things to life with their cinematic video for “Night of the Living Baseheads.” The video was a mainstay on Yo! MTV Raps and BET’s Rap City, and it gave America’s suburbia a look into the ugly world of baseheads a.k.a. crack cocaine addicts. With scenes depicting strung out junkies, closet racists, and performance shots set in front of the Audubon Ballroom (where Malcolm X was assassinated), Public Enemy’s video served as the perfect example of Chuck D’s famous quote, “rap is the CNN of the ghetto.” The video also showed that African Americans weren’t the only race affected by cocaine addiction, as PETV’s cameras stormed Wall Street offices to find traders indulging in white lines.
[With Public Enemy], rap became the broadcast [news] for everybody in the area. They were talking about shit we were going through and [they were] on the radio saying it. You felt important [that] your struggle was acknowledged.
By the time N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton album was released in 1988, the crack era was in full swing and had destroyed countless families and lives throughout the United States. “Dopeman,” dropped as a B-side in 1987, showed another side of the crack epidemic – the standpoint of the dealer. As crack use exploded in Southern California, it created new lanes for the disenfranchised to earn a living, and many were making a lot of money if they didn’t get addicted. Cube cautioned, “If you smoke caine you a stupid motherfucker,” and addressed the temptations many dealers faced once they became addicted to their own product. They would also shine a light on other aspects that came with the epidemic; Eazy-E and Cube both mentioned women prostituting themselves for the drug, while N.W.A.-affiliate Krazy D played the role of a disgruntled family member, out for vengeance against the dopeman who turned his sister into a fiend.
When you hear records like “Dopeman” and Eazy-E gets a bad rap for it, it’s ‘cause of the perspective of being on the outside looking in. If you were there every day, you would crack jokes just like this n*****. N****s might come and bust a dance move and say some funny shit to you, and you laugh. It’s not sad. Of course his life is fucked up ‘cause he’s on drugs, [but] we were sad about that five years ago. I think that’s the tone those records were made in.
Nas once famously quipped, “Somehow the rap game reminds me of the crack game.” This was a parallel explored countless times throughout hip-hop history yet West Coast vet Ice-T was the first to use the metaphor on his 1988 track “I’m Your Pusher.” So while real dealers were risking life and limb to turn a profit, Ice-T was moving his music like work and seeing a nice return, the legal way. It was all about who had the best product, and with Ice-T being one of the first artists to have an explicit lyrics warning emblazoned on his album cover, his product began moving quickly. People of all races were using – and they were hooked.
I remember Ice-T’s vibe. Ice went to Crenshaw High School, so he was from the same environment that I grew up in several years later. I think he was reporting on it as honest as he could. He was making songs for his homies. When I listen to him, [I get a vibe like] my Bullets Ain't Got No Name mixtape series. I wasn’t a rapper; I was a gang member who was going to the studio in between gangbanging. I wasn’t talking to fans dancing at the club–I was talking to my homies, I was on gangbanging time. When you listen to Ice-T, I think he was just talking to his homies, talking about what they were doing and what they just did. Whether it was robbing shit, shooting shit, gangbanging, whatever, he was making songs about and for that environment. It was like, “I’m going to make [this so] vivid, you are going to know I had to be there to talk like this.” I remember [when] I was making music like that; you [had to] lead with the authenticity.
While Too $hort is probably best known for his dirty lyrics and risqué sex talk, he also recorded a slew of socially conscious tracks that raised awareness about the ills and struggles facing his community (people tend to conveniently leave this out of his legacy). Six hours north of Los Angeles, the city of Oakland was fighting its own battle with the drug that spread quickly throughout the black community. Seeing the effect firsthand, Too $hort spent a good portion of “The Ghetto” describing the current scenario and ugly truths of the neighborhood he grew up in.
Since day one, Too $hort always had a [big] presence in West Coast music. Too $hort always rapped about the game; the pimp game, the dope game, [really] the street game [at large], that's [what] all his rhymes were about. But not in a bad way. [I’m not using] “all” to diminish the importance of it, but Too $hort’s music was focused, it was centered, it was real singular. That's something that [his] generation struggled with: defining your stance. [Whether] you were a gang member, a hustler, or a pimp; you had to define what part of the underworld you identified with. I don’t think that challenge is our generation’s challenge.
Cube’s lyrics are a direct reference to the gang activity that began taking place in South Central during that period. More specifically, the reds and blues reference the rivalry between the Bloods and the Crips, who were both involved in crack trafficking. While gangs were frequently associated with the burgeoning epidemic, there were also other factors at play. Many laborers lost their income, as there were many factory closures during this time, and turned to selling drugs as a means to support their families or escape their impoverished surroundings. These same people often fought over prices and territory, which also led to a surge in the number of homicides.
I think Cube was the [great] storyteller from the West, in terms of how to narrate an idea and deliver it to be consumed. If you don’t know nothing about the streets, Cube would give you a step-by-step. He was the best at translating the truth and reality so that the world could understand it. I thought that was flawless.
By the early 90s, regional rap scenes began to creep into hip-hop’s mainstream. Hip-hop was bigger than just New York and Los Angeles, and so was crack’s hold. The epidemic knew no borders, and so a duo from Port Arthur, Texas showed the world what it looked like in their neck of the woods. “Pocket Full of Stones” grabbed the world’s attention with a standout appearance and high profile slot on the Menace II Society soundtrack.
I think certain parts of L.A. got that UGK sound. [It’s very regional] where different parts of L.A. [absorbed] different styles of music from different areas. I think down south [they were feeling] UGK, No Limit. As far as the Westside, we were more into Dogg Pound, G-funk.
As the crack epidemic slid into its second decade, many rappers were glorifying the trade as a means to get wealthy quickly, showing very little attention to the negative aspects of the life. On top of that, many of those with a platform were too embarrassed (or “too cool”) to speak on it publicly. 2Pac was not. 2Pac was notoriously outspoken, a trait that was in his bloodline thanks to his mother Afeni, who was a political activist and Black Panther.
Faced with poverty and the pressures of raising a family as a single mother, Afeni turned to crack during Pac’s adolescence. She would eventually kick the habit and live a clean life until she passed away in May of 2016. Instead of hiding his personal issues, 2Pac went in on “Dear Mama,” sharing his family’s story of poverty and drug addiction with the world, giving him one of the most profound songs and starting the trend of songs dedicated to rapper’s mothers.
Everybody in L.A. loved that song. It was what made us love Pac the most. “Dear Mama” was one of the first records that set Pac aside from everybody. When “Dear Mama” came out, it was different, it distinguished him. I remember that line, “And even as a crack fiend, mama / You always was a black queen, mama.” He was leading by example, [acting as a mentor to] a lot of kids whose mamas were on drugs, who lost respect for their mama, and they didn’t know how to feel about it [and were] ashamed. I feel like that was empowering for young kids to hear that, that you love your people regardless, you love your people unconditionally, especially someone like your mom.
By the time 1997 rolled around, drug dealers were being celebrated. Mafioso rap was in full bloom and none brought this to life better than the Black Frank White a.k.a. Biggie Smalls -- a rapper who pulled both aliases from drug dealers and gangster film characters. While a lowly street corner hustler on his 1994 debut, Ready To Die, Biggie had ascended to don status by the time he recorded Life After Death. Instead of bragging about the life of a drug lord, he gave you a step-by-step booklet on his legendary cut “10 Crack Commandments” which featured a chopped Chuck D voice sample, flawlessly executed by DJ Premier.
Truthfully, we was on some West Coast shit. We wasn’t tripping, but we was like, “Pac riding for the West.” When we listened to [East Coast] music, we became fans of all that shit, but [mainly because Pac was] dissing them. You know what I’m saying? Like, Nas is tight bro, Jay’s tight, Mobb Deep is tight.
Late Registration-era Kanye is really his best: young, hungry, and politically conscious. The line in mention references a theory penned by San Jose Mercury News journalist Gary Webb in his controversial 1996 series “Dark Alliance.” In the series, Webb posited that a San Francisco Bay Area drug ring sold cocaine to the Bloods and Crips street gangs of Los Angeles and funneled that money to a CIA run guerilla army in Nicaragua. It was also believed that the drug’s distribution had been to predominately Black communities in hopes that its spread would hinder and help defeat Black Power groups such as the Black Panthers. Growing up in Chicago, this issue was an especially personal one for West whose father was once a member of the Black Panther Party. While many dispute Webb’s findings, the sentiments in Kanye’s verse are still widely referenced in hip-hop and entertainment world.
You don’t have to sell dope to have an opinion. If you ran into a smoker, ran into someone who was on drugs, you can have an opinion without being involved.
Kendrick Lamar is a child of the crack era; the generation of sons and daughters who lost parents, siblings and friends to the drug via jail, death or addiction. In his track “Ronald Reagan Era,” the Compton-born artist pays homage to the nickname of the time period that molded him into the adult he is today. As is the case with most of Kendrick’s work, it needs some decoding, but it appears Kendrick sees the silver spoon children of white America as those who sweep the disenfranchised off their porch – never seeing or thinking about the millions of lives Reaganomics affected. The dealers, the users, those caught in the cross hairs– all swept away as if they never existed. Thankfully, rap music and artists like Kendrick will make sure this bit of history is never erased.
When the crack shit hit, and it was all that Iran scandal and contra and all that, you [now] had people having town hall meetings, [shouting] “you put crack in the community.” It was a confirmation of a suspicion that everyone had, but now [we] had some facts. When your instinct tells you that shit ain’t straight, it ain’t straight.