DRUGS AND THE BLACK AMERICAN SONGBOOK

Maxim W. Furek, MA, CADC, ICADC

Heroin (Diacetylmorphine), a semi-synthetic narcotic derived from morphine, was created in 1847 by a chemist at St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School in London and used as a cold medication for children. The drug was marketed as a remedy for tuberculosis, laryngitis, and coughs and later touted as a potential cure for morphine addiction.

Heroin was erroneously thought to be ‘non-addictive’ and in 1906, the American Medical Association recommended that it be used in place of morphine. But in 1913 an outbreak of heroin related admissions around New York and Philadelphia, forewarned of the drugs perils. After World War II, heroin gravitated into the jazz and bebop communities, where musicians Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, and Ray Charles were publicly scandalized because of their addictions.

The connection between heroin and the black community remains a disturbing commentary. The following is a sampling of songs describing the horror of drugs, told through the unique lens of black songwriters and musicians.

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A Baltimore Love Thing (2005). Curtis James Jackson a.k.a. “50 cent,” is recognized as one of the major proponents of early 21st century “gangster” rap. He had it hard coming up and his story became one of rags-to-riches. His single mother worked as a drug dealer and was murdered when Jackson was only eight-years-old. He was raised by his grandparents and, after a life of crime, drugs and violence, began a career as rapper 50 Cent. The rapper compares heroin addiction to a love affair, offering: “We got a love thing where you try to leave me/ But you need me, can’t you see you’re addicted to me?”

Barre Baby (2000). From Houston rapper Big Moe’s initial album, City of Syrup, here is another ode to the culture of sipping “purple drank.” On the tune “Barre Baby” Moe uses a chorus of children singing in determined voices, “Barre baby / the Barre baby,” over disjointed strings that punctuate Moe’s global proclamation, “Now I got the whole world sippin’ drank with me.’” Purple drank, a mixture of Prometh cough syrup and alcohol, is believed to have contributed to Big Moe’s death at age 33.

Beware of the Man (With the Candy in His Hands) (1974). Recorded by The Dramatics on their LP A Dramatic Experience, this was among the anti-drug commentary written and produced by Tony Hester, a drug-addict and close friend of the group. “Beware of the Man (With the Candy in His Hand)” has its “odd monster/pusher sentiment only redeemed by Tony Hester’s great and innovative production,” according to Jason Elias’ All Music Guide.

Cloud Nine (1968). Motown’s in-house songwriters Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield, penned one of their strongest anti-drug social messages, and their song was awarded the Grammy award in 1968. As observed in The Sounds of Social Change, “The Temptations could leave that smooth ‘middle-of-the-road’ Motown route, take off on ‘Cloud Nine,’ that junkies dream, and without even mentioning “drugs” in the lyric, touch every nerve in the ghetto.” Describing that addiction is nothing more than a wicked fantasy, the lyrics shout, “Ain’t got no responsibility/ Cloud nine/ And every man/ Every man is free/ Cloud Nine/ And you’re a million miles from reality.”

Junker’s Blues (1940). Champion Jack Dupree’s song, steeped in the blues tradition, appears to be a family affair. He sings, “My brother used the needle/ and my sister sniffed cocaine/ I don’t use no junk /I’m the nicest boy you’ve ever seen.” The song mentions the notorious Angola prison farm in Louisiana but does not mention the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 that treated heroin addicts as criminals and swiftly incarcerated them.

King Heroin (1972). James Brown was able to transition from song and dance man to political activist. In “King Heroin,” Brown delivered a political speech to his constituents wrapped around social commentary and a strong anti-heroin message. Although lacking in slick metaphors and prose, the song is straight forward and to the point in its realism. In a mix of soulful jazz and politics he says, “I can make a man forsake his country and flag/ make a girl sell her body for a five-dollar bag.” And then later a stark warning, “Mount the steed! / And ride him well/ For the white horse of heroin/ Will ride you to Hell!”

Move That Dope (2014). Crafted by American rapper Future, this slick, well-produced song features guest verses by Pharrell Williams, Pusha T and Casino. Produced by Mike Will Made It and P-Nasty, the drug-dealing song assaults you with a “menacing, mind-bending beat” repeating the mantra “Move that dope. Move that dope.” The dark message is hypnotic and seductive in its realism.

Pusher Man (1972). Introducing himself as “your pusher man,” Curtis Mayfield deals his lyrical dope in this well written, percussion-laden urban scenario. “Two bags, please/ For a generous fee/ Make your world What you want it to be,” he suggests. The song was included in the Superfly soundtrack along with Mayfield compositions “Freddie’s Dead” and “Superfly.”

Signed D.C. (1966). Love, the Los Angeles’ 1960s psychedelic band, spoke from experience. As many as three of the band members, including group leader Arthur Lee, were believed to have been heroin addicts. In “Signed D.C.,” songwriter Lee speaks of the fear and alienation brought on by the drug: “Sometimes I feel so lonely/ My comedown I’m scared to face/ I’ve pierced my skin again; Lord/ No one cares for me.”

Sippin On Some Sizzurp (2000). Three 6 Mafia’s song sold over one million records as it promoted “purple stuff” to a mainstream audience. The song is one of countless tunes that celebrate the culture of sipping “lean,” a concoction made by blending prescription codeine cough syrup with soda. The song refers specifically to Tussionex, a yellow cough syrup that contains 10 mg hydrocodone and 8mg of the antihistamine chloroheniramine.

The Devil is Dope (1973). Detroit’s Dramatics were a soul music group featuring lead singer William “Wee Gee” Howard. This was one of the first anti-drug songs to identify the drug that plagued the inner city. The listener is warned “He’ll make you a slave then/ Put you in your grave/ And close the door.” Scripted by song-writer Tony Hester, The Dramatics also recorded Hester’s “Beware of the Man With the Candy in his Hands.” Jason Elias’ All Music Guide noted that, “1973’s A Dramatic Experience seems to split the difference between a concept album dealing with the evils of drugs and polished, well-arranged ballads and dance tracks.”

The devastating connection between heroin and the black community remains with us today. According to The Washington Post:

Heroin laced with the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl has killed thousands of…drug users in the past several years, driving a largely overlooked urban public-health crisis. Since 2014, the national rate of fatal drug overdoses has increased more than twice as fast among African Americans as among whites, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But an article titled ‘Whites Use More Drugs Than Blacks: The Great Narco Lie’ by Auset Marian Lewis, raises another important perspective, providing us something else to consider. She writes:

According to some studies, whites do significantly more drugs, including crack, than Blacks. Yet, the Black man has been made the face of drug crime. “Using fear of ‘the other’ as a chisel to carve out a hidden political agenda is boilerplate American strategy and nothing new.”

If Lewis is correct, there is much work to be done on additional fronts. Hopefully, songs such as the aforementioned, will promote the culture of recovery, rather than the culture of addiction, and offer a much-needed optimism for those still suffering, regardless of skin color.

Maxim W. Furek has a rich background that includes aspects of psychology, addictions, mental health and music journalism. His book The Death Proclamation of Generation X: A Self-Fulfilling Prophesy of Goth, Grunge and Heroin explores the dark marriage between grunge music and the beginning of the opioid crisis.

Learn more at www.shepptonmyth.com