On Drugs

Drugs, more drugs, and rock & roll

The connection between drugs and rock and roll is a comic and tragic cliche. On Drugs gets past the cliches and explores the intersection of drugs and music from classical to hip hop.
Drugs have played a major role in the history of music. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)
Listen to the full episode38:23

'Taking drugs to make music to take drugs to'

Musicians and those listening to their work have long used drugs to trigger creativity, stretch boundaries of experience and intensify performance and listening experiences. In this episode of On Drugs, we explore how drugs have shaped musical movements, performers and audiences.

If you're someone who thinks drugs and music only came together in the age of Woodstock, it's worth going a little deeper into classical music history.

In 1830, in a fit of lovesick despair, Hector Berlioz composed "Symphonie Fantastique." Apart from his lovelorn condition, there's evidence Berlioz was also self-medicating with a form of opium. The result is what American composer Leonard Bernstein called the first psychedelic piece of music. The nearly hour-long symphony became part of a long tradition of drugs inspiring artists to push musical boundaries.

Jazz arrives in a cloud of smoke

​The history of jazz is also deeply entwined with drug culture.

Martin Torgoff has documented that relationship in his book Bop Apocalypse. He quotes Mezz Mezzrow, a prolific musician and drug dealer who wrote at length about the first time he played music under the influence of marijuana.

"All the notes came easing out of my horn like they'd already been made up, greased and stuffed into a bell, so all I had to do was blow a little and send them on their way, one right after the other. Never missing, never behind me, all without an ounce of effort ... With my loaded horn I could take the fist-swinging, evil things in the world and bring them together in perfect harmony, spreading peace and joy and relaxation to all the keyed-up and punchy people everywhere. I began to preach my millenniums on my horn, leading all the sinner on to glory."

Mezzrow was so prolific, a strain of marijuana was named after him, immortalized in Stuff Smith's "You'se a Viper."

Highs and lows

The relationship between artists and drugs, is often romanticized — just another part of the creative process. But when the problems associated with drug use spill out of the music and into communities, the result can be less than romantic.

According to Daniel Davis, a professor of African American studies at Kennedy-King College in Chicago, when crack cocaine first hit the streets in 1984, early references to the substance in hip hop lyrics mainly warned of the dangers associated with it. In Grandmaster Melle Mel's track  "White Lines (Don't Don't Do It)" the lyrics specifically warn against using cocaine.

But Schoolly-D's heavy track "P.S.K. What Does it Mean?" was a turning point, says Davis — marking one of the first instances of music celebrating the crack dealer lifestyle.

In the mid 90s, artists like Jay-Z and T.I. increasingly began referencing crack and the wealth they claimed went along with it, culminating in the creation of Trap music — a term that refers to crack houses.

Davis says that in many of T.I.'s tracks, the rapper's goal was to transport listeners into the infamous trap houses.

"He wanted you to sit and listen to his album and feel like you were in the trap — with guns on the table and crack rocks on the table, and junkies outside and your enemies on the block," said Davis. "He wanted you to feel that."

"When you talk about, yes, selling drugs got me a new car, it got my clothes, it got me jewelry — but selling drugs also made my mother cry. It's also the reason some of my friends are locked up. I'm contributing to the epidemic, destroying my community," he said.

"If you have a balance and you showing both sides, that's more of a respectable, understandable expression of your art."

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