Text by Adam Lehrer
Just as musicians often “take drugs to make music to take drugs to,” as Spacemen 3 so eloquently described the phenomenon back in the ‘80s, musicians also “sell drugs to afford to make music to talk about selling drugs.” Bill Hicks one told an audience that they should burn their records if they disavow drug use because drugs were the primary inspirations behind those albums. By that reasoning, we should also throw out our records if we disavow drug dealing. As we all know, when we are passionately pursuing a life of art we have to make compromises along the way. The less savvy of us will either work as waiters or marketers or cop money from mommy or daddy. Other artists have the cunning required to make a serious living in the trade of illicit substances. Considering the close proximity to drugs that musicians have, why not make some money out of it? Those artists have often gone on to share their experiences hustling the black market.
Commemorating the second season of Narcos (out today on Netflix), a show that tells the story of the most financially successful drugs trader in history Pablo Escobar, we are sharing the songs by the artists that made some scratch slinging drugs before they went on to stardom (or at least were found themselves inspired by a substance pushing acquaintance).
Bob Dylan, Mr. Tambourine Man, Bringing it all Back Home (1965)
While Dylan has vehemently denied that Mr. Tambourine Man is certainly not about drugs or any drug dealer, has he ever given a journalist one straight answer about one fucking thing that he’s written? No. With lines like, “Take me on a trip upon your magc swirling ship,” there has never been doubt in my mind that the tambourine man in question is most certainly Dylan’s favorite dealer. While other critics have stated that the tambourine man could be a metaphor for Dylan’s internal muse, I’m opting for the explanation that the tambourine man was selling Dylan his external muse. The song came out in 1965. Dylan was high. Very high.
The Velvet Underground, Waiting for my Man, The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967)
In Waiting for my Man, Lou Reed tells an all-too-familiar story: his dealer is dicking him around. No matter what your poison; pot, pills, MDMA, dope, whatever; we’ve all been there. You call him back, he says, “Five minutes.” You text him so to not scare him off, and he says, “Almost there.” Finally, a couple hours later, he arrives. He is your captor and your savior. For all his troubles, you throw him 100 bucks. Reed’s story is the same as anyone’s, except he didn’t have a cell phone to annoy said dealer with or NYC pot delivery service, for that matter.
Curtis Mayfield, Pusher Man, Superfly OST (1972)
After establishing himself as a gifted music producer and one of New York soul music’s proudest sons on previous album Roots, the former member of The Impressions looked directly at the streets he came from to craft the soundtrack to the 1972 blaxploitation classic Supafly. On the soundtrack’s second track, Mayfield directly confronts the film’s portrayal of the dealer as sympathetic anti-hero by making his pusher a machiavellian sociopath, exploiting humans for his own financial gain. But not with out sex appeal, it is funk after all.
Boogie Down Productions, Love’s Gonna Get-cha, Edutainment (1990)
Ronald Reagan accomplished many things during his presidency: creating the War on Drugs (which has been going great, haven’t you heard?), restoring cranky old white man conservative values, kick-starting the dismantling of FDR’s New Deal, and totally demonizing black urban city males. The fact that KRS-one was able to humanize a drug dealer in the Boogie Down Productions song Love’s Gonna Get-cha during this era speaks to the MC’s poetic reach. While it was easier for White America to view the inner-city dealer as a monster that needs to be locked up (it’s always easier to be reductive, isn’t it), KRS details the harsh economic and sociological realities that lead an otherwise innocent youth down the route of drugs and violence. KRS introduces the listener to his over-worked mom, his pregnant sister, and his bother with whom he shares “three pairs of pants.” In his world, he has one choice. We have to see the criminal as the human being he is.
Geto Boyz, Mind Playing Tricks On Me, We Can’t Be Stopped (1992)
After parents had just moved on from the shock of their kids’ NWA and Guns n’ Roses records, Geto Boyz elevated the shock factor to the umpteenth degree. Over the course of their career, the seminal Houston rap trio went way beyond tales of drug crime: serial murder, necrophillia, and psychosis were all topics touched upon by the group’s rappers Bushwick Bill and Scarface. The group was misunderstood at times and could prove surprisingly thoughtful and reflective, case in point the 1992 track We Can’t Be Stopped. The song finds Bill and Scarface touching upon the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder they are suffering as a result of years spent living within the world of drugs and violence. I'm paranoid, sleeping with my finger on the trigger, My mother's always stressing I ain't living right, But I ain't going out without a fight,” raps Scarface.
The World is Yours, Illmatic (1994)
Few MCs have ever approached drugs, violence and poverty with such depth and emotional clarity as Nas did on his 1994 debut Illmatic. Growing up in the Queensbridge housing projects, Nas witnessed the negative impact the drug trade was having on his own community, and turned his experience into one of Hip-hop’s greatest feats of lyrical storytelling (he was only 19 at the time, and Nas was never able to match the artistic heights of that first record). On The World is Yours, Nas references Brian De Palma’s Scarface and compares that fictional dealer to Howard “Pappy” Mason, a dealer that netted $200,000 a week selling drugs to the residents of Queensbridge in the ‘80s. Unlike Pappy, Nas sees a clear way out of the life in his pen and paper.
Jay-Z, Friend or Foe, Reasonable Doubt (1996) Nas
A friend of mine’s little cousin expressed to me her belief that “Jay-Z was corny.” At first astonished, I had to remind myself that if you had no knowledge of Jay-Z’s career outside the last 10 years, that notion would appear to be true (the flip-flops, the atrocities of Magna Carter Holy Grail, the cheating on America’s favorite woman). But of course, Hip-hop heads remember Jigga’s origins. What made Jay’s debut, Reasonable Doubt, so powerful was that he neither celebrated or condemned drug dealing. Writing in the first person, he presented himself (honestly) as a man that did what he had to do to make it. He is not ashamed of his actions, and he isn’t proud of them either. On album stand out Friend or Foe, Jay tells a dealer associate of his that if the money isn’t right, he’ll have to take violent actions. “You're twitchin, don't do that, you makin me nervous, My crew, well, they do pack, them niggas is murderous,” he raps. Jay-Z’s defining characteristic was unbridled ambition, and that ambition has taken him far.
Raekwon featuring Ghostface Killah and U-God, Knuckleheadz, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (1995)
While Hip-hop had been telling the stories or the urban drug trade for a long time, Wu Tang Clansmen Raekwon and Ghostface Killah may have been the genre’s first artists to craft a full-length sonic crime film. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx was centered around the story of two men (Ghost and Rae) looking for one last score before leaving the life for good. In the process, the rappers created a new urban slang that was beholden as much to The Supreme Alphabet of the Nation of Islam as it was to the drug slang of the New York streets. Hip-hop heads have been obsessed with decoding the language ever seen. The album’s first track, Knuckleheads, finds Ghost and Rae planning a robbery with a third man, U-God. Once the heist is pulled off, U-God is murdered for ostensibly speaking to the police. The rest of the album finds Ghost and Rae no closer to getting out of the drug trade, instead using the new found wealth to go deeper and deeper and deeper.
The Notorious BIG, The 10 Crack Commandments, Ready to Die (1997)
Biggie Smalls remains to this day one of music’s most vivid storytellers, and the fact that his 1997 “how to sell crack” guide was released after his death was particularly telling. Biggie’s persona was so steeped in his criminal past that his massive success could never fully lift him out of it. As Biggie tells us to never let them know our next move, to never keep no weight on us, and to never trust no one, a sad truth dawns upon the listener: Biggie’s survival guide kept him alive through his pusher days, but no such guide existed that could explain to Biggie how to survive the perils of fame.
Ghostface Killah, Shakey Dog, Fishscale (2007)
The most eternally fascinating character in The Wire was the drug dealer robbing stick up kid Omar Little. Unlike the cops, the politicians, and the dealers, Omar existed freely outside the shackles of any institution. Through ferocity and charisma, he took what he needed and answered to no one. That’s the persona that Ghostface takes on in the opening track of his 2007 album Fishscale. On Shakey Dog, Ghostface, in hyper-vivid detail, documents the before and during of a Cuban drug lord stick-up. In a particularly cinematic passage, Ghostface relentlessly barks, “Off came the latch, Frank pushed me into the door, The door flew open, dude had his mouth open, Frozen, stood still with his heat bulgin’,Told him Freeze! lay the fuck down and enjoy the moment, Frank snatched his gat, slapped him, axed him,Where’s the cash, coke and the crack?” For being one of the wordiest rappers in history, Ghostface Kill still does not mince words.