New study finds glamorization of drugs in rap music jumped dramatically over 2 decades

April 1, 2008

A new study finds that references to illegal drug use in rap music jumped sixfold in the two decades since 1979, the year Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" hit the charts and introduced to a mainstream audience a music genre born from inner-city America.

Moreover, illegal drug use became increasingly linked during this time period to wealth, glamour and social standing, marking a significant change from earlier years, when rap music was more likely to have depicted the dangers and negative consequences of drug abuse, according to the study authored by Denise Herd, associate professor in the division of Community Health and Human Development at the University of California, Berkeley's School of Public Health.

"This trajectory in rap music raises a number of red flags," said Herd, who also is associate dean for student affairs at the School of Public Health. "Rap music is especially appealing to young people, many of whom look up to rappers as role models. As a public health researcher, and as a parent of a 7-year-old, I'm concerned about the impact that long-term exposure to this music has on its listeners."

The new study, published in the April issue of the peer-reviewed journal Addiction Research & Theory, is the first scientific survey to analyze the content of rap music over two decades.

Herd and her team examined the lyrics of 341 of the most popular rap songs - as determined by Billboard and Gavin music rating services - from 1979 to 1997. Researchers coded songs for drug mentions, behaviors and contexts surrounding the mention of drugs, as well as the attitudes and consequences stemming from illicit drug use.

Of the 38 most popular rap songs between 1979 and 1984, only four, or 11 percent, contained drug references. In the early 1990s, the percentage of rap songs with drug references experienced a sharp jump to 45 percent, and steadily increased to 69 percent of the 125 top rap songs between 1994 and 1997.

The study found that drug references in early rap songs - "White Lines" by Grandmaster Flash, "Crack Monster" by Kool Moe Dee and "Night of the Living Baseheads" by Public Enemy - often depicted the destructiveness of cocaine and, particularly, of crack, its freebase form.

This cautionary tone about cocaine gave way to rap lyrics in the early 1990s that increasingly portrayed marijuana use as a positive activity. The UC Berkeley study documented a threefold increase between 1979 and 1997 in rap songs' mentions of marijuana and marijuana-stuffed cigars, or "blunts," and noted marijuana's association in those songs with creativity, wealth and status.

Herd noted that the study puts hard numbers to a trend that has long been noted anecdotally among observers of the music industry. She referenced a 1996 article in Vibe, a magazine that covers hip hop culture, highlighting the success of Cypress Hill's 1991 debut album celebrating marijuana use as a turning point in rap music's popularization of the drug. The Vibe article noted that other rap artists, including Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, soon followed suit with their own references to marijuana as an appealing drug to use.

Herd said that after rap albums celebrating marijuana use started going platinum in the early 1990s, drug references became increasingly common in rap music, as if they were a key ingredient to success.

"There is a common perception that drugs and rap music are inextricably linked, but that wasn't always the case," said Herd. "The fact that rap music didn't always have those drug references is compelling because it shows that this music didn't depend on that as an art form. The direction of the music seemed to change with the music's growing commercial success."

Herd's analysis stopped at 1997, but she noted that a recent study suggests the continued prevalence of substance abuse references in contemporary rap music. That study, led by Dr. Brian Primack from the University of Pittsburgh's School of Medicine, found that of Billboard's 279 most popular songs in 2005, a staggering 77 percent of the 62 rap songs portrayed substance use, often in the context of peer pressure, wealth and sex. He also found that only four of the 279 songs analyzed contained an "anti-use" message, and none of them was in the rap category.

Notably, other music genres had far lower rates of substance abuse references. Country music came in a distant second to rap with 36 percent of songs referencing substance abuse.

Herd noted that the image that rap artists portray of drug use in the African American community distorts reality. "Young black people actually have similar or lower rates of drug and alcohol abuse compared with their white peers, but you wouldn't guess that based upon the lyrics in rap music," said Herd.

The reasons behind rap music's shift in drug references are complex, said Herd. They may reflect the nuanced interplay of changes in the drug use habits of rappers and listeners - particularly the growing popularity of marijuana during the study period - greater commercialization of rap music, and the rise of gangsta rap and other rap music genres. It could also be a reflection of social rebellion stemming from the disproportionate punishment of African Americans in the U.S. government's War on Drugs.

"Rap is inherently powerful," said Herd. "It has experienced phenomenal growth in many sectors of society in this country and even abroad. Rap artists have become key role models and trendsetters, and their music serves as the CNN for our nation's young people by providing them with a way to stay current. But we have to ask ourselves whether there are other kinds of messages rap music could deliver. We need to better understand how this trend got started so we can find effective ways to counter it."

Herd did not study whether rap music's glamorization of illegal drugs actually led to increased drug abuse, but the debate about the potentially negative influence on young people of various media, from movies to music to video games, that depict drug and alcohol use in a positive light is certainly not new.

Herd's paper cited other studies linking certain movies and music videos to the onset of smoking, alcohol and drug use. One study specifically linked greater exposure to rap music videos to a greater risk of alcohol and drug use among adolescents over the next 12 months, while another survey associated the use of codeine-laced cough syrup among some at-risk Houston teens with an emerging form of rap music called "screw music," in which cough medicine abuse was promoted.

"Most adults have very little idea about what's going on in music these days," said Herd. "This new study reinforces the need for adults to pay closer attention to the music children are listening to."

This study is part of a larger research project analyzing changes in rap music funded by the Innovators Combating Substance Abuse program of The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation's largest philanthropic organization devoted exclusively to health care.

Through this project, Herd published an earlier study that found a significant increase in references to alcohol in rap music over the years, and she is now analyzing rap music's depiction of violence.

Source: University of California - Berkeley

Explore further: Study of US popular music links luxury alcohol brands with degrading sex

Related Stories

Study of US popular music links luxury alcohol brands with degrading sex

October 20, 2011
In a study published online today in the international journal Addiction, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh reported that the average US adolescent is heavily exposed to alcohol brand references in popular music.

Humans are wired for prejudice but that doesn't have to be the end of the story

February 4, 2015
Humans are highly social creatures. Our brains have evolved to allow us to survive and thrive in complex social environments. Accordingly, the behaviors and emotions that help us navigate our social sphere are entrenched ...

New intervention helps teens deal with their emotions through music

September 19, 2012
(Medical Xpress)—Using music to engage with and educate young people about their emotions, and how to tolerate and regulate their strong emotional states, is the focus of a new intervention developed by University of Queensland ...

A 'yes' to one drug could become 'yes' for other drugs

October 8, 2013
High school seniors who frown upon the use of drugs are most likely to be female, nonsmokers or hold strong religious beliefs, according to a study by Joseph Palamar of New York University. Palamar examines how teenagers' ...

Energy drinks linked to substance use in musicians, study shows

June 16, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- Frequent use of energy drinks is associated with binge drinking, alcohol-related social problems and misuse of prescription drugs among musicians, according to researchers at the University at Buffalo's ...

Spotify readies to launch video

January 25, 2016
Spotify said Monday it will imminently launch video content as the music streaming leader seeks ways to build an audience in the increasingly competitive sector.

Recommended for you

Drug therapy from lethal bacteria could reduce kidney transplant rejection

August 3, 2017
An experimental treatment derived from a potentially deadly microorganism may provide lifesaving help for kidney transplant patients, according to an international study led by investigators at Cedars-Sinai.

Exploring the potential of human echolocation

June 25, 2017
People who are visually impaired will often use a cane to feel out their surroundings. With training and practice, people can learn to use the pitch, loudness and timbre of echoes from the cane or other sounds to navigate ...

Team eradicates hepatitis C in 10 patients following lifesaving transplants from infected donors

April 30, 2017
Ten patients at Penn Medicine have been cured of the Hepatitis C virus (HCV) following lifesaving kidney transplants from deceased donors who were infected with the disease. The findings point to new strategies for increasing ...

'bench to bedside to bench': Scientists call for closer basic-clinical collaborations

March 24, 2017
In the era of genome sequencing, it's time to update the old "bench-to-bedside" shorthand for how basic research discoveries inform clinical practice, researchers from The Jackson Laboratory (JAX), National Human Genome Research ...

The ethics of tracking athletes' biometric data

January 18, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—Whether it is a FitBit or a heart rate monitor, biometric technologies have become household devices. Professional sports leagues use some of the most technologically advanced biodata tracking systems to ...

Financial ties between researchers and drug industry linked to positive trial results

January 18, 2017
Financial ties between researchers and companies that make the drugs they are studying are independently associated with positive trial results, suggesting bias in the evidence base, concludes a study published by The BMJ ...

3 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

amaranth
not rated yet Apr 01, 2008
It seems kind of ironic that they tracked musical references to drug use, since those probably peaked during the late 1960s. If they tracked trends in misogynistic comments or obscenities, that might be more interesting.
earls
1 / 5 (1) Apr 02, 2008
What's funny is that even though a majority of rap artists may glamorize the use of drugs, few actually take part in the behavior themselves. Take 50 Cent for example... He neither does drugs nor drinks alcohol; instead promotes vitamin water. Yet produces songs like "High All The Time," although it seems his drug references have fallen off sharply with the later albums. He still promotes horrendous violence, yet you'll never see him take part in any that would jeopardize his wealth and status. A lot of that influence is from Eminem, who at one time may have indulged himself in illegal substances, but has been clean now for many years and is an upstanding father figure. Ludacris is another one who constantly raps about weed, yet most likely doesn't partake either.

The majority of "artists" who promote drug use are up and coming that are looking for a sure-fire way to connect with their younger peers, many of whom have turned to substance abuse and partying instead of positive and productive activities (like making music). Then again, who can blame them as we sink further into a recession and the future looks bleaker by the day. We can't even form a viable and united front to the energy crisis, and as the population explodes and no one has any money or energy, what else is there to do? Get high and escape reality.
COCO
not rated yet Apr 02, 2008
still going MSM with the booga-booga of "illegal" drugs - as long as booze and fags keep our economy moving forward with taxes we can't be so hypocritical - Legalize Reality!!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.