Cannabis and hip hop have had a public love affair spanning over four decades. It’s no secret marijuana’s been a muse for some of the most influential artists in the genre. Many hit tracks produced throughout the years openly express an affinity for the cannabis plant, and some big names in the rap game have even gone on to start their own lines of legal cannabis products. But how did it all start?
The Birth Of Hip Hop
Hip hop’s origin story begins during the mid-’70s in one of America’s most iconic metropolitan areas—New York City.
No other place in the world could give birth to a genre like hip hop. New York is a city of immigrants. It’s a place that transcends the salad bowl vs. melting pot binary paradigm typically given to describe diversity in the United States. Expats from across the globe flock to New York City, bringing their cultures with them—their food, their faith, and of course, their music. These cultures aren’t merely assimilated into the American melting pot, but they don’t remain wholly unchanged either.
With its population of over 8 million residents, New York is an epicenter of cultural exchange, a place where the near-constant exposure to different lifestyles begins to shape one’s own. It’s why the city’s culinary scene is unparalleled. Take the infamous New York Slice, for example. This greasy cheese-laden street food delicacy bears little resemblance to the brick-oven Neapolitan pizzas found in Campania, Italy. The New York Slice is pizza that’s no longer Italian, but it’s not quite right to call it American either. It’s uniquely New York.
Hip Hop was founded in much the same way. Large swaths of the city’s most disenfranchised residents, the impoverished Caribbean immigrants, African-Americans, and Latinos, were relegated to high-rise housing projects in the South Bronx. Even though the borough was in the midst of one of the most extreme economic declines in American history, the residents still found reasons to celebrate, hosting elaborate block parties where DJs would spin funk, disco, and soul records all day long, the music blaring from an electric rat king of giant outdoor speakers, all while the neighborhood got together, ate delicious food, and undoubtedly enjoyed cannabis. Soon, Caribbean-born DJs like DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash would change music forever by incorporating the techniques found in dub music to isolate percussive breaks, creating an entirely new genre of music—hip hop.
The Rise Of The Emcee
Today, hip hop and rapping are inseparable, but early hip hop didn’t have much in the way of lyrical content. Instead, performers known as emcees told jokes between the songs and kept the crowd hyped and dancing. Eventually, emcees embraced toasting, a practice originating in Caribbean music like calypso, reggae, and dancehall, which involves speaking over the music with an often monotone melody.
However, in true New York fashion, emcees put their own spin on the art by incorporating African-American wordplay like signifyin’ and improvisational jazz poetry. This cultural exchange gives birth to rap—another New York Slice.
Originally, DJs were the main draw of hip hop, but sharp-tongued and quick-witted emcees like Grandmaster Caz and Sha-Rock quickly stole the show. The emphasis on rapping set the stage for chart-topping artists like the rock-influenced group Run DMC as well as influential wordsmiths like Rakim.
Gangsta Rap Brings Hip Hop To The Public’s Attention
Hip hop’s primordial roots may take hold in New York City, but it wouldn’t take long for the art form to spread across the country and eventually the world. By the ’80s, hip hop’s manifest destiny had been completed, landing successfully on the West Coast, leaving a trail of artists and styles in its wake.
Despite its expansion, hip hop remained a genre that was primarily made by members of marginalized communities for those same marginalized communities. Rappers wrote about their lived experiences, subjects like intergenerational poverty or police brutality often ripe for lyrical content. West Coast rappers like Ice T emphasized these themes, creating the sub-genre known as Gangsta Rap.
West Coast Gangsta Rap’s violent imagery and controversial lyrics grabbed white America’s attention. Songs like Fuck Tha Police By N.W.A garnered national media coverage (and even a letter of condemnation from the Assistant Director of the FBI) for their extreme portrayals of inner-city life.
It’s during the Gangsta Rap Era where we first begin to see explicit references to drugs in hip hop. However, in the ‘80s, cocaine was king, and marijuana an almost antiquated relic of the hippie movement. Gangsta Rappers primarily penned rhymes about dealing crack and the drug dealer lifestyle, but not so much about consuming drugs themselves.
This all changes with one seminal album—Former N.W.A member Dr. Dre’s debut solo record, The Chronic. The ‘92 album, its cover itself a reference to Zig-Zag’s iconic Le Zouave, was rich with references to cannabis. The album also included several appearances by hip hop’s biggest weed enthusiast, Snoop Dogg.
Dre’s own label, Death Row Records, would go on to produce Snoop Dogg’s debut album Doggystyle, where the rapper sang many pro-cannabis lines with his signature smooth vocal delivery. Doggystyle was released in ‘93, the same year fellow Californians and Marijuana advocates Cypress Hill released their critically acclaimed record Black Sunday, which included cannabis-themed songs like “Hits from the Bong” and the title track “I Wanna Get High.”
With Nixon’s War on Drugs still in full swing, cannabis use became another way for rappers to subvert the establishment.
The Bling Era Embraces Cannabis Wholeheartedly
While Gangsta Rap enjoyed more commercial success than previous iterations of the genre, it still hadn’t crossed into the realm of mainstream music. But, by the mid-’90s, artists like Sean Combs and Lil Wayne brought hip hop to larger audiences with the use of R&B hooks and bigger production value, ushering in the Bling Era.
One could describe the Bling Era with one word—opulence. Much of the politics and social commentary that had originally informed the genre was replaced with obsessive one-upping. The hip hop tracks that received the most commercial air time mostly centered around the size of one’s SUV, the cost of their chain.
During the bling era, cannabis and other drugs functioned as status symbols. Having mass quantities of marijuana, or the “sea of codeine” mentioned in Lil Wayne’s “I Feel Like Dying,” was just another way to stunt on other rappers. Take 50 Cent’s “High all the Time” from his 2003 release Get Rich Or Die Tryin’, for example. In it, Curtis Jackson raps: “Every time I roll up, n****s holla, ‘roll up’ / Then I tell 'em hold up, you ain't gettin' money / You ain't smoking in my Benzo, 20 inch Lorenzos.”
Modern Hip Hop And Cannabis
Though the excesses of the bling era have been somewhat curtailed in Modern hip hop, the love of cannabis has not. Modern trap artists like Chief Keef and the now-deceased Juice WRLD haven’t shied away from referencing their fondness of marijuana in their song lyrics. As conventional society continues to see cannabis as less taboo, it’s likely that marijuana references in hip hop will continue indefinitely.
Many pot-loving rappers of the past have funneled the money they made in the hip hop game into legal cannabis ventures. Snoop Dogg’s got a line of eight cannabis cultivars called LeafsBySnoop, Jay-Z sells high-dollar artisanal cannabis to ballers with money to burn, and The Game curates bud for a cultivation operation in California under the name Trees By Game.
As more states legalize recreational cannabis, even more rappers may start transitioning assets into marijuana ventures. Let us know on Twitter which hip hop artists you think would make great cannabis CEOs.