Berkeley, CA, April 1, 2008 – Rap music has gone from an art form that largely warned against the dangers of substance abuse to one that often glorifies illegal drug use, according to the first systematic social science study of the genre covering nearly two decades. The study is published in the April 2008 issue of Addiction Research & Theory, a peer reviewed scientific journal.
“Positive portrayals of drug use have increased over time, and drug references increased overall,” says study author Denise Herd, Ph.D., Associate Dean of Students, School of Public Health, University of California, Berkeley. “This is an alarming trend, as rap artists are role models for the nation’s youth, especially in urban areas. Many of these young people are already at risk and need to get positive messages from the media.”
Dr. Herd and her team sampled 341 lyrics from the most popular songs in rap between 1979 and 1997. Each song was categorized in terms of its drug mentions, behaviors and contexts, as well as for its attitude towards drug use and consequences. Rap genres were also categorized, and drug-type mentions were coded and analyzed.
The researchers found that songs with references to drugs increased six-fold over this time span. Songs exhibiting positive attitudes toward drugs and the consequences of drug use also rose exponentially. Drug types mentioned changed significantly, and references of using drugs to signify glamour, wealth and sociability increased as well.
“This indicates a shift from cautionary songs, such as those that emphasized the dangers of cocaine and crack, to songs that glorify the use of marijuana and other drugs as part of a desirable hip-hop lifestyle,” says Dr. Herd. “This is alarming because young children are exposed to these messages. I don’t think this is a story we as a society want them to absorb.”
The change in references and drug portrayals was dramatic. Dr. Herd found that, of the 38 most popular songs between 1979 and 1984, only four, or 11%, contained drug references. By the late eighties that number had increased to 19%. The numbers continued to increase, and 69% of rap songs after 1993 mentioned drug use.
While songs early in rap history that mentioned drugs were generally cautionary tales about the dangers of crack, base or powdered cocaine (i.e., “White Lines”), mentions of marijuana and “blunts” (marijuana-stuffed cigars) doubled between 1979 and 1997, with many songs portraying the drugs as glamorous rewards of the hip-hop lifestyle (“The Chronic”).
The latter time period also saw the promotion of cough-medicine abuse in lyrics from Southwestern groups performing an underground rap genre known as “Screw Music.” Although there is limited research on this drug trend, a recent study revealed that 25 percent of at-risk Houston teens reported having tried codeine-laced cough syrup. Those surveyed stated that they tried this musical style in relation to their cough syrup abuse.
“Rap music is like CNN for black teens,” says Dr. Herd. “But much of what is discussed in rap is in code. The kids understand but parents don’t.” She urges parents to monitor their children’s listening, and to educate themselves on the terms being used in popular songs.
An earlier study by Dr. Herd using the same data set concluded that alcohol use is also increasingly glorified in rap. The current study finds that illegal drug and alcohol use are often paired in more recent rap songs. Recent songs with drug references were three times more likely to have themes related to glamour and wealth compared with earlier titles, and seven times more likely to emphasize drug use as recreation or a part of sex. There is also a trend for more recent songs to emphasize drug use as part of a criminal lifestyle.
Anecdotal media accounts suggest that positive drug references in rap music have not abated. Although her systematic evaluation covers songs up until 1997, Dr. Herd says, “Based on these accounts, the glorification of drugs in rap music remains commonplace.” Given the potential impact, she believes that further research is needed in this area, and prevention strategies should be developed. ”The focus on these two decades was to map the transition. Further research will enable us to better understand what happened to set this evolution in motion. This may help us find ways to reverse or counter the trends.”
Dr. Herd’s work on this project was supported by funds from her Innovators Combating Substance Award, which she received in 2001. Innovators Combating Substance Abuse is a national program of The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The program’s mission is two-fold: to recognize individuals who have made noteworthy contributions to what is known about controlling and preventing substance abuse with an award of $300,000 to continue their efforts in addiction control; and to drive innovations in addiction control by extending and facilitating the innovators’ efforts through its National Program Office, which is part of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. For more information, please visit www.InnovatorsAwards.org.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focuses on the pressing health and health care issues facing our country. As the nation's largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to improving the health and health care of all Americans, the Foundation works with a diverse group of organizations and individuals to identify solutions and achieve comprehensive, meaningful and timely change. For more than 35 years the Foundation has brought experience, commitment, and a rigorous, balanced approach to the problems that affect the health and health care of those it serves. When it comes to helping Americans lead healthier lives and get the care they need, the Foundation expects to make a difference in your lifetime. For more information, visit www.rwjf.org.
Addiction Research & Theory