In 1989, scientists concluded that 1988 was the hottest year yet recorded in human history and panicked about the “Greenhouse Effect” that was contributing to global warming. Simultaneously, a different kind of green revolution was beginning to be stoked in hip-hop. During that historically searing spring and summer, a fleet of seminal, groundbreaking albums was released – this included, but was not limited to, Run-D.M.C.’s Tougher Than Leather, EPMD’s Strictly Business, Public Enemy‘s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Eric B. & Rakim‘s Follow the Leader, Salt-n-Pepa’s A Salt With a Deadly Pepa, 2 Live Crew’s Move Somethin’, Ice-T’s Power, and both Eazy-E’s Eazy-Duz-It and N.W.A‘s Straight Outta Compton; that’s a short list limited to just a few months. This slew of albums did more than produce hits, it was possibly the strongest display yet of how hip-hop was influencing fashion, pop culture, politics, and even slang.
The tone of these summer jams ranged from hyper irreverent to hyper political, fit for clubs, cars, or headphone contemplation. But unlike the climate of today’s rap, there’s a topic missing from each of these albums: smoking marijuana. This was a pre-Chronic world where crack was still an epidemic, a world in which Ice-T (who had been one of the first rappers to brand himself as a former hustler) and several others released singles laced with explicitly anti-drug lyrics. Arguably the most important album released that year was Straight Outta Compton, and the project’s third single, though not released until 1989, was “Express Yourself,” a pivot towards abstinence for the otherwise confrontational group.
While the track remains a bit of an outlier in the band’s canon, it’s of note that it contains Dr. Dre rapping the following line: “I still express, yo I don’t smoke weed or sess/ ‘cause it’s not known to give a brother brain damage/ and brain damage on the mic don’t manage nothing.” Of course, Dre would take a 180 on this stance a few years later, but in the context of the band it seems disingenuous, especially with Ice Cube proclaiming “since I was a youth, I smoked weed out,” on the same album.
1980s rap had no problem talking about drinking, especially malt liquor, but any reference to drugs was staunchly against its ethos, exemplified in such tracks as Melle Mel’s “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” from 1983. In that sense, what N.W.A did on Straight Outta Compton was revelatory, as they embraced and exposed all the things that were authentic to their world, acting, as they often said, as “the TV news for the hood,” instead of merely focusing on word play. This was still a world where admittance of recreational drug use was scant, with various lyrical exceptions emerging in places like Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill (“Rolled up a wolly” on “The New Style”) and Run-D.M.C.’s Live at the Funhouse (“Keep a bag of cheeba inside my locker” from “Here We Go”). In looking at releases from the entire year, even albums by the least political artists dedicated at least one track to speaking out on the drug epidemic, even if it was followed by a song glorifying gun violence or using homophobic language – the 1980s and 1990s were confusing, and the still green genre was finding its footing.
Before we explore Generation Ganja, it’s important to note that the 1980s were defined by cocaine, not marijuana. For rich whites it was a flex, and for the inner city impoverished it was a rampant crack epidemic that gripped the public. Smoking weed wasn’t “cool” and was somewhat associated with the Baby Boomers, Cheech and Chong, or hippie-holder-oners emulating the 1960s in the parking lots of Grateful Dead shows – hardly anything seen as progressive or sexy. Marijuana usage was almost retro, and even though people still did it regularly, it wasn’t trendy, and wearing a pot leaf T-shirt was the easiest way to brand yourself a “stoner loser.” In the suburbs during the ‘80s, weed culture was again associated with a dying breed of hippies and denim clad heavy metal kids. The minor exception would be the crossover of reggae culture, primarily linked to the popularity of Bob Marley, but that pollination failed to fully integrate Caribbean culture into the mainstream. In hip-hop circles, reggae and its steady rhythms were foundational, and it was perhaps the most outspoken champion of marijuana in widely accessible non-rock music.
As the decade turned, hip-hop’s popularity and influence on culture was undeniable. The country was exhausted and frustrated by the “Just Say No” sloganeering of the Reagan-era and the music regulation of Tipper Gore and the PMRC. The confluence of these led to the freer feel of the ‘90s, with MTV and its legitimate programming and political coverage becoming a defacto beacon. MTV had shows devoted to hip-hop and coverage with those who had skin in the game. With major radio largely late on the genre, having Yo! MTV Raps air for two hours each weekday was massive. The channel even pioneered the televised “town hall” with then presidential candidate Bill Clinton, which many credit to his popularity with younger voters and his eventual victory. Clinton, who famously “didn’t inhale” when questioned about his marijuana experimentation, ushered in an ease once he took office, taking the country out of the panic of nuclear war. The excess and materialism of the ‘80s was being shaken out; or at least, how it was expressed began to change in both music and culture at large. Hip-hop and alternative music were becoming outwardly political, offering the social commentary that was relegated to punk, hardcore, thrash, and underground rap for most of the ‘80s on a bigger stage. In other words, there was a feeling of more freedom to voice dissent as the Bill Clinton’s era began and, to some degree, optimism.
This leads us to 1991, the year when a West Coast gangster rap group adorned their debut LP with a skull adorned with a pot leaf and changed hip-hop. Cypress Hill’s self-titled debut may not have sold as many copies as Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, which followed a year-plus later, but its unabashed references to smoking and crime cast against a pastiche of rock, funk, soul, Latin rhythms, and reggae samples brought the term “blunted” to the masses. The group’s songs were potent and infectious, with Sen Dog and B-Real’s contrasting voices narrating vignettes of getting stoned, killing people, hating the police, and getting really stoned. In the wake of the record’s success, it seemed like every rapper who had previously felt obligated to bash crack on a record to change course and drop a track which referenced pot. It can be surmised that Dre expertly identified this and parlayed the phenomenon into The Chronic, upping things almost infinitely.
“I think marijuana/weed was always part of the culture, it was just underground,” Sen Dog told Cuepoint. “We just wanted to make it cool again. After the War on Drugs that the Reagans had, when they classified marijuana as a Class One drug, it made it really uncool and made parents really concerned about smoking weed.”
More than their multi-cultural appeal, vernacular, and record sales, Cypress Hill transformed the image of weed smoker from basement stoner to rock star, even making bongs appealing instead of being viewed as dated smoking apparati. In some ways, wearing their skull-leaf shirt was punk; a calling card that you were counterculture. It felt fresh, and that sentiment crept into the burgeoning streetwear movement, specifically in the cultish rise of the Phillies Blunt T-Shirts worn by Beastie Boys and others, designed by graffiti luminaries GFS (Gerb, Futura, Stash) Not From Concentrate. This would expand to the simple yet recognizable pot leaf hats popularized by Dre and the throngs of weed-wear knockoffs. Through MTV and the mixed bill mastery of Perry Farrell’s Lollapalooza festival that featured Cypress Hill and Ice Cube along with other hip-hop acts in the summer of 1992, smoking wasn’t just spreading- it was weaving itself into every emerging American musical subculture and shaking out the tropes of the ‘80s.
Cypress Hill’s debut remains a watershed moment in shifting the perspective of pot, but The Chronic and its six million-plus sales in the United States has effectively made it the Sgt. Pepper’s of stoned hip-hop. In a faux-public domain world of sampling, Dre re-contextualized decades of genre-spanning instrumentation and melody for the album’s 16 tracks and released three charting singles that have become pop staples, and simultaneously launched the career of rap’s most infamous stoner, Snoop Doggy Dogg who he previously introduced on the Deep Cover soundtrack in 1992. An homage to Zig Zag rolling papers, the album’s cover immediately offered Dre’s mission statement and overarching theme of high times, crime, and rampant misogyny. Detractors pointed to all those factors along with latent homophobia throughout the album’s lyrical content in an attempt to disparage the entire genre of hip-hop, but it was difficult to derail Dre and the movement, especially in an era where the notoriously volatile and offensive Guns N’ Roses were arguably the largest rock band in the United States.
There’s more to the acceptance and integration of marijuana in hip-hop than products, slang, and even reform awareness; the seeds sown in the ‘90s introduced a concept and model that would later be monetized in rap. The fact that Cypress Hill had drawn so much attention to a mostly unknown cigar brand by calling out the name so often in their lyrics revealed the power of hip-hop branding. Like Band-Aid, Phillies’ Blunt became the term for smoking weed in a cigar wrapper for years to follow, and Dre’s repeated use of the term “the chronic” did the same for strains. In 1992, Redman released the Pete Rock-produced track “How To Roll a Blunt,” but despite blunts being a mainstay, weed terminology evolved through its usage becoming something of a challenge for rappers to one-up each other. Though he and Dre helped popularize the terms chronic and indo/endo, by 1996, Snoop had phased each out.
“No dirt weed, strictly chronic” was a mantra, but it contained a clear hierarchy that suddenly had everyone wanting to know what the their weed was called, eclipsing terms that actually spoke to the strain such as indica or sativa. Dank, dro, sticky, Mary Jane – throughout the ‘90s terminology would be a moving target, with every rapper aspiring to coin their own winning word or phrase, but Cypress Hill and Dre pioneered the game and owned the patents. It was around this time that Hollywood dug in too with the rebirth of stoner movies, reimagined with new characters, comedians, and rappers, most notably with Half Baked, How High, and the Friday franchise.
Genius went so far as to analyze drug references in hip-hop in 2016, getting so granular that they included several charts and statistics over 30 years. What’s striking is that they reported that “By the mid-1990s, the percentage of rap songs with drug references increased from just four tracks in the early 1980s to 45 percent of all hip-hop tracks.” More than just celebrating its use, the new generation of hip-hop artists were making weed-brags a lyrical and transactional staple. Rather than crafting precautionary tales of fictional drug dealing, Notorious B.I.G., Snoop Dogg, and later JAY-Z drew from their experiences hustling, making it transparent that they were drug dealers before MCs. This became especially pivotal as these artists were dominating the charts and being unabashed about who they were, instead of playing the traditional game.
Of course, despite marijuana culture becoming a fully integrated and normalized part of hip-hop and society at large, it was still a novelty to some. Afroman’s Grammy-nominated single from 2000, “Because I Got High,” served as the best/worst example of when weed goes wrong, becoming an indelible hit in the ensuing decade. Despite the song’s fratty, stoner appeal, it was a little more than a footnote, and it is perhaps more notable for being an early song to circulate on the internet via the Howard Stern Show.
It wasn’t until 2004 that Dre’s Chronic “model,” received a refresh via New York City through The Diplomats’ flamboyant man in pink, Cam’ron, and his 2004 album Purple Haze. Purple Haze’s impact wasn’t as much about changing production styles, deliveries, or concept; instead, Cam’s fourth album was a cocky declaration of excess, wit, anger, and, at times, the absolutely bizarre, all delivered with bombastic Harlem hustle. With beats by The Heatmakerz, Just Blaze, and a rapidly rising Kanye West, the album dipped in and out of genres, often leveraging reggae, rock guitars, anthemic orchestral beats, synths, and celebratory soul. Purple Haze didn’t need to go multi-platinum to have everyone in NYC chanting Dipset, because being “the” artist in New York was never about sales. Established in the streets by a flurry of mixtapes in the early-2000s, The Diplomats, along with G-Unit, not only brought NYC back into focus but resurrected the idea of a collective able to pump out solo albums with equal punch, much like Wu-Tang Clan did in the mid ’90s.
In a sense, The Diplomats became a new iteration of a lifestyle brand. Rather than a group of individuals singularly focused on selling songs, they sold who they were, sometimes in the form of an off-brand liquor briefly named as Sizzurp. Ironically, frequent Cam rival 50 Cent cited purple haze (the strain) on his first album in 2002 during the track “High All the Time.” A testament to Cam’s branding prowess, despite 50 selling over 15 million copies of Get Rich or Die Tryin’, Purple Haze, with it’s sardonic humor and complex word play, is forever Cam’s intellectual property, at least in the realm of rap. Also, in perhaps the greatest manifestation of serendipity, both G-Unit and The Diplomats’ rise coincided with one of the most trafficked times for weed delivery in New York City, ending with a massive $560 an ounce Purple Haze bust in 2006, the same year The Chappelle Show – known for several famous weed references – ceased production as well.
Pivoting from purple, fellow New Yorkers N.O.R.E. and Styles P collaborated in 2007 for “Sour Diesel,” offering an almost anthemic endorsement of Sour, Sour D, or just Diesel. P soured on the straight in 2014 though, releasing a track titled “Sour,” where he claims allegiance to purple haze, using the term to relay people being jealous of his success instead of the strain he previously praised. In what many consider his most productive year, 2008 saw Lil Wayne penning an ode to his favorite strain with “Kush.” With its memorable chorus, “Kush” was a laid-back stand out on a masterpiece that drew attention to the strain and the name. Tha Carter III became the year’s best selling album, and Wayne established himself as the rapper of the moment by supplementing the album with a bevy of ganja-praising mixtapes that were anything but B-Sides and throwaways. While the album escalated Wayne’s sky high status, an uneven and perhaps too transparent documentary titled The Carter was released in 2009, showing Wayne as more of a prolific smoker and lean sipper than musician.
Around this time, before Weezy started to smoke his way to rockstar status with the ill-conceived 2010 rock album Rebirth, Kid Cudi launched a path to stardom with his 2008 viral hit “Day ‘n’ Nite,” which eventually made its way onto his debut studio album the following year. It was noteworthy for its brooding electro minimalism as well as Cudi branding himself a “lonely stoner” – the polar opposite of the bravado associated with weed culture in rap thus far. Cudi may not have been the first rapper to present himself as vulnerable, but entering the industry as an introspective, emo rapper exploring the darker side of the hallucinogenic experience signaled a new lane opening that would later coalesce into its own subgenre. Not for nothing did Kanye West eventually dub him “one of the most influential artists of the last ten years” in 2016.
Though the path isn’t quite linear, this somehow leads us into a world where Waka Flocka Flame is shilling vegan edibles and hosting VIP weed parties in Downtown Los Angeles. Flocka’s introduction of Flockaveli OG in 2016 may not have parlayed his signature strain into a sustainable franchise, but the launch—held at Nexus Lounge and coordinated by the now defunct cannabis marketing agency Green Street was emblematic of weed culture and hip-hop’s transition from unspoken to mainstream to, now, elite. Additionally, legalization isn’t the only factor that fueled the growth of pot in rap and culture. The emergence of vaping has not only made it easier to get away with smoking anywhere, but it has become an actual branding and visual device, with several rappers including A$AP Rocky having signature pens. A minor when he first broke, Lil Pump is credited as not only an epic vaper but also part of the rise of product placement e-cigs, which The Daily Mail claims is 80% of what appears in all rap videos. A parody of Pump’s hit “Gucci Gang” spawned a video with the “vape girl,” juxtaposed in the chorus in 2018, that’s over one million views as of this writing.
While it’s common for rappers such as Waka, Wiz Khalifa, and Snoop to have their own branded strains, it’s still a young market that’s as tricky as it is sticky, as there’s still legal barriers and distribution model flaws. For example, MedMen – one of the most marketed and largest dispensary chains in the United States – has struggled to profit. As reported by the New York Times, the company showed a net loss of $66 million on revenues of $21.5 million and lost $79 million the previous quarter. What is telling is that hip-hop artists – not rock bands – are setting the tone for marketing, and with icons including Snoop, The Game, and B-Real from Cypress Hill taking larger roles in the young industry, it’s fair to project growth and profitability, because (much like streetwear) it’s being operated by the direct market, not corporations.
What’s undeniable is hip-hop’s pivotal role in diversifying and revolutionizing the public’s view, consumption, and acceptance of marijuana as a whole and on a level that no other genre can singularly claim. Of course, none of this was accomplished without all the negative factors that come with the commerce of illegal drugs, but the dramatic and rapid change in laws in just the last ten years – specifically the crucial decriminalization of marijuana that rampantly and unfairly targets African-Americans – is proof of concept that music can reshape the very tenets of society, even if the initial intent is nothing more than an homage to an herb.
“We had weed, the best weed, you know what I’m sayin’?,” Snoop told the LA Weekly in 2012. “That’s why we made The Chronic, because we had the chronic.”