FEATURE: Paper Priests: Why Drug-Related Deaths in Music Are a Wake-Up Call



Paper Priests:


ALL PHOTOS (unless stated otherwise): Unsplash

Why Drug-Related Deaths in Music Are a Wake-Up Call


I’LL admit...this is not entirely festive or…


especially uplifting but, considering we all have enough Christmas-themed music and food in our bloodstream; I wanted to end my scribbling day by looking at something a bit more sobering and alarming. We have all read about the toll drugs have taken over the years. Drugs and music have had an uncomfortable association for decades. You would have to go back to the start of the twentieth-century to find any music that, in some way, has been clean and drug-free. By that, I mean there have been no artists/genres associated with drug-taking, We all adore and love artists like The Beatles and The Doors but, ever since the 1960s; some of our most-loved and institutionalised musicians have partaken in drug-taking. I am not saying that is a good thing but it is impossible to think of a band like The Beatles without L.S.D., cannabis and, well…who-knows-what coming to mind! So many of the biggest artists from music’s history have at least experimented with drugs. Sure; there are many who have remained clean and free from temptation – unwilling to wander the dirty back-alleys of abuse and recreational activities. Some artists claim drugs have helped unlock a part of their brain that leads to creativity and opens their minds: others claimed (certain drugs) ruined them and cut their musical lives short. In any case: one can never see any validity or excuse for taking drugs or elevating them to the role of Saviour and God.


Whatever an artist can do on drugs they can do clean – the same goes for alcohol, too! Unfortunately, in 2017, we are no closer to getting a grip on the drug situation. Whilst we do not have the flagrant and unabashed promotion of weed and blissed-out free-love (like we saw in the 1960s); that does not mean, behind doors and in bedrooms; artists are creating music without the ‘influence’ of drugs. This year, at least two high-profile musicians have been taken from us because of drugs. Chris Cornell was found hanged following a Soundgarden gig. The official toxicology report found lorazepam (Ativan) and headache medication. It is the former, an anti-anxiety medication, that many felt contributed to Cornell’s death. The coroner found drugs did not contribute to his suicide but his wife, and those close to Cornell, noticed a change in the fifty-two-year-old days before his death. He was slightly off and not himself; Cornell was heard slurring during the band’s final performance – clearly, there were drugs in his system hours before his death. Whether increased anxiety and stress meant he upped his dose; whether he was self-medicating to mask his depression – who can claim his death was free from any drug toxicity?! I know the drugs we are referring to here are prescribed but that brings an issue of anxiety and depression.


IN THIS PHOTO: Chris Cornell/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Lil Peep is another big artist who was claimed this year. He put his first mixtape out in 2015 and, later that year, he released two more – Crybaby and Hellboy. The openness with which Lil Peep connected with fans meant emotional nakedness and frankness were common currency. When I heard about his death – the fact he was barely in his twenties – my first reaction was one of shock and surprise. Such a promising talent seemingly wasted his life and needlessly took a huge gamble. Reading stories, articles and testimony made me think less about personal culpability and looked at a reckless and unregulated industry that let something like this happen. Naturally, we cannot safeguard and protect everyone but I wonder whether certain genres are guilty of glamorising and normalising drugs - and substance abuse., too That may seem naïve to many – Hip-Hop and Rap have often been linked with excessive drug-taking and addiction – but is it something that needs greater scrutiny given the circumstances surrounding Lil Peep's death? I will give more thoughts in a bit but I wanted to bring in an article The Guardian published in November:

This permissiveness has claimed a talented victim in Lil Peep, a New York-born 21-year-old rapper who died this week of a suspected overdose. On his Instagram in the hours leading up to his death, he said he was taking magic mushrooms and “honey” (a kind of super-concentrated version of marijuana, turned into a wax); another picture sees him with an unidentified substance broken into pieces on his tongue. He is also filmed dropping bars of Xanax, the anxiety medication that has become perhaps the most fashionable drug in 2017’s rap scene, into his mouth”.



That use of ‘honey’ gets me thinking about drugs as bling and accessory. Not all rappers and Hip-Hop stars fall into my condemnation but it seems the braggadocio associated with taking the ‘coolest’, latest drugs have led to needless loss of life. Whether it is a way of numbing hidden pains or gaining a twisted degree of acceptance from your peers – it is a madness and fuc*ed mindset that is permeating the bones and rotting the flesh of Hip-Hop. It is neither cool nor wise taking drugs and, whilst I sound like a preaching parent; how many deaths does it take to send a clear signal out?! The thing is: the human cost of drugs makes no bigger impression on those who take drugs as gun-related deaths do to those who own guns. There is a numbness and blind-spot that places the ability to get high above protecting life. That might be over-simplistic but is this a new phenomenon? Are these ‘designer drugs’ something that has come into music over the last few years? The same Guardian article goes into a bit more historical detail:

Around the turn of the century, rappers increasingly started dabbling in designer drugs, too, particularly ecstasy. Eminem recorded two songs from The Slim Shady LP while high on it, while mentor Dr Dre suggested on Bad Intentions, “take an X pill, how the sex feel?” A little-noted detail is that the civic euphoria of Jay-Z’s Empire State of Mind is powered by the drug: “MDMA got you feeling like a champion / The city never sleeps, better slip you an Ambien”. Kanye West sees “a whole party melting like Dali” after dropping molly, rap’s now-favoured name for ecstasy (also namechecked by the likes of TygaRick RossRihanna and, infamously, Miley Cyrus). In their songs at least, there are no comedowns, only the dizzy, meaningless highs...


 …But at the same time, prescription drug addiction took hold of the US – last year, 91 people a day died of opioid overdoses. Thanks to a robust marketing campaign, sales of the opioid painkiller OxyContin grew from $48m (£36.5m) in 1996 to $1.1bn in 2000; in 2012, 282m prescriptions were made for it – a bottle for every American. Its popularity has tailed off slightly, but other prescription drugs – often used recreationally – have joined it, arguably in part thanks to the inadvertent marketing by rappers, who have swapped uppers for downers”.

It seems, in the years since the century’s turn, the need to level and mellow has, in a small way, substitute the desire to get high. That, again, might seem like a binary explanation but I wonder how much of the drug culture revolves around credibility and street-savviness; how much is tied to psychological issues – and whether history and traditions mean drugs are a natural part of an artist’s life. This year, given the death of Lil Peep; a fellow ‘Lil’ was foolhardy enough to rhapsodise drugs. He took to social media and proclaimed Xanax is “the new wave”. Not only was that declaration shared online and seen by thousands of people – it stupidly canonised a drug that is used to treat anxiety. There is nothing wanted or fun when it comes to anxiety. There are young and impressionable people who saw that tweet and would have reacted to it.


If they see a popular rapper highlight the joys of a certain drug/medication; how long before people are trying to procure Xanax and take it without any thought for their wellbeing? There are those who feel dislocated and depressed who need very little encouragement before they embark down the path of drugs – if their favourite artist says it is a good way to love; why would they not follow the same assumption?! It is all well and good judging someone like Lil Pump Lil Peep but they are both very young – Lil Pump is seventeen. Those charged with looking after the artists – the record labels and studio heads – appear more like pimps than priests. They are more concerned, when idiotic tweets come out, whether their star has enough medication and supply to get them by – or get them high. Is there any part of the marketing strategy that places concern on the artist themselves?! Do these men call someone like Lil Pump and ask after their health? It seems like there is little positive enforcement from those around some of the upcoming rappers. Maybe the older kings have avoided the worst effects of drugs and managed to maintain a career in spite of its effects. Artists like Snoop Dog have been boasting about weed-smoking and drug-taking for years. He is not the only one responsible: there is such a casual approach to drugs it seems like it is part of the fabric.


A lot of Rap/Hip-Hop artists live a pure and clean life – not wanting to associate with the worst elements of the genre – but there are too many prominent stars that are projecting a vile culture that needs to be stamped out. There have been other deaths in music related to drugs but, this year, the demise of Lil Peep has been the starkest warning. This sense of belonging and fashion; almost school-like where people are trying to fit into cliques – it is leading astray vulnerable people who need guidance and care rather than drugs and destruction. I realise other genres and artists are caught up with drugs but there is nothing as rampant and visible as the drug culture in Rap. This extend to Hip-Hop and is largely a male-perpetrated ill – few women are seen in the music news after overdosing. That is not a surprise as, along with the glamorisation of drugs, there is that never-ending sexism, materialism and violence. These sides have never gone away and, in many ways, drugs are all part of that persona. To many people; the death of a young rapper is not a big deal but it is worrying to see such a nonchalant attitude come out. How many other deaths will it take before there is greater strictness concerning drugs? We cannot regulate social media every hour of the day but tweets that promote drug-taking should be met with swifter force and punishment.


The year has seen suicides of artists such as Chester Bennington and Chris Cornell: there is so much depression and anxiety in the music industry - that is only being realised when we hear about the deaths – and self-harm – of some big names. Whilst I admit a lot of the drug-taking we see in Hip-Hop/Rap is an attempt to ‘fit in’ and ‘belong’: can we say deaths of artists like Lil Peep were because of that? His overdose followed a rather worrying that, for the final time, brings me back to that Guardian article:

But perhaps these rappers’ ennui goes wider than mere Xanax, and into a numbing effect of our wider culture. One of the most chilling aspects to Lil Peep’s death is that his cries for help were so public, and yet went so unanswered – perhaps as a result of the paradoxically distancing effect of social media. He wrote on Instagram hours before he died: “I need help but not when I have my pills but that’s temporary one day maybe I won’t die young and I’ll be happy?” But we’re inured to see Instagram as performative, not real, and its inherently aspirational vibe along with the sheer visual noise of its scrolling feed drowns out individual torment. That Spotify named its playlist Tear Drop, selling back these artists’ real pain, doesn’t help”.



There are other factors to consider when looking at drug deaths – whether social media is creating greater distance and less empathy – and if artists like Lil Pump need to take greater responsibility and show better judgement when taking to social media. The death of Lil Peep is something that should not only shock the worlds of Hip-Hop and Rap but create a ripple through every genre of music. Those who digest the daily confessions and happenings of stars like Lil Peep probably did see his death coming but the fact he felt medication and drugs were the only options – a lack of societal support and humanity from those around him – exposed a putrid wound that needs cleansing and bandaging. It is clear there needs to be change and a more human, consistent contact between labels and their artists. Dispense with the drugs-are-cool assumption and start treating artists like human beings.


Maybe – because the issue of drugs and fashionability – have been present for decades; it is impossible to make too much headway and effect any real change. The worry is the problem will continue and it does not matter is there are a few deaths every year – so long as artists have a ready supply to get high (or low, as it appears) on. The New Year should see music write a list of resolutions: among them should be greater awareness of drugs in music – not just Rap – and what a toll it is having. It extends to social media and the way it is used; how artists feel they can open up without getting any help…it is troubling to see. I hope something good comes out of the deaths of musicians like Lil Peep and Chris Cornell (although the circumstances of his death are slightly deferent) raises questions and helps lessen a problem that is causing…


A toxic and disturbing stink.