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Day 17

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VH 1's "Planet Rock"

Hip Hop and the Crack Generation

by BRENT WOODIE

I was born into the crack era.  Although not old enough to take part in the crack game, it did not leave me immune to the detrimental effects the drug had on my community.  Growing up in the Bronx, I was surrounded by crack users, drug sellers and poverty.   I first took notice of the crack epidemic while playing basketball with friends, when I complained of all the crack vials surrounding the concrete.  Eventually, it was not out of the ordinary to see my cousin – and others –strung out on crack or relatives locked up for selling crack.

These stories are nothing new to those living in the 80s and it played as the backdrop to the VH1documentary, “Planet Rock: The Story of Hip-Hop and the Crack Generation,” which aired on Sunday, September, 18.  The VH-1 Roc Doc focused on the impact the crack epidemic had on hip-hop and vice versa.  It was a balanced portrayal of the crack epidemic – without being too educational or dumbed down — that showed the harms of crack, and how the response by the media and elected officials added to the ruin of the inner city.  Narrated by executive producer, Ice-T, Planet Rock also got insights from rappers Snoop Dogg, Raekwon and Rza about the impact crack had on their lives and musical careers.

The documentary skillfully explained the story of how the drug sellers of the 80s were the new stars of the decade.  Their flashy cars and fast money excited the youth, who were bogged down by an economic recession.  With few opportunities to work, people gravitated to the drug trade to earn money.  By adding commentary by former real life drug kingpins, Azie Faison and “Freeway” Ricky Ross, the film became more authentic, explaining how the dealers became the model for up and coming rappers.

As the status of the drug sellers rose, rappers imitated the style and swagger the dealers.  The big gold chain became a status symbol of success.  Designer labels like Gucci, Fendi and Versace were now accessible through tailors like Dapper Dan.  Also, the lyrics of rappers began to reflect the lives of drug dealers.  Thanks to the stories of Snoop and Rza, the documentary was more intriguing — taking us through the thought process of why these artists rapped about the drug trade.

The movie not only talked about the link between crack and hip-hop, Planet Rock dug deeper into the personal stories and larger effects of the drug war, giving a more comprehensive view of what was going on at the time.

It put a spotlight on how the media overstated the crack explosion.  Every news broadcast, newspaper and magazine was saturated with stories of the crack epidemic.  A telling scene is when the film showed a commercial with Clint Eastwood, Nancy Reagan and Pee-Wee Herman — of all people — denouncing drug use.  It all leads to politicians — on both sides of the political spectrum — trying to out do each other in punishing crack dealers and users.  Possession of crack was punished way more harshly than cocaine.  The infamous 100 to 1 crack powder disparity became law and a mere five grams of crack resulted in an automatic five-year prison sentence. However, it took a whopping 500 grams of powder cocaine to trigger that same sentence. As a result, people of color filled up jails and the prison population skyrocketed. Experts on the drug war gave valuable insights into these policies and further exposed the allegations of the C.I.A smuggling drugs into urban communities and how the drug war changed the relationship between police and the community. (See Cockburn and St. Clair’s Whiteout: the CIA, Drugs and the Press.)

At the end of the film, I was reminded of the importance the crack epidemic and hip-hop had on my life.  The film provided great prospective.  Although crack longer dominates inner city life – thanks in part to the negative connotation of being a “crack head” – drugs are still around.  I’m fortunate to have survived in such a troubled time, but today is no different.  We are in the same predicament in 2011.  We are in a recession.   The drug game is still in effect.  Plus, rappers are still in the business of glorifying the drug dealer lifestyle.

VH-1 should be commended for highlighting the impact the drug trade had on Hip-Hop.  If you are a fan of hip-hop you should definitely try and see“Planet Rock: The Story of Hip-Hop and the Crack Generation.”

Brent Woodie is a freelance journalist and an intern with the Drug Policy Alliance’s media department (www.drugpolicy.org).