The Link between Drugs and Music

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The Link between Drugs and Music

Music has always been a way to express one’s social voice. Changes in the society have caused changes in music genres,because many vital issues of each generation find their expression in song lyrics and melodies. As far as events in the world and people’s attitude toward it influence the music, the greatest change happened in the 1960s. It was connected to more than just civil rights. The use of illicit drugs characterized the 60s. People faced a real drug boom. Before this time, only the beat generation used drugs. However, at the beginning of a new decade, drugs became a part of popular culture. Some of them, especially marijuana and LSD, became a symbol of change of consciousness, which was supposed to enlighten the youth (Jenkins, 2006).

Drug use was becoming more and more popular. LSD gained widespread recognition and was not illegal until the end of the 60s. Marijuana became a symbol of rebellion against authority. Though heroin remained the most feared drug, it was still popular among older people. By 1977, about a quarter of Americans used marijuana. Surveys of high school seniors showed that 12 percent had used substances such as LSD, amphetamines or even cocaine. Over a third had used marijuana in the previous month (Jenkins, 2006). Drug consumption turned into a normalized act among teenagers. That is not a surprise, especially if one were to take into consideration the growing popularity of drugs in media aimed at teens and young adults (Jenkins, 2006). Musicians on both sides of the Atlantic were under the influence of drugs. Addiction was their inspiration, their source of imagination. Well-publicized rock stars’ drug addictions helped to familiarize drug use. It is hard to think of names such as The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix or The Doors without remembering drugs.

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The idea that drugs improve the creative process has been a part of the American culture for a number of generations. Drug problems visibly affected the way of creating music. Many songs have been written about the experience of being ‘high.’ This tendency is observed in all genres from rock to hip hop. A wide array of different drugs, including prescription pills, heroin, marijuana, cocaine, and crystal meth, is represented in music. Throughout the history of music, many bands supported the legalization of drugs. Additionally, they have justified the recreational use of drugs. On the other hand, there are many warnings placed in the lyrics of different genres. Singers often say that drug use leads to overdoses and deaths. However, some of the songs may pass their messages in less obvious ways.

“Sex, Drugs and Rock’n’Roll” is the creed of all rock performers. They follow this motto and then share their experience in song lyrics. Rock’s Golden Age was in the 1960s and early 70s. At that time, such music played an important role in the American culture. Its slightly aggressive melodies and lyrics mirrored the tension caused by the Vietnam War. The verbal content of rock songs turned toward rebellion, social protests, and drugs. In the 60s, psychedelic rock first appeared. It is a subgenre of pop and rock music. The absence of verbal language or words with no sense was usual for this kind of music. The influence of LSD and other psychedelic drugs on it is clearly visible. The ability to mimic the kinds of experiences that people have while using illicit drugs made psychedelic music so popular. Grunge, another subgenre of rock music, appeared in the 90s. Many grunge musicians suffered from heroin addiction, e.g. Kurt Cobain (Nirvana), Layne Staley (Alice in Chains), Scott Weiland (Stone Temple Pilots). This might be the reason why this genre is so depressive and dark. Critics claimed that these musical interpretations of drug experiences left a message, which encouraged people to use drugs. However, in most cases, this “message” was just taken out of context. 

Prescription pills were not the most common narcotic substance, though many people used them to relax and forget about their everyday routines. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, opioids and central nervous system depressants (Valium, Klonopin) are often used. These pills manage pain quite effectively and might induce euphoric feelings. They slow down the heart and may help a person feel calm and relaxed.     

One of the songs about prescription drugs is “Mother’s Little Helper,” which is a well-known single by The Rolling Stones. It is a story about a housewife who abuses a prescription to “get her through the day”. The Stones’ 1966 hit is a paean to Valium. “Mother’s Little Helper” is about drug dependence among ordinary people. It proves that drug consumption was a common of the majority’s everyday life. Mick Jagger said that, “Some people are so narrow-minded they won’t admit to themselves that this really does happen to other people beside pop stars” (1966). Yellow pills are claimed to be a “little helper” as they are the only thing that prevents the “mother” from getting mad. This song is quite different as compared to others written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It sounds slightly “Oriental-ish” (Richards, 2002), mainly because of the slide on a 12-string guitar. This sound reminds one of placidity and peace, the feelings that might occur after taking the pills. It has a folky atmosphere not only because of its sound, but also in the way it tackles social issues.

At the end of the 60s, large numbers of youths began to use heroin, creating a new wave of drug addiction. There were many reasons why heroin trade developed. It was a source of income for unemployed young men. Heroin traders needed many people to organize drug dealing. “They employed lookouts who would signal when police were nearby, steerers (or “touts”) who informed customers of where to purchase, someone who took a customer’s money, another who handed over the drugs, and a runner who periodically replenished supplies and picked up cash” (Schneider, 2008). The growth of air travel changed the means and the speed of heroin smuggling. Even airline stuff supplemented their income by hiding packages aboard and leaving them for ground personnel. Cargo containers were quite popular as well. Shippers hid the drug inside of the containers with goods, parts of which were removed and replaced with parcels of heroin of similar weight (Schneider, 2008). Besides, the widespread corruption among police officers was one of the main factors in the increased use of heroin. All markets require regulation, so drug markets developed their own informal systems (Schneider, 2008).

Not all the lyrics contain positive drug references. Due to numerous deaths caused by drug addiction, anti-drug messages began to appear in popular music. One of the songs with such a message is “The Pusher,” which became popular when a rock band Steppenwolf released the song, originally written by Hoyt Axton, on their 1968 album. The pusher described in the song is a heartless criminal, a drug dealer who is only after the money. It is one of the first songs dealing with the tough realities of drug use. The author of the song contrasted the “Dealer” and the “Pusher.” The former sells “love grass” and “sweet dreams,” while the latter “is a Monster” who “don’t care if you live or if you die.” The final verse adds a touch of anger to the song. Started with a simple guitar riff, it ends with a pounding beat that induces the image of pain and urgency. Though the author is against heavy drugs, marijuana and pills are still welcomed.

Total dispraise of drug addiction is the main issue in “King Heroin,” a song by James Brown, Manny Rosen, David Matthews, and Charles Bobbit. Written from the point of view of the drug (Heroin), it explains the effect drug addiction has on people from schoolboys forgetting their books to someone committing a murder. “Some think my adventure is a joy and a thriller / But I’ll put a gun in your hand and make you a killer.” It “can make a good man forsake his wife” and send “a greedy man to prison for the rest of his life.” Brown had problems with drugs himself, so he knew the consequences of drug addiction. The narrative style of the song is supplemented by a slow melancholy beat, which is common for R&B. The music is minimized to create a simple meditative vamp so people can pay more attention to Brown’s lyrical message. Brown himself termed the single to be the “most important statement of my career” (1972). Many people believed in the ability of this song to fight heroin. 

There are not as many songs about methamphetamine as there are about cocaine or heroin. Originally used by bikers and truckers to stay awake on long journeys, it managed to become a part of popular culture. This drug became popular because it was cheap, easy to make, and widely available. Meth creates a feeling of energy and creativity. This drug inspired many performers in a wide variety of music genres.

“Semi-Charmed Life” is a popular song by an alternative rock band Third Eye Blind. If one were to pay attention to the lyrics, it would become clear that the song is about the singer’s addiction to crystal meth. Though the melody is quite cheerful, the lyrics are dark and serious. Stephan Jenkins, the author of the song, said: “The music that I wrote for it is not intended to be bright and shiny for bright and shiny’s sake. It’s intended to be what the seductiveness of speed is like, represented in music” (1997). That is what drug addiction usually looks like. People seem to have bright and shiny lives full of interesting adventures and experience, but in reality, they are on the path of self-destruction. The message of the song is to warn people about the consequences of this addiction. Drugs change one’s perception of reality and can mess up their lives. Besides, people should not always believe what they hear, so they have to be vigilant and observant.  The genre of the song is not pure alternative rock. It contains some elements of hip-hop, such as the narrative style of singing and the rhythmic beat.

Marijuana is a drug that is universally used all over the world by all ages and races. Also known as cannabis, marijuana has been able to bridge gaps between cultures, beliefs, languages, and especially music genres. Musicians have often stated that weed was key to the process of music creation. “Because marijuana does not cause a physiological addiction (although it can create a psychological one), it is seen as a relatively innocuous means of achieving that transcendent state. It is a drug that maintains a romantic air” (Perry, 2004). 

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Marijuana is most common among reggae performers. They believe that this drug brings no harm and stand for its legalization. It is important to acknowledge that the movement for legalization of marijuana does not just aim to spread drug use. It was part of the spiritual life of the Rastafarian culture. This movement was not just a childish call to get high; it was a demand for religious freedom. As Rastafarians have strong ties with reggae, their religion has made its way into the lyrics of most reggae songs. Many Jamaican musicians believe that ganja is an important factor of the slow tempi, thick textures, and bass-heavy production of reggae music (Veal, 2007). Because of its monotonous melodies, the perception of time is distorted. Lowery Sims stated that “No other music sounds more like the way it feels to be stoned” (2005). Reggae music can be called “meditative” in addition to “ganja”, because it can “be experienced and interpreted in more varied terms than the narrow ganja stereotype” (Veal, 2007). Marijuana is a tool to broaden the consciousness. Though the stereotype that reggae is a “ganja music” has persisted outside of Jamaica for many years, this genre seems to share a lot with certain types of psychedelic rock music as well. Use of echo and spacy sound are common, but rock did not have the influences reggae enjoyed.

 “Legalize It” by Peter Tosh could be called an anthem for marijuana. In this song, Tosh tries to make political statements that are followed by the usual rhythms of Jamaican music. Though the author talks about serious social issues, he does it with a sense of humor. Every verse is a short and sweet argument for legalization. The first verse negates the belief that only junkies use marijuana: “Doctors smoke it, nurses smoke it / Judges smoke it, even the lawyer too.” Musicians keep proving the commonness of drug use again and again. The second argument is a description of its medical applications, which is a little bit surprising: “Good for tuberculosis / Even umara composis.” The constant repetition of the lethargic phrase “Legalize it” makes the listeners feel relaxed and calm. Though the song is a reggae record, the influence of American rock and blues is evident. This song is an example of the widespread support for marijuanalegalization. David Tosh became the  voice of the voiceless. He expressed the wishes of the majority, not only his own desire.

“One Good Spliff” by Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers was released in 1999. The song starts with light acoustic guitar and keyboard sounds. The familiar reggae motive creates a languorous atmosphere. Marley sings about the great feeling of being “high”. Suddenly, the song breaks into hip-hop with an unexpected rap part in the middle. By the end of the song, Marley comes back to the previous languorousness. Crossing from one genre to another is rather popular among performers. It shows that all the genres coexist with each other and the bound between them is blurred.  

Rap “had roots in black popular music as far back as you were willing to stretch them” (Spunt, 2014) Rappers used to work with DJs, talking over musical backgrounds. This method was borrowed from Jamaican “toasting” (catchy rhyming over a beat), which itself originated in Africa. Most early rappers were African Americans, but this genre has a Latin side as well. Both African Americans and Latinos lived in the same neighborhoods and had been “partying together for many years” (Spunt, 2014). Hip-hop culture shares a close connection to drugs. At first, weed did not play a major role in the development of rap music. However, since hip-hop comes from the streets where ganja is usually found, it was inevitable that rappers turned to this theme. They proclaimed their love for this drug in their songs. “Hip hop lyricists often refer to “the cipher”, a conceptual space in which heightened consciousness exists” (Perry, 2004).    

One of the hits in support of marijuana is “Because I Got High” by Afroman. It was the first catchy song about weed released in the 2000s. Though the author states that he has messed up his “entire life” “because [he] got high,” at the end he adds one line that changes the meaning of the song completely: “I’m singing this whole thing wrong because I’m high.” The simple R&B beat is usual for the songs with such content. The author said that it took two minutes and eleven seconds to write this song. In 2014, Afroman released a remix, explaining the benefits of marijuana and reasons why it should be legalized. This remix has a political background as it was timed to coincide with votes on legalizing marijuana in several US states. 

“High All the Time” by 50 Cent (Curtis Jackson) is a song about marijuana use. Despite the lyrics of this song, 50 Cent admits to not smoking marijuana: “I don’t drink and I don’t use drugs, and I didn’t back then, either. I put that joint on the first record because I saw artists consistently selling 500,000 with that content” (2013). However, an album with this song became his gold album. The audience expected songs with such content because they were high themselves. It is one more proof that music does not shape society. Instead, it is the society that creates music.  

Mentions of drugs other than weed seemed to be less accepted until the 2000s. The first reference to coke came in the record “White Lines” by Melle Mell, who had been the lead rapper and main songwriter for Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five until their breakup. While the deep bassline and the party vibe might distract a casual listener, the lyrics are definitely about hard drug use. The song starts as an ironic celebration of cocaine. It also contains dispraise of the anti-coke message “Don’t do it”, because it was more of a commercial method than a real anti-drug statement. According to Melle Mell, during the recording, “everybody was high and coked out” (1989). 

Cocaine sets a much different tone in rap, which is usually gloomy and dark. Musicians do not speak of it in a positive light. Cocaine used to be an expensive drug, but in 1992 its price dropped from $50,000 a kilo (1980) to $12,000 (George, 2005). It happened because of “freebasing”, the creation of a smokable version of this drug. An increase in the growth of coca leaves in Peru and Columbia drove down the price of cocaine. Soon, references to crack littered the American media. Based on the street reports, hip hop was blamed for the development of drug culture. The reason why hip hop is more vulnerable to these accusations is not simple racism, although it is a contributing factor. Perry said that, “Critics often charge that hip hop glamorizes violence and other criminal activity” (2004). Besides, many people state that the hip hop style of life caused widespread crack addiction. However, Nelson George asserts that crack-era was not concocted by rappers, but reflects the mentality of American youth of every color and class that have hard lives in and out of big cities (Perry, 2004). Some hip hop songs romanticize the violence or crime, but they explain the reasons of such behavior and let people evaluate those actions themselves.     

 “We Be Burning” by Sean Paul is an example of dancehall music, a genre of Jamaican popular music that appeared in the late 1970s. Originally, this song was about marijuana use. It was denoted, being followed by “Legalize it.” It gives good reasons for the legalization of marijuana. The author tells us about the benefits of smoking. The message of this song is to leave hard drugs (cocaine) alone. The radio-friendly version was released with the title being followed by “Realize It,” which changed the drug-related lyrics to women. Dancehall is the most modern genre of music. Recording in a digital format took Caribbean music to a new level.   

Although it is very hard to make any generalizations because of the scope of the music sphere, trends in terms of specific drugs do exist. The use of marijuana is far more likely to feature positively or at least neutrally in song lyrics. Cannabis makes people feel relaxed and suggests taking life easy. Besides, musicians admire its recreational advantage. Many songs have a political background and were recorded to support marijuana legalization. It even became a part of religion. Its consumption is explained by spiritual reasons but not by the simple wish to get high. In contrast to light drugs, heroin and cocaine usually have negative connotations. The harder substance artist uses, the darker lyrical content a song has.


In conclusion, although each kind of drug seems to correspond to a certain genre of music, substances might cross from one genre to another in the same way as one type of music can combine with another one. It still remains unclear whether music influences drug taking or do people, who use drugs, create music. Many people will state that the crossing of music from one genre to another has a historical background. However, just because the public is aware of a musicians’ drug use, it does not mean that their music is a paean to drugs or a message to fans that encourages drug use. It is possible that music genres just identify the scene that surrounds them, and popular drugs of each generation influenced the shape that music took.