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Drug Use Glamorized in Rap Lyrics

References to illegal drug use in rap music have increased dramatically over the past two decades, according to a new study.
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If you assumed rap songs have always glorified drug use, guess again. Of the 38 most popular rap songs between 1979 and 1984, only four — or 11 percent — contained drug references, according to a new study by Denise Herd, associate professor in the Division of Community Health and Human Development at the University of California, Berkeley.

But the percentage has risen rapidly in the years since. Drug use is mentioned in 69 percent of the 125 rap most-popular songs between 1994 and 1997, according to the study, which was published in the journal Addiction Research and Theory. A separate study by Brian Primack of the University of Pittsburgh found 77 percent of the most popular rap songs of 2005 portray substance use.

The context of the references has also changed, Herd said. Early rap songs that mentioned drug use often spoke of its destructiveness — particularly the menace of crack cocaine. But since then, marijuana has become the drug most frequently mentioned in rap lyrics, and its use is almost always portrayed in a positive light — as a sign of wealth, status and/or sex appeal.  

These findings are striking for several reasons, Herd said. First, “Young black people actually have similar or lower rates of drug and alcohol abuse compared with their white peers, but you wouldn’t guess that based upon the lyrics in rap music."

Second, she noted, that rap music didn’t always have drug references means they are not an essential or intrinsic element of the art form.

“We have to better understand how this trend got started so we can find effective ways to counter it,” she added.