“Niggas heard of me, now all of a sudden they back to thuggin” —Freddie Gibbs (“Real”)
The warm summer day had started fairly normally; my friend invited me to his friend’s house for drinks in their spacious backyard. As the only sober attendee at the party, my focus was on meeting people and making good conversation. But within minutes of arriving, I sank into my chair as I stared at the rails of cocaine in front of my face.
I had never so much as seen cocaine in real life before this moment, so all I could do was stare; at the woman carrying the tray; at the dollar bills and razor blades being pulled out of pockets and bags.
I’m uncomfortable, to be sure, but I don’t show it, keeping a solid face as the people gear up to take their nose candy for a test drive. It’s not as loud as I expected but still audible.
I wondered, how much cocaine residue is left on the bills once they’re unfolded?
The night continued as if time itself had stopped before immediately zooming forward without warning.
In those tense moments, I thought about every piece of media involving cocaine—50 Cent moving packs to get his hat, JAY-Z recovering his 92 bricks, all the ingrained debauchery in Pulp Fiction and Grand Theft Auto. But the one that stuck the longest was the story of Anthony “Geezy” Gonzalez, former manager of Clipse and native son of Virginia alongside brothers No Malice and Pusha-T. In 2009, Gonzalez turned himself in to authorities after being charged with heading a multi-million dollar drug operation, including but not limited to $200,000 worth of cocaine being moved throughout seven states and even parts of South America. Gonzalez was sentenced to 32 years in federal prison in 2010.
And so for the very first time in my life, I actually understood the danger associated with cocaine—a danger I was only previously familiar with through cinema and raps. This, I realized, was the thrill of the coke rap.
Rap’s relationship with cocaine extends back to the earliest days of the genre. The culture at large was birthed in Black communities that saw the United States government float them rocks as big as marbles. Those rocks were sold and the people who sold them were subsequently arrested and imprisoned. Melle Mel’s “White Lines (Don’t Do It),” released in 1983, is one of the earliest examples of coke rap, an over-the-top party track which attempted to draw attention to just how dangerous the dust was but had to be buttressed by the subtitle “Don’t Do It” to ensure the message didn’t go over too many heads. This was coke rap dressed-up as an out-of-control party looking for the off switch.
As the genre began to grow, dealers and non-dealers alike began stepping in front of the mic to tell more straight-faced stories of weight being moved in the name of progress and wealth. Raekwon and Ghostface Killah recounted tales of their Cuban Linx, The Notorious B.I.G. warned others not to sell "no crack" where they rest at, and UGK arrived on the scene with their pockets full of stones as the drug dealer persona truly grabbed hold of the culture. This reign led to millions of records sold and fueled the fantasies of millions of listeners eager to soak up game.
From Clipse and Young Jeezy to iLoveMakonnen and Peewee Longway, former dealers reported from the front lines, while artists like Mos Def, Lupe Fiasco, and Elzhi, non-dealing bystanders, reported on their affected communities but from the sidelines. All of them have had different experiences but the hustle is the unifying theme: documenting the making of something from nothing, leaving white footprints on the path to money and fame.
In the early-to-mid aughts, a new breed of coke rap would eventually spring from the Southern-bred sounds of artists like T.I. and Gucci Mane, who eventually passed the torch to 2 Chainz, Migos, and all their rap children. The Duffel Bag Boys and Young Rich Niggas delivered raps that dethroned the more hard-nosed crack tales that dominated the scene for more than a decade. These were still stories of struggle and dead voices echoing in the corners of the mind, but they retold in more playful and overwhelming ways. In 2019, Migos’ wrists are whipping like it’s stir fry and Lil Baby’s “Pure Cocaine” is delivering those same thrills but in a different package from the upper echelon of popular music.
Even if coke raps are no longer as in vogue as they once were, the more traditional iteration lives on today. Veteran rapper Freddie Gibbs has been sharing stories of dope houses and deep regrets on his mixtapes and albums for the past 15 years. “I beat the pot like Joseph beat Mike and Jermaine,” Gibbs growls on the intro to his newly-released single with producer Madlib, "Flat Tummy Tea."
Gibbs, who was born and raised in the drug-riddled city of Gary, Indiana, straddles the lyrical line between the intense grind of moving weight and the amused distance post-sale that Westside Gunn, Conway, and Benny The Butcher exhibit with their trademark Buffalo snarl as the three rapping arms of the Griselda Records collective; the same steely-eyed recaps and deadpan humor that ScHoolboy Q brings with him straight from Hoover Street; the same intensity and reflection that Young Dolph showcases on his every trademark yelp across Tennessee state lines.
The leading exemplar in this crowded field, however, is Pusha-T, the maverick who fought his way through crumbling organizations and never stopped cutting his raps with a finely honed hand. “The only kingpin who ain’t sinkin’,” Push boasts on “The Games We Play,” a standout selection from his potent, GRAMMY-nominated album DAYTONA.
For years, the 41-year-old rapper and current president of G.O.O.D. Music been referred to as a "one-trick pony," an artist incapable of growing beyond the same subject matter, but Pusha-T is actually a specialist. He's the kind of pony who worked at kicking just a little higher and strutting fleetly enough to earn all the JAY-Z references his 2018 masterpiece is peppered with.
Coke raps serve more than just the clueless suburban kids who consume them, no questions asked. They open our eyes (and ears) to the dangers of a world most can’t see—let alone live—and the thrill of fast living and the regret that comes after.
For those artists who lived their coke raps and were lucky enough to have surfaced on the other side, painting the reflections of joy and the pains and panic of a frantic life in song form are necessary.
They are but a small vial of the trials and tribulations of a lifetime, no platter or dollar bills necessary.