Early yesterday, when I was preparing for a Super Bowl that would turn out to be utterly forgettable, I was hit with the news that one of the greatest actors of the last two decades had died. At the tragic age of 46, Phillip Seymour Hoffman was found dead of a reported heroin overdose, joining a long list of brilliant artists before him who have been laid low by heroin. A list that, astoundingly, doesn't appear to include any hip-hop artists.
Name an art form and the list of heroin overdoses quickly becomes, in the words of Kendrick Lamar, IVs on top of IVs, bodies on top of bodies. In film Hoffman, River Phoenix and too many more to name here overdosed on heroin. In rock, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Bradley Nowell and too many more to name have overdosed on heroin. In comedy, Lenny Bruce, Mitch Hedberg and many more. In jazz, Chet Baker and many more. In art, Basquiat and many more. In writing, Jim Carroll and many more.
And those are just the people who had died from heroin overdoses, thousands more have been addicted and eventually died from other drugs/mixes of drugs (Jim Belushi, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Chris Farley, etc.), some miraculously never overdosed despite decades of use (William Burroughs, Keith Richards, Miles Davis, etc.) and others are still either using or in recovery (Russell Brand, Artie Lang, etc).
And yet...in hip-hop, I'm hard-pressed to name one rapper or producer who's even been known to have been addicted to heroin, let alone over-dosed. After some internet research, I remembered that Chris Kelly of Kriss-Kross had died of a reported cocaine-heroin overdose, and that's the list right now. Even Eminem, who by his own admission took every prescription drug known to man, apparently never touched heroin. Pimp C died from a combination of syrup and respiratory problems, and Ol' Dirty Bastard, one of rap's most iconic and well-known hardcore drug users, overdosed from a combination of cocaine and prescription drugs. more recently, Danny Brown, a man not particularly shy about detailing his drug use, seemingly hasn't mentioned heroin.
Really, as of right now the only rapper I can even find who's spoken about his heroin use is Turk (of the Hot Boys), who detailed he and B.G.'s cocaine and heroin use in a HipHopDX interview:
Turk: I was shooting heroin and cocaine, and I introduced B.G. to shooting heroin and cocaine. We was on the Cash Money/Ruff Ryders tour. B.G. had been getting high; I had been getting high. In New Orleans, Uptown, that’s the drug of choice, heroin. You got kids, 12, 13-years-old on heroin. As I was coming up, people glorified it like they do mollies today. They say “pop a molly, I’m sweating,” they rap about it and this and that. Soulja Slim, who was Magnolia Slim at the time, used to rap about heroin all the time. Partners-N-Crime also had a song about heroin. And that was the song. And the girls used to always say they want the dope dikk. So [I was like], “shyt, let me go on ahead and snort me a bag of heroin and fukk this bytch all night.” That’s what influenced us to do it.
How is it that literally hundreds of notable artists in seemingly every modern medium and genre have struggled with heroin, but so few in hip-hop? Not even one major rapper has ever overdosed, or struggled with a well-known addiction? How is that even possible?
The first explanation is that rappers, for whatever reason, just don't use heroin. Anecdotally that seems true, the drug has yet to become a cultural touchstone in hip-hop like it has in rock, but it still doesn't really account for a nearly complete lack of known. Maybe unlike rock or jazz, which is more flexible and moody, hip-hop demands more energy, and so low-energy heroin users just don't make it in hip-hop? That sounds like a convoluted theory as I type it and really doesn't make sense considering how many famous high energy metal and punk-rock artists used heroin. Maybe it's just more hidden in hip-hop?
But as Turk mentioned, heroin is still far from a stranger to the art form. And if by "rappers" we're candid enough to admit that we're talking about Black artists, it's even more confusing. Heroin is rampant throughout many of the Black communities famous rappers have come from (they often rap about selling those drugs), and according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Black users account for the second largest racial category of heroin addicts in America. So how have rappers remained so seemingly untouched by the drug that has destroyed the so many around them?
The acting community has been rocked time and time again as heroin overdoses felled their heroes, and the same goes for rock, art, literature and more. And yet, with all respect to Chris Kelly, the next notable hip-hop artists to die from heroin, will be its first.
Some questions are better off going unanswered, and hopefully we'll never be able to list the rappers who have been lost to the ravages of heroin, but as I mourn the loss of Hoffman, I still can't help but wonder how the music I love most has managed to avoid the terrible touch of heroin.