Feelin' Their Thizzle 

How the culture of Ecstasy has changed as the drug moved from raves to hip-hop.

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Rosenbaum had first encountered Ecstasy back when it was identified by its chemical name, MDMA, and hardly known outside of small circles of Deadheads and yuppies. Few of them went dancing all night or took more than a single dose every few weeks or months. Rosenbaum certainly had never heard of anyone popping a pill and doing a drive-by. Barring the possibility that human brain chemistry had evolved dramatically in the last two decades, the thug drug she was hearing about that night surely wasn't the same little feel-good pill she'd started researching in 1987.

When the radio show ended, Rosenbaum called Sheigla Murphy of the Institute for Scientific Analysis and asked if her organization had ever found a link between Ecstasy and violence. Murphy said she'd seen no such correlation. Most Ecstasy experts in the academic community still perceive it as a sensual, even salutary drug -- the stuff that Deadheads, candy-ravers, and self-help devotees take so they can give each other rubdowns and talk about their feelings. Asked if Ecstasy ever induced aggression or bloodlust, UC Santa Cruz professor Reinarman also sided with Murphy and Rosenbaum. If Ecstasy truly is the new drug of choice for black urban youth, he said, "I would be very surprised if you went into hip-hop clubs these days and didn't see less edge, and more glow."

In fact, we are seeing a little more glow. Around the time that Ecstasy hit the Bay Area hip-hop community, the music shifted in tone: Rappers who once sounded nihilistic or dark and psychological suddenly became bubbly and infectious. The Bay's famously cheeky E-40, who made his name with raps about being a rugged individual who could work around the system, is now best known for "Tell Me When to Go," a call-and-response number that sounds like the "Hollaback Girl" of hyphy, an often-vapid style of up-tempo club-friendly rap. E-40's new approach goes hand in hand with the "movement" mentality and cult of brotherly love that's sweeping through Bay Area hip-hop. Once atomized and aggressive, MCs are now juvenile and boisterous, gamely talking up their DJs, promoting ginseng energy drinks, and getting down with their mostly teenage audiences.

To top it all off, they've traded the self-centered, go-it-alone gangsta rap-style of the 1990s for an evocative "we" voice. Consider Oakland's Mistah F.A.B., whose "New Oakland" anthem is all about fraternizing and romping around town: I is down with thizz/Reppin' the Bay, cuz you know it's town biz. But F.A.B. wasn't always a guy next door. His sophomore album Nig Latin featured a wrenching autobiographical song called "Worries," on which the emcee talked candidly about crack addiction in his family, his brother's incarceration, and his father's untimely death from AIDS. When F.A.B. signed to Thizz Entertainment last year, he started spitting out lighter, commercially friendly club bangers -- rattle-trap, boom-and-slap beats coupled with slangy, percussive rhymes that err more on the side of levity than gravitas, and are peppered with references to "purple and a pill." Currently, the artist's most popular lyrics are about not having a charger for his cell phone, or getting so drunk and hyphy that he's kicked out of the club. Short on substantive content, the lyrics are quite catchy nonetheless: Last fall a toddler jumped onstage during one of DJ Backside's "Blockyard" barbecues at Moses Music and started singing F.A.B.'s "New Oakland" almost verbatim. F.A.B. seems to be getting a lot more mileage celebrating drug use and "going dumb" than he did when he was decrying crack use: These days he's played on KMEL all the time.

But a lot of people in the hip-hop community see Ecstasy in a totally different light. When Youth Radio's Leon Sykes appeared on KQED's Forum the Friday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, he cited the popularity of "designer drugs" as one obstacle in promoting nonviolence. In a 2004 San Francisco Bay View article, "Ecstasy: Ruining the Future of Our Community," staff writer Jordan also compared the Ecstasy fad to the crack-cocaine epidemic that plagued her mother's neighborhood in the '80s: "Ecstasy has hit our communities just like crack hit back when my mother was a teenager," she wrote, adding later, "We need to realize that this drug is bad, and whoever brought this into our community had plans on ruining the future of the black youth who reside in these communities." Jordan even attributed the recent spate of violence in hip-hop clubs to the exhilarating effects of Ecstasy. "I think Ecstasy is another reason why so many people are being violent nowadays and not thinking twice before they do something," she wrote. "When you're zoning, you don't care about no one else's feelings but your own. Let's put it this way: It feels so good, makes you wanna slap yo momma."

But since Ecstasy is still new to the hip-hop community, there's very little quality control around the drug. Many people aren't even sure what it's going to do to them, or how they're supposed to feel when they're on it. Even the mode of ingestion is different; whereas ravers tend to take E with other uppers like speed or cocaine, most people in the hip-hop community seem to mix it with alcohol and weed, which changes the effect.

Perhaps most importantly, much of what they're taking isn't really Ecstasy. A lot of dealers are getting away with just selling whatever. Earth Erowid, who works at the pill-testing laboratory EcstasyData.org, explains the incentive for dealers to adulterate their product: It's cheaper. By cutting the drug with caffeine or speed, they're able to spread a little bit of Ecstasy a long way, thereby reducing production costs. Erowid attributes the mass-produced, impure character of Ecstasy to changes that have occurred in the market since the drug became illegal in 1986. In the 1980s, Ecstasy was a cottage industry run by small-scale producers, most of whom were either students, employees of pharmaceutical labs, or chemistry buffs with a garage setup. But after the DEA outlawed Ecstasy, Erowid believes that organized crime took over, driving out the mom-and-pops with economies of scale. "The mixing of different illegal drugs into a single distribution stream is one of the classic effects of prohibition" and results in "mixed, unregulated markets," Erowid wrote in an e-mail interview.

Duterte of the Institute for Scientific Analysis guesses that Ecstasy passes through three or four hands before it gets to the consumer. In other words, most users don't really know what they're taking, and most dealers don't even know what they're selling.

If you're not sure what you're taking, then you definitely can't foresee how you'll react to it. Bay View writer Jordan ended her anti-Ecstasy screed with an anecdote about a friend whose family called the police when they saw him hallucinating on "bad" Ecstasy: "He was talking to himself, answering questions that no one had asked him, and he even got naked and tried to put himself into a small paper bag. When he was finally released from jail he had an assault on an officer charge along with resisting arrest."

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