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A-Trak Pens An Open Letter On Pills In Hip-Hop

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

A-Trak challenges the hip-hop world to address the affects of drug usage even as many of its biggest stars affix themselves to a trend that finds rappers across the industry dropping the cool sounding monikers of the most dangerous controlled substances on their tracks and into their bloodstreams as faithfully as they don designer brands. A-Trak references the death of his friend and colleague DJ A.M. - a tragic end encouraged by a drug overdose - as a baseline for his overwhelming concern. He also mentions his difficulty balancing love with the concern he has for artists like Danny Brown, Trinidad James and others whose careers are propelled by catalogs littered with endorsements of hard drug usage. A-Trak mentions the reckless abandon with which artists have begun to approach the creative process as one positive side effect of the phenomenon, but counters that encouragement with a persistent concern that the behavior they are endorsing is not as cool or sustainable as they would lead themselves and the average consumer to believe. Take a look at his appeal below:

I don't know anything about drugs. Never tried them. Yet as I write this, I am trying to sign a group with a song called "Bath Salts" and an album titled "D.R.U.G.S.". Danny Brown, my record label's marquee artist, calls himself the Adderall Admiral, openly does interviews high on Molly and raps, "it's a miracle I'm living." I happen to think he is one of the most enthralling artists out. How do I reconcile my respect for Danny and the fact that so many of his wildly creative and entertaining songs revolve around drug usage?

I believe hip-hop has entered its psychedelic age. Turn on the radio: Molly, Xanax and cough syrup references are ubiquitous. One of the most acclaimed new mixtapes out is matter-of-factly titled Acid Rap. The spiritual guru of the era is the Juicy J, a Memphis veteran whose group Three 6 Mafia helped shape the sound of Southern rap. His hedonistic songs are anchored by irresistible hooks, hypnotic beats and jovial rallying cries. I have no idea what he's rapping about, but the lullaby cadence of his music draws me in. Not everyone is as light-hearted as the Juiceman though. In the R&B outfit The Weeknd, singer Abel Tesfaye spins disturbing, dark tales of cocaine and abandon, but that's a genuine breakthrough in a genre that rarely strayed away from the themes of romance. Tesfaye is daring not only in his subject matter but also in his choice of avant-garde production, thereby pushing R&B forward.

It takes more than a reference to MDMA to keep up with the times, though. Hearing Ludacris and Juelz Santana's Molly raps du jour make me cough up the word "bandwagon" - no promethazine needed. Just think: if Rick Ross said no to drugs he'd still be slinging Reeboks. But for the most part, what I'm noticing is a level of abstraction that has helped rap reach a further orbit of expressionism. The genre hasn't felt this free since the Daisy Age. It may have started with Lil Wayne's 2008 masterpiece of stream-of-consciousness rap "A Milli," although I would also credit Lil B's "based" style for opening this generation's minds. Is it all due to the unshackling and relaxing effect of drugs? Probably not. But one can't deny that the current climate of trippy and experimental mainstream rap has coincided with the breaking down of geographic and sexual prejudices in a notoriously territorial and homophobic culture.

That said, the closer I get drawn into it, the more I tend to wonder whether I am just enjoying this music from a safe arm's length as I silently endorse it? Is there any hypocrisy in the fact that I, clearly not an advocate of drug use, made a track with Juicy J and Danny called "Piss Test"? We don't appreciate rap songs based on the moral value of their lyrics, but rather on their artistic merit. Danny and Juicy are part of a long tradition of great, unhinged rap. Yet for all the talk about syrup and Molly, it seems like we're only being exposed to a partial, romanticized account. Rap went from glorifying selling hard drugs to glamorizing their effects. And beneath the surface there may be a profound lack of understanding of these substances.

What worries me is the unspoken aspect of the story; that is the real elephant in the room. Just recently, Lil Wayne almost died from multiple seizures, yet he vehemently denies that there was a relation to his codeine intake. When legendary Houston rapper Pimp C passed away, the cause of death remained hush. Closer to home, my good friend DJ AM died from a drug overdose four years ago at the height of his fame. There needs to be more open dialogue about this. It won't stop us from enjoying the music. A handful of rappers have spoken out: Kendrick Lamar ends his "Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe" video with a coffin lowered into the ground and "Death To Molly" written above it, and Rhymefest calls the drug a "crack pill." While that analogy may be oversimplified, I believe that any conversation on this matter is healthy. I even think the pill popping Trinidad James himself deserves a smart interview (you know, make him sweat a little). He probably has more insight than we think. My stance is: we can rap about it, but let's also talk about it.

Look out for A-Trak and Trinidad James live onstage at the 6th Annual Roots Picnic in Philadelphia on Saturday, June 1st.

Spotted at HP