Thursday, 14 February 2013

The 25 Best Songs About Selling Drugs

It's almost like the drug game is a trade school for aspiring rappers. The majority of popular hip-hop artists purport to have sold narcotics at some point in their lives, and most of them still rap about their past dealings, even long after they've closed up shop.

Hustling is a mentality that's been present in the genre since its inception, and the attitude it inspires has further permeated the culture thanks in part to the tendency for MCs to blur the lines between reality and fiction. It's savvy business, and rap's obsession with drug distribution has likely resulted in more excellent music than grams moved. Case in point: The 25 Best Songs About Selling Drugs.

They're all gripping, engaging manifestos that offer a brief glimpse into the life of a disenfranchised young man navigating the underworld. Some of these records border on fantasy, some are alarmingly real, but they all sound great. Pull out the triple-beam scale, for old time's sake, and listen up.

And by the record, we don't support drugs but the topic can't be ignored either - so here goes. Thanks to the folks over at Complex for bring this to our attention.

25. Gucci Mane "Bricks"

Don't dismiss "Bricks" as a lesser (or less credible) drug-oriented record just because it made a commercial impact, or because it's a Gucci Mane record that made a commercial impact. The song's mission statement never deviates from chopping up slabs of cocaine, yet somehow, Gucci finds a way to make it sound compelling—if not weirdly, uncomfortably appealing—to even the most naive listener. Particularly notable is the delivery, and the cold nonchalance it's frosted with: Several thousand grams of white barely inspires a spike in pitch, tone or decibel. Also worth noting? Just when you think he's out—"And after this flip, I'm quitting the trap cold-turkey"—he pulls you both back in ("psych!"). After all, to hear Gucci Mane tell it, this is just another day.

24. Immortal Technique "Peruvian Cocaine"

We tend to ignore the implications of the drug trade outside of our immediate surroundings. "Peruvian Cocaine," on the other hand, does anything but. The record, by, yes, Peruvian-American rapper Immortal Technique (in the event that credibility and close-to-home proximity are factors to judge by), traces the coca plant from the jungles of South America to the streets of urban American in harrowing detail, with a grim filter of reality. For the purpose of elucidation alone, it's one of the most thorough and knowledgeable pieces of music about the drug trade, full stop. It helps that it's a great sound, too.

23. The Last Mr. Bigg "Trial Time"

This ballsy underground hit by Mobile, Alabama rapper Mr. Bigg is Southern hip-hop’s ultimate innocent-until-proven-guilty pleasure. A full-on courtroom confession, “Trial Time” details his decade-plus career in the drug game with shameless pride: “I was only 17, had the neighborhood hooked / Had 'em stealing out they crib ’cause my crack taste like ribs.” But despite the scale of his crimes, Mr. Bigg fearlessly taunts the judge, the D.A., and the “12 white folks” in the jury box with the song’s addictive refrain, “Take that shit to trial, bitch!” Can Scorsese make a movie about this guy already?

22. Project Pat "I Keep That"

Granted, "I Keep That" dates itself the moment Pat insists on using two-way cell-radio as a method of communication ("chirp me up, I'm chirpin right back"), but so did anyone who rapped about using a SkyTel pager, and they, too, are enshrined in classic status. So goes Project Pat: Like any businessman with sound fundamentals, here is a guy set on diversifying his stock. This cut from 2006's Crook by da Book has him selling (and using) both cocaine and marijuana, and honestly, there's a blue collar work-ethic at play here that's downright admirable (except for the whole, uh, selling drugs part). He's even a believer in customer satisfaction: "You can have it yo way/just like Mickey D's." Hours of work are put into running this operation, and you won't be able to convince Pat that his time isn't worth it. Not as long as the money's coming in, at least. 

21. T.I. "Dope Boyz"

Ever wonder what it's like to spend a hot Atlanta day on the corner selling drugs? Then "Dope Boyz" is just the song for you, and also, the closest you're ever going to come to the oppression that is the Southern trap house. To be fair, T.I. walks the line between celebrating and warning against the lifestyle at the center of this song. There are no doubt obstacles that merit caution, but as he sees it, only the "scared" will be turned away from the lure of the drug game, leaving the real gangsters to compete with one another.

20. Ghostface Killah f/ Raekwon "Kilo"

This record immediately dives into addressing the paranoia of getting high on your own supply. Between bagging up cocaine, Ghostface's character is audibly snorting some of the product, too. In return, he thinks Captain Kirk is outside of his window and expresses lustful feelings towards Catwoman. These thoughts are met with conflict from the chaos of the fiscal and legal realities of dealing drugs. "Kilo" emerges as an amalgamation of the hectic inner monologue cocaine provokes.

19. Nas "Street Dreams"

Annie Lennox probably never could've forseen her most famous chorus being flipped into a coke dealing anthem, but on It Was Written, a mafioso-leaning Nas (along with an legendary Trackmasters beat that also sampled Tupac and Linda Clifford) did just that. "Sweet Dreams" became "Street Dreams," which means: fancy cars, willing women, and access to kilograms of cocaine. Esco caught some flack for the pink suit in the record's accompanying music video—a Hype Williams-directed big-budget tribute to Casino—but we should understand now that this certified-gold 1996 track's full thesis could never be communicated without a dash of flamboyance. They are, after all, dreams.

18. 50 Cent "Corner Bodega"

In the space of 94 seconds, 50 takes us inside the life of an interstate narcotics trafficker and reveals the inner workings of his business with vivid clarity that any documentary film maker would envy. The action starts in the car, as 50 gives his crew instructions on protecting the money during a transaction-and on what to do if he doesn't come out of the coke spot within ten minutes. As soon as he hits the door 50 starts negotiating the price of a brick, demanding that his connect treat him like "fam" even as he eyes the room for threats. "Papi-what the fuck is the matter with your man? Standing against the wall with a gun in his hand."

It's truly amazing how much information can be conveyed by this mixtape cut's single verse. The Giuliani era crackdown, the narcotics task force patrolling on mountain bikes, the use of out-of-state license plates to throw the cops off the trail, the fact that the DA already has a file open on 50 and his crew. But in the mind of the narrator, the hustle is so seductive he can't leave it alone. Just cop from the corner bodega like you were buying beers and snacks for a Super Bowl party, "then hit the highway and take it to a town near you-and get that money man."

As with all things Curtis Jackson, the bottom line is, well, the bottom line. Long before Get Rich or Die Tryin' 50's mission was clear. As he puts it on this track: "I'm not on no funny shit i'm on some get this money shit." And his music spoke for thousands of other street entrepreneurs.

17. Dru Down f/ Yukmouth "Ice Cream Man"

Before Friday’s Big Worm and Master P’s “Mr. Ice Cream Man” rolled through your neighborhood, this West Coast classic by Oakland’s permed-out pimp Dru Down popularized the twisted idea of selling drugs out of a Mister Softee truck. It’s more metaphor than reality—the familiar chime of “Pop Goes The Weasel” in the summertime does inspire crackhead-level craving in children—but it’s a deliciously subversive one. The song’s breakout star, Yukmouth of Luniz (who was still a teenager at the time), ties the concept together perfectly in his knockout first verse: “It’s the Ice Cream Man, bitch—don’t you hear the music? I got the shit, fiends holla at me when they use it.” Treat yourself.

16. Cam'ron f/ Prodigy "Losin' Weight"

Truth is, you can knock the hustle, or at least this one. See, for all of his boasts and arrogance, "Losing Weight" actually finds Cam'ron at his wits' end. It's a side to the dealer story that's rarely overlooked, but that's why Cam resonates here: honesty and realism. The message? Moving weight's a quick means to an end, not a long-term career. Ultimately, it's a reminder that the drug business isn't nearly as glamorous as it's often made to seem, and when you tally up the jail time and lawyer fees, most dealers end up making less than minimum wage moving so-called "weight," something that Cam and Prodigy certainly felt when wondering, "Why I ain't got no money if I'm moving weight?" And in the event you're foolish enough to doubt either of them, or write them off as contrived or preachy, you can always just ask an actual economist. 

15. Young Jeezy "White Girl"

Equating Christina Aguilera to cocaine was a masterful move on Young Jeezy's part, instantly taking a hardcore street record and transporting it to the thoroughfares of mainstream culture. Rarely does a Jeezy verse exist without referencing the drug trade, but the clever combination of pop figures and illegal business creates a atmosphere of entertainement that boosts "White Girl" above the rest. The record is never coy about its purpose, but when you have Lil Wayne yelling Lindsay Lohan's name on (the remix of) a record, that's always going to soften the blow. Pun intended.

14. Outkast "West Savannah"

Growing up in Savannah, Georgia, Outkast's Big Boi stayed with his grandmother when his mother was at work, and since his grandma couldn't watch his every move, he "started serving." And no, not—like so many other teenager—at a restaurant, either. As a result, new clothes come, and Antwan's able to put "cable off in every room." The sole dolo spot on Outkast's 1998 classic Aquemini, "West Savannah" gets down to the basic psychological reasoning for selling drugs, over a '70s-style fuzzy, funk-glazed Organized Noize production that helped further define the cosmic hustler atmosphere that's a crucial part of Aquemini's legacy. And it explains this reasoning with the most direct, explicit reasoning possible: It's a survival thing.

13. Bone Thugs-n-Harmony "1st of tha Month"

On the first of the month, you promise to get in the gym again, pay your rent, and vow to save a little more on this round of paychecks. Bone Thugs, au contraire, hits the corner with the intent of pumping narcotics, because the first of the month is also the day everyone recieves their welfare checks (and thus, has the money to spend on said drugs). Or at least: they did a decade ago. The grind and hustle of those endeavors went on to become the basis for the crew's first big single, which went gold and earned itself a 1996 Grammy nod, after peaking at the 14th spot on the Billboard Hot 100. 

12. Rick Ross "Hustlin"

Ricky Rozay's first hit is, in many ways, still his biggest. The spirit of "hustlin" is a universal theme, and whether it's applied to getting weight across the Atlantic or warming up for the next sporting event, the message is transcendent. In the summer of 2006, "Hustlin" was an unstoppable force of a mantra. How do you get a brand new white-on-white BMW 745? Hustle. How often should you hustle? Everyday. That attitude swept the nation—and reverberated far beyond the drug game—but it's undeniably rooted in the motives of that trade. But what especially distinguishes this song from the rest of the entries on this list? The fact that its author is the only person on this list with a prior career in the criminal justice system, and that it's as believable in veracity as it is Ross' convictions. RUH.

11. Hot Boys "Tuesdays & Thursdays"

Most gangsta rap is heavy on clich├ęd Scarface fantasies and light on specific street-level details. So it’s refreshing to hear the Cash Money supergroup endorsing a less glamorous D-boy strategy: hiding from the police. “On Tuesdays and Thursdays, you better watch for the sweep,” warns Juvenile, referring to the two days of the week that the N.O.P.D. task force hits the streets in search of illegal drug activity. On the two hottest days of the week, B.G. recommends you keep a low profile and “cool out on the couch.” It’s pragmatic advice for hustlers, but the song makes a bigger point about racial profiling—everyone in the hood is vulnerable, whether you’re a dope boy or a rap star who just happens to look like a dope boy.

10. Freeway "What We Do"

If I get rocked, Freeway explains on the song's opening ad-lib over a rising Just Blaze drumbeat, this shit for my kids ni**a! And if any record's ever done anything to justify selling drugs, it's "What We Do." The chorus—just one line, a Creative Source sample—literally goes: "Even though what we do is wrong." Freeway, Jay-Z, and Beanie Sigel know the ills of the game, and how society looks down upon it, but there are children to feed, bills to be paid, heat to be kept on, and that day job won't cover the mounting expenses at a quick enough rate. 

9. Clipse "Grindin"

DO-DUM. DO-DUM, DUM DUM DUM. DO-DUM. DO-DUM, DUM DUM DUM. And so begins one of the most catchy, memorable and purely pop songs about the business of slinging dope ever recorded: With a mindblowing Neptunes beat that's essentially nothing more than a bass drum and garbage can snares being kicked over and over again, a re-up on bass every two seconds, right to your head. And sure, "Grindin" will, in large, be remembered for its massive, groundbreaking instrumental, but lest we forget the next-level coke rap we witnessed in the process: This was Clipse's first big single, and unquestionably the one that launched the confessed duo of former Virgina drug dealers to rap stardom. Again, that stunning beat not withstanding, Pusha T and Malice's lines were almost too slick for first-listen comprehension: "Platinum on the block with consistent hits." Damn. "The days I wasn't able, there was always 'caine." Eghck!

8. GZA "Gold"

One of the GZA's hardest street cuts, "Gold" was dense and detailed, a gritty real crime story that utilized all his writerly gifts to transmit a sense of primal urgency. He doesn't want gold, he needs it. The glory of that first verse is all in the specifics, from the blunt fires to the bums, wired, from the way the characters wait until the train rolls overhead to shoot their victim. The second verse is about mythos, the epic stories of drug lords implied rather than expressed explicitly. What GZA does best is give perspective, from the smallest events of the foot soldiers to the major players at the top.

7. Master P "Ghetto D"

"Make crack like this." Few drug-dealing songs are so literal, but "Ghetto D"—off of Master P's groundbreaking 1997 album of the same name—was an attempt to obliterate the boundaries between art and reality, to hew as closely as possibly to transparency. In fact, it was a literal instruction manual for mixing up crack, set to a minimal, gritty backing track. Ironically, it was also a remake of Eric B and Rakim's "Make Em' Clap to This," a re-purposing of hip-hop history in an attempt to eliminate artifice. 

6. 50 Cent "Ghetto Qu'ran"

"Ghetto Qu'ran" transcends the mere "song about selling drugs." This record is hip-hop mythology at this point—literally, an urban legend. The fascination surrounding this track stems from the fact that 50 Cent mentions notorious Queens drug dealers Kenneth "Supreme" McGriff and his nephew, Gerald "Prince" Miller. He even plainly states their roles in the Supreme Team operation, the former being "the businessman" and the latter being "the killer." During their beef with him, Ja Rule and Murder Inc. used this to allege that 50 was a snitch, but 50 refuted that, telling AllHipHop that "everyone who heard the record appreciated it."

The rumor is that this record provoked the shootings of both Jam Master Jay and 50 Cent himself. The fact that "Ghetto Qu'ran" made such an impact in the real, non-rap drug game alone makes it one of the greatest songs about selling drugs, handily so. The slick Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye sample—as worked over by Trackmasters, which resulted in the beat for this gritty, post-Biggie contemporary drug rap classic—doesn't hurt either.

5. UGK "Pocket Full of Stones"

Over a slow-rolling Pimp C funk beat, "Pocket Full of Stones" was the drug-dealer  anthem about the day-to-day grind and the rise through the ranks. It told the full life-cycle: the rise, fall and rebirth of the crack trade. Pimp's first verse, the rocks are in Pimp's pocket; his second verse, due to his success, the rocks are in the pockets of his crew ("It's to the point where I don't see dope no more") and by the third, they reach the pockets of the crack fiends. At that point, Bun is sent to jail for breaking a cop's neck; improbably, he's out of jail in four years, and the process starts all over. It's a vicious cycle, sure, but it also makes for a hell of a song, let alone cautionary tale.

4. Jay-Z "Friend or Foe"

Reasonable Doubt is an album filled with lush narratives and gangster neo-noir, not just from the mind of a drug dealer, but from the mind of a drug dealer intent on giving you a triumphant tour through what he's been through, saying hi to all the players, hustlers, and fallen enemies who didn't make it along the way. Of all the songs, though, none of them does the job to illustrate this past quite like Jay-Z's paranoia-driven classic "Friend or Foe." If you didn't know, cocaine distribution's a risky business, and Hov does his best to paint a picture of the distrust that goes into every transaction. The short, hair-raising story inspired a sequel, "Friend or Foe '98," on the rapper's next album, but it doesn't come close to matching the legacy of this: Not just one of the greatest songs about selling drugs, but generally regarded as one of the greatest rap songs to punch out under the two-minute-mark as well.

3. N.W.A "Dope Man"

Life is no walk in the park for the local dope man. N.W.A's seminal classic was one of the first records to explore all the angles and intricacies of the trade, and was unfairly lambasted by scared music critics and the moral majority for glorifying the business when, in fact, it was simply another account of what actually happened in Compton in the late 80s (and, for what it's worth, what happens in Compton to this very day). From the demands of fiends to trouble from competitors, they've got all the complications covered. Ironically, the verses were delivered by Ice Cube, who wasn't particularly known for his experience in the trade, unlike group member Eazy-E, who was still bagging weed even after he was famous.

2. Boogie Down Productions "Love's Gonna Get'cha"

To humanize a drug dealer in 1990—the tail end of the crack epidemic—was a difficult task indeed. That it was done so effectively by the same artist responsible for classics like "South Bronx" and "9mm Goes Bang" is nothing short of miraculous. But Kris Parker always had more than gangsta posturing on his mind. In keeping with the album's "Edutainment" concept, KRS opens "Love's Gonna Get'cha" with a stern warning about the power of words like "love," especially when applied to material things. He then launches into a five-minute masterpiece that traces a young man's fateful decisions in life, as he chooses a path that leads him by slow degrees from innocent junior high school student with busted gear and spotty employment options, to a neighborhood drug dealer.

At each step of the way, KRS punctuates key decisions with the rhetorical question "Now tell me what the fuck am I supposed to do?" We meet the young man's hardworking mom, his sister and his brother, with whom he shares three pairs of pants. We also learn early on the code in his neighborhood: "Where I'm at if you're soft you're lost/To stay on course means to roll with force." The force ends up coming from "a boy named Rob" who drives a Benz and wears gold. Rob hires the song's narrator to make deliveries at $200 a pop. "I do it once/I do it twice/Now there's steak with the beans and rice." His mother's initially uneasy with the whole arrangement, but she goes along with it, because she wants the best for her family. Soon the song's narrator has stepped up his game: "Got myself an Uzi and my brother a nine."

But of course, the Faustian bargain doesn't end well. Rob and his crew shoot up their car, hitting his brother and setting up the final shoot-out with cops that ends the song: "They shot down one, they shot down two/Now tell me what the fuck am I supposed to do?" There's no easy answer at the end, only the ladies chanting the song's title, the same ominous warning that the song started with.

1. The Notorious B.I.G. "Ten Crack Commandments"

Sure, "Everyday Struggle" took the plight of selling crack and worked it into a catchy, easily-consumed four-minute package, but "Ten Crack Commandments" finds a way to take it all a step (or nine) further. Even after attaining success, thoughts of the street life still consume Biggie, who expresses them and goes through the motions in this fervent, feverish Life After Death cut, over a scratch-heavy, thumping, lo-fi DJ Premier beat that's just as classic an element as the song's lyrics. The rules to moving weight are laid out—and contrasted against the actual ten commandments, blasphemy by definition—and the reality of why each rule exists is cast into plain sight. It's a brutally honest account of the terrors of the trade that somehow still make the game sound like a thrill. A terrifying thrill you want no part of, but then again, pulling that kind of thing off was Big's bread and butter, and so much of why we remember him and his work with crystalline clarity, to this very day. To that end: Biggie got us all hooked.


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