Since Richard Nixon declared his War on Drugs back in 1971—in order, according to one of Nixon’s own advisers, to attack black communities and hippies—popular culture, largely shaped by black and alternative artists, has lambasted prohibition’s brutality and pointlessness.
From ’70s folk to the early hip hop of the Reagan era and well beyond, a wide variety of music genres have communicated a powerful anti-drug war message. Here are five unforgettable examples.
Prison Trilogy (Billy Rose) — Joan Baez (1972)
This haunting classic tells stories about deaths and suicides in America’s prisons. Billy Joe has been “busted on a drunken charge, driving someone else’s car, a local midnight sheriff’s claim to fame.” He later hangs himself “in the blackest cell on A-block.”
The next verse describes Luna, a Mexican who “came across the border with a baby and a wife.” But “This foreigner, a brown-skin male” was “Thrown into a Texas jail.” There, “He eased the pain inside him with a needle in his arm, / But the dope just crucified him, / He died, to no one’s great alarm.”
Despite being composed long before the Reagan and Clinton eras drove US mass incarceration to unprecedented extremes, Baez’s stories feel disturbingly contemporary. She implores us to “raze, raze the prisons to the ground.”
White Lines — Grandmaster Flash (1983)
Frequently sampled, this anti-drug track released during the “Just Say No” Reagan years is actually good—possibly the best anti-drug song out there. The catchy tune starts with some standard warnings about the false promises of cocaine: “Ticket to ride, white line highway / Tell all your friends they can go my way / Pay your toll, sell your soul / Pound for pound costs more than gold / The longer you stay, the more you pay,” etc.
But Flash then delves into the broader social consequences of drug policy and disproportionate sentencing—recognizing that the harms of drugs are greatly exacerbated by the harms of bad drug laws. “A street kid gets arrested, gonna do some time / He got out three years from now just to commit more crime / A business man is caught with 24 kilos / He’s out on bail and out of jail, and that’s the way it goes.”
Insane in the Membrane — Cyprus Hill (1993)
Fast forward to 1993, the dawn of the Bill Clinton years with their further generation of mass incarceration, and a West Coast movement of weed-infused hip hop. “Insane in the Membrane,” the archetypal track by Cyprus Hill, covers marijuana cultivation and smoking in immortal terms, delivered in B-Real’s inimitable nasal whine. “Like Louie Armstrong played the trumpet/ I’ll hit dat bong and break ya off something soon/ I got to get my props…”
As in many ’90s hip hop songs about weed, the police naturally become involved: “Cops come and try to snatch my crops/ These pigs wanna blow my house down/ Head underground to the next town/ They get mad when they come to raid my pad / And I’m out in the nine deuce Cad.”
War on Drugs — The Laughing Colors (1996)
This Clinton-era song by the rock band from Baltimore and DC is both funny and absolutely explicit in its subject matter. It tells the story of a passive, small-time marijuana smoker and dealer who gets arrested. “I don’t think I should be shot for selling pot/ It’s just my little way of saying hi/ And now my record’s all fucked up and I’m not allowed to vote/ and two times a week they make me piss in a cup / But what I want to do is piss down their throats/ and man don’t tell me about love and peace when one of the joneses has a handgun pointed at me./ Don’t tell me to just say no I’m an addict; I say no to letting it go/ Whatever happened to sex, drugs and rock and roll?/ Now we just have AIDS, crack and techno.”
99 Problems —Jay Z (2005)
According to Jay Z himself, this hit has nothing to do with women but instead is about the drug war—by then dragging on into the 2000s and the presidency of George W. Bush—and how it affects black youth.
A quick look at his lyrics makes this painfully obvious; he describes being pulled over by cops and refusing a search: “Well do you mind if I look around the car a little bit?”/ Well my glove compartment is locked so is the trunk and the back/And I know my rights so you gon’ need a warrant for that/ “Aren’t you sharp as a tack are some type of lawyer or something?”/ “Or somebody important or something?”/Nah I ain’t passed the bar but I know a little bit/Enough that you won’t illegally search my shit/ “Well see how smart you are when the K-9’s come”/ I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one.”