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In a 2003 interview for The Believer, Roots drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson made the somewhat tongue-in-cheek claim that Reaganomics and drugs saved hip-hop—that the genre’s late-1980s “golden years” were underwritten by the gains (financial) and losses (psychic) of the crack trade. Was it James Brown or the drugs that pushed rap toward a faster, harder sound, the one that history records as pure? “Half the narratives of hiphop would’ve been erased, the street cred, the danger, so hiphop would’ve been more of a jazz thing with virtuoso rhyming, and it could’ve easily faded away.”
Nothing faded away: The streets sobered up, but hip-hop—as music, culture, attitude, and process—more or less colonized the world. As for the aftereffects of crack: That’s a different story. (Or as Thompson notes: “Let’s not forget that people actually used that shit!”) One might say that 2005 completed a cycle of sorts. Crack first blipped about 20 years ago, initially in agate type in the metro pages and then later with higher-profile incidents of death and abuse—some point to the June 1986 overdose of University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias as the watershed moment, the nationally televised fall from grace. Somewhere along the way, crack became code for everything dreadful about the city in the late 1980s, an American dream deferred forever.
Crack cocaine indentured two classes of people. There were the addicts, prone to feats of daring and iniquity when spellbound by the powerful drug, and there were the dealers. They, too, were prone to treacherous deeds, but their addiction was far more lucid. Ethan Brown’s Queens Reigns Supreme (Anchor) offers one of the first reliable accounts of this second group. Published last November, the book is thick with descriptions of the borough’s 1980s gangland figures, names like Lorenzo “Fat Cat” Nichols and Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff. The fact that Brown was able to publish so thorough an account is itself notable. Up until recently, the legendary figures of the crack war had been the province of myth and hearsay, a tendency aided by the had-to-be-there kingmaking of 1990s hip-hop. You might have recognized a name like Pappy Mason from an odd Nas lyric, but it wasn’t as though you could Google for more information.
The stories seem like they are from another time, and a basic understanding of the history of New York confirms this feeling. While 20 years isn’t a long time ago in the cosmic sense, it is practically a lifetime of crime busting and policy making away. But these stories still seem fresh—we hear them still, over and over, as though they are still happening. Brown’s book coincided with an odd renewal of interest in all things crack-related. When the results of the Voice‘s annual Pazz & Jop music poll are made public in a few weeks, chances are good that there will be a fair share of crack rap—Young Jeezy, Juelz Santana, and the Clipse have all intimated at their white-as-snow résumés, further nudge/winks coming in the form of T-shirts depicting snowmen (get it?), do-it-yourself recipes for cooking crack, and CD covers brimming with mounds of uncut raw, respectively.
Crack morphed into an adjective (most notably Kanye West’s “Crack Music”) and it became interchangeable with the enthusiast (Santana’s “I Am Crack”); the tone moved from survival to sport. Everything felt bad morally and good aesthetically. Hustling went mainstream, with reality television star Damon Dash and the perma-suit-and-tied Jay-Z. And one wonders what Parent X said when Child Y asked why 50 Cent’s autobiography was titled From Pieces to Weight. A few aisles over, one of the year’s most talked-about books—Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s
Freakonomics (William Morrow)—featured a chapter examining the inner workings of a crack gang that concluded with a simple question: “So if crack
dealing is the most dangerous job in America, and if the salary is only $3.30 an hour, why on earth would anyone take such a job?” (I guess you had to be there.)
We find ourselves at an interesting turn: That violent sliver of New York history known as the “crack wars” has become a discrete historical moment, free for all kinds of post facto analysis and nostalgia. Twentysomething rappers have their uses for history; it’s the 1980s again in the streets, all me-first, get-rich-quick flash. Upstairs, veterans of the war are returning home after 15- and 20-
year stints behind bars; survivors survey what has become of the city, listen to the music that was made in their name, and decide there is room for their stories as well.
One of the most notable examples is Harlem’s one-time kingpin Azie Faison. After narrowly surviving a stash house shooting in 1987, Faison retired from hustling. In recent years, he has made a comeback of sorts by selling his story, over and over and over: He’s written a book (supposedly due this year on Simon & Schuster), re-released his late-1980s rap CDs, recorded a new one, and begun documenting his life through the increasingly popular format of the DIY DVD documentary. Faison also wrote an early version of the screenplay for the 2002 film Paid in Full, a thinly veiled retelling of the rise and fall of his and friends Rich Porter and Alberto “Alpo” Martinez’s uptown empire.
Faison offers his life as a cautionary tale, but that’s not exactly how things have worked out. When Paid in Full was released, Faison was upset that his original script’s stubborn, anti-drug message had been softened; he criticized one of the film’s actors, the rapper Cam’ron, for his seemingly “rah-rah” offstage attitude toward drug dealing. This year, when breakout star Young Jeezy shot a video for his “Soul Survivor” single, the young Atlanta rapper borrowed liberally from Paid‘s tragic, rags-to-riches storyline, but not its moral subtext. With the epidemic behind us, crack, for those who aren’t still in its throes, has become a clean surface, an impetus for stories retold. New York may have celebrated its 17th consecutive year of declining crime rates, but there is still an odd fixation with broken windows and restless summers.
About two-thirds of the way through George Pelecanos’s brilliant 1999 crime novel The Sweet Forever, a couple of characters powwow over chili and wonder what the future holds. It is 1986; street gangs terrorize D.C., but there is still something small-time about it all. “It’s gonna get worse,” one worries. “You heard about this crack thing, right?” The novel ends before this suspicion is confirmed.
One last book celebrates that now unimaginable moment before the fall, before there existed the dozens of relativistic ways of mentally processing crack and all that followed. Published last June, photographer Jamel Shabazz’s
A Time Before Crack (Powerhouse) is a poetic, forceful tribute to the 10-or-so-year run-up to the epidemic’s arrival—”an intimate countdown to Armageddon,” he writes. Each page captures some immaculately fashioned homeboy or girl from around the way, puffing their chests out mid-street and conjuring some reason to smile. Shabazz writes that each time he snapped someone’s photograph, he would leave with these words: “Everything you do today will reflect upon your future.” Decades later, the pictures evoke their own nostalgic yearnings. We know now what lies around the corner.
Hua Hsu is a student in the history of American civilization at Harvard. He writes about music for Slate and The Wire.