Marijuana music history (part 3)

White punks on dope
In the mid-1970’s, the smug coterie of who ruled the pop biz were elbowed aside by a bunch of spiky-haired iconoclasts who also liked powders, but preferred the more accessible rush of amphetamine sulphate. Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons, the “hip young gun slingers” hired by the New Musical Express (NME) to give the rag some punk cred, ranted about the virtues of speed ? “the only drug that makes you sit up and ask questions rather than lie down and lap up answers” ? and contemptuously declared: “Smoking dope causes dulling of attention, sluggishness, silliness, a mouth that tastes like a Turk’s turd, and increases the appetite to such proportions that prolonged smoking leads to gross obesity.”

In a paperback diatribe against the music business, The Boy Looked at Johnny, Jules and Tony argued, “Marijuana would never have become as inevitable as stereophonic sound to rock music, had it not helped to perpetuate the mood of affluent complacence prevalent in the 60’s (whose culture has since slung like a monkey on the shoulder) and been nurtured in the 70’s by a cult of Jamaican religious fanatics, the Rastafarians, whose stoned sexist/racist/mystic gospel has been welcomed with open wallets by the white ex-hippie entrepreneurs who, before they converted to the capitalist faith, believed in very much the same doctrine as the Rastas.”

While Burchill and Parsons became notorious for snorting speed off their desks at the NME, it was also customary to pass a sacramental joint around editorial meetings. The punks were not truly anti-pot, no more were they anti-coke. But they were fiercely against hippies and all they stood for. If the hippies, who were so terminally uncool, smoked dope and were laid back, the punks would rather sniff glue in order to appear sharp and dangerous.

The greatest punk icon became the self-destructive Sid Vicious ? dubbed by Nick Kent as “The Exploding Dim-Wit” ? who eventually killed himself with heroin. In December, 1976, Sid was moved to remark that “Pot is not drugs, pot is for dropouts. Only hippies like pot.”

In fact, despite protestations to the contrary, the punks always smoked pot when no one was looking. In Johnny Rotten’s biography, Don Letts, the dreadlocked DJ at the seminal punk hang out, The Roxy, recounts how the barman would also sell ready-rolled spliffs to the young punks who didn’t know how to roll one for themselves, alongside the cans of lager.

In a 1977 interview with the fanzine, Sniffin’ Glue, Letts explained: “Like, to me, the reggae thing and the punk thing… it’s the same fuckin’ thing. Just the black version and the white version. The kids are singing about change, they wanna do away with the establishment. Same thing the niggers are talking about, Chant Down Babylon; it’s the same thing.”

The senior figures of the punk movement prided themselves on their knowledge and love of reggae music and it became de rigeur for punk bands to play on the same bill with reggae acts, or as Burchill and Parsons put it: “throughout 1978 and 1979 every punk show was preceded by interminable Rasta music.”

The Clash formally initiated the punk/reggae alliance when they recorded a version of Junior Murvin’s Police and Thieves on their first LP. When Bob Marley heard it, he was sufficiently inspired to write a tune called Punky Reggae Party, which appeared as the flip side of Jammin’ (with a Lee Perry-produced version on the collectable 12″).

The abrupt demise of punk is documented by the Clash single, White Man in Hammersmith Palais, which records the feelings of a white reggae enthusiast attending a concert featuring reggae artists live and direct from Jamaica. Contemplating the scene, the singer ? Joe Strummer ? laments the lack of commitment among the new wave of groups that was then flooding the charts, “turning rebellion into money.” By the end of song, Strummer ? “the all night drug-prowling wolf/ Who looks so sick in the sun” ? is out of it and stammering, “Too stoned, looking for fun/ Only looking for fun/ Oh please, mister, just leave me alone/ I’m only looking for fun…”

By that time, the Sex Pistols were history and Sid Vicious was heading nowhere, fast. Johnny Rotten, now preferring to be called John Lydon, was recuperating in Jamaica, sent by his record label under the pretext of doing some talent-spotting, where he was photographed for the New Music Express sharing a fat spliff with Big Youth.

Sid ViciousSid ViciousHere comes the crack

Although the remorseless monotony of the disco music that began to dominate dance floors in the mid-70’s had more affinity with cocaine, cannabis continued to inform the groove perpetrated by the funkiest groups of the era. Rick James was a pretender to the funk crown who made an LP with his Stone City Band called Bustin’ Out of L Seven (L7 being hipster slang for square). The cover shows a guitar-wielding Rick escaping from a prison labeled “Serious Joint.”

Marijuana was a major preoccupation with Rick James, who extolled his adoration of the weed in songs like Mary Jane (1981) and went on to launch an all-girl group called the Mary Jane Girls. Sadly, the sometime Superfreak’s interest in illicit substances didn’t stop at the soft kind and he became a rampant cocaine user, ending up in prison on charges of crack-related violence against former girlfriends.

When the drugs change, the music changes too. Throughout the late 70’s and 80’s, as club culture spread globally, so did cocaine, and this was reflected in music made for the dance floor and no longer categorized as up-tempo or down, but more precisely by the number of beats per minute (BPM) it contained.

Gradually, the disc jockeys who span the records in the clubs began to become more important than the musicians who made them. If the BPM of a record would not fit into the DJ’s mix, often it had to be changed to ensure a hit, with the result that dance records began to sound monotonously predictable.

If new records began to sound increasingly like old records during the 1980’s, that’s because they very often were old records, restyled. In 1979, a record called Rappers’ Delight by The Sugar Hill Gang introduced the world at large to a new form of dance music in which MCs (Master of Ceremonies) “rapped” their own lyrics over the rhythm track of old hits, which were mixed and scratched by the DJ. Later, the technology advanced to enable record producers to “sample” bits of old records and reassemble them to make new ones. The lyrics to early rap records consisted of basic braggadocio, with rappers boasting about the money, clothes and women that were the trappings of their success.

Another prized symbol of success was access to high quality cocaine, the purer the better. However, rather than snort street coke, the cognoscenti would purify it through a process called “freebasing.” Eventually, some enterprising drug dealer came up with a form of cheap freebased cocaine, called “crack,” and when that hit the streets, rap music went crazy.

The ClashThe ClashUnder heavy manners

In Jamaica, political violence escalated throughout the late 70’s and Bob Marley himself became a victim in 1977, but survived the shooting to appear at a peace concert at which he stood on stage flanked by the leaders of the rival political factions, Michael Manley and Edward Seaga.

In the run-up to what became the bloodiest election in Jamaican history, in October 1980, there was speculation as to whether Manley, if re-elected, would legitimize the ganja trade to finance his socialist innovations and to repay the country’s foreign debts. Instead, Seaga was elected and was able to borrow a further $698 million from the International Monetary Fund, plus $100 million from the US. A condition of the loan was that Jamaica accept US Military assistance in eradicating the ganja fields, using flame-throwers deployed from helicopters.

Bob Marley died of cancer in 1981 (his widow, Rita, symbolically placed a stalk of sensimilla in his coffin) and Peter Tosh was gunned down in 1987. With their demise, reggae lost much of its radical punch. Cannabis remained a lyrical preoccupation, but the emphasis was less on the herb’s healing properties, more on the profit potential of the ganja business. In 1984, Barrington Levy teamed up with producer Jah Screw to make Under Me Sensi, one of the most exciting records of the year and one that is now recognized as being influential in the development of a new style of reggae. The lyrics deal with official hypocrisy in dealing with the illegal trade in cannabis: “Babylon, you na like ganja man/ But we bring the foreign currency ‘pon the island.”

In his biography of Bob Marley, Catch A Fire, Timothy White explores the criminalization of marijuana in Jamaica and the murderous effects of the consequent rise of cocaine and heroin cartels in the 1980’s. In the period following the release of his last album, Uprising, Bob watched the Rasta scene in Jamaica deteriorate as a sinister cocaine, freebase and heroin trafficking network spread from Negril into Kingston.

After Marley’s death, as Jamaica become a stopover point for cocaine en route from South America to Florida, reggae music became less “conscious” and more aggressive, as cocaine injected staccato, percussive beats and added new dimensions of lewdness to lyrics which were roundly condemned by righteous Rastas for their “slackness.” In short, cocaine mutated reggae into ragga.

Axl RoseAxl RoseGrow more pot!

The crack epidemic was but one facet of the burgeoning drug problem brought about by prohibition that became ever more apparent in the US throughout the 1980’s. The Reagan administration responded by declaring war on drugs, bringing in harsh prison sentences and giving the enforcement agencies wide-ranging powers, including the authority to confiscate the property of people suspected of dealing in drugs. These measures effectively removed any element of altruism from the distribution of soft drugs in America, where amateurs got out of the game in the 80’s.

Jello Biafra, the singer with west coast punk band, The Dead Kennedys, spent most of the 1980’s fighting censorship, pulling political pranks and increasingly performing solo, as a stand-up speechifyer, sounding off on all sorts of issues. When he read Jack Herer’s classic hemp book, The Emperor Wears no Clothes, Biafra was moved to tell the world about it and to write a speech he called Grow More Pot, in which he summarized the book’s contents and proposed that the solution to America’s drug problem was not to wage war on the American people, but to encourage them to grow more pot!

Rave new world

In Britain, the seeds planted during the flower-power era of the 1960’s blossomed 20 years later, when the children conceived during the summer of love seized upon a “new” psychedelic drug and staged a riotous summer-long love-in of their own. All of a sudden, in the summer of 1988, the tabloid press was filled with tales of huge crowds of young people congregating in open fields where powerful sound systems had been set up, in order to dance all night to fast and furious music under the influence of expensive tablets sold as “ecstasy.”

MDMA had been invented as far back as 1912, but was resynthesized in the mid-60’s by biochemist Alexander Shulgin, was experimented with by psychotherapists who called it “Adam,” and became phenomenally popular in the 1980’s when marketed as Ecstasy.

Taking MDMA produces the unique effect among recreational drugs of promoting empathy, and it also relaxes muscular tension in a way that appears to make people feel like dancing. As Nicholas Saunders noted in Ecstasy & the Dance Culture, “The combination of the drug with music and dancing can produce an exhilarating trance-like state, perhaps similar to that experienced in tribal rituals or religious ceremonies. It seems to dissolve the internal dialogue and with it self consciousness, allowing the music and movements to blend and producing an exhilarating feeling of group celebration.”

These unlicensed and illegal celebrations ? or “raves” ? rapidly became so popular that the powers that be, galvanized by sensational press reports of the dangers associated with taking ecstasy, moved to put a stop to them. In Britain, the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994 was formulated to give police new powers to determine what constitutes a “rave” and to disperse gatherings of “100 or more persons at which amplified music is played during the night and is such as, by reasons of its loudness and duration at the time which it is played, likely to cause serious distress to the inhabitants of the locality.”

Rave music, in its various permutations, is described in the act as “sounds wholly or predominantly characterized by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats” and is frequently devoid of lyrics or melody. It’s the opposite of interesting, but is not intended for passive listening, rather as a soundtrack for individuals to lose themselves in marathon dance sessions. Mind you, after all that frenetic activity on the dance floor, a body needs a place to recuperate, to “chill out.”

In the chill out rooms, bodies exhausted but minds still racing, ravers relax and interrelate, talking with the intimacy of fellow travellers and the warmth kindled by the shared experience of hours spent compulsively twitching in the darkness. Saunders remarks that “cannabis is widely smoked in the chill out period” when a soothing joint helps the user come down smoothly from the effects of the ecstasy. Correspondingly, when formulating their anti-rave legislation, the British government also upped the maximum fine for possession of cannabis from ?500 to ?2500.

David BowieDavid BowieBeing blunted

In its March 1993 issue, the New York style magazine, Paper, put a cannabis leaf on its cover, with the tagline Pot is Hot and Hemp is Politically Correct. Inside, David Hershkovits reported: “Little more than a year ago, T-shirts bearing the logo of the Phillies Blunt, a cheap cigar of the inner cities, started popping up with uncommon regularity. Those in the know smiled when they saw the ovoid Phillies Blunt logo because they understood the coded message: a blunt is a joint made of marijuana rolled up in the inner leaf of a Phillies. Soon Beastie Boy Adam Horrowitz wore the T-shirt on MTV…”

The Beastie Boys, a white trio who achieved infamy as the boisterous, beer-swilling perpetrators of Fight for Your Right to Party, definitely preferred pot by their second LP, Paul’s Boutique. Released in 1989, the album is littered with references to “cheeba.” Cheeba, or Cheeba Cheeba, also became the subject of a seminal pro-pot rap by Tone Loc, who also enjoyed a big hit with a version of The Trogg’s Wild Thing. Loc (as in “loco,” or one who is partial to the loco-weed), with his shades and his rasping, wry style, represents the acceptable face of the gangster element within rap music. On Mean Green, a track from 1991, a cohort of Tone Loc puts the case for continuing with the current system of distributing cannabis to “cheeba believers.”

It is, however, Cypress Hill who must take the credit for kick-starting the blunted rap bandwagon. Aside from titles, like Stoned is the Way of the Walk and Something for the Blunted, as a cover story in the March 1992 edition of High Times reported: “Cypress Hill’s self-titled debut contains more marijuana references than a classic Peter Tosh or Bob Marley album.”

The second Cypress Hill album, Black Sunday, showed that the rappers had been reading Jack Herer’s hemp education book, too. Inside the record’s gatefold sleeve are listed 19 things you might not have known about the history and various uses of cannabis. The grooves contained strident pro-pot anthems with titles including, I Wanna Get High, Hits From the Bong, and Legalize It.

In 1994, Cypress Hill were one of the main attractions of a music festival held to mark the 25th anniversary of Woodstock. Pre-publicity for the festival was skeptical as to whether the atmosphere of the original event could be rekindled in an age when the President of the US, in order to be elected, had adamantly denied that he’d smoked a joint in the 1960’s. Bill Clinton maintained that he “did not inhale” and commentators were quick to predict that Woodstock ’94 would be “the festival that won’t inhale.”

There were official reports that contraband would be confiscated and unofficial rumors that sniffer dogs would be used to detect cannabis being brought on site. Yet in the end, these misgivings proved to be groundless and the festival turned out to be much like the first time: rain turned the site into a mud bath, but everyone got too stoned to care.

Paul McCartneyPaul McCartneyMcCartney’s many busts

Paul McCartney was frequently busted for pot during the 1970’s, but outdid himself in 1980, when he was caught carrying 225 grams of premium quality grass through Tokyo airport. “I was out in New York and I had all this really good grass,” he recently reminisced. “We were about to fly to Japan and I knew I wouldn’t be able to get anything to smoke over there. This stuff was too good to flush down the toilet, so I thought I’d take it with me…” He spent 10 nights in a Japanese prison before being released and deported. Sir Paul said the experience was “not too wonderful,” but he kept his spirits up by organizing “sing-songs” with his fellow prisoners.

Macca and his late wife, Linda, were open about their penchant for pot and frequently in trouble for it.

While on vacation in Barbados in 1984, their bungalow was searched by police and Mr & Mrs McCartney were both charged with possession of marijuana. They pleaded guilty and were fined $200 each. A couple of days later, the couple returned to London, where Linda McCartney was again found to be in possession upon arrival at Heathrow.

“I don’t actually smoke the stuff these days,” Macca told Uncut magazine. “It’s something I’ve kind of grown out of.” But he said he was flattered when he was recently invited by a group of Los Angeles teenagers to share their marijuana. “To me, it’s a huge compliment that a bunch of kids think I might be up to smoke a bit of dope with them.”

Snoop Doggy DogSnoop Doggy DogPot culture pop culture

By the 1990’s, it seemed as if everybody was smoking pot and talking about smoking pot once again. At the 1992 New Music Seminar, a music business convention in New York, a panel discussion was organized with the topic: “Pot in Pop: Let’s Be Blunt,” at which representatives of disparate pot-smoking musical subcultures got together to discuss their common love of cannabis.

Pretty soon, Guns ‘n’ Roses, whose use of hard drugs was common knowledge, were allowing pro-legalization stalls to be run at their concerts and fellow travellers like Sebastian Bach of Skid Row, along with Chris Barron of The Spin Doctors and Dave Abbruzzese of Pearl Jam, queued up to testify to their love of pot in the pages of High Times.

In the High Times special music issue of July 1992, Chris Robinson of The Black Crowes explained: “Pot’s nothing to be taboo about, man. It’s a part of pop culture. In the 80’s, it was sort of pass?. People who were wrapped up in money saw the weed as a frivolous extravagance. It’s really old-fashioned.”

Old fashioned no more, extolling the virtues of cannabis quickly became such a clich? that the January 1994 issue of the American satirical glossy magazine, Spy, denounced “Phoney Pot Revivalism” as the 74th most noxious feature of 1993, citing: “Ubiquitous Phillies Blunt T-shirts, countless news features on the ‘hemp’ movement, caps emblazoned with marijuana-leaf logos, dope-savvy movies like Dazed and Confused, evangelical albums by Cypress Hill, Dr Dre, and the Black Crowes ? all in spite of the fact that DEA statistics show marijuana use down by 13 percent over the last seven years.”

Aside from Spy‘s apparent willingness to accept DEA statistics at face value, the cynics did have a point. In the world of rap, rhyming about toking had become so de rigeur that Dr Dre, who’d made his name as the producer of Niggas With Attitude (NWA), called his 1992 solo album The Chronic, after a particularly potent strain of hydro herb. That Dre should so enthusiastically espouse cannabis may have come as a surprise to rap aficionados who’d heard him on NWA’s 1990 hit, Express Yourself, claiming that weed “is known to give a brother brain damage.”

Going solo, Dre teamed up with a convicted crack salesman, Snoop Doggy Dogg, and established a fresh sub genre of west coast rap with his own record label, Death Row. The main lyrical concerns of G-funk ? the “G” is for gangster ? are guns and sex with women, who are routinely dismissed as whores, or “hos.”

Not only does Snoop Doggy Dog sound like an archetypal Staggerlee, he acts out the part off stage and has faced charges of being an accessory to murder. At the time of writing, several of his fellow rappers are also facing jail or already behind bars, from where they continue successful recording careers.Snoop Doggy Dog

? Next issue: from rap, rock and techno to the newest of new tunes, marijuana music is here to stay!

Comments