While drugs and music have seemingly been related since the dawn of culture, few drugs are intertwined with a specific culture in the way that ‘lean’ is connected with hip-hop. From DJ Screw and Big Moe, to Lil’ Wayne and Macklemore, to Justin Bieber and even Miley Cyrus, lean and hip-hop, hand-in-hand, have expanded their influence (Westhoff). As ABC News put it, “It’s more than a drug; it’s a culture. It’s what’s known on the street as “Lean,” a highly addictive cocktail of cough syrup, cold medicine, alcohol and candy — so potent it makes you “lean” over when high” (Hughes). In this essay, I hope to examine the role of lean in hip-hop culture. First, I’ll specifically discuss lean and its effects. Then, I will look into the origins of how lean became infused in hip-hop culture, and how both the drug and the culture have become increasingly influential in society. After that, I will describe some of the efforts to denounce the use of lean in hip-hop culture, before concluding.
“Get introduced to this drink that I sizzip.
Promethazine with codeine that’s my twizzist.”
– Beanie Sigel, “Purple Rain”
‘Lean’ is a slang term for a recreational drug that’s typically made with prescription-strength cough syrup containing codeine and promethazine, mixed with soft drinks such as Sprite, Mountain Dew, or Big Red, and sometimes with Jolly Rancher hard candy (“Lean”). The combination of various soft drinks and/or candy with the cough syrup often gives the drink a purplish or pinkish color, as is often described in hip-hop songs. While in this paper I will largely use the term ‘lean,’ the concoction has a variety of nicknames, such as ‘syrup,’ ‘sizzurp,’ ‘barre,’ ‘purple drank’ (or simply ‘purp’), and ‘Texas Tea.’ As it’s typically consumed in double Styrofoam cups, it’s often alluded to by discussing ‘styrofoam cups’ or ‘double cups’ or simply ‘drank.’
As Westhoff explains, “Containing the sedative drug promethazine and the opiate codeine, [lean]’s substantially more potent than your over-the-counter Nyquil. Though prescribed to treat bronchitis and other respiratory illnesses, its street value is hundreds of dollars per dose” (Westhoff). Physician and hospitalist Dr. George Fallieras told the Los Angeles Times that the “common cough syrup,” when used as intended, is “quite safe” (Khan). He explained the intended purpose of the drug, “The codeine in the medicine serves as a pain reliever and also suppresses coughing. A second drug in the cough syrup, known as promethazine, is used as an antihistamine and commonly used to treat motion sickness and nausea. It’s also a bit of a sedative — employed partly to keep people from drinking too much of the stuff” (Khan).
Typically used in higher doses than doctors recommend, lean “makes you feel warm and slows things down” (Westhoff). Often used with marijuana, it usually causes lethargy, drowsiness, and a general dissociative feeling. Writer Jim Hogshire described the experience of lean by saying, “My whole way of thinking and perceiving had changed. I had full control over my motor functions, but I felt ungainly. I was detached from my body, as if I were on laughing gas” (Vliet). Hogshire has called lean the “poor man’s PCP” and additionally described the effects of lean as a “warping and folding of the body” (Vliet). One anonymous user described the experience: “I started feeling a buzz half way through my first cup. My eyes got tight, my body got warm and heavy, and I felt a great high” (Jodeine).
Ben Westhoff notes that, like many drugs, “Its [lean’s] intake is highly ritualized” (Westhoff). He explains how users first mix a few ounces of the cough syrup into a two-liter plastic bottle of soda. Next, some users add a Jolly Rancher. Then, users put the cap back on and shake the viscous solution. After removing the lid again, users usually pour the mixture into a Styrofoam cup over ice, then sip, but not gulp, the liquid (Westhoff).
“Way back in ’94 Screw still had his gate up
He called over to his house and he poured me an 8′ up
I asked him what it was, he said Bun, get your weight up
This is lean, them white folks call it promethazine
Shit, but we gon call it drink dog cause that’s what we be doin to it
Now take this Big Red and pour about a 2 into it”
– Bun B, “Purple Rain”
While lean is now used by a wide variety of people around the country, it still is usually associated with Houston’s hip-hop scene, where the drug first became popular. As Westhoff wrote, “Like Cali weed or Kentucky bourbon, prescription cough syrup is synonymous with Houston.” Not only has hip-hop affected the use of lean, the use of lean has also affected hip-hop. ABC News has noted, “Lean is so popular that it produced a Houston-based rap called screw music named after DJ Screw, who overdosed on the drug. The music takes hip-hop beats and slows it down to a crawl, reflecting the sleepy, laid-back feeling the drug gives its users” (Hughes). The drug and the music have grown together. Sasha M. Vliet elaborated on the connection between lean and hip-hop:
“The feeling of time being slowed down, one of the most remarkable responses inspired by DJ Screw’s music, is also brought on by the sipping of codeine syrup which is for many Screw fans a common accompanying activity to listening. In much of Screw’s music there is a glorification of using the syrup–or “drank,” “lean” (what the syrup actually causes the body to do), and Barr (the manufacturer of the purple hued syrup)–to establish a slower pace. As the lyrics to one of DJ Screw’s songs go: “Who knows the feeling, how it feels to lean? It’s cough syrup or Barr promethazine” (Vliet).
Before today’s version of lean became popular, blues musicians in Houston during the 1960s would combine beer or wine with Robitussin, a narcotic cold medicine (Eakin). These musicians (and their children) often lived in Houston’s 5th ward, 3rd ward, and South Park neighborhoods, which were ground zero of the emergence of Houston rap – and today’s version of ‘purple drank’ – in the 1980s and ’90s (Eakin). Until Houston hip-hop became mainstream, lean was largely a local Houston phenomenon (Westhoff).
Led by “The Originator” Robert Earl “DJ Screw” Davis, Jr., Houston’s hip-hop scene began to produce their distinct ‘chopped and screwed’ style in the 1990s and early 2000s (Bright). In contrast to other fast-paced, energetic rap, DJ Screw’s music included slowed-down beats, skipped beats, scratched records, and deeper, slower vocals. DJ Screw was one of many in a long line of artists from Houston, including UGK’s Bun B and Pimp C, Lil’ Flip, and Paul Wall (Westhoff) (“Lean”). Because of their chopped ‘n’ screwed music and wide use of lean, Houston is often called the “City of Syrup” or “Screwston” (Bright). Rapper Big Moe, for example, bragged in his music that “It’s the Barr baby, the Barr baby, I got the whole wide world sipping drank with me.” On the cover of his album, City of Syrup, which had already sold over 100,000 copies by the end of 2000, Moe stands above the Houston skyline, dousing it in purple syrup (Vliet).
To further illustrate the close relationship between lean and hip-hop, the rise of lean coincided with the rise of the DJ Screw-led Houston hip-hop collective, the Screwed Up Click (S.U.C.), which included rappers like Big Moe, Z-Ro, Trae, Lil’ Flip, and more. Especially in Houston, the popularity of lean grew with the popularity of syrup-sipping hip-hop artists; 3 n’ the Mornin’ (Part Two), DJ Screw’s 1995 album, has been named one of the best Houston rap albums of all-time by the alt-weekly the Houston Press (Bright).
Explaining the widespread use of lean, Westhoff explains, “Connoisseurs of the addictive elixir imbibe while they drive, while they’re writing rhymes, or while they’re smoking pot. Screw insisted that one needn’t be high to enjoy his music, but many consider syrup essential to the Screw experience” (Westhoff). Sasha M. Vliet described “the experiences reported by those who use syrup while listening to Screw” by saying, “There is no pain. No processing of unnecessary information. No fear. No worry. Just a smooth and slow flow from one movement to the next. Time slows down. Life slows down. Moments last” (Vliet). Vliet asked a lean user about why he enjoys sipping sizzurp. The user replied, “It’s the Screw. You ain’t gonna want to be listening to some fast ass dance music on that shit. It’s the lean. You be feeling like this [he demonstrates by walking with his upper body tilted at a diagonal]. And the Screw just fits. Makes you go with the lean, want to lean into it more” (Vliet). A fellow user built on that, telling Vliet, “Yeah, plus, you could say that about any kind of drug use. Syrup’s different. It helps you with the shitty part of your life. Makes you just go with the flow more. Slows the shit down” (Vliet).
Lean continued to become more prominent in hip-hop, especially southern hip-hop, in the early 2000s, with songs like Memphis’ Three 6 Mafia’s 2000 hit, “Sippin’ on Some Sizzurp,” bringing “purple drank” to nationwide attention (“Lean”). In the song, the hardcore rap group says, “I got the wet promethazine, thick orange and yellow tuss, hydrocodone on the hands…knock you out, make you fall asleep when you’re on them wheels/Ain’t no doubt, hit me when I beep for this refill/Once again, on my wicked high, gotta have that drank/Heard my name, Gino, I feel like I’m gonna fucking faint…Sexy thang on my arm, cup of drank in my palm…And for the most I’m steady sippin’ on some sizzerp” (Vliet). While lean was widely used in Houston in the 1990s, syrup use became common to the point of “epidemic proportions” in the mid-2000s (Westhoff).
Many of today’s prominent ‘syrup sippers’ were first introduced to ‘purple drank’ by those 1990s and early 2000s rappers. Lil’ Wayne (whose struggles with lean will be discussed later) explained how he got into lean:
“I started drinking it ‘cause I’m from the South, New Orleans, and we grew up on UGK and Geto Boys and people been drinking syrup for years. That was where it was made popular, know what I mean? I’m human. Just like I was young and I watched Michael Jordan in Game 6 and it made me want to go right into my driveway and shoot around. Well, I was also young and I listened to Pimp C and they said, “We was drinking that lean” and that made me want to drink the lean. So I picked the cup up. Ever since that, I respected it the day I picked it up ‘cause I know this is a culture. This ain’t something to do because it’s cool. I mean, when I picked it up, y’all ain’t know what it was” (Jenkins).
But it’s not just big-name rappers who were influenced to try lean because of hip-hop. One anonymous Erowid user explained, “I love weed and hip-hop music. I also come from Houston, Texas (aka the City of Syrup) which means everything I listen to is slowed down (screwed). I am a huge DJ Screw fan and I personally own over 100 DJ Screw tapes. Knowing this, it probably wouldn’t surprise you that I love Promethazine with Codeine cough syrup and I buy it whenever I can” (Jodeine).
“There’s no way to glorify this pavement
Syrup, Percocet, and an eighth a day
Will leave you broke, depressed, and emotionally vacant
Despite how Lil’ Wayne lives
It’s not conducive to being creative
And I know cause he’s my favorite
And I know cause I was off that same mix
Rationalize the shit that I’d try after I listen to Dedication
But he’s an alien
I’d sip that shit, pass out or play PlayStation”
– Macklemore, “Otherside”
Like most recreational drugs, lean does appeal to a lot of people. But, also like many recreational drugs, lean can be extremely dangerous and harmful. Codeine is an opiate – like heroin and morphine – and is also highly addictive (Khan). Side effects of lean include: “Dizziness, Lightheadedness, Headache, Drowsiness, Obesity, Dental Issues, Mood Changes, Nausea, Vomiting, Constipation, Stomach Pain, Difficulty Urinating, Respiratory Depression, Difficulty Breathing or Swallowing, Fast, Pounding, or Irregular Heartbeat, Rash, Itching, Hives, Changes in Vision, Seizures,” and even death (which I’ll discuss more later) (“Lean”).
Ron Peters, a professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health, has noted that, “As far as across Texas, across also the southern part of the United States, estimates have shown that it to be at one time a pretty common drug of choice amongst kids…anywhere from ninth grade all the way up to young adults” (Hughes). In 2004, the University of Texas found that 8.3% of secondary school students in Texas had used codeine syrup to get high (“Lean”). Efforts have been made to stop the use of the drug, and the DEA has reported several ‘busts’ over the years, especially in Texas and Florida (“Lean”). While law enforcement’s crackdown has made the drug harder to get, it’s also made it easier and more profitable for drug traffickers (Hughes). Peters explained, “A year and a half to two years ago the price for a pint of codeine promethazene cough syrup was about $20 and was called a deuce, and for 16 oz, which was called a PT cruiser, would go for about $120 to $125. Now a pint of codeine promethazene would go for anything from about $250 all the way up to $350” (Hughes). In some cities, a pint can even cost as much as $800 (“Sizzurp”). Additionally, at least partially as a result of the crackdowns, ‘purple drank’ can cost twice as much in Houston as it does in Los Angeles.
Even law enforcement agents have claimed that screwed music “makes fighting the illegal use of codeine much more difficult” (Vliet). Especially as lean users find success in the music industry, it becomes easier for users to justify their addictions. Lil Wayne uses his success as justification for his lean addiction – even after it almost killed him (Westhoff). One time while onstage, Lil Wayne said, “Everybody try to talk about, ‘The boy on too much drugs, and Baby need to take him to rehab. [But] a junkie can’t do what the fuck I do. I am the ultimate high. I am my drug” (Westhoff). While Wayne hasn’t completely stopped using lean at this point, he has admitted that the withdrawal feels “like death in your stomach when you stop. Everybody wants me to stop all this and all that. It ain’t that easy” (Westhoff).
Rapper ScHoolboy Q has been open about his relationship with lean as well. Still an occasional user, he admits, “I mean, it’s cool. I can’t really explain it. I don’t want to sit here and talk about it in a good way because it’s not, but it is. I love it. But I don’t want to” (Goddard). He explains how the drug has limited his abilities in other aspects of life. He’s so drawn to the drug that he said, “You want it more than you want to have sex” (Goddard). The rapper even admitted that, because of his use of lean, “When it comes to making music, I suck right now. Music-wise right now, I suck” (Goddard). Similarly to Wayne’s struggle with withdrawals, ScHoolboy Q says, “The lean just gives you so much stomach pain, like, it’s crazy” (Goddard). However, rather than using the stomach pain as a wake up call to get clean, the artist said that the pain made him want lean even more just to make the pain go away – which is part of why addiction is so difficult to overcome.
Dr. Fallieras described the withdrawal process by saying, “Imagine the worst flu when you’re shivering, you’re vomiting, you can’t eat, you have diarrhea, every atom in your body hurts, you can’t sleep, you lie on the floor just shivering … and multiply that times a million. And you know if you can just take the pill or inject yourself with heroin, that it just all goes away” (Khan).
Rapper Danny Brown’s relationship with lean is in many ways like ScHoolboy Q’s. To be clear, like ScHoolboy Q, Danny Brown didn’t fully denounce the drug, saying “Don’t get me wrong, it does taste amazing and it might help you sleep good at night, but the side effects and all that other shit to it, it’s not worth it” (Josephs). However, Brown has recently quit using lean, which he called “liquid heroin” (Josephs). He also discussed some of the struggles of quitting, such as diarrhea. However, while quitting lean can cause diarrhea, Brown also noted how using lean can cause bloating and constipation, which can lead to weight gain (Josephs).
In that same interview, Danny Brown specifically discussed rapper Gucci Mane’s lean use (Josephs). Gucci Mane’s struggle with lean has been especially problematic and public. After making headlines for various controversies, Gucci Mane opened up about his problem through tweets:
“Woke up the other day out this hospital bed & I’m so embarrassed & ashamed of my behavior that was brought to my attention. I just wanna man up right now & take this time to apologize to my family, friends, the industry & most of all my fans. I’m SORRY! I’ve been drinking lean for 10 plus years & I must admit it has destroyed me. I wanna be the first rapper to admit I’m addicted to lean & that shit ain’t no joke. I can barely remember all the things I’ve done & said. However there’s no excuse. I’m currently incarcerated but I will be going to rehab because I need help. I wanna thank everyone that has stood by me during this difficult time. Please keep me in your prayers” (“Gucci”).
While many hip-hop artists have been, and still are, especially influential in popularizing the use of lean, some hip-hop artists have openly and actively denounced the drug. For example, on Sunday, February 16, 2014, The Dallas Morning News ran my opinion column about Grammy-winning rapper Macklemore and his struggle with addiction, “For popular rapper an unusual calling card: sobriety” (McCann). In it, I discussed how Macklemore, himself an addict, has been especially open and honest about the downsides of addiction. In the same way that Lil’ Wayne was influenced by Pimp C to try lean, Macklemore discusses in his music how Lil’ Wayne influenced him to try lean, explaining “He just wanted to act like them / He just wanted to rap like them” (McCann).
In his song “Otherside,” Macklemore admits that, at first, he was excited that he “finally got to see what all the hype was on. / Then he took a sip, sitting in the Lincoln / Thinking he was pimping as he listened to the system,” followed by a foreshadowing line of “Little did he know that it was just as addictive as base.” Still, he “loved that feeling. Purple rain coated in the throat, just so healing. Medicine alleviate the sickness”; however, he continues, “Liquid a fix and it comes with a cost / Wake up, cold sweat, scratching itching / Trying to escape the skin that barely fit him / Gone, get another bottle just to get a couple swallows / Headed towards the bottom, couldn’t get off it.”
“I never sleep, ‘cause sleep is the cousin of death.”
– Nas, “N.Y. State of Mind”
Unfortunately, not all hip-hop artists have been able to successfully quit the purple drank. While many users are aware of some of the side effects, many don’t realize how extremely dangerous lean can be. Vliet wrote, “Because of its medical use individuals felt it was safer than other drugs. A group of fans have explained it is easier to obtain and users can make a little bit go a long way by adding it to juice, soda or wine. And because they both produce similar time altering effects, some believe screwed up music and the syrup high to be the perfect fit” (Vliet). Or, to put it more bluntly, Westhoff wrote, “Some would likely tell you the drug is as harmless as weed, but they are delusional” (Westhoff).
Largely because promethazine is a depressant of the central nervous system and because codeine is a respiratory depressant, lean can be especially dangerous in higher doses (Khan). If used in excess, and especially if used with alcohol or other drugs, lean can cause the user to stop breathing, and increases one’s chances of seizures (Khan).
In a way, Houston’s hip-hop artists gave birth to lean. Unfortunately, lean brought death to Houston’s hip-hop artists as well.
Perhaps most notably, “The Originator” DJ Screw died in his studio’s bathroom on November 16, 2000 at the age of twenty-nine years old, due to what the autopsy report noted as a “codeine overdose with mixed drug intoxication” (Vliet). Along with lean, Screw also had alcohol, PCP, and Valium in his system (Bright). Screw’s death occurred only months after Three 6 Mafia debuted their “Sippin on Some Sizzurp” music video (“Lean”).
DJ Screw’s protégé, Big Moe, as previously noted, was a huge promoter of lean, with album titles like Purple World and the previously mentioned City of Syrup (“Lean”). Big Moe died at the age of thirty-three in October 2007, due to a heart attack brought on by his lean use and his already unhealthy lifestyle (Westhoff).
In December 2007, Pimp C of Texas rap duo UGK was found dead at the Mondrian Hotel in West Hollywood, California (“Lean”). The Los Angeles County Coroner’s office reported that Pimp C died “due to promethazine/codeine effects and other unestablished factors” (“Lean”). It should be noted that Pimp C did have a history of sleep apnea, which can cause one to stop breathing for short periods during one’s sleep (“Lean”). However, when his sleep apnea was combined with the use of lean, it led to the rapper’s death. Sadly, only four months earlier, UGK had hit #1 for the first time in their careers (Westhoff). “Otherside,” the previously mentioned song by Macklemore, opens with audio clips of the news of Pimp C’s death.
For some, the death of syrup-sippers was a sort of wake up call. Houston rapper Chamillionaire has said, “I think about the people we lose daily. I’ve got friends and people that I know that fell asleep behind the wheel and died, or went to jail over syrup, stuff like that. I don’t see the benefit” (Westhoff). Speaking a little over two years after Pimp C’s death, Chamillionaire fretted over the irony of some people’s reactions, “People were like, ‘Rest in peace, Pimp C. I’m gonna pour up a cup for Pimp C’” (Westhoff).
While even today lean is still especially popular among famous artists like Justin Bieber and Soulja Boy and others, we may see the end of ‘sizzurp’ shortly. Actavis, a company famous for making the highly-refined cough syrup, announced, “Given [recent media attention], Actavis has made the bold and unprecedented decision to cease all production and sales of its Promethazine Codeine product. This attention has glamorized the unlawful and dangerous use of the product, which is contrary to its approved indication” (“Sizzurp”). While the consequences are unknown at this point, some rappers have already spoken positively about the discontinuation of the drug. Rapper Lil’ Boosie told TMZ that he’s almost died from lean three or four times (“Lil”). While he’s clean now, Boosie described how addictive lean can be, saying, “Once you on, it’s hard to get off. It’s damn near impossible” (“Lil”). Not only is it dangerous from a health standpoint, Boosie thinks hip-hop would be better off without it on a cultural level. “[Lean has] fucked up a lot of rappers and the culture of hip-hop,” Boosie told TMZ (“Lil”).
In conclusion, it seems easy to argue that no other drug is as embedded in a culture as lean is embedded in hip-hop. Growing together, lean and screwed music began as a local phenomenon in Houston, before exploding onto the national scene in the late 1990s and early- to mid-2000s. Yet some of the same people who built the culture – like DJ Screw, Big Moe, and Pimp C – were destroyed by the same drug they promoted. At this point, the future of lean in hip-hop is unclear, but we can only hope that lean is killed off before lean kills off more artists.
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