Sound & Vision: Dr. Daudi Abe on How the 80s Crack Epidemic Influenced Hip-Hop

Interviews, Sound and Vision
Emily Fox
photo courtesy of Across The Bridge

KEXP’s Sound & Vision’s Emily Fox spoke with Dr. Daudi Abe, a professor of humanities (and hip hop) at Seattle Central College about how the crack epidemic of the ’80s influenced hip hop music. He also talked about the differences between the crack epidemic and today’s opioid crisis.

“This is especially interesting when you consider that now within the current opioid epidemic the approach seems to be much more treatment based, whereas in the crack epidemic it definitely was much more incarceration based,” Abe says.

And he thinks race had a lot to do with it.

“I think that the question of whom we assign humanity to is still an open question and it really kind of came to the forefront during the crack era,” Abe says.

Crack hit the streets around the time of what Abe calls, “The Golden Era of Hip Hop”, which was happening in the mid-80s and mid-90s. That’s when hip hop starting hitting the mainstream and there was a variety of hip hop artists making their mark.

But the 1980s was also a time when the US was going through a recession. Abe says a lot of people were out of a job and more and more people were being denied opportunities and that impacted families.   

“You start to have families that are breaking up traditional family structure. Young people kind of searching for alternatives to family and that eventually kind of morphs into what we see today as the street gangs,” Abe says.

And Abe says the crack epidemic didn’t help.

“So this kind of drug epidemic was something that was different because the high was such a rush and so intense but it would only last a few minutes so people would keep coming back for more. It was almost like the fast food of drugs. And as there’s money to be made, people are starting to figure out ways in which to make it. This is something that happened in Seattle, where dealers would rent out houses and stick an immigrant family in the house to run the sales and people would literally be lining up around the corner to go up to this crack house and do what they needed to do. So it was literally like people going through the drive through to get their drugs."

Abe continues, "The amount of money that it turned over, first of all, it attracted a lot of people into it and it also encouraged competition, not healthy competition for the most popular spots and with that amount of money you’re able to buy firepower. If you’re feeling like your competition has a pistol, you might go get a rifle. So it was unlike anything that you had seen before. People lined up around the corner. It was people going through drive through to get drugs. It attracted a lot of people. You’re able to buy firepower. You might get a rifle. So it was unlike anything you’d seen before, especially as gangs become involved in it. Gangs became a natural distribution network. Once they get into distributing crack things really kind of spiraled out of control in terms of gang violence."

Abe says you started to hear about the crack epidemic in hip hop music.

“Hip hop has always been about telling who you are and where it’s like where you’re from so more and more it became people were from these areas that were negatively impacted, not only by crack but also the aftermath and what it was doing to people and what it was doing to families and how people were going to jail and how people were dying and getting arrested  people and it starts to show up in the music. 

Abe points to the songs, 10 Crack Commandments by The Notorious BIG where he lists the rules to selling crack.

“What he’s doing is really telling a story in terms of how horrific the whole thing was,” Abe says.

There was the song, Dopeman by NWA that helped define some of the terminology being used around crack—such as “strawberry”, someone who trades sexual favors for crack. Abe also says the song, "My Summer Vacation" by Ice Cube discusses the hows and the whys of the crack epidemic.

“That song really does, in my opinion, a great job of setting the stage of how gangs and crack really moved around the country from Los Angeles. . . Ice Cube . . . detail[s] how him and his crack selling friends go to St. Louis where if you buy a kilo of cocaine in Los Angeles for $6,000, you can flip it and sell it in St. Louis for $18,000-$19,000. You see the lure of money. You can see the competition that can be created when there’s a denial and lack of opportunity in a community that is at the same time supplemented by underground economic opportunities that not only pay well but probably pay better than any job you would be able to find if you were able to find a job,” Abe says.

Finally, Abe discussed Public Enemy’s song, "Night of the Living Baseheads." He says the song and video takes a stance that criticizes “white folks” but also “black folks for using it.”

For example, there’s a scene in the video where a reporter goes to a crack house occupied by a black family. There’s also a scene where a reporter goes into a board room on wall street to find about a half dozen white financial workers doing cocaine on a conference table. Abe says the video showcases that the epidemic was “much more widespread.” Abe also points out that the more expensive powder cocaine was a lesser offense than crack. 

“A part of the legislative response to this whole thing was to institute what eventually became the 100-to-1 rule. The 100-to-1 rule basically stated that if you were caught with say, five grams of crack cocaine, you’re going to receive the same amount of prison time as someone who is caught with 500 grams of powder cocaine. It seemed a very imbalanced approach.”

And Abe says police really started going after people for crack in the mid-80s.

“Between 85 and 86 the King County prosecutors office in 1985 had 300 crack-related cases, in 86 that number jumped to 3,000 crack-related cases,” Abe says.

Abe says African Americans were targeted. He points to a Seattle Times article that came out during that era that stated that African Americans made up around 25% of crack users but accounted for about 80% of crack-related convictions.

“So that disproportionality really speaks in a lot of ways to what a lot of people would interpret as selective enforcement,” Abe says.

African Americans were sent to jail at high rates during the crack epidemic, but Abe points out that there’s a completely different approach when you compare that to the opioid crisis happening today.

“So with the opioid crisis, a lot of what you’re hearing today seems to be around treatment-based solutions. That’s even something that the president has talked about. About how we need to make sure that we’re not necessarily sending people to jail but we’re getting them the help that they need. There was none of that kind of talk during the crack epidemic. It was about lock em up and lock em up for as long as we can. In fact, let’s make crack even more of an offense so we can lock em up for longer. The disproportionality of usages vs. convictions as well as the 180 in terms of strategies and what’s the best way to deal with it when we now get to the opioid crisis. There definitely seems to be a disconnect between the two.

And Abe says that disconnect comes down to race.

“I think the face of the opioid epidemic today is the kind of suburban or rural white kid, the face of the crack epidemic was the urban black kid and I think that those two images draw intensely different reactions from the general public, just in terms of who deserves a second chance,  who deserves our sympathy, who deserves our empathy and who does not.”

Sound & Vision airs Saturday mornings at 7 AM PST. Hosted by Emily Fox and John Richards, the show "uses interviews, artistry, commentary, insight, and conversation to that tell broader stories through music, and illustrate why music and art matter."

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