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Music pt. 2 | Cannabis History

Cannabis and music have been inextricably linked for as long as we can remember. From ancient ceremonies to modern concerts, cannabis has stimulated creativity and heightened experiences. To be honest, at this point in my life there isn’t much I do without being stoned, so most of the music I listen to daily would likely be considered “stoner music”, as it is being listened to by a stoner. That being said, I’ve also planned entire concert outings around how high I would be before, during, and after in order to optimize my experience. Last time, we explored the relationship between cannabis and jazz; this time, we’ll look at how cannabis has evolved through music in different genres throughout the decades, from the jazz legends to modern cannabis icons.

Cannabis Throughout Musical History

These days we seem to be living in a golden era of progressively destigmatizing cannabis opinions. While more progress can and should be made, both socially and legislatively, the past few decades have revealed a growing number of musicians and other creatives openly and proudly using, enjoying, or even promoting their own brand of cannabis. I’m in my early 30s and I imagine that if I were to get a small group of people together around my age and ask them to name five musical artists that make them think of weed, there would be a pretty wide variety of answers, from classics like The Beatles and Bob Marley to Kid Cudi or Rihanna. Some artists are so intertwined with cannabis culture, you might not be a fan of theirs but you know they are a fan of weed – like Snoop Dogg or Willie Nelson. For me, part of the beauty of cannabis is that it has the capacity to influence a wide variety of people and artistic styles, bridging the gaps between communities.

Musicians have been singing the praises of cannabis since at least the 1920s and 30s. Jazz great and cannabis enthusiast Louis Armstrong’s “Muggles” – a slang term for cannabis among jazz musicians of the time – is a 12-bar blues song with a dreamy and playful quality that some say mirrors the experience of a cannabis high. Where Armstrong’s “Muggles” is an instrumental, Ella Fitzgerald’s 1936 “When I Get Low I Get High” has lyrics that reflect the almost nonchalant attitude towards cannabis at the time: “My fur coats sold/ Oh, lord ain’t it cold/ But I’m not gonna holler/ ‘cause I still got a dollar/ And when I get low/ Ooh, I get high”. Although there was a somewhat carefree attitude towards cannabis reflected in the 1930s jazz scene, this was also the beginning of Anslinger’s assault against cannabis and the targeting and harassment of Billie Holiday.

The onslaught that Anslinger brought down against cannabis increased censorship and ushered in an era of mostly squeaky clean 1950s pop music. This increased censorship also opened the door for the counterculture of the 1960s and 70s, a culture that embraced cannabis and psychedelics. Jazz musicians had already touted cannabis as not only a harmless way to relax and have a good time but as a tool to enhance their ability to create art. The artists of the 60s and 70s echoed these sentiments and sang, mostly, unabashedly about their love of Mary Jane and getting stoned.

Some of the stoner anthems of the 60s seem obvious, like Ray Charles’ 1966 cover of “Let’s Go Get Stoned” and Fraternity Of Man’s “Don’t Bogart Me” that implores you to “roooooooooooolllllllllll another one/ just like the other one/ that one’s just about burnt to the end/ so come on and be a real friend”. Take for example Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”. With a repeating chorus of “Everybody must get stoned”, it’s easy to assume that he’s talking about, well, getting stoned, but Dylan himself has argued against this. While there are accounts that the song was recorded absolutely high as a kite – they smoked “a huge amount” of cannabis before recording and were “pretty wiped out” – Dylan described it as a protest song, saying it’s “one of the pro-testiest of all things I’ve protested against in my protest years” when asked about it at a press conference in Stockholm 1966. In context, and in the opinion of Bob Dylan critic Andrew Muir, “Rainy Day Women” was an answer to backlash against Dylan for transitioning into the folk genre, and being “stoned” was a reference to biblical punishment, not cannabis. “Stoned” wasn’t strictly a cannabis term at the time either, and could have referred to alcohol or narcotics, which leaves songs like Charles’ “Let’s Go Get Stoned” and “Rainy Day Women” open for interpretation.

One of my favorite anecdotes from this period comes from the American folk-rock duo Mark Brewer and Tom Shipley. Known as Brewer & Shipley, the singer-songwriter duo reached the height of their popularity in the late 60s and throughout the 70s and were known for socially conscious lyrics that were reflective of the struggles of the time. The 1970 album Tarkio was their most commercially successful and featured the song “One Toke Over the Line”. “One Toke Over the Line” was reportedly written as a joke while Brewer & Shipley were backstage and the unassuming lyrics – and obvious ignorance of what the word “toke” meant at the time – landed the song a spot on the family-friendly Lawrence Welk Show. Performed by the absolute picture of 1970s conservative, family-oriented television programming, Gail and Dale, the chorus repeats “One toke over the line, sweet Jesus” throughout the song; the rest is about waiting for a train and reminiscing. At the end of the performance, the camera turns back to Mr. Lawrence Welk himself and he says, with all the confidence in the world, “There you’ve heard a modern spiritual by Gail and Dale”. This blatant misinterpretation prompted Mike Brewer to respond, saying “The Vice President of the United States, Spiro Agnew, named us personally as a subversive to American youth, but at exactly the same time Lawrence Welk performed the crazy thing and introduced it as a gospel song. That shows how absurd it really is.”

Legend has it that Mr. Welk was much more careful about reviewing lyrics ahead of time from then on.

Cannabis & Hip Hop

Cannabis has been a staple of virtually every genre throughout American music history and while no one genre can claim cannabis superiority, cannabis and hip hop have become almost inextricably linked in our modern times. Cannabis and hip hop haven’t always been best friends – references to drug use were, in general, pretty rare in 80s hip hop and often leaned in the direction of anti-drug with songs like Melle Mel’s “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” from 1983. On “Express Yourself” from N.W.A.’s 1988 album Straight Outta Compton a pre-Chronic Dr. Dre proclaims “I still express, yo I don’t smoke weed or sess/ ‘Cause it’s known to give a brother brain damage/ And brain damage on the mic don’t manage nothing/ But making a sucker and you equal/ Don’t be a sequel (express yourself)”. I think we all know that Dre eventually changed his tune on this one, and could even be credited with popularizing the use of “chronic” as a term for the best weed. 

It’s always important to remember context when we cover history, and the 80s was the age of cocaine and subsequently, crack. Cocaine served as a status symbol for the wealthy while impoverished communities were left victim to the crack epidemic. Cannabis and stoner culture wasn’t cool yet, often associated with the hangers-on from the fall of hippie culture, and the Cheech and Chong and “lazy stoner” stereotypes reigned supreme. That doesn’t mean that no one was getting high, just that it was far less trendy or acceptable, especially on the heels of the Reagan era “war on drugs” and “Just Say No” campaigns.

There is one album, however, that is often credited with changing hip hop’s relationship with cannabis forever: Cypress Hill’s 1991 self-titled debut album, Cypress Hill. Dr. Dre’s The Chronic may have sold more copies, but on Cypress Hill, Sen Dog and B-Real narrated “vignettes of getting stoned, killing people, hating the police, and getting really stoned” against a background of soul, funk, and Latin influenced sounds and samples that seemed to jar the rest of the hip hop world out of the cannabis closet. Sen Dog and B-Real were just rapping about their lives, and cannabis was part of it. “I think marijuana/weed was always part of the culture,” Sen Dog told Cuepoint, “We just wanted to make it cool again. After the war on drugs that the Reagans had, when they classified marijuana as a Class One drug, it made it really uncool and parents really concerned about smoking weed.”

Not only did Cypress Hill’s self-titled album popularize the term “blunted” and launch hip hop into an era of cannabis comradery, their second album Black Sunday made an effort to educate people about cannabis. Included with each copy of Black Sunday was a cannabis fact sheet. 19 facts in total, the sheet ranges from the cultivation of hemp throughout history to fact number 14 – In 1988, the DEA’s own administrative law judge concluded that “marijuana is one of the safest, therapeutically active substances known to man” – and concludes with:

19. More than 400,000 Americans die from diseases related to cigarette smoking each year. More than 150,000 Americans die of alcohol abuse each year. But in 10,000 years of usage, no one has ever died from marijuana.

“We wanted people to know we weren’t just about smoking, we were about educating people about all aspects of the culture. We teamed up with NORML, High Times, and Jack Herer and put this information out there to people, so they would read it, share it, learn from it, be inspired by it and continue the fight, if they chose to be a part of it,” B-Real told Cuepoint. Not only did they open the door for what became a lasting relationship between cannabis and hip hop, but Sen Dog and B-Real also continue to advocate for progressive cannabis reform.

Looking back, it’s hard to imagine a time before cannabis and hip hop. Imagine a world without Cypress Hill’s game-changing album and the additions to the cannabis compendium that followed. Would we have Lil Wayne’s iconic blunt-lighting intros or Kid Cudi’s introduction to the “lonely stoner”? Would the Snoop Dogg/Martha Stewart crossover have happened? It’s hard to say if another genre has had as much of an influence on introducing cannabis culture to the mainstream and keeping it there as hip hop has, from popularizing vocabulary all the way to artists branding and marketing their own cannabis products.



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