Friday morning, just a few hours before news of Mac Miller’s devastating death broke, we were having a debate in the NEST HQ office. Lately we’ve been struggling with writing about music, even great music, that glorifies self-destruction. It’s the reason our review of the new $uicideBoy$ album is still not published (despite hearing incredible things about it), because we’re presently uncomfortable putting on for any artists normalizing suicide, opioid addiction, violence, or any other destructive behavior. The current cultural climate is a direct reflection of the epidemic we’re presently living through, of young people in this country losing their lives under tragic, completely avoidable circumstances: rates of overdose, suicide, and gun-related deaths are all at alarming statistical highs throughout the United States.
Hip-hop godfather DMC of Run-DMC said it best in an interview with Double Down News, an organization shedding light on mental health issues in culture, called ‘What The Fuck Happened to Hip-Hop?’ where he digs into the social impact of rap music. His perspective is rooted in a 45-year history in hip-hop, and with a “get off my lawn” old man kind of tone, he perfectly articulates everything I’ve been feeling about the ongoing normalization of self-destruction within the genre. My interpretation of DMC’s point as a whole is that the majority of the genre keeps perpetuating in their lyrics, music, and videos, the same social conditions which led to the deaths of Lil Peep, XXXTentacion, and now Mac Miller. DMC’s whole segment is worth watching, but around the 7:40 mark he explains how Run-DMC’s seminal 1986 track “My Adidas,” which started the hip-hop/sneakerhead marketing revolution, opened his eyes to how tangible this impact of popular culture is.
“If Run-DMC can make a record about these (shows off his squeaky clean adidas) and the whole world to this day still wanna lower it, what’s gonna happen if I rap about codeine and smokin’ angel dust?” His old-school, real-talk dad vibes are welcome comic relief as he talks about the death of Tupac and Biggie, demanding to know how anyone’s surprised two decades later when the same thing is still happening and the music is still glorifying gun violence. Then he makes the same argument about drugs.
“There’s not one rapper out there rappin’ ‘I never got high a day in my life.’ We need dudes in hip-hop who don’t get high. We need dudes in hip-hop who ain’t in a street gang. We need to overflood hip-hop with Kendrick Lamars and Chance the Rappers.” And Childish Gambino, but he names those artists as proof that there’s a market for socially conscious artists to be able express their ideas commercially. “Hip-hop has a responsibility no matter what generation you’re from, whether you come now, past, present, or future…y’all can make whatever motherfuckin’ records you want; for me it’s homicide and genocide. People are killing each other.” And themselves, whether purposefully or accidentally: we can’t deny we’re living in an escalating epidemic. It’s playing out quite visibly in popular culture, but far more it’s playing out in regular people’s day-to-day lives, as DMC points out at the very beginning.
“Imagine what would happen if we started advertising every young person who got shot and killed,” he says, before turning the conversation to his close friend and Run DMC’s DJ Jam Master Jay who was shot and killed in 2002. “My fight isn’t with the dude who shot Jam Master Jay in the head, I have no personal beef with him. My fight is against the mentality that would cause him to do it!” That hit home for me, and I feel like more people are beginning to come around to the idea of a collective mentality we create both online in and our IRL social interactions. We’re all influencing and being influenced by each other, some moreso than others in both respects. If we want to see change in our day-to-day lives, perhaps we ought to be listening to a true godfather and accept personal responsibility for consciously lifting each other up with everything we put out into the world.
Which brings me with a heavy heart to Mac Miller, a voracious creator and ebullient personality who explained himself best. “My ideology was, if I just make very happy music, very happy music, then people will forget about whatever their problems are. I will forget about my problems,” he said in 2013 about his first album, Blue Slide Park. That’s a very easy to perspective to have when you’re much younger and life hasn’t had as many opportunities to knock you on your ass; a trip through Mac’s YouTube channel seems to reveal how his outlook became progressively darker over time. What else can we do besides begin to confront the possibility that content – lyrical, visual, and musical – has an incredibly powerful influence over our perception of reality?
I believe our perception directly correlates to our emotional state, even if it’s subconscious. Especially if it’s subconscious! And that’s where I start to feel weird posting about a project by $uicideBoy$ called I Want To Die in New Orleans, particularly on the same day we lost Mac, perhaps not to suicide but certainly to deadly, progressive addiction.
I also want to clarify I mean no disrespect to them as creators. The ideas DMC so graciously verbalized for me in that video represents a radical paradigm shift in how we think about ourselves as creators and consumers. It takes time for ideas like this to spread and integrate, but it starts with conversations like the one I’m humbly attempting to start here. Suicide is up an average of nearly 30% nationwide from 1999, federal data shows 2017 was the highest rate of overdose cases in the United States. We have the highest gun-related death toll in the first world. Aren’t we sick of this yet? I’ll leave you with a final DMC quote about where he asks us to think bigger picture than individual artistic expression and asks the next generation of rap to make a song shutting down all the destructive behavior being celebrated.
“Drinkin’ lean and this and that, you can get high, you can go to the parties, but what about making sure everybody’s okay? That’s what hip-hop did.” Thank you for everything, Mac Miller, and also to fellow creatives we tragically lost this year, Avicii, Anthony Bourdain, XXX, Peep, Kate Spade, and Chester Bennington. And of course, we extend that gratitude to everyone we’ve lost unnecessarily the past year. We, as a culture, have got to write a new story, and making sure everyone is okay feels like a decent place to start.