Get Your Mind Right: Hip Hop & Mental Illness

posted April 12, 2013 12:00:00 PM CDT | 43 comments

Get Your Mind Right: Hip Hop & Mental Illness

There's often shame and guilt associated with mental health issues. But as the country becomes more transparent about mental illness Hip Hop should follow suit.

In 2012, as part of an effort to open dialogue on issues many of the most popular and commercially successful emcees are afraid to touch, HipHopDX is launched the “The Taboo Series.” We ran editorials on Hip Hop’s obsession with the Illuminati, race relations and Hip Hop and Christianity. Thanks to an overwhelming response from our readers, the series is returning this year.

As rappers and their handlers continue to limit press access, it will undoubtedly become increasingly difficult to get emcees to talk about some subjects without fear of fan backlash or diminishing endorsement opportunities. We’ve already seen Rick Ross’ Reebok money threatened by his date rape-related comments on “U.O.E.N.O.” Meanwhile, the YMCMB camp can’t positively spin their own conflicting reports fast enough to cover Lil Wayne’s near-death experience in what most of us think was a seizure induced by a codeine bender.

Luckily, some rappers are still talking. And they’re happy to offer more than just politically correct sound bytes. The 2013 edition of The Taboo Series features more direct quotes from artists as well as the usual statistics to back up our sometimes-controversial opinions. Whether we’re talking about rappers in dresses (excuse us…kilts), Hip Hop’s seemingly phony CB4 mentality or emcees’ mental health issues, there are no shortage of controversial topics in Hip Hop. DX’s readers have never needed prompting, but if there’s a topic you’d like to see in future editions of The Taboo Series, feel free to sound off in the comment section, via Twitter (@HipHopDX) or on our Facebook page. With that said, let’s get to the 2013 edition, which will run every Friday through April 26.

Get Your Mind Right: Hip Hop & Mental Illness

“I grew up wishing my life could be like the Cosby’s / I go that extra mile to escape this ghetto monotony / See how this vicious cycle could fuck with you psychologically / Best cooperate with the state or become they property…” –Freddie Gibbs, “187 Proof.”

Hip Hop is about struggle. Many of the dopest emcees have been up against immeasurable odds, growing up in deplorable environments filled with neglect and physical, sexual and emotional abuse. These factors have sometimes affected their overall mental health. A soundproof booth and a mic, while cathartic, can go but so far in releasing that kind of hurt and anger. Sometimes a leather couch, a doctor that doesn’t wear a white jacket and a small pill can help ease the pain Mobb Deep drank away on The Infamous.

Mental disorders are real. In fact, they are the leading cause of disability in the U.S. According to The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, an estimated 26% of Americans ages 18 and older — that’s one in four adults! — suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. So with stats like that, how could we think Hip Hop wouldn’t be affected? There’s a stigma in many of our communities, especially among African Americans, which leads to many mental illnesses going undiagnosed. Denial and an unwillingness to seek professional help often results in substance abuse (drugs or alcohol) or continued erratic, irrational behavior. That rapper who’s a “wild boy” and whose behavior is unpredictable (even by Hip Hop’s standards) might be bipolar or schizophrenic. Remember Gucci Mane’s random ice cream cone face tattoo and the trip to a mental facility only a few days before? Of course, questionable tattoos do not a mental episode make, but given his fitful behavior leading up to the ink, some might speculate that a bigger mental issue was at play.

Emcees & Their Public Struggles With Mental Stability

“I’m not insane, or at least I don’t think so / Or am I / You think so doc, truthfully I don’t know / So what do I do / I go to my crew and ask for help / But they ain’t no help, they go through the same shit they damn self / So I look deep into the mind of a crook / Then out of nowhere I envision two right hooks / Ah damn again goes this shit / I can’t get out of this cycle / This one got me whipped / On a thought of a brain bashin’ / Doctor stop me / Before I blow my motherfuckin’ top, G…” –Rockness Monstah, “Therapy.”

Some rappers remove all doubt, bravely opting for transparency when it comes to their mental health. The legendary Scarface opened up about his battle with his thoughts in Ben Westhoff's Dirty South: OutKast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern Rappers Who Reinvented Hip Hop, recalling that he tried to slit his wrists with a razor blade at age 12 or 13. He later spent some time in a mental ward at the Houston International Hospital where he was sometimes forced to stay in the “quiet room.”

“When you go crazy in the hospital, they get like five or six big ol’ men to come in there and hold you down,” ‘Face recounted to Westhoff. “They pop you with that Thorazine and you go out.”

This quiet time likely helped the Facemob representative become one of the most prolific rappers of our time. Through his strong story telling abilities, he captivates and escorts fans into the brilliant mind of Brad “Scarface” Jordan. We hear the struggle, the pain and the questions he struggles with when the music stops. While his style is often dark and reflective, there’s a beauty to it. This kind of beautiful struggle resulted in classic songs like “Mind Playing Tricks On Me,” “I Seen A Man Die,” and “This Can’t Be Life,” all beautifully vulnerable pieces of work.

According to the non-profit organization HelpGuide.org, physiological trauma is often the result of extraordinary, stressful events that shatter a sense of security, making a person feel helpless and vulnerable in a dangerous world. They further point out that trauma can stem from the ongoing stress of living in a crime-ridden neighborhood. Similar to young children in war zones, whose streets only offer corpses, gunfire, poverty and despair, many rappers have witnessed horrific acts of violence that provoked feelings of fear, vulnerability and powerlessness. Capone-N-Noreaga aptly titled their debut album, The War Report, and the streets of New York resembled just that, a battle zone. Neighborhoods were decorated with fatigues, artillery and a finger on the trigger to complete the look.

Self-Medicating: Drug Abuse And Mental Illness

“My handicap took its toll on my sanity / My moms got me at the shrink at like 13 / And doctors call the cops on me / ‘Cause I be throwin’ I.V. poles when they ignore me / I gotta try to calm down and breathe / I can only hold it but for so long / Put me to sleep / Do I sound insane, if I do / Then this here was written for you / ‘Cause you could never feel the pain nigga…” –Prodigy, “You Can Never Feel My Pain.”

Diagnosed with depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, the late (and great) Baatin from Slum Village also struggled to control his thoughts. Band mate T3 says he didn’t initially know about his condition but later noticed Baatin’s bipolar tendencies while on tour. In a previously unpublished portion of a conversation with HipHopDX on February 13, 2013 he said, “There’s no way he should’ve been in a group with us without his mom pulling me to the side and saying, ‘Make sure he takes his medicine.’ No disrespect to his mom, because I love his mom. It’s just saying the black community doesn’t address that stuff head on,” said the Detroit native. Baatin, like so many others with mental illnesses, also battled with substance abuse. In fact, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, as much as 50% of the mentally ill population also has a substance abuse problem. The drug most commonly used is alcohol, followed by marijuana and cocaine.  

In his book Life & Def, Russell Simmons tells the story of a drug episode that went bad for Slick Rick. “I first met Slick Rick at a nuthouse. He’d smoked too much angel dust and had to stay in a mental ward for a few days,” Simmons wrote. “Rick Rubin at Def Jam and Lyor Cohen at Rush Management both thought we should sign him. So I went with Rick to meet him at the hospital. Ricky was completely out of it. I’d seen a lot of people in that dusty state in the street—I’d been that way myself—so I knew that after a few days he’d be fine.” But not everyone is so fortunate. Take G. Dep. The former Bad Boy was tormented by a murder he committed as a young man. The guilt, likely exasperated by his PCP drug use, forced the “Special Delivery” rapper to turn himself in for a crime no one knew he committed. In a New York Magazine article he says, “It was really at a point where I used to hear voices, and my conscience used to tell me: ‘What you did was wrong,’” he says.  Trevell “G. Dep” Coleman, who had been admitted to mental wards at least three times, was sentenced to 15-years to life.

Almost two years ago, Earl “DMX” Simmons admitted to having a mental illness, “I used to be really clear on who was what and what characteristics each personality had. But I don’t know at this point. I’m not even sure there is a difference [between X and Earl],” he told Susan Casper of Arizona’s ABC15. For years we’ve watched outbursts and countless arrests from the Y.O. native and to some extent blamed it on his well-documented battle with drugs. It was probably easier to ignore the signs of mental illness when he was selling upwards of 13 million albums between 1998 and 2000. There are rappers who seemingly might have a mental issue but have labeled it as a drug problem. Many have speculated about rappers like Eminem and even the late ODB. Eminem, who admitted to struggling with a prescription pill addiction in the past, has a library of songs that are riddled with lyrics that point to depression, the deepest kind of sadness. Heavy thoughts and drug abuse are often rooted in an inability to properly manage thoughts in a healthy way. For some rappers, it’s sexier to be on cocaine than chlorpromazine.

“I just went into such a dark place that, with everything, the drugs, my thoughts, everything,” Eminem told XXL in the April 2009 issue. “The more drugs I consumed, and it was all depressants I was taking, the more depressed I became, the more self-loathing I became. By the way, I’m just now at the point where I’m better talking about it. It took me so long to get out of that place where I couldn't even speak about it without crying or wanting to cry. Proof was the anchor. He was everything to D-12. And not just the group - for me, personally, he was everything.”

Removing The Taboo From Mental Health Discussions

“I wanted to throw you in the trunk, and find a preacher for you / ‘Cause I thought you had unlawful demons on you / Sinkin’ fast into deeper soil / Your parents finally got you some help / You came out seeming normal / And I heard you on medication / Had an illness you couldn’t heal with illness or meditation / And believe me / Me and T3 kept it low / Don’t take it as a diss, this is just to let you know / That I love you / But watch the company you keep / Swearin’ niggas don’t care but they love you in the streets / Get ya mind right nigga…” –Elzhi, “Reunion.”

While most fans aren’t privy to the mental health status of their favorite rappers, those in the industry certainly know something. As the above rhyme illustrates, both Elzhi and T3 struggled with how to approach their friend and fellow group member Baatin. And they laid those struggles down on wax long before journalists started putting recorders in their faces.  

“You’ve got people that have been dealing with it for years and it’s just a secret,” T3 added. “And then they have an episode, and everybody goes, ‘How come we didn’t know?’ I sit and talk with artists that I know—I can’t say their names, but they’re extremely famous—and they say they’re dealing with the same issues. But they take their medicine so they don’t have an episode. It’s definitely an issue.”

Mental illness is complicated. There’s often shame and guilt associated with not being able to control your thoughts. Judgment and ridicule have undoubtedly kept some rappers silent about their illness, a condition that was likely brought on by genetics or environmental factors. As the country becomes more transparent about mental illness (especially in the wake of the tragic mass shootings) Hip Hop should follow suit. Rappers should be given the freedom to tell the whole story because there’s usually an appendix to the struggle. Fans need to hear that part too.

Lakeia Brown is a freelance writer living in New York. Her work has appeared in publications and websites like Essence, The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, New York Newsday and TheRoot.com.

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