Hip-hop Teaches Millions About Recovery From Addiction

September 15, 2018

Hip-hop Teaches Millions About Recovery From Addiction

According to Phil Grant, an addiction therapist at Smarmore Castle, an Irish rehab clinic, “music is universal, whether it’s hip-hop, blues, rock, traditional Irish or ancient. Music is a way of communicating that doesn’t need words.” And writing about music is a good way to celebrate Recovery Month.


Phil facilitates a drum circle at Smarmore rehab clinic in County Louth (the clinic I’m working for). “We build community through rhythm,” he says.


At Smarmore, participants in the drum circle get hands-on experience of community building by learning:

  • Respect for others in the group

  • To listen and not talk over each other

  • To have fun

  • To deal with anxiety and fear

  • To become facilitators


But they don’t do hip-hop at Smarmore and that’s what I want to write about in this article. Drum circles and other types of therapeutic music (like this one in the USA) are great, they really are. I know as I’ve participated in several drumming groups, but the truth is that they only reach a few people and the number who are affected by addiction is staggering.


Why Hip-hop?


Hip-hop has the power of reaching truly massive audiences. And the message of recovery, which is a message of hope (“recovery is possible”) is really urgent.


Malik Al Nasir, a former colleague of Gil Scott Heron (who, inspired a legion of intelligent rappers”) says that “hip-hop music is the biggest musical genre in the world.”


That’s quite a claim but I checked online and saw that Nielson, which measures music and book sales, confirmed that in 2018 hip-hop overtook rock as the biggest selling genre.


There’s also an interesting Irish twist to hip-hop music which I will explore later in this article.


What is Hip-hop?


If you don’t know what hip-hop is you’re not alone. Until recently, from the little I knew, I didn’t like the genre and thought it was all about people like Snoop Dogg glamourising the smoking of weed (in this Hollywood Reporter article he explains why he smokes cannabis with his son.)


I used to think that hip-hop glorified violence and misogyny.


To overcome my own ignorance about this musical genre I turned to Wikipedia which says that hip-hop is, "music that commonly accompanies rapping, a rhythmic and rhyming speech that is chanted." I also found out that rap is a component part of hip-hop.


I know a Romanian DJ called Claudiu Revnic who is like a walking, talking version of Wikipedia. His knowledge of music and film is encylopaedic. I asked him about the origin of hip-hop and he said “it was “born in New York's Bronx District in the 1970s. Original hip-hop culture was all about being positive, breaking boundaries and believing in the possibility of change."


According to Claudiu, by the 1990’s the genre was heading for the dark side: "hip-hop became associated with substance abuse and violence. The record labels were heavily pushing the gangsta rappers and sexually charged R&B."


Grandmaster Flash Broke Out of the Ghetto


Then he reminded me of a song that had a powerful influence on me as a student: The Message by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (released in 1982). The chorus line -- “don’t push me ‘cause I’m close to the edge” -- spoke to my generation.


Researching the song now I see it has had a huge impact; not only was The Message a chart-topper but it was named by Rolling Stone magazine as the greatest hip-hop song of all time. In 2002 it was one of only 50 recordings chosen by the U.S. Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry; the first hip-hop song to receive this accolade.


It was also one of the first to break out of the ghetto and go mainstream. Until that time hip-hop was used at parties and discos -- it was entertainment -- but Grandmaster Flash introduced a whole new paradigm: social commentary. Here’s an extract from The Message:


My son said, Daddy, I don't wanna go to school

Cause the teacher's a jerk, he must think I'm a fool

And all the kids smoke reefer, I think it'd be cheaper

If I just got a job, learned to be a street sweeper.”


But here is where the division within hip-hop can be explained. While The Message provided a cutting social commentary, an outlet for people in poverty, more people probably know the "gangsta" version by P. Diddy which seems to glorify sex, drugs and violence.


If you need help with your recovery, please call our confidential phone lines: You're welcome to call our team anytime - 24-HRS A DAY.
  • From the Republic of Ireland, please call us on: 041 986 5080
  • For international enquiries, please call: +353 41 986 50 80


Eminem talks about recovery


Eminem is one of the most successful hip-hop artists ever. He’s sold over 49 million albums worldwide and is worth an estimated $180 million. At the end of last month he released Kamikaze, his tenth studio album, and, according to this report “Eminem has broken the UK chart record for consecutive No 1 albums, beating a record held jointly for 36 years by Abba and Led Zeppelin.”


I used to avoid Eminem because of the underlying aggression of his approach (described by the Guardian as his “cartoonishly violent alter ego”) but when I discovered that he raps about addiction and recovery I started to pay attention.


Eminem’s own struggle was with prescription drugs, one of the toughest addictions to come off (I was told by an Irish addiction therapist that “(focusing on Benzodiazepines) it takes a month of detox for every year of prescription drugs addiction -- far longer than other addictive drugs”). He almost died from a methadone overdose and, after dropping out of rehab a few times, eventually got into long term recovery.


Over a billion people have viewed the song Not Afraid on Youtube. The video starts with Eminem standing on the top of a skyscraper, in classic suicide-mode. The opening lines offer a message of hope to his generation:


“I had to go to that place

To get to this one

Now some of you

Might still be in that place

If you're tryin' to get out

Just follow me

I'll get you there”


One of the foundation stones of recovery are the twelve-steps of Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous, a global network of self-help groups that anyone with an addiction can access for free. The problem is that many people wrongly dismiss these fellowships as being driven by religious motives, rather like the way that Scientologists suck people into their orbit through Narconon (a network of rehab clinics that is currently setting up in Ireland).


Eminem may have done more than anyone to familiarise people to the benefits of the twelve-step groups in his song When I’m Gone (663 million views on Youtube), set in a twelve-step group and which describes his guilt at neglecting his daughter and wife.


Another hip-hop artist who got over a billion views for one of his Youtube videos (Thrift Shop) is the Seattle-based rap star Macklemore. This artist has a lot of positive things to say about the value of life without drugs; and what makes his message particularly important is that he is one of the few celebrities to challenge the popularity of cannabis as a harmless drug; he says that cannabis kills creativity and when he used it he lost his drive completely.


Hip-hop in Ireland


I asked Conor Maloney a Galway-based “spoken word poet and rapper” how the genre manifests itself in Ireland. Is it any different than how it sounds in the USA and other countries? How does it relate to addiction and recovery?


“Irish hip-hop definitely has its own distinct style,” says Conor. “Irish rappers often tackle issues like substance abuse, gang violence and lack of amenities. One lyricists dealing with these themes is Lethal Dialect, whose album LD50 (the medical term for a drug overdose) handles a number of urban problems including addiction.”

What makes the Irish hip-hop approach to these themes different is the use of traditional Irish instruments and language. This can be seen in songs like 25 O'Clock in the Morning by Rí Rá, the work of Lunitic, with the traditional Irish bodhrán drum, and the Irish language duo CEARTA.

“One thing I've noticed in Irish hip-hop,” explains Conor, “is that it tends to criticise heroin usage while at the same time glorifying cannabis and alcohol. This can come across as a bit of a mixed message. It's uncommon in my experience for an Irish rapper to take a hard stance against all drugs.”


Perhaps this ambiguous attitude to drugs in Ireland could be compared to the division in the USA between social commentary and the glamourisation of sex, drugs and violence. Democracies seldom have a united voice


Raising awareness about recovery in Ireland


My objective is to help raise awareness about recovery from addiction in Ireland and if hip-hop can help reach a wider, and younger, audience then surely that is a force for good.


On a personal level I feel enriched by researching this article as I’ve come across a type of hip-hop, the Irish variant, that I would love to explore further.


More Information on getting Addiction Treatment:

If you would like more help and information on addiction treatment, you can contact us here. For more information about the admissions process, or treatment at Smarmore Castle alcohol and drugs rehab centre, please call our confidential phone lines: You're welcome to call our team anytime - 24-HRS A DAY

  • From the Republic of Ireland, please call us on: 041 986 5080
  • For international enquiries, please call: +353 41 986 50 80


If you would like to apply direct for admission, you can do so on our APPLY FOR ADMISSION page.

Rupert Wolfe Murray is a freelance editor and author of the travel book 9 Months in Tibet. He’s currently working as a writer for Smarmore rehab clinic in County Louth.



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