Hip-hop may need a checkup. The culture that in the 1990s lost its brightest stars to gun violence has in recent years seen a series of notable rappers die of drug- and health-related causes. Since 2011, hip-pop pioneer Heavy D, singer and rap chorus specialist Nate Dogg and New York rapper Tim Dog all died of ailments in their 40s. Kris Kross rapper Chris Kelly was found dead last week in Atlanta of a suspected drug overdose at 34.
Some of the genre’s elder statesmen say they’re worried about the culture’s focus on youth, current emphasis on freewheeling partying and “you only live once” ethos, as popularized by Drake’s 2011 hit “The Motto.”
“Hip-hop being a lifestyle culture … a part of American culture, you have to be mindful that somebody is going to grow old, age,” said rap pioneer Melle Mel. “At some point somebody has to realize that hip-hop has to learn how to grow up. It’s way too juvenile and it’s been that way for too long.”
The 51-year-old rapper, who memorably warned in 1982’s “The Message” about urban youth who “lived so fast and died so young,” said he suffers chronic bronchitis from being around marijuana and cigarette smoke when he was performing. Of course, heavy drug use in hip-hop or rock is hardly new: Cowboy of his Furious Five group died in 1989 “basically from getting high,” Melle Mel said.
“It’s not really worth it to literally party yourself to death. It’s like committing suicide,” he added. “You have to choose between what makes you feel good and what makes you think you feel good.”
Other influential rappers who’ve died in their 30s in the last decade include Southern rap pioneer Pimp C and Wu-Tang Clan’s Ol Dirty Bastard, both from drug overdose.
Lifestyle isn’t to blame for all fatal health problems in hip-hop. Smooth-voiced Midwesterner MC Breed died of kidney failure in 2008 at age 37. Soulful producer J Dilla died in 2006 at age 32 of complications from lupus. Cancer killed rappers Guru in 2010 at 48 and Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys last year at 47.
Two of the genre’s top stars, Lil Wayne and Rick Ross, have inadvertently focused attention on the issue. After he was hospitalized for multiple seizures, 30-year-old Lil Wayne told a Los Angeles radio station in March that he’s an epileptic. Rick Ross, 37, has also suffered seizures and said he’s trying to improve his health.
As some of the genre’s more well-known figures hit their late 30s and 40s, they’ve figured out ways to keep up appearances in public while also keeping their health. 50 Cent said he rarely drinks alcohol anymore. That “bottle full of bub” he’s holding in nightclubs nowadays isn’t what you think.
“I want to live a good long healthy life. So I’m health-conscious,” the 37-year-old rapper-actor said. “You never see me drink. If you did see me with a bottle, it had ginger ale in it.”
Though he’s still a heavy marijuana smoker, Snoop Dogg said he stopped drinking alcohol at clubs six years ago after suspecting that a woman put the sedative Rohypnol – widely known as a “date-rape drug” – in one of his drinks.
“I used to drink alcohol as a fashion statement. If you in the club, they bringing you bottles, bringing you drinks. And you’re just drinking because you’re drinking. I don’t do that anymore. I drink water or cranberry juice,” he said. “I’m not cheap. I just don’t want to do this to my body anymore. I want to survive.”
Snoop, 41, said his focus on health comes from his desire to remain competitive and relevant to a genre that’s largely focused on youth.
“Because when we perform, we don’t have as much energy,” he said. “So now we’ve got to get up and work out, do push-ups or jumping jacks, or whatever we’ve got to do to keep ourselves looking good and feeling good. Because one thing about an old man – he don’t ever want to feel like he old. So to me that’s my personal push is to be able to compete with the youngsters and to be able to dance with them so to speak. … Because when they welcome you into their world as far as being on a song, you’re not old. You’re accepted.”
For producer and rapper RZA, hip-hop’s emphasis on youth stems from an urban culture that since the ’80s has had trouble planning for the future.
“They said we should be dead or in jail by the age of 25. And I think we live like that,” the 43-year-old Wu-Tang Clan founder said. “But what happens when you make it past 25? What happens when you make it to 30? What happens when you make it to 40? Are you prepared for life now?”
Influenced by “Eastern philosophy” and his famous obsession with martial arts films, RZA said he’s been a vegetarian for 15 years and practices qigong movement and breathing.
“Think of the great artists like Biggie Smalls and Tupac, who made some of the greatest hip-hop music of all time. But they didn’t make it past 25,” he said. “They didn’t even become a man. ODB was just becoming a man. What I want to tell the hip-hop generation out there is that: There’s a chance you’re going to become a man. Be prepared for it.”