Syrup. Sizzurp. Lean. Purple drank. Texas tea.
Whatever it’s called, the recreational drug made popular in Southern circles is now making headlines with the recent hospitalization of rap superstar Lil Wayne. Weezy, who is reportedly “recovering” after suffering multiple seizures, is a self-proclaimed sizzurp fiend who has alluded to his penchant for purple in numerous songs. In 2008, he told MTV News that quitting the drink — which typically includes soda, Jolly Ranchers and prescription-strength cough syrup containing codeine and promethazine — “feels like death in your stomach when you stop. Everybody wants me to stop … It ain’t that easy.”
Wayne’s hospitalization has thrust sizzurp into the spotlight, but the drink has been creeping into the mainstream since it originated in Houston, Texas, as a companion to the “chopped and screwed” subculture invented by DJ Screw in the early ’90s. As a remixing technique that slows down records and repeats or doubles-up certain elements of songs, chopping and screwing reflects a mellow, laid back, almost drowsy Southern vibe.
The style quickly spread beyond Houston’s borders as other DJs adopted the technique and artists like Chamillionaire, 8Ball & MJG and David Banner released alternate chopped and screwed versions of their albums. The aesthetic has even made its mark outside of hip hop, influencing songs like Ciara’s “Oh” and dominating the latter half of “Bow Down/I Been On,” the new buzz single/trash-talk fest from Houston native Beyonce.
Inevitably, as chopped and screwed rap music rose in popularity, so did the purple drank that served as the subgenre’s drug of choice. With its sedative effects (codeine is an opiate, and promethazine is an antihistamine that can intensify codeine’s effects) syrup produces a sluggish, distorted feel akin to the music itself, as if the drug is “chopping and screwing” the user.
Rappers began referencing the beverage in verses and devoting whole songs to the drink, the most notable being Three 6 Mafia’s “Sippin’ on Some Syrup” featuring UGK, which was released in 2000. Artists from 2 Chainz to A$AP Rocky have been spotted holding the Styrofoam cup that’s become synonymous with syrup. Even rapper/crooner Drake referenced the beverage in “I’m On One,” declaring “two white cups and I got that drink/it could be purple, it could be pink.”
Like weed — and more recently, Molly — sizzurp has become one of commercial hip hop’s go-to chemical accessories, but the fascination transcends the music world. Pop culture has embraced the once-underground potion with the advent of “trill” parties that promote all things purple. In Boston, for example, a local venue recently hosted a PVRPLE party headlined by renowned Houston DJ Michael Watts, founder of Swisha House Records, that featured drinks served in Styrofoam cups, free Jolly Ranchers and “rap, swag, based, crunk, chopped n screwed, trap, bounce and erthang trill starting at 10 p.m.” The party’s tag line was “All Trill – All Nite!!!”
But while it might be “trill” for hipsters to try on rap subculture like a costume, for those who live it, it’s not all sour candy and Styrofoam cups raised to the sky.
The same year that Three 6 Mafia released “Sippin’ on Some Syrup,” DJ Screw died from a lethal combination of codeine and alcohol. UGK’s Pimp C died in 2007 due to an overdose of promethazine and codeine combined with his pre-existing sleep apnea condition. It’s also been suggested that Rick Ross’s recent seizures are a result of the elixir, which he raps about on songs such as “The Boss”: “Back to the thuggin, now I’m sippin sizzurp.”
In 2011, 2 Chainz spoke to Vibe about his syrup habit, saying “I think people should be very careful, because it’s addictive and can be fatal.”
Dr. George Fallieras, an emergency room physician at Good Samaritan Hospital, recently explained the dangers of syrup to the Los Angeles Times. “The amount of codeine these guys ingest with the syrup is massive,” he said. “It’s just the same as someone being addicted to heroin, except they’re not using needles.”
And as Devin the Dude told MTV News in a piece about the history of chopped and screwed music, “Everybody seems to go through their own thing, you know, little methods of feeling better when they congregate. But [syrup] ain’t nothing to play with.”
So as harmless as a purple drink with bits of candy in it might seem — especially when coupled with a hot beat and a couple of grinning rappers — the deaths of DJ Screw and Pimp C and the hospitalization of LIl Wayne remind us that sipping on sizzurp comes with a price, and that casual references to the drink belie its dangerous and potentially deadly nature.
These events also remind us that as powerful as hip hop artists may seem, they’re not immune to the consequences of the destructive lifestyles they glorify through song. All the platinum albums, YMCMB t-shirts and shouts of “YOLO” in the world won’t change the fact that Lil Wayne’s life is at risk because of a drug he regularly promotes in his music.
Lastly, these incidents point to the toxic nature of mainstream rap. That drug use — along with many other damaging behaviors — is promoted as a desirable way of life and not a serious problem requiring treatment is yet another sign of how far hip hop culture has fallen from its original aims. As much as Lil Wayne needs detox, commercial hip hop also needs to be purged of the toxic elements that threaten its existence.