In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
David Farber’s Crack is a thoroughly researched and engaging history of the crack epidemic through a wide lens.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
“This thoughtful, well-researched history highlights the futility of viewing drugs as strictly a matter for law enforcement while ignoring their socioeconomic context.”
Like a lot writers, I have a morning warm-up routine that sets me up to put words on the page. I drink a cup of coffee and then I talk a long walk, earphones in place, and blast music loud enough to silence my internal monologue. Then I’m ready to concentrate on the people and places I’m trying to animate.
For years, on my morning walk, I listened to Joy Division, the same songs over and over. For my latest book, Crack, I knew I needed something different, something a lot less Manchester in the late 1970s and much more Queens—or the Bronx, or Compton—in the 1980s. I started listening to Hip Hop from that era. From there, I ended up with a long playlist that extended from the late 1970s through contemporary times, keyed to the themes I was writing about: deviant globalization, the underground economy, inner-city life at the tail end of the 20th century, drug addiction, and racial injustice in America. The music I was listening to felt so integral to the book that I told my publisher that I wanted to start the text with a playlist—“Music to Read By.” So when you open up Crack, right after the table of contents, you’ll find a list of 20 tracks that take you, in order, through the book.
Here are some of the key works:
Immortal Technique, “Peruvian Cocaine” (2003)
Crack starts with a chapter accounting for the rise of the powder cocaine trade, from legal commodity to illicit and lucrative street drug. Immortal Technique, the Peruvian-American artist, explains lyrically the cruel international business that brings cocaine from South America to America’s streets.
Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel, “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” (1983)
A lot of early Hip Hop artists expressed all kinds of ambivalence about the “white powder” that would be, by the mid-1980s, cooked up into crack. Almost everything about this track suggests the opposite of what the title states.
N.W.A., “Dopeman” (1988)
Nobody expressed the anger over the racial injustice that gave brutal life to the crack game better than N.W.A. Their lyrics still shock the soul.
Public Enemy, “Night of the Living Baseheads” (1988)
It’s easy to find Hip Hop lyrics that glorify Crack kingpins and the “flossing” that went with a successful corner operation. This is not that: “Shame on a brother when he dealin’.”
UGK, “Pocketful of Stones” (1992)
Pimp and Bun rapped as hard as anyone in glorifying the get money culture of the crack scene. It was hard to resist falling into their slow rolling, sly cadences when writing about the crack crews that ruled urban neighborhoods in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Notorious B.I.G., “Ten Crack Commandments” (1997)
Because, of course, this one has to be on the list: Biggie’s sensible plan for selling crack cocaine speaks to one of my major points about the young black men who dominated the street distribution of “rock.” They wanted, like a lot of Americans in the predatory capitalist “Reagan era,” to find a business that would make them rich, the consequences for anyone else be damned.
Bone Thugs and Harmony, “Foe tha Love of $” (1994)
Recorded in 1994 and released in early 1995, just as crack began to lose its broad customer base, the track featuring Eazy-E, an erstwhile drug dealer, helped put the gangsta in gangsta rap: “Standin’ on the corner straight slangin’ rocks/Aw shit! Here comes the muthafuckin’ cops!”
Nas, “Represent” (1994)
In CRACK, I’ve got a chapter titled, “Crack Money: Manhood in the Age of Greed,” that situates the crack trade in the cultural terrain of late 20th century inner-city life. The illustrious Nas paints that world with legendary aplomb in this track from the killer album, Illmatic.
Ka, “Up Against Goliath” (2012)
I start CRACK with an epigraph taken (with permission) from this track: “Up against Goliath to bring butter home/I’m David on pavement, sling another stone.” Not as well known as most of the other artists on this list, the Brownsville, Brooklyn born and bred Ka is a lyrical genius. This track is a heart breaker, spelling out the devastation the crack epidemic left in its wake. In the book’s last chapter, I rely on this organic intellectual of the black inner-city community to help make sense of the crack era.
Killer Mike, “Reagan” (2012)
Racism—structural, institutional, and personal—undergirds how authorities at all levels of government responded to the onslaught of crack cocaine in poor, predominately African American neighborhoods in the 1980s and 1990s. The gross injustice that put black crack dealers in prison for a five year mandatory minimum sentence for selling five grams of rock, while mostly white powder cocaine dealers had to be caught selling one hundred times as much product to receive the same five years, is just the tip of the racist iceberg that resulted in what Michelle Alexander has called “The New Jim Crow.” Killer Mike lays out this racial injustice—a roadmap to the story of crack in America–in his anti-Reagan diatribe.
David Farber and Crack links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 – ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 – 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 – 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays
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weekly music release lists