5 Grams: Crack Cocaine, Rap Music, and the War on Drugs

5 Grams: Crack Cocaine, Rap Music, and the War on Drugs

5 Grams: Crack Cocaine, Rap Music, and the War on Drugs

5 Grams: Crack Cocaine, Rap Music, and the War on Drugs


In 2010, President Barack Obama signed a law repealing one of the most controversial policies in American criminal justice history: the one hundred to one sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder whereby someone convicted of "simply" possessing five grams of crack--the equivalent of a few sugar packets--had been required by law to serve no less than five years in prison. In this highly original work, Dimitri A. Bogazianos draws on various sources to examine the profound symbolic consequences of America's reliance on this punishment structure, tracing the rich cultural linkages between America's War on Drugs, and the creative contributions of those directly affected by its destructive effects.

Focusing primarily on lyrics that emerged in 1990s New York rap, which critiqued the music industry for being corrupt, unjust, and criminal, Bogazianos shows how many rappers began drawing parallels between the "rap game" and the "crack game." He argues that the symbolism of crack in rap's stance towards its own commercialization represents a moral debate that is far bigger than hip hop culture, highlighting the degree to which crack cocaine--although a drug long in decline--has come to represent the entire paradoxical predicament of punishment in the U.S. today.


I will not get bagged on a rock.

—Ghostface Killah, “Run,” The Pretty Toney Album, 2004

In all of rap’s gangster mythology there is perhaps no more overused imagery than Brian De Palma’s 1983 movie, Scarface, especially its last scene. In it, Al Pacino, in a paranoid frenzy after snorting scoops of cocaine arranged like mountains on his desk, charges onto his balcony with a military issue M-16 rifle—complete with grenade launcher—to face a small army of rival drug dealers. Before he finally falls face first into the fountain below, his body is literally perforated by bullets and sent through the railing by a shotgun blast to his back.

By the time Tony Montana, Pacino’s character, died, he had become, by all accounts, a cocaine kingpin, having moved what probably amounted to tons of cocaine. Tony Montana’s kingpin status and his ultraviolent death, therefore, have provided rap artists with a ready-made model of gangster heroism. And, indeed, the adoption of Scarface as an icon by self-consciously gangsta rappers is an easy connection to make. After all, how much more gangster can one get?

Even given the seeming obviousness of adopting Tony Montana as a hero, Ghostface Killah’s promise—which he makes in the same song from which the above epigraph was drawn—to “die with the heart of Scarface” in order to avoid getting arrested for the equivalent of one sugar packet worth of crack cocaine seems extreme. Tony Montana, that is, died for moving tons, not grams. Perhaps, then, Ghostface’s claims—along with those of countless other rap artists—are to be interpreted simply as the exaggerated boasts of an overactive imagination. Such exaggerations are all the more apparent because—as a major supplier of powder cocaine, the substance from which crack is ultimately derived—Tony Montana . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.