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New York, Hip Hop culture and the normalization of cannabis

Hip Hop culture and cannabis have been synonymous since the 90’s, with bands like Cypress Hill bringing cannabis from a plant still associated with old hippies, or reggae, to the mainstream. 

Now as cannabis legalization spreads, Hip Hop artists are continuing their connection to the plant with brands such as Berner’s Cookies, Snoop Dogg’s Leafs and many more. 

We sat down with Fab 5 Freddy, ahead of his session at Business of Cannabis: New York. Fab 5 Freddy, visual artist, filmmaker and Hip Hop pioneer to discuss his thoughts on the evolution of hip hop and cannabis, its importance in New York culture and how New York’s legal cannabis market can draw from the cultural heritage of New York’s music scene.

What effect did cannabis have on the evolution of the music scene in New York? 

It was a great accessory to the music scene in New York. In my lifetime we saw the development of Hip Hop, and cannabis was a huge part of that. Cannabis was an integral part of the cultural scene – we called it Cheba back then. There’s a song by Harlem Underground called “Smokin’ Cheba Cheba” that reflects on what that culture was all about.

Why do you think cannabis is still so synonymous with Hip Hop in comparison to genres such as modern Jazz or Rock? 

Rock music today is not as innovative as it once was, but Hip Hop music and culture dominate the planet. The beats, rhythms and especially the words, folks still have a lot to say. Hip Hop from its core was born in the ghettos of NYC and is a snapshot of the urban lifestyle across the country. A part of that lifestyle was, and still is, cannabis. As records started getting bigger and spreading more widely, there were many about cannabis and how they consumed it as a part of their lives. 

With recent significant cannabis policy changes in New York, who are the artists and cultural figures that have continually challenged the dogma and helped move cannabis into the mainstream? 

I would have to say probably more than anyone, Cypress Hill as a group has been all about that 100%. They’ve suffered consequences and were shunned from shows like SNL. As legislation progresses, I hope that changes.

And of course, Snoop Dogg, who is now a considerable cannabis business man who’s always got a blunt burning. One of his first hit songs had the line, “Smokin’ on indo sippin on Gin and Juice,” and that is still a huge moment in pop culture that brings cannabis to the mainstream. 

Also we have to include reggae artists starting from the 1970’s, from Bob Marley and Peter Tosh to Bob’s son Damien Marley, all singing proudly about the plant’s power. 

We’re witnessing the birth of a legal cannabis industry first hand. Are there aspects of cannabis’ underground cultural heritage that will endure as it becomes part of society? 

Yes, cannabis is a comradery creating substance. It brings people together in a way that nothing else can. People come together around other substances, but I think Snoop’s infamous line in my film Grass is Greener says it all – he mentioned that if you put a bunch of people in a room drinking alcohol, they’re probably going to fight. But if you put a bunch of people in a room with cannabis, they’re bound to get together and start taking selfies and all that. I think that sums up how cannabis can bring people together and create good vibrations. 

New York has been the birthplace of many artistic and cultural movements. How might emerging cannabis businesses integrate NYC’s rich cultural history into their brands? 

I think these brands coming to town need to do the research to understand New York’s pivotal cultural history – from the development of jazz in the teens and 1920’s to the development of hip hop, and really understand who paved that road. From the history of the beloved Jewish jazz player, Mezz Mezrow, who supplied the jazz world in Harlem in the 1930’s with his consistently good “golden leaf”, to Harlem’s legendary Branson in the 1990’s, who did the same for the Hip Hop scene. He is name dropped in dozens of popular rap songs. There’s not a lot of published history on the legacy cannabis market, but we all need to understand how people risked life and limb to put cannabis into the mainstream. And it’s also important to put a lens on those most historically victimized – both people of color as well as our white comrades, the hippies who had a radical outlook to correct injustices in the world with cannabis at the center. 

Why are you looking forward to speaking at Business of Cannabis: New York? 

Because New York is about to be one of the major capitals of cannabis on the planet. We have the most progressive legislation in the country and we’re about to step up, so it’s important that we get it right and acknowledge the role that New York played in culturally embracing the plant for nearly a century.

Business of Cannabis: New York will be held November 3rd at the New York Academy of Medicine, located at 1216 5th Ave, New York. Join us and leading speakers, including Fab 5 Freddy, as we deep dive into the New York opportunity.


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