Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Peder Clark. Dr. Clark is a historian of modern Britain, with research interests in drugs, subcultures, health, everyday life, and visual culture. He completed his PhD in 2019 at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and currently holds a position at the University of Liverpool.
“Sipping on some sizzurp, sip, sipping on some, sip / Sipping on some sizzurp, sip, sipping on some, sip”
With bass rattling and drums stuttering, what was this magical elixir that Memphis rapper Project Pat so thrillingly (and alliteratively) extolled? “Sippin’ on my Syrup”—released in early 2000 by Pat’s brother’s group Three Six Mafia and UGK—was an anthem that introduced the titular intoxicant to wider public consciousness.
Known by a variety of names including “Syrup,” “sizzurp,” “purple drank,” “Texas tea,” or “lean,” the drink was a potent cocktail of cough syrup (containing codeine and promethazine), a sugary carbonated beverage (typically Sprite), and hard candy such as Jolly Ranchers to add further flavor. Users report a woozy euphoria that is both relaxing and trippy and that feels”almost like you’re floating away from your body.”
By the time of “Sippin’ on my Syrup’s” recording, lean had become closely associated with major southern cities—or, more precisely, with the popular “dirty south” rap and hip-hop sound that produced Outkast, Big Tymers, Goodie Mob, Ludacris, 2Chainz, and, more recently, Travis Scott, Migos, and Megan Thee Stallion, to name just a few. Lance Scott Walker’s authoritative Houston Rap Tapes suggests that blues musicians had been adding cough syrup to their wine or beer as early as the 1960s, and, by the nineties, it was the intoxicant of choice for those in the rap game.
It’s not unusual for drugs to become heavily linked with particular musical styles—think cocaine with the blues; heroin with be-bop jazz; marijuana with reggae; ecstasy with rave; or, as Michael Brownrigg has previously explained on Points, Xanax with “SoundCloud rap.” An easy, but misleading, analogy would be crack cocaine’s association with the so-called “gangsta” rap of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Historian David Farber has deftly explored the gang-affiliations and lyrical allusions that marked out what he calls the “street capitalism” of the crack seller.
But lean is—and was—quite different. Selling “bricks” and “cooking up,” for sure, was an important aspect of the Southern repertoire, most especially the trap music that emerged from Atlanta. Although some “vintage” bottles of cough syrup could sell for up to $3,000, drinking lean was primarily about having a good time, not getting rich.
DJ Screw was a long-time consumer of lean, and Jia Tolentino, among many others, has pointed out the apparently symbiotic relationship between the drink’s purported effects and the sluggish, lysergic quality of his tapes: “Chopped and screwed mimics the feeling you get from lean—a heady and dissociative security, as if you’re moving very slowly toward a conclusion you don’t need to understand.”
Screw’s music may have been slow in tempo, but his work-rate was prodigious. The comparatively few eight tapes he released in the last year of his life led some to believe that his substance use was hindering rather than helping his production. On November 21, 2000, Screw was found dead in a bathroom stall at the age of 29. The autopsy later stated that DJ Screw’s premature death was a result of a “codeine overdose with mixed drug intoxication” including Valium and PCP.
In the two decades since Screw’s passing, drank’s renown has spread far beyond its southern origins, through other musical genres, and into mainstream culture. Swedish house producer Axel Boman, for example, scored an underground club hit in 2010 with “Purple Drank,” while Justin Bieber’s confession of his apparent addiction to lean brought its notoriety to an entirely new teen and pre-teen audience.
Naturally, no seemingly new intoxicant—especially one initially related to a particular musical subculture—escapes the frequent moral panics that often surround intoxicating substances. Public health researchers have tended to frame lean as a somewhat esoteric footnote to the wider opioid crisis, or they have treated its celebration in song as one more way that rap music can be held responsible for leading impressionable youths astray.
It’s hard to avoid noticing the racialized nature of some of this discourse—and we might also note in passing that George Floyd appeared on six DJ Screw mixtapes. Research suggests, however, “that purple drank use is not limited to African American males,” and, as Tolentino points out, white country singers like Townes van Zandt had been singing about their use of cough syrup since the 1970s.
It is also true to say that some of lean’s most conspicuous celebrants fell victim to it. UGK’s Pimp C died in 2008 from an overdose, and Big Moe, a Screw protégé who had released albums such as City of Syrup and Purple World, similarly died of a heart-attack linked to his prodigious lean habit.
Fellow Houston rapper Crisco Kidd drew a parable from Big Moe’s untimely passing: “Maybe his death tells us it’s time for everyone to put their cup down.” Indeed, many high profile users have disavowed the substance in recent years. Lil Wayne was reportedly cutting back on medical advice; Future worried about the effect his repeated reference to lean was having on young fans; and Gucci Mane attributed his physical transformation over the past few years to quitting lean.
As lean’s moment in the cultural zeitgeist fades, what sense might drug historians make of its rise and relative fall? We might start by paying attention to lean’s plentiful oral and musical culture. There are no shortage of swaggering, bombastic, boastful panegyrics to the wonders of lean.
Lil Wayne wrote a love song for it: “Me and my drank/ Up in the studio, someone pour another four/ Oh, oh, yeah/ I told the bitch one more ounce will make me feel so great/ Wait, now I can’t feel my face/ Will somebody please, please double cup me?.” Gucci Mane, meanwhile, more prosaically declared his “Bladder piss a lot of pink/ ‘Cause that lean I like to drink.”
Scholars could analyze these celebratory songs in the same way that early modernists study broadside ballads, commemorating bouts of drinking and other feats of inebriation. As historian Phil Withington suggests, such ephemera provide insight into cultures of intoxication. Intoxication, he writes, is a “perennial, universal, and intrinsic feature of human societies that is nevertheless performed in specific ways, and with specific meanings and consequences, according to time and place.”