Hip hop's codeine love affair

Kings of the double cup: Local rappers Emtee and Saudi have been associated with the drink, which is also popular among rappers in the US.
Kings of the double cup: Local rappers Emtee and Saudi have been associated with the drink, which is also popular among rappers in the US. pictures:supplied

If trap had a face, it would be a heavily tattooed and high one. In the past few years, the genre has emerged as hip-hop’s new sound – so prolific that even pop now sounds like trap.

Hip-hop as a whole has long had a strong pull over those who engage with it. We sag our jeans even if we aren’t carrying a weapon, we wear high-top sneakers that are overpriced and, more recently, we visit the pharmacy to purchase an inexpensive ingredient for a drink that is known on the streets by many names, most commonly sizzup or lean.

Lean is codeine and promethazine, which you can find in common cough syrups and purchase over the counter in most pharmacies. A more accurate description from the Independent Community Pharmacy Association (ICPA) is that it’s a centrally active, low efficacy opioid or narcotic analgesic.

It is derived from the opium poppy plant and is related to the drug heroin. Since codeine is a member of the opiate drug class, it has similar morphine-like effects on the body, giving users a sense of calm and well-being. Codeine is contained in over-the-counter, schedule 2 medication and is typically found in common medicines used to treat the symptoms of colds and flu, to suppress coughs, and to ease headaches and general pain.

Young users mix this with a soft drink, the most popular being Sprite. Once the cocktail is mixed, it’s referred to as a Dirty Sprite, or you might hear people say they’re “sipping muddy” because the drink mixed with cough or fever syrup gives it a brown tinge.

Drinking sizzup is usually paired with smoking weed, and some users drop in jelly babies so they soak up the chemicals. You then eat them afterwards. On the label of popular codeine-based syrups such as BronCleer (about R37 a bottle) and Stilpane (about R24), there is a warning label that states how these medications can cause sleepiness and drowsiness.

The idea of lean is to fight the urge to pass out, which gives users a strong high. Users are put under a potent daze in between wakefulness and sleep.

A codeine culture

It would be simplistic to say that hip-hop is solely to blame for young people’s affinity for codeine. We live in South Africa, the land of few opportunities and great disadvantages. In any township you go to, you’ll find two things: a church and a tavern. Both offer a means to escape the harsh realities of an African life.

At church, you’re offered prophecy and the idea that things can only get better if you pray hard. The rest of us heathens opt to dull the pain with chemical aids, liquor, or, given that it is so much cheaper, codeine.

Nevertheless, the romanticisation by hip-hop of lean cannot be ignored. Users are drawn to it because of the glamour assigned to this drug by rappers looking to emulate the blueprint laid down by the likes of Weezy [Lil Wayne] and Future.

The idea of feeling “wavy” stems from the euphoric and lackadaisical high the drug brings. Many people’s first recollection of someone sipping muddy is US rapper Lil Wayne – due to years of codeine abuse, his vocals fragmented. Back when he was pretty much the best commercial rapper alive, he even paid a guy to hold his double cup of lean as he went about his day.

In 2015, trap music received arguably one of the most pivotal records from Atlanta-based trapper Future. His Dirty Sprite 2 album changed the way this genre was crafted through his production team of Metro Boomin and Southside.

The contents of Dirty Sprite 2 painted a dark story of a man consumed by his lust for women, and who numbs the pain of heartache and the traumas that come with selling drugs in “a whole lot of dirty soda” and prescription drugs like Xanax.

Trap has pollinated other avenues of music. On his 2016 Malibu album, Anderson Paak sings: “Volume 1 was too freaky for you frail niggas/ so I got lean like codeine and pills.”

As with most pop culture trends, US rappers’ profanity for singing about codeine has filtered across to our shores. In 2014, one of the hardest local duos came into the light. Sjava and Saudi gave us the street classic Vura over a DJ Citi Lyts production. In the second verse, Saudi kicks a scheme about taking an envelope to Baba Nxumalo. After a brief tangent, he says: “Okay back to the story I showed them the funds/ we poured up the lean Bese sayenz’ Iplan/ Pulled up on Andile he was the one that showed me thezidakamizwa [the drugs].”

On the heater Plug, which means drug dealer, Emtee spits: “I’m drippin/ I’m sippin/ I show love to the streets.”

Lean Team is a group of local rappers whose entire approach is based on the drink. Their front runner, Flame, prior to the rift at the Wrecking Crew, threw a few darts on a Zooci Coke Dope record, Sweet Revenge: “Rolling, I’m rolling/ I’m rolling mixing soda/ Pour it, I’m going in/ I’m going in till it’s over.”

Ambitiouz Records wouldn’t let Saudi or Sjava speak to us about their affinity for the drink. This scheme is probably a story of Saudi’s reality, and he rhymes about it proficiently and proudly, even if he may be unaware of how his verse could be interpreted or how aspects of it are being copied.

Lean Team spit their raps with their chests puffed all the way out, but ran for the hills when we asked them for a simple, judgement-free conversation about lean.

Locally, Emtee has become somewhat of a poster boy for lean. In fact, the brother apparently doesn’t drink alcohol and I’d guess his proclivity for the sweet tonic was behind the social media slip-up on Instagram Live last year when he accidentally revealed his penis.

But he recently told City Press that he no longer drank this highly addictive beverage, which has become as synonymous with hip-hop as Nuvo champagne in 2009 and Cristal throughout the 1990s.

Codeine use

Poisonous party pack: Codeine and weed are usually paired together. pictures:supplied

Codeine is now the most purchased over-the-counter drug in South Africa, with figures around usage estimated at 600 000, according to the ICPA. According to Vice, the numbers are even higher in Zimbabwe, where people drink the syrup neat.

Stavros Nicolaou is Aspen’s senior executive for strategic trade development. Aspen produces Stilpane, a fever syrup for children that’s a popular choice for lean mix. He says there are plans to replace codeine in Stilpane.

“We are presently in discussions with the regulator as to what role it can play to use alternative analgesics. This, to a large degree, depends on SA Health Products Regulatory Authority [SAHPRA] expeditiously approving these alternative analgesic products,” Nicolaou says.

He spoke to us about the need for pharmacies to follow certain procedures when selling these products.

“Such professional care includes keeping a register of purchases of scheduled products made by consumers."

“While many pharmacy chains and independent pharmacists have ensured the proper implementation of the relevant legislation, others have failed to do this. There are bodies that monitor and police this kind of activity, and non-compliance with the relevant regulations can be reported to these,” he says.

Any good pharmacy will also have a notice at the dispensary that says products containing codeine are limited to 40 tablets or 100ml per transaction.

A local pharmacist explains that the issue is that the database at his pharmacy may differ to that of another, and so a person may cap their limit at his and then simply head to another pharmacy and procure more.

He says making these medicines a higher scheduled drug might be the answer.


Kavitha Singh, speaking on behalf of Adcock Ingram, which produces another highly favoured codeine syrup, BronCleer, says that creating a centralised database that shows codeine purchases would be more effective than upping the schedule.

“We support the responsible use of medicines and are not convinced that up-scheduling this product or other products containing codeine will mitigate illicit use and distribution.

“Scheduling is related to a product’s safety profile and therapeutic indications. We do believe that a centralised database for patients should be established and government should advise if the custodian should be the SAHPRA or the SA Pharmacy Council,” she says.

As mentioned before, there are a few steps in place to curb codeine abuse.

Singh gives us a brief breakdown: “Adcock Ingram has internal controls in place to identify and block customers from purchasing abnormal volumes of products containing codeine, and works closely with the SAHPRA on this through regular engagement on the subject.”

She says that schedule 2 medicines may only be sold under personal supervision of a pharmacist and may not be kept in an open shop. Every sale of a schedule 2 medicine must be recorded in a prescription book, thus ensuring the pharmacy has details of patients to whom the medicines are sold.

Schedule 2 medicines are not to be sold to anyone younger than 12, unless there is a prescription issued by a registered medical practitioner.

She adds: “Furthermore, the Medicine Act has scheduling regulations, which are used to ‘schedule’ a medicine when registered with the SAHPRA. In these regulations, products containing codeine are allowed to be sold as schedule 2 medicines in the permissible quantities.”

BronCleer syrup with codeine is sold in 100ml bottles. When more than 100ml is sold, it is no longer considered a schedule 2 medicine and the higher volume may not be sold without a prescription.

“This, in effect, implies that a pharmacy may not sell more than one bottle of 100ml BronCleer with codeine to a patient without a valid prescription,” Singh says.

Easy to buy?

BronCleer: Some user forgo the mix entirely and take codeine- based syrups straight to the head in the hopes of getting 'slizzard'or high. pictures:supplied

I decided to head into the streets and see how easy lean is to buy. Ready with a story about my boss requiring cough syrup for her sick six-year-old, I head to the big commercial pharmacies first, Clicks and Dis-Chem. The woman at the Dis-Chem at Campus Square in Auckland Park lists all the paracetamol-based syrups I should try.

When I mention Stilpane, she says that it would not work well for a child who had the symptoms I faked. I try to push for it, but she stares at me blankly. I am forced to leave. I try the same thing at Clicks. The pharmacist at first buys my story and then suggests a slightly more expensive codeine-based syrup. I dash to the car to get more money and, when I return, a different man says: “Oh, I see, you just want the codeine.”

Yes, I do. “Listen my guy, I’m personally not going to sell this to you because I care about you. I’ve seen too many of my homies go down this road and I can’t have a hand in this. Sorry, bra,” he says.

He projects well, so the people in line hear him and they “mmmhmm” in agreement as I stand there feeling like a junkie. Given that both pharmacies are in Campus Square, a mall frequented by students, it is unsurprising that the staff are vigilant about selling codeine.

The next day, I head to an independent pharmacy east of Johannesburg. After a short wait in line, I walk up and ask if I can get two bottles of Stilpane.

The woman at the counter, who didn’t look like a pharmacist says: “Sure, if you want to kill yourself.”

Despite her words of warning, she still takes my cash and hands me 200ml of lean.

The damage?

RIP Ronske: Cape Town lost a talented wall writer to the scourge or prescription drug abuse. He will be sorely missed. pictures:supplied

According to the SA Pharmacy Council, in addition to disrupting an addict’s social and work life, codeine addiction can result in seizures, liver and kidney damage, depression, anxiety and even death.

General practitioner Dr Hassim explains what this cocktail does to the mind: “Kids will perhaps be prescribed this after an operation and continue to use it once they feel the euphoric effects of it.

“It does cause this, along with listlessness, apathy, drowsiness and a relaxing feeling. Especially when it is combined with alcohol or other opioids.”

She says abuse of the drug can lead to breathing problems that manifest when a person overdoses, which can lead to a coma in some cases.

“The signs to look out for are unusual sleep patterns, confusion and difficulty breathing.”

Some users note a discolouration of their fingernails and, given the sweetness of this drink, tooth decay is not uncommon.

This epidemic has claimed talent in South Africa and abroad. US rapper Mac Miller may very well have been drinking lean on the day he died.

Some view lean as a gateway to prescription drugs such as Xanax and Percocet. These are incredibly strong pharmaceuticals used to treat anxiety and pain, but, truth be told, getting a prescription for them is laughably easy. Some users take these in conjunction with dirty soda, creating a terribly dangerous concoction. Top graffiti artist Ronske from Cape Town overdosed on it late last year.

Grand Mast: Reddy D views the turn hip-hop has taken towards prescription drugs as a deviation away from the true essence of the culture. pictures:supplied

We spoke to legendary deejay and producer Grand Master Ready D about the proliferation of lean in the Cape.

“It’s truly disturbing. Unfortunately, in this instance, hip-hop does start to get the blame. There are Americans who have glorified the use of these substances – either through interviews they do or through their music videos.”

But, he says the idea of substance abuse finding its way into music is not unique to hip-hop.

“I love trap music from a production standpoint. I know artists speak about what they experience on a daily basis through the music, but you will also get those who glorify the negatives. So as far as the messaging goes, I don’t agree with that.”

Ready D first heard about it eight or 10 years ago and didn’t really pay attention to it. He’s been drug-free his whole career, and he doesn’t adhere to the notion that there is a link between narcotics or substance abuse and creativity.

“Using drugs puts a damper on the culture and people get painted with the same brush if you say you’re a hip-hop artist or practitioner. And the culture does get pointed at. Hip-hop seems to be the scapegoat for a lot of society’s issues.”

Rashid Kay, the brains behind the SA Hip-Hop Awards, explains how lean was around even before the trap era took a firm hold of the culture: “It became popular during the Crunk era, when it was called ‘sizzup’ [syrup]. Only the name ‘lean’ or ‘purp’ became popular during the trap era, but it was already there.”

Kay is ambivalent about the notion of hip-hop being blamed for this epidemic. He traces the origins of this drink and when it first infiltrated the culture.

“In the US, Pimp C died from codeine. Lil Wayne had multiple seizures. ODB [Wu Tang], Mac Miller and a few others died from drug overdoses. Locally, HHP [Jabulani Tsambo] had a narcotic situation that might have propelled him to suicide.

“We all saw Emtee falling off the stage, and he’s an open lean user. It’s not only a talent loss to fans, but to their families as well. Most of these artists had young kids when they passed on. These kids were denied an opportunity to make their parents proud. The dearly departed won’t get to see their kids graduate or achieve amazing things. One late artist may have employed 10 or more people, meaning 10 or more families have lost their livelihood.”

. If you are struggling with addiction, reach out to the Independent Community Pharmacy Association by calling 021 671 4473

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