It's a frigid December night in West Oakland, and the sky is as black as slag. Rain pours down in thick, oily sheets, sweeping all kinds of detritus along the road. Outside Soundwave Studios, people are loading band equipment into their vans, or huddling under the awning to smoke cigarettes and listen to the rain. That's when a car swerves by from out of nowhere. It lurches haphazardly down the block, careening so far to one side that one of the smokers flinches. The driver does a tremendous B-movie turn that makes her brakes squeal and then pulls up in front of the mortified onlookers. She rolls down her window and smiles apologetically. ¨We were thizzin',¨ she later explains.
The driver, Brittany, and her passenger, Michelle, plan to drop into a liquor store before stopping at Mingles Martini and Champagne Lounge for ¨Jeans and High Heels,¨ a weekly hip-hop party sponsored by Thizz Entertainment. True to the night's theme, the two are indeed thizzin' -- meaning, in hip-hop patois, that they're high on the drug Ecstasy. Brittany's car is cluttered with fliers, one of which advertises Thizz Entertainment's forthcoming New Year's party. Blending garish neon lettering with lurid hip-hop iconography including a "booty poppin'" contest complete with an illustration of said booty, it's a stunning example of how Ecstasy has been plucked out of the hippie-rave community and repackaged with a flashy hip-hop veneer. In the center lies a picture of the cover image from the late Mac Dre's CD Thizzelle Washington, which shows the rapper in his '70s polo shirt, aviator glasses, and Afro 'do, busting a disco pose in front of a backdrop of psychedelic colors. The Thizz Entertainment logo appears at the bottom in hazy, pixelated letters, as though to convey the feeling of fuzzy disorientation that comes with an Ecstasy high.
Granted, these promotional materials stop short of directly merchandising Ecstasy. Yet it's clear that Thizz Entertainment is capitalizing on the drug's popularity. B.M.R. Slim, who promotes "Jeans and High Heels" along with a host of other parties, credits Mac Dre for coining the word "thizz" -- a term that would come to define a new hip-hop subculture. "It's about feeling yourself," Slim says. "If you listen to the music, you'll understand."
Brittany and Michelle would certainly agree. Barreling down 7th Street, Brittany screeches through a red light into a rain-slicked intersection and nearly collides with another car. Both vehicles skid dangerously, but Brittany seems unconcerned. "It was his right of way, but he didn't have to be driving that fast," she clucks. She turns up the heat and switches the radio dial to KMEL, the Bay Area's dominant hip-hop radio station. The DJ is playing Mac Dre's ubiquitous "Feelin' Myself," followed by a sequence of visceral up-tempo numbers that includes Mistah F.A.B.'s catchy "New Oakland," which contains the line High off purple, only thizzin' off a pill. Indeed, the song sounds as if it was written in a moment of intense bliss: F.A.B. is shouting screwball rhymes over a rickety beat that could be a recording of cowbells and hubcaps being clanged together. The mood is infectious. "Oh, I'm feeling my thizzle now," Brittany says.
Over the last couple of years, more and more people have been feelin' their thizzle. These days in hip-hop clubs, the dancefloors are a morass of swollen pupils and puckering "thizz faces." Pills were changing hands when the Team -- whose hit song, "I'm on One," includes the lyric Lil' weed, lil' Ecstasy/Lil' Rémy with some lil' bitches next to me -- performed at San Jose's Ambassador's Lounge last fall. In November, a girl lounging on the waterfront deck of Zazoo's Restaurant in Jack London Square bragged that she'd been thizzing for four days. If you type "thizz" into the "display name" search box at MySpace.com, you'll get no fewer than 120 pages, one of which is wallpapered with images of Ecstasy pills. And that's not counting all the variations on the theme -- like "Da One N.A.S.T.Y. F.R.E.A.K.," who lists his general interests as "dancing, reading, thizzing, smokin', drinking, and long walks on the beach on a pill like wahhhhh yadastand?"
A whole new crop of slang terms has sprung up from the Ecstasy craze. According to San Francisco Bay View writer Apollonia Jordan, "thizzing" could also be substituted for "zoning," "bustin' your head," or "stuntin'." Pills are "stunnas," a word used liberally in hip-hop to signify anything of material value. And Ecstasy references are common coin in rap lyrics: Twista's rap ballad "Girl Tonight" includes a verse beginning Make her feel like she popped a pill, got her feelin' Ecstasy/Took her to the bedroom, about to make her an overnight celebrity. Meanwhile, in 2005, the Hunters Point emcee Guce released an album whose back cover illustration depicts two outstretched palms filled with white, purple, and lime-green tablets. The title? Pill Music: "The Rico Act" Vol. 1.
Ecstasy has become enmeshed in the social F.A.B.ric of hip-hop. It is figuring into its sexual politics and amplifying some of the scene's sleazier values. Ravers may be content to cuddle and suck pacifiers, but intimacy in hip-hop clubs tends more toward bumping and grinding. Put Ecstasy in a space where everyone is freaking to Ciara's "My Goodies" or Ying Yang Twins raps that tout the godlike powers of male genitalia, and the drug starts reflecting the psychology of the space.
"If you're taking Ecstasy at a hip-hop club, you're going into it knowing you're in a setting where people are gonna be picking up on each other," says Michie Duterte, a researcher at the Institute for Scientific Analysis, a San Francisco nonprofit that studies drug policy, among other topics. Indeed, one guy who popped his first pill at a Fillmore show featuring the Team and Mistah F.A.B. spent a good portion of the night hanging out in the lobby, languidly staring at girls and mumbling about how he wanted to take someone home and make it pop off. In Dr. Dre's "Let's Get High" -- a song that's already five years old -- sex, Ecstasy, and machismo are all part of the program: Yeah -- I just took some Ecstasy, ain't no tellin what the side effects could be/All these fine bitches equal sex to me, plus I got this bad bitch layin next to me/No doubt, sit back on the couch, pants down, rubber on, set to turn that ass out. The story is nothing new; we're already accustomed to hearing rappers bluster about all the fine bitches they've spiked. But now Ecstasy is part of the plot.
Not everyone in hip-hop is popping pills, however. In fact, some people are condemning them. Crack may be on the decline, but it's wrought enough damage on black communities to make most people gun-shy around any other illegal substance -- even a "designer drug" typically festooned with a spiffy logo and a nice neon patina. Confronted with a new drug epidemic, many folks are paranoid of being rubbed raw all over again.