Interviewer: Last week we mourned the loss of Malik Abdul Basit, better known as Malik B, a hip hop artist and one of the founding members of the legendary group The Roots. Malik was only 47.
The exact cause of Malik's death has yet to be confirmed, but it fits into a troubling pattern of rappers, especially those from the golden era of hip hop's early days dying young from illness.
Eazy-E from NWA died from complications with AIDS at 30 years old.
J Dilla died from a heart attack at 32.
Prodigy, who was half of the group Mobb Deep, died from choking and complications with sickle cell anemia at 45.
Phife Dawg from A Tribe Called Quest died from complications with diabetes at 45 and the list goes on.
Dart Adams is a hip hop journalist and historian and he joins me now to help us understand why so many hip hop artists are dying young. Dart, thanks for being with us.
Dart Adams: Thanks for having me.
Interviewer: Just listening to those tracks back to back to back you just realized that the genius frankly that we've lost in hip hop community and so young. Dart, what's going on here? Is there something about the industry that's intensifying and creating health problems for these folks? Because these are my contemporaries.
Dart: The fact of the matter is that when you work in the music industry, especially when you're signed to a record label, it's basically a new update of the sharecropping ideal. You get a loan essentially, and you have to pay it back, and you don't make any money until you recoup that loan. If you record your album, there's certain costs and overhead, and until you make all that money back for the label, you don't really make money except for maybe the money you make for shows which is dependent on how successful your music is.
What I'm saying is if you're creative, or you're on a label, and you're a musician, that you might have to hustle and work three times harder than you initially hoped just to be able to see any money, even though you're all over the place and you're visible, so there's that stress added to it. There's no health insurance that comes with this. I could run off a list of a whole bunch of MCs that weren't named in your segment that died due to some health issues.
Interviewer: A lot of these people that we're talking about are black and/or Latino. What role does that race in economic background play into what we're talking about?
Dart: I live in the south in Lower Roxbury and if you go further down into Roxbury or the Back Bay, there's a big difference between the life expectancy of people who live in that area or Beacon Hill versus Roxbury. It drops like more than 10 years, and if you extrapolate that, and deal with it, all right, we have a bunch of people from the inner city, and they're black and Latino and they already might have health complications and there's no health insurance in the music industry, if you have any extenuating circumstances with your health going in, it's going to be exacerbated by constantly having to work, go on tour.
You can't take care of yourself and you can't take days off especially now that there's even less money in the industry.
Interviewer: Dart, you've been covering the hip hop industry for decades now. What's it been like to watch rappers who are passing away in the 30s and 40s? You said you know other MCs who weren't on that list of luminaries at the top.
Dart: Yes, when I think about guys like Poetic AKA Grym Reaper, he died of colon cancer, and they had to raise money just to get him treatment. I have so many numbers in my phone, two days ago was just the anniversary of the passing of my friend Payton Lock who was an independent hip hop producer and rapper, and he died also of cancer. Sean Price died in his sleep. When you have any type of health issue, we're not getting the help that we need, we don't have coverage, and we have to work that much harder just to be able to see any kind of financial benefit or profit. In this day and age of this exponential age, you have to get above the noise.
Imagine how much work you have to be because you have to do everything now.
Interviewer: Dart, we're talking about illnesses that are manifesting physically for a lot of people, but we're not talking about mental health. Mental health, there's been a lot of talk about that with recent coverage of Kanye West, and how the industry perceives or doesn't perceive mental health issues. How has the hip hop community done when it comes to mental health?
Dart: I think in the '90s, we had very few people that understood that what some people were rapping about was actually struggling with mental health. Scarface was early doing it. You had other MCs that were just talking about different things like Notorious B.I.G's Ready to Die. That album is talking about his fading mental health while he's trying to hustle, and make money, and stay above water.
These are the same situations that artists now face, especially in a system where you're not making that much money from streaming revenue, and you can't tour anymore, so if you had any type of pre-existing health condition, it's going to be exacerbated now because what, you're going to go to the hospital where they might be overrun with COVID cases? You don't want to go to the hospital unless you have anything short of something super serious, and by that time, it's already too late, and we've been dealing with that for the last four months.
Interviewer: Right now we're talking really about male rappers so far, but what about women rappers in the industry who often don't get the same attention as male rappers? Do we know whether they too are experiencing the types of illnesses that we're talking about here and other types of health pressure?
Dart: Unfortunately, with women, they might be dealing with the same issues, but it's also made worse by the fact they're being preyed upon, and they're victims of violence and all these other issues that women have to deal with on top of the things that are going to affect them and their health because they're black and Latino. If you look at the birth rate, or the rate of women that die while giving birth, or the death rates of children that are black and Latino, it's insane when I was told by a couple of people that worked in hospital.
Interviewer: Dart, this is not a new issue, we just went through a whole list of people, you gave me your list of people. At some point, if the industry isn't doing anything for its artists, what are the artist doing for each other? Are artists beginning to talk about things like that we're talking about right now just in terms of the health issues that disproportionately affect black and Latino communities in particular? Are artists doing anything, to protect each other or themselves?
Dart: Absolutely. I think that there was a big groundswell of things happening. August 8th will be the fifth anniversary of the passing of Sean Price. When Sean Price passed away, I think that that was a big turning point and people waking up, and it happened right after we lost another guy from Brooklyn, Pumpkinhead, PH as most people knew him.
These guys were really big in the underground rap community, especially in Brooklyn. They were tied to everybody from the rap recording world to the freestyle battle world. When they passed away, people started wanting to be healthier, changing their lifestyle around.
A lot of people went either vegan, vegetarian. There was a whole lot of talk about being more active, and being around, and trying to survive into your 40s when we started seeing our peers pass away. There's that line of 40 to 45, and when we start seeing our peers pass away, it starts to really affect you. I have about 25 numbers in my phone and they've all passed away within the last like three to five years, and I'll never call them, I'll never be able to text them again, and it's insane to think that I turn 45 in three weeks
Interviewer: Dart Adams is a hip hop journalist and historian. Dart, thanks for joining us.
Dart: Thanks for having me.
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