Written by Laura Davies
Lean, also known as, purple drank, sizzurp, dirty sprite, syrup, Texas tea, or barre, is probably the sweetest way to get high. Not because it’s particularly good for you, I mean, it can kill you, but because it’s practically pure sugar. Well, except for the highly addictive, breath-suppressing opioid, codeine. It contains that too.
Rap and hip-hop artists are the drink’s biggest fans. Lil Wayne described it as his “beloved” despite it contributing to his life-threatening seizures, and Young Thug said over and over again, “Lean is amazing, ‘mazing, ‘mazing,” in his 2015 song, “I Wanna.” Unfortunately, these same artists have also suffered the worst effects of the syrup. Multiple rappers have died from lean overdoses or its side effects, and countless have fallen into addiction and transitioned on to more deadly fentanyl.
Lean didn’t begin life as the fruity and sweet pink drink it is today. Which makes sense, as you’d think marketing something that looks like Carrie Bradshaw should be drinking it to a bunch of rappers would be a hard sell. Even if it did get you high.
The original recipe came from Houston’s blues musicians in the 1960s. They found spiking beer with cough syrup, although not the tastiest, resulted in a relaxed high. When wine coolers, came onto the market, they quickly made the switch and the drink gained popularity among rappers and hip-hop artists growing up in the same parts of the city.
Things didn’t really take off, though, until the FDA declared the combination of promethazine, a sedating anti-histamine, and codeine, an opioid, effective for treating coughs. Actavis was the first to bring a syrup that combined the two to market, but other pharmaceutical companies would follow. By 2013, 27 different recipes from 7 different producers had received approval and made it to market.
The addition of the antihistamine took the high to the next level as the drowsiness combined with the opioid created a sense of relaxation and slowed time. Plus, people had figured out that, if you mixed the medicine with sweet soda and added a Jolly Rancher, it was actually pretty delicious. It also gained its name, Lean, for the way it made users so relaxed they’d lean over diagonally.
Although not the inventor, Robert Earl Davis Jr., aka DJ Screw, was the man who brought lean to the forefront of the Houston hip-hop scene. Not only did his mixtapes feature references to the drink, like his track, “Sippin’ Codeine,” but he made music that’s said to embody the feeling that lean delivered, almost as if the music was high itself.
He achieved this by remixing tracks, slowing the tempo to 60 and 70 quarter-note beats per minute and utilising beat skips, record scratching and stop time techniques. This was groundbreaking for the Southern hip-hop scene, which was usually fast and upbeat, and the music became known as chopped and screwed, hence the name DJ Screw. His slow, mellow tracks were perfect to enjoy when high on lean and, as his music took off, so did the popularity of the drink.
Although he often receives a fair amount of blame for the rise of lean at this point, it’s probably fair to mention that not everyone feels this way. His defenders claim he was just telling people what was going on in South Houston at the time. Screw also denied the connection, saying, “People think just to listen to my tapes you gotta be high or dranked out. That ain’t true. There’s kids getting my tapes, moms and dads getting my tapes, don’t smoke or drink or nothing.”
Tragically, on the 16th of November 2000, at just 29 years old, he was found dead in the bathroom of his recording studio. Blood tests confirmed the presence of Valium, PCP, and codeine in his blood. He’d died overdosing on lean.
Lean Goes National
His death, however, did nothing to slow the spread of lean. By this time, it had spread through the rap and hip-hop communities, and other musicians had started referencing it in their music. In 2000, Three 6 Mafia brought out “Sippin’ on some Syrup”, Big Moe, who’s featured on DJ Screw’s tracks, released an album entitled “City of Syrup”, and Pimp C opened his verse of Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin” with “Smokin’ out, pourin’ up. Keepin’ lean up in my cup”. But it didn’t end there. References to codeine in rap songs more than tripled between 2000 and 2007 and have continued.
In fact, it’s become so mainstream that even people who aren’t fans of the genre have probably heard lean lyrics multiple times. For example, Far East Movement’s “Like a G6” included, “Sippin’ sizzurp in my ride,” and Lil Nas X’s hit “Old Town Road” featured the lyrics, “Lean all in my Bladder.”
It’s also taken over Instagram, with countless celebrities like Justin Bieber, Soulja Boy, and Rob Kardashian all posing with the drink. Young Thug even went so far as to post a picture of himself receiving the purple liquid intravenously with the caption, “Fuck a double cup, I wanna feel it faster,”
Why Did Lean Become so Popular?
Lean took off because, at first, it was cheap and easy to find. In 1993, a bottle cost about $100 so, a two-ounce dose cost about $20, and that’s only if you had to resort to the black market. Remember, we’re talking about a totally legal cough medicine. With a prescription, you could pick up a whole bottle from a pharmacy for around $20.
The fact that it was a legal medicine was another factor that influenced the growth of lean. People just weren’t scared of it because it was only cough syrup. Of course, the fact that it was an opioid and what rapper Danny Brown would later refer to as “liquid heroin” didn’t really enter most people’s minds.
Another factor contributing to lean’s success was the taste. We’ve all heard that sugar can be just as addictive as heroin, and syrup is about as sweet as it gets. It also meant lots of younger kids who wanted to copy their favourite rappers could do so without suffering neat vodka or hacking up a lung attempting to smoke weed. Plus, it was much easier to hide from their parents. These kids would grow up to be the SoundCloud generation and continue the worship of lean in their own lyrics.
This leads us to the next reason why so many in the rap and hip-hop scene developed a syrup habit. They wanted to fit in, and to many, it felt like that just wasn’t possible if they weren’t sipping syrup. It also made it hard to stop drinking it for fear of rejection, or as rapper Future put it, “I didn’t wanna tell nobody I stopped drinking lean. Cause then they gonna be like ‘Oh his music changed cause he ain’t drinking lean no more.’”
The final cause of the lean phenomenon was, of course, the high. Those who’ve tried it describe it as a feeling of euphoria, as if you’re floating away from your own body. It’s like it calms your brain activity and allows everything to slow down. It removes anxiety, makes it easier to write, and even helps you sleep.
Syrup’s Side Effects and Addiction
It’s not all good though, as lean produces plenty of unpleasant side effects like vomiting, itchiness, severe constipation, depression, dizziness, seizures, changes in heart rhythm, trouble breathing, and an overdose can kill you.
None of these, however, was the reason rapper Danny Brown decided to kick his syrup habit. He chose to give it up simply because it was making him fat. At the height of his addiction, he was consuming 2 litres of sugary soda a day along with the cough syrup, and combined with the severe constipation, he was starting to look pregnant. This telltale sign, the “lean belly,” he said, is one of the easiest ways to know if a rapper is really drinking lean or just doing it for show. What he calls “studio sipping.”
For anyone suffering the effects, unfortunately, it’s not so simple to give it up. As with any opioid, the codeine in lean is incredibly addictive. It triggers the same brain receptors as heroin, and with that comes the same cravings and loss of control. Plus, you continuously need more and more of it to get high.
Quitting lean results in withdrawal that’s described as the worst flu ever. People vomit, shiver, sweat, ache and panic. They can’t eat or sleep. All they can do is lie on the floor, cramping and shaking. Plus, everything that was being held in due to constipation will then be released, and it won’t stop. Even when empty, just a few drops of water are enough to set it off again. Danny Brown described it as an “all-out flood gates” type situation during an interview when trying to deglamorize syrup for the next generation.
In his 2007 mix tape, “I Feel Like Dying,” Lil Wayne described his relationship with both drinking and attempting to quit lean. “Only once the drugs are gone, I feel like dying,” “Jumpin’ off a mountain into a sea of codeine.”
As hard as the withdrawal is, however, it’s not the thing that kills, it’s the overdoses, respiratory depression, and cardiopulmonary stress when sipping, that does it. Although deaths aren’t as common as with other opioids like fentanyl, they do happen.
After DJ Screw, Big Moe was next to go. His love of the purple stuff was well documented and he dedicated two albums to it, the first being “City of Syrup” and the next, “Purple World.” His lyrics featured lines like, “Can’t nobody sip more than Moe, yo,” and “I sip codeine. It makes a southside playa lean.” Tragically he died, in 2007, at the age of 33, following a coma-inducing heart attack. Although his cause of death wasn’t an OD, it’s speculated that the years of codeine abuse put the stress on his heart that killed him.
Pimp C followed Big Moe just two months later. Although the coroner reported lean in his system, it wasn’t enough for an OD. However, the artist also suffered from sleep apnea, a condition that slows or pauses breathing during sleep. The combination of his excessive codeine use with the condition suppressed his breathing long enough to kill him. He was also only 33 years old.
Another heartbreaking lean victim was Juice WRLD, who died from an overdose at just 21 years old. His syrup use was immortalised in music with singles like “Lean wit Me” and a collaborative mixtape with rapper Future called “Wrld on Drugs”. The cover art – a styrofoam cup pouring purple syrup over the world.
His death was particularly painful for Future as, when they first met, Juice informed him that he was the reason he started drinking lean as a child. Future later recalled the moment, “When he told me that, I was like, ‘Oh shit. What the fuck have I done? How many other sixth-graders did I influence to drink lean?’ I made it seem so cool, I made it seem so fucking cool.”
How Big is the Problem?
In the US in 2020, 9.3 million people misused prescription medication; there were 94,000 opioid overdoses; and 5.5% of 17–18-year-olds had used cough medicine to get high. The result is that opioids have killed 500,000 Americans between 1999 and 2019. However, the majority of these deaths are attributed to fentanyl, not codeine or lean. Its use has largely remained in the rap and hip-hop scene, which is largely due to the cost.
While codeine cough syrups started out as relatively cheap, they’ve become harder to come by as high-profile deaths have highlighted the potential for abuse. Some still access it with a prescription, but these aren’t given out as readily anymore. Actavis, the first manufacturer, even pulled their product from shelves due to unlawful use, and Akorn switched from plastic bottles to glass because it gives the syrup a more bitter taste.
However, as with all drugs, if it’s removed from legal sale, people will just find a way to access it illegally. The street price exploded, with a $50 bottle on prescription fetching $800 to $100 on the black market. A bottle of discontinued Actavis could demand up to $3000 as its distinctive taste makes it “the caviar of sippin’”. In 2013, several technicians were arrested for stealing 110 gallons of the medicine from University Hospital in Georgia, and robberies of pharmacies skyrocketed.
For example, in 2016, three men, including aspiring rapper Darrish Martin, began robbing drug stores to steal cough syrup in South Florida. It’s estimated they managed 46 burglaries in just 11 months. They pleaded not guilty, but the case was pretty much closed when investigators found photos on Darrish’s Facebook and Instagram showing him posing with the bottles of syrup, still bearing the barcodes of those that were stolen.
Not all syrup on the streets is stolen, though. In some cases, those with prescriptions are choosing to sell their doses on for profit. For example, street artist, Ablescup admitted that, if he’s having a tight month, instead of drinking it himself, he’ll often sell his $21 bottles for $1000. Some pharmacies are attempting to stop this practice. Instead of dispensing brand-name syrup, they’ll pop the seal and decant it into a generic bottle. This destroys its value completely as buyers can’t be sure of the brand, or if it even contains codeine.
Happily, the ridiculous pricing has prevented lean from becoming an epidemic among teenagers, who’d otherwise be more than happy to try a drug in the form of a sugary drink. This is just as well because, thanks to capitalism, a bunch of companies decided to cash in on the dangerous trend by launching their own brands of “anti-energy drinks” and marketing them to teens. Of course, they don’t contain codeine. But they do come in purple cans with names like “Drank,” “Purple Stuff,” and “Sippin Syrup,” just to make sure kids can start copying the drug abuse habits of their favourite artists early.
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