From teen dealers selling fake Xanax bars on social media to addicted college kids using the benzos to help with panic attacks or comedowns, VICE UK is investigating the rise of Britain's counterfeit Xanax use. Read more features in this series here and watch our new film about mental health and fake Xanax, 'Xanxiety: the UK's Fake Xanax Epidemic' here.
Subcultures can often be represented, like a coat of arms, by their drug of choice. Acid for hippies, ecstasy for the Second Summer of Love, endless cans of Monster Energy for pop-punk. It goes without saying that these are broad assumptions. Being bang into pills and enjoying the musical stylings of Happy Mondays aren’t mutually exclusive. But you can learn a lot about the guts of a subculture by how it expresses itself through drugs, music and clothes – the latter usually carrying the most cues because it’s so visual. “Fashion is instant language”, so says Miuccia Prada. In which case it’s worth asking what the recent trinity of Soundcloud rap, contemporary fashion and Xanax is telling us.
Labelled as such because they’re leveraging the streaming platform to swerve traditional routes into the music industry, Soundcloud rappers tend to draw from elements of Atlanta trap and 00s emo and pop-punk. Their names sound like anime characters or former Myspace celebrities, they look like they’re auditioning for a role in a live action reboot of Street Fighter, and they all love – or have fallen out of love – with benzos. Artists like Lil Peep, Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Pump, and Smokepurpp, though not always on the same page sound-wise, all self-promoted themselves into mainstream consciousness while barely having to leave the house. In order to do that, they had to stand out.
The point is to look as unique as possible, but most artists tend to have variations on the following: multi-coloured hair, clothes that combine Hot Topic vibes with current streetwear, and a shit load of jobstoppers (face, neck and hand tattoos). As many outlets have already noted, Soundcloud rappers have a distinctly punk sensibility that – in both sound and presentation – can be seen as the logical rebuttal of the polished everyman vibe that Drake has got going on. Sometimes it feels infantile (see: Lil Pump rapping in a fluffy pink hoodie and a backpack), sometimes it feels surrealist (see: Lil Uzi Vert in general), but it is consistently so far over the top it would turn heads in space.
Occasionally, their notoriety precedes their career. Now disgraced Bushwick rapper 6ix9ine rose to fame last summer an Instagram selfie went viral and turned him into a meme. Months later his, debut single “Gummo” went straight to 58 on the Billboard Hot 100. His style is essentially rap game Dahvie Vanity – rainbow hair, rainbow grillz, and “69” tattooed all over his body like a piece of designer luggage. He’s also been accused of a horrific sex crime, to which he pled guilty, so we’re not going to talk about him anymore, but his was a clear image-first foray into the music industry – an extreme example of Soundcloud rap’s relationship to fame. Since careers are built almost entirely through social media, looks and personality carry just as much clout as the music itself, if not more. As a result, their feeds are hyper-personalised places where music promotion, fashion shoots and Xanax use sit, normalised, side-by-side. In June, Lil Pump celebrated hitting one million Instagram followers by cutting a cake in the shape of a Xanax bar.
Not that this is unusual. This is how celebrity operates now. High fashion has a decades old history with rap. Kanye West, A$AP Rocky, Pharrell and Odd Future all have their own clothing lines, Lil Yachty joined Nautica as a creative designer last year, Raf Simons has been a long-time collaborator, Tupac literally walked down the runway for Versace in 1996. What’s happening with Soundcloud and fashion now is playing out similarly to relationships we’ve seen before, whether it’s between Vivienne Westwood and punk or Stone Island and grime. Soundcloud rap obviously isn't the first subculture to come with a drug attached to it, either, but Xanax acts as a bridge between a specific music scene and the struggles faced by a generation at large.
Before he passed away last November after accidentally overdosing on Xanax laced with fentanyl, Long Island rapper Lil Peep made his debut walking for VLONE and Marcelo Burlon during the Spring/Summer 2018 menswear fashion week circuit (surely the first time a catwalk has ever been graced by a model with the word “Daddy” emblazoned on their chest in gothic script). He also sat front row at Balmain, Fendi and Haider Ackermann shows. Similarly, Lil Uzi Vert is always in Vogue for his “seriously show-stopping ensembles” while patron saint of kitsch, Jeff Koons, recently described him as “very poetic”. All chipped nails and stick n’ pokes, Peep’s look has always been that of a luxury mall rat – bold, dynamic and uncategorizable. The same goes for Lil Uzi Vert, who credits Paramore's Hayley Williams as one of his biggest inspirations, has been known to dress like Avril Lavigne and sometimes wears his hair like he’s running a feminist Tumblr in 2012. Both have a similar style – spikes, chokers, and sweatbands disrupted by streetwear and luxury labels – and both have had problems with Xanax.
Hours before his death, Lil Peep uploaded videos to Instagram of himself dropping Xanax bars into his mouth. Every song contains references, one way or another, to being fucked up. Lil Uzi Vert responded to the news by tweeting about his own Xanax use and attempted move towards sobriety (his breakout single “XO Tour Lif3” contains the lyrics “Xanny, help the pain, yeah/ Please, Xanny, make it go away/ I'm committed, not addicted, but it keep control of me/ All the pain, now I can't feel it/ I swear that it's slowin' me, yeah”).
The rise of Xanax use in the US and UK speaks to a generation wracked with anxiety, a general sense of doom, and few outlets for it beyond social media and self-medication. Xanax, whether readily available in the US or easily accessible online in the UK, is a cheap and instant band aid for a problem too vast to have a solution. It makes sense, then, that Soundcloud rappers – most of whom are in their very early 20s – would hold up a mirror to that. At just 21 years old, Lil Xan has already built a brand for himself off the back of Xanax and come to reject it. Now clean and going by “Diego”, his Instagram bio is full of broken hearts and the words “Really Wished Anxiety didn’t exist !”
Oddly, the aesthetic choice that seems to most represent the generational duality of hope and hopelessness is face tattoos. Rather than acting as bold statements to the world at large, they have come to represent something very intimate. For many Soundcloud rappers, face tattoos are an act of self-motivation. A way of saying there’s no going back from there. “It was kind of like a push for myself to be successful with the music I was doing,” Lil Peep said in an interview with GQ. “It can make it harder to get a job when your face is covered in tattoos.”
Arnoldisdead – a producer/rapper in the Xanarchy collective that includes Lil Xan – said something similar when explaining why he got a huge portrait of Anne Frank (or “Xan Frank”) on his cheek. “There are people in history that didn't have the power to control, to actually do things that they wanted to do with their lives… To be stuck in a house, and end up dying... dude I'm dying to make music. That's the way I look at it.” Even in VICE's documentary, Xanxiety: The UK's Fake Xanax Epidemic, UK rapper Clayton offers, “It's do or die” about his decision to cover his whole face in tattoos to stop him falling back into the “rat race”.
There is a palpable nihilism and vulnerability to many of these artists that’s reflected in both what they put in and on their body. Although there is an element of performance at play where many compare their rap alias to a wrestling or a video game character – "choose your fighter" style – a large element of it is also self-expression. It’s personality externalised in the most dramatic sense, finding inner-quiet by being as loud as possible.
“When I think of Lil Peep, I think of a big broken heart that has been delicately patched, sewn, stapled, safety pinned and stuffed all back together, which he wasn’t afraid to wear on his sleeve,” Instagram “it girl” Josephine Pearl Lee told HypeBeast. “This is very apparent in everything he touched and shared with the world, from his music to his art to his personal relationships and to his style… he wore a sense of humour and found the fun in the darkest places. He wore his nostalgia for the 2000s and his love for 2017. He wore his music, heart and soul.”
While not every Soundcloud rapper is into Xanax, and not every kid who takes Xanax is into Soundcloud rap, there is a relationship between them that is manifesting itself visually – trickling down into street style and upwards to couture. Lil Uzi Vert is equally at home on Vogue as he is on Pitchfork. It made a strange sort of sense to see Lil Peep shape-shift between smoking on a beat up sofa wearing his own crew’s merch to sitting beside Carine Roitfeld in a gold-studded Balmain jacket, and a cursory glance at the ASOS website right now will reveal an endless parade of men with neck tattoos modelling checkerboard long sleeves. A part of this is generational – even Liam Payne, the most generic man alive, has his hands done – and a part of it is social media enabling anyone who looks or sounds cool to reach an audience. But the way Soundcloud rap looks is both accessible and representative of more than just labels – it’s the brand of an entire generation.
It’s not unlike what happened with grunge and heroin in the 90s. It was grunge’s shapeless androgyny that inspired Marc Jacobs’ 992 collection for Perry Ellis, which saw Naomi Campbell, Kristen McMenamy and Nadja Auermann layered in silk shirts mimicking flannel, chiffon dresses made to look like polyester, and beanies that cost $175. It tanked at the time. New York Magazine proclaimed “Grunge: 1992-1993, R.I.P.” and Jacobs lost his job. But today the collection is heralded as revolutionary, with Vogue contributing editor Lynn Yaeger crediting it as “an early example of taking fashion directly from the streets”. You can’t browse anywhere from Beyond Retro to UNIF without finding yourself knee-deep in oversized cardigans, flannel shirts, slips dresses and babydoll tees.
It wasn’t just grunge’s timeless anti-fashion that ended up on the racks though – its nihilism did, too. A year later, in 1993, Calvin Klein rolled out their first campaign with Kate Moss, magazines filled up with sloe-eyed models smoking in vests, and by the end of the decade the whole thing created such a moral panic that Bill Clinton had to go on the telly criticising the “heroin chic” for glamorizing drug use. Needless to say, grunge music didn’t “cause” this. The apathy and self-loathing that characterised 90s youth culture combined with the increased popularity of heroin (which had lost some of its stigma once people started snorting it in the wake of the AIDS crisis) informed not just the way the decade sounded, but the way it looked. Arguably, a similar thing is happening now with Gen Z and Xanax.
We like to arrange things neatly into patterns to lend the world some semblance of order. Perhaps the welcoming of Soundcloud rappers with open arms says more about transformations of attitude within the fashion industry more than anything else, but realistically the details are interchangeable. We’ve seen exactly the same relationship play out before between southern hip-hop and lean, which is still ongoing and has defined the careers of Lil Wayne, Future, A$AP Rocky and, before that, DJ Screw. Involving a younger generation of artists and a “newer” drug, Soundcloud rap culture is, in many ways, a “Lil” version of that.
Ultimately though if it wasn’t Soundcloud, it would be another platform. If it wasn’t rap, it would be another genre. And if it wasn’t Xanax, it would be some other drug. As it stands, though, Xanax is a significant part of of youth culture and increasingly youth culture is shaping the mainstream rather than the other way around. In the aftermath of Lil Peep’s death, the tide is starting to turn on Xanax among other Soundcloud rappers. But you can buy a Xanax ball chain necklace on etsy for £50.