Stoner Music Isn't Dying, Just Turning Into Something You May Not Recognize

As the laws and stigmas around marijuana change, so does the pop culture it inspires

In 1996, the reggae-rock band 311 went on tour with fellow weed-loving fusion acts Cypress Hill and Pharcyde. One reviewer likened the show the groups put on to a “hemp fest.” A separate article’s headline teased, “Ganja mischief pervades.” For 311 frontman Nick Hexum, this all amounted to “a dream tour.” Hexum fondly recalls a lot of bong ripping, a lot of laughs, but also a sense of defiance. “In the early days,” he says, “we were really being rebel conscientious objectors by smoking a joint onstage and kind of daring people to arrest you.”

Fast forward a couple decades, and it’s not just SoCal stoners lighting up onstage. It’s megastars like Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga and Drake. The act is no longer rare, nor terribly rebellious. Over the course of the past couple decades, Americans’ attitudes toward weed have transformed. The percentage of people who support marijuana legalization has risen from the mid-20s in 1995 to the mid-60s today. Though marijuana remains illegal under federal law, ten states have legalized it recreationally and thirty-three have legalized it medicinally since 2012.

And so, like many weed fans of previous generations, Hexum and his bandmates have gone from pot-smoking outsiders to pot-industry insiders. The band now totes a signature 311 vape pen. “We laugh about it all the time, what a massive change that is in the culture and experience, to come out of the shadows,” Hexum says.

But to truly understand the extent to which the culture around weed has changed, one merely needs to step foot in an American dispensary. Far from incense and tie-dye tapestries, the aesthetics of many burgeoning dispensaries resemble Apple stores: clean, minimal spaces with sleek surfaces. “We want to be seen as mainstream,” says P & S Ventures co-owner “Dr.” Dina Browner, the woman who claims to have inspired the Weeds character Nancy Botwin, with regard to the marijuana industry. Dina has operated a California dispensary for 16 years, and in that time her clientele has changed so drastically that she’s altered the music she plays in her shop. “When we first opened it was definitely more hip-hop -- Snoop Dogg, really hardcore hip-hop,” she says. “Nowadays because of legalization, the average age of our customers has gone up so greatly that we tend to focus on classic rock and '80s hip-hop. You can’t go wrong with either of those.”

With weed becoming a formidable corporate enterprise -- there are buttoned-up cannabis industry networking events and conferences -- and with the industry trying to appeal to the masses, the mystique around the drug has, well, gone up in smoke. “It's just a business at this point,” says Asher Roth, the rapper behind "I Love College" who also recently co-founded the alt-pop group Tofer Dolan. “I would say that with weed losing its edge, it's mainstream. It's completely and utterly mainstream.”

That word -- mainstream -- came up again and again in conversations with artists, music writers, and other weed enthusiasts over the past several months about where legalization leaves stoner music. As a symptom of America’s growing acceptance of weed, the drug’s declining stigma should ostensibly be a victory for Hexum, Roth and other crafters of stoner music who’ve long rooted for legalization. But as the culture around marijuana changes, so has what made the drug an appealing musical muse and companion. As Hexum says, “When something comes out of the underground and into the mainstream, it loses a tiny bit of something.”

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What is stoner music?

That’s not a rhetorical question. When you hear the term, do you think of jangly guitars? Mellow vibes? Something far-out? Do you think of reggae? Hip-hop? Is stoner music any music that references marijuana? And if so, where does that leave music without lyrics? And what about music that focuses on other drugs?

“I do think the traditional definition is these heavy guitar bands, starting probably with Jimi Hendrix, where suddenly it's not a guitar break, it's an atmosphere,” says Jesse Jarnow, the author of Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America.

The term “stoner,” in fact, does date back to the early 1970s: “a person who habitually uses drugs or alcohol.” Before “stoner,” however, there were terms like “viper” and “head.” “We did call ourselves the Vipers, which could have been anybody from all walks of life that smoked and respected the gage,” Louis Armstrong once told his biographer, Max Jones, using a slang term for weed popular in the early 20th century.

It’s not clear when “stoner” was attached to “music” to connote a musical subgenre. Some people, like Ben Ratliff, author of Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty, think that came later. “I don't really recall anyone talking about stoner music until the '90s, when people were talking about attaching that adjective to a certain kind of metal,” he says, citing the doom metal band Sleep.

Jarnow and Ratliff, though, had a similar conception of what stoner music should fundamentally do: play with space and time. “The best way to think about [stoner music] is probably any kind of music that gives you the impression of stretching out time and gives you the opportunity to focus deeply on what might be small details or seemingly static or little changing things,” Ratliff says. As far as musical principles go, that means a deep groove, a slow tempo, a restricted number of chords and a long running time.

But where does that leave hip-hop?

“Isn’t all of hip-hop stoner music?” Ratliff says.

He’s being slightly cheeky. But indeed, weed is so pervasive in many hip-hop recording rooms -- and, for that matter, its culture at large -- that it’s ingrained into the very fabric of the music. So maybe a hip-hop song doesn’t have to be simply stoney, like Travis Scott’s topsy-turvy “Sicko Moke,” or be about weed, like Danny Brown’s “Blunt After Blunt,” for it to be stoner music. Maybe the mere presence of smoke in a recording room qualifies.

One jazz musician told me that there’s a difference between “stoner music” and “head music” -- the former being music, such as that of Dinosaur Jr, that has a sedative effect and a slacker aesthetic; the latter being music, such as that of Sgt. Pepper’s Beatles or Bitches Brew Miles Davis, that has a mind-expanding effect.

But there are no agreed-upon parameters of what constitutes stoner music. Like porn, you probably just know it when you see it. The internet, after all, is littered with lists of the best stoner songs. And in those lists, you’ll find a bit of everything: tracks by Bob Marley alongside ones by Birdman and Lil Wayne, Black Sabbath and Broken Bells.

If we’re being conservative and demanding weed references in stoner music, you’ll find it going back at least to early 20th century jazz songs by artists like Armstrong (1928’s “Muggles”), Cab Calloway (1933’s “The Reefer Man”) and Stuff Smith (1936’s “If You’re A Viper”). But if we’re being more liberal with the definition, we might trace stoner music back centuries before jazz existed, as weed was likely influencing the creation of music. (The 12th century composer Hildegard Von Bingen, after all, was known for her herbal experimentation). And some of the best songs to listen to while high don’t have any relationship to drugs whatsoever.

At this point though, you’d be hard-pressed to find any music that marijuana didn’t trickle into in some way or other. “If you watch videos of recording studios, people are smoking weed pretty much all the time,” says Aaron Lammer, who hosts a podcast called Stoner and contributes to Francis and The Lights. “And I would say that's true across a variety of genres of music… I think almost all music nowadays is stoner music.”

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Depending on who you ask, stoner music is either doomed or thriving. Either legalization has rendered weed so acceptable as to be banal, or it has simply opened the floodgates.

The rapper T.I., for one, tells me he thinks “stoner music is in one of the strongest places it's ever been.” And in a way, that’s true. Post-legalization, songs that mention weed have flourished. A study published last fall in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine tracked references to marijuana, alcohol, opioids and tobacco in the lyrics of Billboard’s top 40 songs for each year from 1986 to 2016. The study found that the percentage of songs referencing marijuana had increased dramatically in that period -- from zero in 1986 up to a high of 30 songs in 2016.

Think about that for a moment: roughly a third of the top 40 songs of 2016 referenced weed.

While the increase in marijuana-referencing songs doesn’t exactly correspond with legalization -- there was a dip in mentions in 2013, a year when three states either decriminalized or legalized medicinal use, and then a surge in the ensuing years -- the 2016 explosion suggests that legalization has at least freed pop stars to reference weed without the fear of commercial backlash. And indeed, around 2012, when the legalization movement was gaining steam, some of the biggest stars in the world embraced pot in a way that previously might have been commercially unviable. In addition to Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga smoking onstage, Rihanna, Lana Del Rey, Nicki Minaj and Kacey Musgraves all very publicly professed their love for the drug, referencing it in their music and in social media posts. At the time, some critics suggested that these artists’ open embrace of weed was a safe way for them to transgress; it lent them an edge without making them unpalatable to mass audiences.

Calculated or not, if weed gave these artists an edge, they in return presented a visible alternative to the gendered tropes around the drug. A stoner didn’t have to wear drug rugs, have dreadlocks, or look like The Dude. For that matter, a stoner didn’t have to be a dude at all. “I think that a lot of the historical stoner music has been couched in masculine stereotypes, it's been very bro-y,” says Michelle Lhooq, author of the forthcoming Weed: Everything You Want To Know But Are Always Too Stoned To Ask. “One of the most exciting things in the weed space right now is how many women are coming into it and redefining the aesthetic, which includes the music, but also the visuals and the feel. I don't relate to the Monster Energy Drink vibe of hardcore stoner bro culture.”

More than simply providing a new female stoner trope, the embrace of weed by pop stars has helped forge a more casual image of stoners. Traditionally, what we’ve thought of as stoner music has cast weed as a lifestyle. But weed is increasingly being cast in music as just a part of life. Lana Del Rey’s single “Venice Bitch,” for instance, passingly mentions smoking to conjure the vibe of a hazy dream: “Ba-back in the garden/ We're getting high now, because we're older.” In Maren Morris’s new love song “The Feels,” weed is an aphrodisiac: “It kinda makes me wanna be / Alone with you, home with you/ Little love drunk stoned with you.” And in YNW Melly’s Hot 100 single “Murder on my Mind,” smoking is a way of coping with having shot and killed a close friend: “And I'ma smoke all of my pain away 'cause that the only thing that gone' heal it.”

Weed anthems are still being made, but they often don’t conform to stereotypical notions about what people want to hear when they’re stoned. Farruko and Bad Bunny’s “Krippy Kush” and Lil Yachty’s “Broccoli,” for instance, are fast-paced, bubbly and clock in under four minutes. “Weed is such a versatile drug,” Lhooq says. “It depends on the strain and the quality and the setting and your own body chemistry [in terms of] how you're going to react to it. It's not like other drugs that have a more predictable effect. Weed can chill you out or bring you up. I think that saying that it only fits chill, down-tempo music is a cliché that's not even grounded in fact.”

Though plenty of young artists continue to mention weed in their music, few make it a central part of their identity the way 311, Cypress Hill and Pharcyde once did. In that respect, other drugs have eclipsed weed for an insurgent generation of transgressive young artists. “It's almost like weed's not that cool anymore, so kids are like, ‘I'm popping pills,’" Roth says.  “If people want to like an artist or a musician for being edgy, weed's probably not going to get them in the door in this generation.”

T.I. offers a similar caveat during his assessment of stoner music’s vitality: “Stoners ain't necessarily talking about weed right now.” He broke down his taxonomy of stoners: “You got the natural organic stoners -- like Wiz Khalifa and Snoop and Willie Nelson. Those motherfuckers, THC stoners. But then you got opioid stoners who started on shit like sipping on some sizzurp, like DJ Screw. And then it got you to Future, with ‘Percocet, Percocet, Percocet.’ And then you got Lil Uzi and Smoke Purp and Lil Xan.”

And yet, while the most notable stoners might be indulging in stronger substances than weed these days, that’s not necessarily new. Music has had its love affairs with psychedelics, cocaine, lean and heroin before. For the most part, though, all other drugs have had their rise and fall in music while weed has been a constant. “I don't remember a time when musicians weren't smoking weed. And all kinds of them, too,” Ratliff says.

Lhooq tells me that post-legalization she thinks “[weed]'s going to become normalized in the same way alcohol has.” She adds, “Maybe you have some rappers talking about popping bottles in the club or drinking Hennessy but it's not like, ‘Here is my ode to Hennessy.’ People will keep on smoking weed, but maybe it'll be a bit on the nose to be like, ‘Here is my song, 'Purple Haze'’ -- no shade to Jimi Hendrix or anything.”

All of which doesn’t bother Hexum or Roth. “For me, the most important thing is that [weed] helps me re-imagine rules,” Hexum says with regards to making music. He adds that due to legalization, “I think there's a new appreciation for the wild creativity you get.”

As for Asher Roth, he says he never wanted his image to be so strongly linked to that of a stereotypical stoner in the first place: “My shit has always been, ‘What's the conversation that goes on after we smoke a joint?’"

With Americans’ attitudes towards weed becoming more casual, other weed-smoking artists will likely have to ask themselves the same question. Any edge stoner music once had may have dissipated, but the music itself isn’t perishing. To the contrary, it’s shedding its cliches and expanding, seeping into pop culture in new ways but still providing a spark. The future of stoner music perhaps spells the end of 311-esque “ganja mischief,” but ganja? There’s plenty all around.