Food & Culture in the South:
Swagger in a Can
There is more than one way to feel like you’ve just drunk a bottle of cough syrup. Traditionally, in the style popularized by Southern hip-hop culture, a person would pour prescription-strength syrup into a Styrofoam cup, mix it with soda, throw in a Jolly Rancher, and call it purple drank. Or syrup, or sizzurp, or lean. Those with no access to codeine might buy whatever anti-tussive they could get over the counter and drink it straight from the bottle, in the style of suburban teens. Now there is a third option, thanks to a young company run by a Mississippi pharmacist who’s trying to make a go in the relaxation beverage industry (yes, it’s an industry) with a product called Lean.
Lean is an herbal drink packaged in the words and images of Southern rap. Its ingredients read like a mix between a soda and an herbal help-you-sleep tea, but its marketing is aimed at making you think it’s the real thing. Lean comes in oversized cans with the words “Slow Motion Potion” written on the bottom and the outline of a fellow in oversized clothes leaning on the letters of the product name. Its website is full of videos of rappers who mention their use of actual codeine-containing syrup and text that asserts Lean’s ability to “promote a desired level of swagga to get you there any time day or night.”
Lean’s three flavors—“Purp,” “Yella,” and “Easta Pink”—were taken straight from rap lyrics that indicate personal and regional preferences for how people like to drink their syrup. Purp comes from Texas and the slowed-down, chopped and screwed style of music pioneered by DJ Screw. “Sippin’ On Some Syrup,” the song that mentions Yella, is by the Tennessee group Three 6 Mafia. And Easta Pink was born after New Orleans rapper Lil Wayne sang “I like my Sprite Easter pink,” on a song by DJ Khaled in 2007.
I don’t know if Marco Moran, the pharmacist creator of Lean, is trying to trick people into thinking his product is syrup, but he’s said in interviews that his goal is to get people to use Lean as an alternative to abusing codeine. “We want to desensitize the youth on what the real Purp, Yella, and Easta Pink is. When people hear the references in the lyrics, we want them to associate it with the Lean they see in the stores,” Moran was quoted in the Houston Press in 2011.
It would be good to get people off syrup. The drink has been problematic for at least as long as it’s been famous. In 2000, the practice started gaining national influence from its point of origin in Houston, where DJ Screw’s slowed-down music was gaining popularity along with this slowed-down party trend. Three 6 Mafia’s mainstream hit came that summer with “Sippin’ On Some Syrup.” Big Moe, a protégé of DJ Screw, released his first album, City of Syrup soon after. That fall, DJ Screw died of a heart attack at age twenty-nine; codeine use was a suspected contributor.
Big Moe went on to release the hit single “Purple Stuff” from his album Purple World in 2002, gaining greater national attention for syrup. If you want to let this stuff break your heart, listen to Big Moe sing about trying to quit syrup the next year with the song “Leave Drank Alone.” It was 2003 and what would be his final album. Big Moe died of a heart attack four years later at age thirty-three. By that time, he had been a heavy codeine drinker for years.
Still, the glamour surrounding syrup has led many to the store in search of what’s fun. Plain old Robitussin acts as a stand-in for folks who can’t get their hands on codeine. In the late ’90s, a friend of mine, who would like to be called Fannie, from a small town just north of Tuscaloosa ate an entire box of Robitussin gel tabs in hopes of getting high. Fannie and a friend then ventured to downtown Tuscaloosa, the strip where college people hang out. “We couldn’t do anything down there because we were sixteen. We couldn’t go to bars. But we could still walk around and act like idiots.”
The active ingredient in the gel tabs would have been dextromethorphan, or DXM, which in small doses keeps a person from coughing and in large doses can act as a dissociative. It worked. Fannie and her friend sat down and watched as the familiar outlines of downtown Tuscaloosa started to look foreign—“Like someone else’s tourist town.
“Everything was vibrating and pulsing. We laughed a whole bunch. After a while, we got uncomfortable.” Then it was time for Fannie’s mom and grandma to pick them up in the Mazda. And for her mom to “insist we go to the DQ drive-through and get chicken tenders for dinner.” And then for her mom and grandma to insist they eat the chicken tenders. “And then I proceeded to vomit purple foam in the front yard for an hour.”
I’ve been to the store, too, looking for fun. Not as a teenager, but as a grown-ass woman, curious about the Lean signs hanging in the windows of a place in Wilmington called Reserve Mini Mart. Reserve Mini Mart is currently going through a change in ownership, but in the early months of 2012 it was a full-blown party store. I don’t mean a place to buy plastic forks and balloons, I mean a place to buy glass pipes, flavored blunt wrappers, malt liquor, dirty magazines, those brownies that are supposed to feel vaguely like pot brownies, and gas masks for smoking weed.
Reserve Mini Mart, in true party-store form, was on a major road but did not sell gasoline. They kept the Lean in its own unplugged refrigerator to the side of the rest of the drinks. When my friends and I asked for a discount on a purchase of four cans, the clerk agreed, and threw in some lazy brownies for free.
Lean comes in three flavors, and what I want to say about that is they are all delicious. Just like the website says: Easta Pink—Sprite plus Skittles? Yes. Yella—honeysuckle, pineapple, Jolly Rancher? Truly. Even Purp, with its history so rooted in plain old purple cough syrup, is tasty enough to satisfy a sugar craving.
For science’s sake, I’ll say that between three adults, we consumed four cans, and split the two brownies on top of that. Then we waited to Lean. We stood in the kitchen, discussed options for dinner, asked each other, do you feel something? It was unclear. We walked downtown, went to a pizza place. Was there an increase in swagger? It didn’t seem so.
In an e-mail exchange I had with Marco Moran, he wrote that ninety-eight percent of users reported feeling sleepiness within one hour of drinking Lean. This I can corroborate, because when it came time for us to move on to the next place, I had a sudden and strong aversion to getting off my barstool. It was physical, and then it was emotional. My brain searched for ways out—could I call the golf-cart taxi? Should I ask my man to carry me? I felt confused. After some minutes, the worst of it passed, and I remembered I could walk and that everything was fine. I didn’t want to Lean anymore.
Our Lean experience was nothing like the video for Three 6 Mafia’s “Sippin’ On Some Syrup,” the first song about syrup I can remember getting stuck in my head. In the video, beautiful ladies get served syrup for brunch and then things get wild. Ladies take a sip of red liquid from a baby bottle and then rub one another with suntan lotion; one lady rollerblades in a thong. The song’s lyrics are all about how drinking syrup will knock people out, how the rappers themselves drink a lot of syrup, and how things can get crazy from there. One verse details a consensual gang bang (sorry) and the first verse, by rapper Pimp C, a member of the duo UGK that collaborated with Three 6 Mafia on the song, names some important ingredients by name: hydrocodone and promethazine. “I got the red promethazine, thick orange and yellow ’tuss…hydrocodone on the hands-free phone.”
Hydrocodone is a pain reliever—an opiate like codeine—and promethazine is used to treat allergic reactions, nausea, and cold symptoms, often found alongside codeine in prescription cough medicines. Promethazine and codeine were found in Pimp C’s system when he died in a Los Angeles hotel room in 2007. Promethazine with codeine is on a list of drugs, mainly painkillers, for which the Mississippi Pharmacy Board investigated Marco Moran in 2008 for “discrepancies in the records of receipt and disposal.” Moran had his license suspended for one year (not the first time—Moran had an earlier suspension in Louisiana) and remains on a probationary period.
Moran wrote in an e-mail that taste, smell, viscosity, and an ability to evoke sleepiness are the qualities he focused on to make Lean mimic the effects of drinking syrup. Will it work? Do we live in a world where people will choose melatonin over codeine? I worry about Lean sitting there in its big cans at party stores, herbal extracts competing for shelf space against alcohol, against caffeine, against whatever comes next.