Sean O’Hagan Correspondent
In 1979, 16-year-old Billy Joe Chambers left rural Arkansas, one of the poorest states in America, for Detroit in the hope of finding work. He had been raised in Lee County, one of 14 children living in a house with no running water and no glass in the windows. Seven years later, he returned to his home town to celebrate his younger brother’s graduation. In the interim, he had become a multi-millionaire.
Alongside his older brother Larry, Billy Joe arrived at Lee Senior High School in a mint-white Cadillac, trailed by four identical cars that carried their extended entourage. Their cavalcade precipitated the kind of welcome usually reserved for film stars, the assembled parents and children surrounding their cars, cheering and screaming like star-struck fans.
According to David Farber, a bemused teacher “watched the men inside the cars roll down their windows and throw handfuls of money into the worshipful crowd”.
The Chambers brothers were crack cocaine dealers. Their business model was based on mainstream capitalist enterprise (“Buy one, get one free”); they even ran a reward scheme whereby regular customers were given free produce if they brought new customers along with them to the crack houses.
In the brutally Darwinian world in which they operated, the siblings were relatively restrained both in their violence and the parading of their wealth.
By the early 1990s, though, a new generation of crack kingpins was being eulogised by hip-hop stars such as Snoop Dogg and Biggie Smalls and, both of whom had graduated from dealing to rapping, for their ruthlessness, violence and misogyny.
They oversaw labyrinthine and spectacularly lucrative street networks to distribute their product, often amassing personal fortunes that outstripped the wealth of those who lionised them in song.
Rayful “Slim” Edmond, whom Farber calls “the crack king of Washington, DC”, and whose parents had schooled him in the drug trade, was a case in point.
He ruled a clandestine business empire that, in 1989, was distributing a staggering 1 700lbs of cocaine a month. “Money piled up,” writes Farber. “At one point, Edmond claims he had US$15 million in cash stacked in his house. He was in his early 20s.”
Rayful Edmond spent extravagantly on designer suits and Rolex watches, but was also a generous community benefactor
“Crack: Rock Cocaine, Street Capitalism and the Decade of Greed” (2019) lives up to the promise of its title, moving deftly between social history, often lurid anecdotal evidence and a critique of the government’s “war on drugs”, which was launched by Ronald Reagan and intensified by George HW Bush.
By 1990, one of its consequences was that African American offenders were receiving jail sentences that, on average, were 49 percent longer in duration than those handed out to their white counterparts. In black communities, this was often seen as evidence of the ingrained racism of the criminal justice system.
Farber’s narrative begins in earnest in the 1920s, when cocoa alkaloid was a key ingredient of energy-giving soft drinks, cough medicines and catarrh remedies.
In 1922, a government act made it “unlawful to import any narcotic drug into the United States”, but many pharmacists continued to sell under-the-counter cocaine products to patients who had developed a fondness for them.
He pinpoints the 1970s as a pivotal decade in the history of modern cocaine use, with the rise of a new rock aristocracy who helped make the drug fashionable.
According to one insider, the music producer David Rothchild, “cocaine fed people’s competitive and selfish desires, exacerbating the music industry’s money-driven ethos”.
By the 1980s, though, street dealers had figured out a way to market cocaine to the less privileged by cooking it up with baking soda and a substance they christened “comeback”, a variant of a prescription drug called lidocaine.
The end result was “rock”, or “crack” cocaine, which was cheaper, more addictive and more profitable than the real thing. As Farber succinctly puts it: “Crack hit certain neighbourhoods, almost always poor or economically declining, like a bomb.”
Given the amount of ground he covers historically and the often depressing nature of his on-the-ground evidence, Farber’s complex narrative unfolds at quite a pace and is punctuated with illuminating anecdotes.
He explores the ways in which successful drug barons often became local heroes, contemporary Robin Hood characters revered for their impulsive public generosity.
Rayful Edmond spent extravagantly on designer suits and Rolex watches, thought nothing of losing US$100 000 at the card tables in Las Vegas, but was also a generous community benefactor, sponsoring basketball teams and staging fund-raising tournaments for local children.
That those same communities were being ravaged by violent crimes perpetrated by desperate crack addicts who were also his best customers was an irony that seemed lost on him.
This riveting account of the crack years in America, which lasted roughly from the early 1980s until the mid-90s, is filled with such dark ironies, but it is the myriad brutal ways in which the drug affected already poor areas that linger: the tales of lives derailed by addiction and desperation, of communities devastated by violent robberies and assaults, and of families under siege from within by loved ones turned “feral and desperate” through addiction.
And, against all of this, a wider, less acknowledged context: “The crack sellers and crack bingers,” concludes Farber, “invented a consumer market place with the tools they had at hand and within the possibilities they could imagine. Within their economic and cultural realm, in a broader culture of entrepreneurial greed, what they did made sense.”—The Observer.