Ben Westhoff has written some of Tyler’s favorite books on everything from dive bars to the evolution of American rap music to how fentanyl is driving the opioid epidemic. So how does he get it done? Not from the outside in, by finding exotic experiences as he originally thought. Instead he found that it comes from the inside out: eating right, exercising, getting sleep, and journaling. Do those things, Ben says, and you’ll be in a much better position to notice the good stories happening all around you.
He joined Tyler to discuss those many stories, including the proliferation of synthetic drugs, China’s role in the crisis, the merits of legalization versus decriminalization, why St. Louis is underrated, New Jersey hip-hop, how CDs changed rap, what’s different about Dr. Dre, whether the entourage is efficient, the social utility of dive bars, and more.
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Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: Today I am here with Ben Westhoff. Two of the very best books I’ve read this year are by Ben. The first is his recently appeared Fentanyl Inc.: How Rogue Chemists Are Creating the Deadliest Wave of the Opioid Epidemic, and the other one is a book about rap music, titled Original Gangstas: Tupac Shakur, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and the Birth of West Coast Rap.
I thought anyone who had two such excellent books on such disparate topics was an ideal guest for Conversations with Tyler. So today, we have with us Ben Westhoff. Ben, welcome.
BEN WESTHOFF: Thanks for having me here. I’m such a big fan of your writing and your podcast, and I’m grateful for all of it.
COWEN: Let’s start with the topic of drugs and fentanyl. Why is there such a strong geographic component to drug use and sales? Certain drugs seem to be very popular in New Hampshire, but they’re not popular in Florida. Drugs of choice vary across countries. Fentanyl sales don’t seem to be that high, as far as we can tell, in Florida. What accounts for that?
WESTHOFF: With fentanyl, in particular, in the US, the epidemic is moving from east to west. It started in New England; it’s gradually getting to California. In Canada, on the other hand, it’s moving from west to east. And this has to do with all these distribution networks — it’s actually the heroin distribution network in the US.
For whatever reason, east of the Mississippi has always had white-powder heroin, and that, since fentanyl is also white, is very easy to mix. Therefore, the epidemic started in the East. West of the Mississippi, they have black-tar heroin, which is full of impurities. It’s very dark, as the name implies. You can’t mix fentanyl in with that at all, so it’s been much slower to take root.
COWEN: But if so much fentanyl comes from China, and you can just send it through the mail, why doesn’t it spread automatically wherever it’s going to go? Is it some kind of recommender network? It wouldn’t seem that it’s a supply constraint. It’s more like someone told you about a restaurant they ate at last night.
WESTHOFF: It’s because the Mexican cartels are still really strongly in the trade. Even though it’s all made in China, much of it is trafficked through the cartels, who buy the precursors, the fentanyl ingredients, from China, make it the rest of the way. Then they send it through the border into the US.
You can get fentanyl in the mail from China, and many people do. It comes right to your door through the US Postal Service. But it takes a certain level of sophistication with the drug dealers to pull that off.
COWEN: It’s such a big life decision, and it’s shaped by this very small cost of getting a package from New Hampshire to Florida. What should we infer about human nature as a result of that? What’s your model of the human beings doing this stuff if those geographic differences really make the difference for whether or not you do this and destroy your life?
WESTHOFF: Well, everything is local, right? Not just politics. You’re influenced by the people around you and the relative costs. In St. Louis, it’s so incredibly cheap, like $5 to get some heroin, some fentanyl. I don’t know how it works in, say, New Hampshire, but I know in places like West Virginia, it’s still a primarily pill market. People don’t use powdered heroin, for example. For whatever reason, they prefer Oxycontin. So that has affected the market, too.
COWEN: Why isn’t fentanyl more of an urban drug? Or is it now?
WESTHOFF: It is now, yeah. And it’s not a lot talked about. People think of the opioid epidemic — of which fentanyl is a big part — as a white problem, but heroin abuse in the black community has been happening a long time. Now it’s almost impossible to find heroin that hasn’t been cut with fentanyl. Therefore, places like St. Louis, Chicago, Washington, DC — it’s a big problem.
COWEN: Given that Belgian scientist Paul Janssen synthesized fentanyl as long ago as 1969 — before the rate of productivity growth slowed down — what took so long for the drug to really spread? That’s a long lag.
WESTHOFF: I think a lot of it has to do with the internet. Initially, he and other scientists who were making these new drugs published them in papers, and they were in obscure university libraries. There were some examples of fentanyl appearing on the streets in the ’80s, for example, but after the internet, then all of these university papers went online, so these rogue chemists could access them.
Now, with fentanyl, it’s not just fentanyl; it’s all the analogs of fentanyl, which are made by just slightly tweaking the chemical formula. Then you have something 10 times as strong as fentanyl, for example. The scientists who were all studying these analogs, coming up with them, published their papers, and these chemists were able to find them online.
COWEN: So it’s the product differentiation, eventually, that drove it, and the product differentiation required the internet to get the basic formula and then to spread the variants?
WESTHOFF: Yeah, in a big way because in China, in particular, fentanyl was illegal, but all the analogs weren’t. And so these chemists would make an analog, and then when China banned that one, they’d make another one, and on and on and on.
COWEN: If we’re just sitting here in the 1970s, and there’s a kind of word-of-mouth competition between fentanyl and cocaine, why does cocaine win?
WESTHOFF: [laughs] Well, first of all, cocaine comes from a natural plant. It’s much easier to make in this era, and it doesn’t kill you by having a tiny amount. Even the DEA, as recently as 2015, did not think fentanyl would be a problem because such a tiny amount could kill you, and the same with all these scientists, so it sort of baffled everyone when it emerged.
Even the DEA, as recently as 2015, did not think fentanyl would be a problem because such a tiny amount could kill you, and the same with all these scientists, so it sort of baffled everyone when it emerged.
COWEN: What was the early FDA stance on fentanyl?
WESTHOFF: In Europe, fentanyl was immediately legalized for hospital use, for medical use. But the FDA in the US initially balked, and it wasn’t available here for a while. I was shocked to learn that the reason they did eventually green-light it was because Paul Janssen himself, the inventor of fentanyl, lobbied for it. He called up the guy and said, “Come on, rethink this.” Then they were like, “Okay.”
COWEN: So it was judged safe and effective?
WESTHOFF: It was mixed — yes. It was mixed with dilutant originally, so it was considered that if a junkie or an illicit user tried it, they wouldn’t be a satisfying high. But eventually, that dilutant was removed.
COWEN: If you were in the hospital — say you were much older, you had a terminal disease, and you faced the possibility of severe pain, would you take a fentanyl derivative? A legal one, I mean.
WESTHOFF: Probably. It’s hard to say, me, personally. But people have found great success with this stuff. In general, I don’t like opioid prescription pills. I think they get you stoned, but they don’t always address the pain they’re trying to deal with.
COWEN: Overlooking the more general opioid crisis for so long — what was the intellectual failure there? Because even leading up to the election of Donald Trump — not that long ago, right? — the story took many people by surprise, and then we see rates of addiction death rising at very rapid rates over the course of three to four years.
What were people missing? Is it just that we all are coastal urban elites, removed from the actual realities, or — ?
WESTHOFF: No, I think it had to do with this reclassification of pain as the “fifth vital sign.” Doctors began deciding that people’s pain was a really serious problem, and they deserved to be relieved of it. This came to a weird situation because you can’t quantify pain in any effective way, right?
I remember seeing a doctor, and the doctor said, “One to ten, what’s your pain level?” And I’d say, “Oh, I don’t know, four, seven.” But the doctors were coached that if someone said a certain number — I think it was above seven — then that meant they were eligible and should probably receive an opioid narcotic pain pill. And this clearly got out of hand very quickly.
COWEN: When did the story first break? Who did it, or which group did it? How did that happen?
WESTHOFF: It happened in so many little ways because at first, when you heard about the opioid, the narcotics, all these different drugs, it was as prescription patches, for example. People were putting these fentanyl patches all over their body, four or five, or they were abusing Oxycontin, the hillbilly heroin, as it was known. Then more in this decade, the effects of people transitioning to heroin, particularly in Sam Quinones’s book Dreamland, really drove it home for a lot of people.
COWEN: Are we still underrating the scope of the problem of addictive substances, which are opioids or chemically derived?
WESTHOFF: Yes, I believe we definitely are. Even though people are using fewer pills, people are abusing less heroin now, fentanyl deaths are still skyrocketing. I heard someone on your blog, someone asked that — all the deaths aside, which are obviously bad — there’s still millions and millions of people addicted. Even if they’re not dying, how do we quantify the damage to society?
That’s a very good question, and it’s something that’s not even close to going away anytime soon.
COWEN: But if people are underestimating the severity of the problem, what’s the cognitive mistake they’re making? So often, people over-extrapolate from very recent trends. Like, “Oh, healthcare costs — it’ll swallow up all of GDP,” because they see a number of years where that rate of increase is high.
Why are we now putting too little weight on the recent rate of increase, when we usually put too much emphasis on it?
WESTHOFF: That’s a good question. I’ve been shocked at the Democratic debates, for example, and there’s so little talk about this. There’s more people dying than at the peak of the AIDS crisis, and I’ve got to think that it’s because these are marginalized members of society, generally. You hear plenty about politicians’ kids who die from fentanyl and opioids, but mainly it’s marginalized people, and they’re just not on anyone’s priority list, it seems like.
COWEN: If it’s mainly marginalized people, if we take a nonmarginalized person, someone with a high income, pretty high social status, is the main difference that they don’t try it at all? Or when they try it, because maybe they have a better life, they’re able to resist temptation better? How much of the isolation of the problem into lower income or status is due to which factor?
WESTHOFF: Well, it’s not actually these drugs which kill people because you can take a safe dose of heroin. You can even take a safe dose of fentanyl. It’s all these lifestyle things surrounding the drug use — dirty needles, for example, crime, prostitution to earn the money to get these drugs — and so these tend to be the problems. If you’re wealthy, you have access, you can buy directly from China in a very pure form, for example, and have access to good healthcare.
COWEN: But let’s say I’m a lawyer; I earn 170K a year. I try a potent version of fentanyl once. It doesn’t kill me. What am I likely to do next? Stop, kill myself, something else? Move on to heroin?
WESTHOFF: You’d probably use it again, I hate to say. People describe it as that good.
COWEN: So the key decision is not using it at all?
WESTHOFF: That would be my recommendation, absolutely.
COWEN: But not just recommendation. Predictively, the people who avoid it do it by never using it.
WESTHOFF: People have totally different physiologies, too. People have addictive personalities, and I think everyone knows if they have one of these or not. I don’t, but other people — when it comes to alcohol, for example, one drink is never enough.
COWEN: If I think of the crack epidemic of the 1980s, the 1990s, there’s a pattern, a significant chunk of at least a generation burning itself out. But then, maybe it’s the younger siblings see what’s happened, and interest in the drug wanes, and some semi-stable equilibrium reemerges. Is that going to happen with opioids and fentanyl? Or is this a different pattern because maybe they’re more addictive?
WESTHOFF: If we go back through the decades, yes. Crack really did seem to burn out, but that seems to me to be kind of the exception to the rule. Take the meth epidemic, for example. We thought that was sort of winding down, and the passage of these laws made it so you couldn’t get Sudafed without going behind the counter. So they thought, well, the production is going to stop.
Instead, it went to Mexico. Now meth is worse than ever. Cocaine, same thing. It seemed to be on the decline. Pablo Escobar was killed. Now there’s more cocaine coming out of Colombia than ever. So I am certainly not optimistic at all that the opioid epidemic is going to wind itself down.
COWEN: But what’s the right way to think about the equilibrium? Will it just be 17 percent of us are drug addicts, and some percent of those people die, and it will be that way forever? Or what social forces will restore, we hope, a better equilibrium?
WESTHOFF: I don’t think it will be that way forever because I think people are starting to think about the problem in the right way, finally. We’ve always been so focused on the supply side for all these years, and that’s right now, too. My book is about China and how China is feeding the problem. But now that people in power know people who are dying, themselves, they’ve started to think that drug addiction and whatnot is a disease.
We’re trying to think about how to educate people, how to give them treatment, how to do harm reduction, which is basically admitting that people are always going to use drugs, and finding more safe ways for them to do it. So even if the abuse rate, even if the number of people trying these drugs for the first time stays the same, I think that we can reduce the casualties.
COWEN: True or false, the opioid crisis is driven primarily by restrictions on the legal access to opioids?
WESTHOFF: Legal — that’s a little tricky because I wouldn’t say it’s driven by the legal access because, for example, decriminalization has had a really positive effect. But I do think that the way we go about the war on drugs is feeding the problem, absolutely.
COWEN: So what does the world look like if we decriminalize opioids? What forces step in to make things better?
WESTHOFF: First of all, people are treated like they have a disease, so they’re not sent to prison or jail, and it doesn’t start the cycle of recidivism again. People are instead given these opioid blockers or these low-level opioids like methadone and Suboxone and can figure their lives out.
That’s the main driver, to be honest, of the opioid epidemic. It’s not just that people are taking these addictive drugs; it’s that their lives are a mess. So sending someone to jail just makes their life a bigger mess. Given time, counseling, and help, people can actually beat these drugs.
COWEN: Did New Zealand do the right thing, legalizing so many synthetic drugs in 2013?
WESTHOFF: I absolutely think they did. It was an unprecedented thing. Now drugs like marijuana, cocaine, heroin, all the drugs you’ve heard of, are internationally banned. But what New Zealand did was it legalized these forms of synthetic marijuana. So synthetic marijuana has a really bad reputation. It goes by names like K2 and Spice, and it’s big in homeless populations. It’s causing huge problems in places like DC.
But if you make synthetic marijuana right, as this character in my book named Matt Bowden was doing in New Zealand, you can actually make it so it’s less toxic, so it’s somewhat safe. That’s what he did. They legalized these safer forms of it, and the overdose rate plummeted. Very shortly thereafter, however, they banned them again, and now deaths from synthetic marijuana in New Zealand have gone way up.
COWEN: And what about Portugal and Slovenia — their experiments in decriminalization? How have those gone?
WESTHOFF: By all accounts, they’ve been massive successes. Portugal had this huge problem with heroin, talking like one out of every 100 members of the population was touched by it, or something like that. And now those rates have gone way down.
In Slovenia, they have no fentanyl problem. They barely have an opioid problem. Their rates of AIDS and other diseases passed through needles have gone way down.
COWEN: If we look at Vancouver, where they have safe injection sites but a persistently high death rate from drug use, is that an argument against decriminalization and public health treatment of these drugs?
WESTHOFF: That’s a very good question because Vancouver was seen as the city who was doing things right with these supervised injection facilities, where you can legally shoot up fentanyl and heroin, and there’s doctors and nurses and clean needles, so people applauded that. But the overdose death rate has actually gone up since these facilities have come in.
Now the supporters of the facilities say death rates would have gone up even more without these sites, but that’s a hard argument to make. I’m generally very much in favor of these types of facilities, and they’ve worked great in places like Europe, but I cannot explain what’s happening in Vancouver.
COWEN: Let’s say you’re in charge of Singapore. As you probably know, there aren’t many ways into Singapore. Also, as you probably know, Singapore is fairly willing to simply execute drug dealers. Would you relax this policy and move toward decriminalization? Or would you just say, “We’re Singapore. You can’t get in here that easily. We’re going to keep it tough”?
WESTHOFF: No, I’m not in favor of executing drug dealers or anyone else.
COWEN: So life in prison? If the materials are so potent and so harmful, and if you’re in a country that can, to some degree, keep the material out, why not just be as tough as possible?
WESTHOFF: I think you’re deluding yourself if you think you can keep it out, even in a landlocked, even in a place like Singapore that’s so hard to have entries.
COWEN: Sure, yeah.
WESTHOFF: These are synthetic drugs, and this revolution is that everything is moving toward synthetic, and that is what can be made anywhere. Often, the big problem with harsh penalties against dealers is that the dealer is often just an addicted user. These are the same people. Now, it’s all fine and well to say, “We’re going to go after the top, the kingpin” or whatever, but ultimately, what happens is you just end up locking up a lot of very low-level addicted users, essentially.
COWEN: America is legalizing, decriminalizing, or simply tolerating marijuana use to a very surprising degree. Unprecedented in this country. What do you see that equilibrium looking like?
WESTHOFF: There is really preliminary data coming out of places like Colorado, which was one of the first to legalize. And it’s encouraging for the most part. Kids aren’t using it in greater rates. The one thing to be worried about is that deaths from driving while stoned are increasing, so this is something to be worried about. I tend to think, and I think you’ve said this on your blog or a link to it, that decriminalization is maybe a way to think about it.
In places like St. Louis, where I’m from, they’re having more success. They’re not locking up people. But at the same time, there’s not a store selling weed on every corner. I’m not an expert on the legalization of marijuana, but I urge a little bit of caution in all that’s happening.
COWEN: Is the American Medical Association responsibly managing the prescribing authority it grants to doctors when it licenses them? Would you change those policies?
WESTHOFF: The only thing that I know that should probably be changed is that to prescribe these treatments, you need to go through this rigorous screening. I think it should be much easier to prescribe the treatment drugs like Suboxone. When it comes to prescribing opioids and things like that, I know the pendulum is way swinging in the other direction now, and it’s becoming much harder to do this.
This is affecting a lot of people who have chronic pain and who are using opioids over the long term. Now, there’s evidence to show that opioid use long term is not helpful at all, that you’re just creating a new problem. But taking away people’s opioids, I also think is not the answer, who are using them for medical reasons.
COWEN: Do nurses and doctors view opioids differently?
WESTHOFF: I have no idea.
COWEN: Should anyone become a fentanyl addict? Is there any rational case for becoming addicted?
WESTHOFF: Not that I can think of.
COWEN: Say you don’t have much time left in life. Why not do it? Empirically, I don’t observe that’s when people do it, but you would think under a rational Gary Becker model of addiction, you would see more of it.
WESTHOFF: Yeah, I’ve thought about if the end of the world was coming, and I knew it was coming, what would I do? Well, I’m a vegetarian, but I would love to have a Whopper again. I would want to try heroin, that’s what I think in these last few moments. But then really, ultimately, you’re feeling this euphoria, but then coming down is much worse. So, to me, it just wouldn’t be worth it.
COWEN: Can you imagine that we create synthetic drugs where there’s a high but no crash afterwards? Or is that physiologically very, very difficult?
WESTHOFF: I think physiologically, just from my own experience as a human, consuming all sorts of psychoactive substances, including coffee, right? There’s no free lunch. You drink coffee, you feel great for a while, and then you have a crash. You eat a big piece of chocolate cake, you feel great, there’s a crash. I just don’t think it’s out there.
COWEN: What other changes to US drug policy would you make, beyond what we’ve discussed?
WESTHOFF: There are places like the state of Pennsylvania, which for some reason bans fentanyl testing strips to help people find out if what they’ve got is pure heroin or heroin mixed with fentanyl, for example. Fentanyl testing strips save a lot of lives. It’s crazy that it’s illegal in places.
There’s also something called the RAVE Act, which was coauthored by Joe Biden. What it does is it cracks down on concert promoters, rave promoters, and they are not allowed . . . in these big bacchanals with tens of thousands of people at these raves, electronic dance music parties, everyone’s using drugs.
And yet because of this obscure law called the RAVE Act, they’re not allowed to check their drugs. They’re not allowed to hand out these kits that help people realize if they’re taking what they think they are or something else. That’s why at these raves, you always hear about someone dying, and in my opinion, this is just a crazy law.
COWEN: Now let’s turn to China. How complicit is China in the export of fentanyl? The Chinese government, that is.
WESTHOFF: The Chinese government, as we all know, is not one thing. There are all these different layers of government. And at the top level, it’s crazy because China offers these VAT rebates — value-added tax rebates — for fentanyl exports.
COWEN: Including the ones sent to the Mexican drug gangs?
WESTHOFF: Exactly. Anyone. Ostensibly, this should be for the legal sale of fentanyl, but it’s so poorly enforced that there’s undoubtedly these subsidies and many more going directly to the cartels. I reported on this for the fentanyl precursors. So that, to me, is crazy that the government is offering tax incentives and other grants and subsidies for the export of fentanyl and fentanyl-like drugs.
COWEN: Why does that persist? What’s the political economy?
WESTHOFF: I think it’s trying to grow China’s chemical industries exports. China has the biggest chemical industry in the world, but the problem is, they don’t make as much money because it’s focused on generics, mostly. The US — our industry is smaller, but we do these brand-name, expensive pharmaceuticals.
China is trying to go up the value chain, and they’re trying to encourage the export of more expensive chemicals and pharmaceuticals. That’s why all these obscure fentanyl analogs get these export rebates. I think it’s been an unfortunate side effect that so many of them are going to illicit uses.
COWEN: Has President Trump had any success in shutting down the supply of fentanyl from China?
WESTHOFF: I will give Trump credit for making the fentanyl discussion part of his trade war. He got China to ban all of the fentanyl analogs, which became effective a few months ago. He’s kind of used fentanyl as sort of a carrot and a stick to varying degrees of success, but —
COWEN: Do we know yet if that’s mattered?
WESTHOFF: I’m fairly certain that it’s going to make some difference because whenever China bans one of these drugs, you see an effect in the US. The seizures drop. It’s a little too early to tell, but I suspect it will have some effect.
COWEN: What’s the drug of choice within China?
WESTHOFF: The three most abused drugs are heroin, meth, and Ketamine. Marijuana barely registers.
COWEN: Why don’t they like pot?
WESTHOFF: That’s a really, really good question. I’ve heard stories of people who go on a crowded Chinese subway car and are smoking weed or hash openly. It’s an annoying thing to do. Or they’re doing it in public, and no one even says anything because they’re not used to the smell.
COWEN: Why don’t the Chinese do fentanyl more? They have it locally. It’s very cheap, highly addictive. They can recommend it to each other on WeChat. Why doesn’t that happen?
WESTHOFF: The fentanyl crisis really has only come to pass in places that had the opioid crisis, starting with the over-prescription of Oxycontin and all that. It’s the US and Canada, but they never had that problem in China and a lot of other parts of the world, too.
COWEN: So their doctors make other mistakes?
COWEN: All the reporting you’ve done on fentanyl in China — how has that revised your view of China more generally? The drugs aside.
WESTHOFF: I have to say I loved being in China. It was so exhilarating. Now the State Department has told me I can probably never go back, which is very sad, due to all my investigative reporting there. But I don’t know. I think if China — really, like the US — supposedly people around the world hate the US policies, but clearly, we’re a force for good in many ways.
The US is not one thing. There’s extremely liberal people, there’s extremely conservative people, and I begin to think of China as the same way. It’s absorbed all these other countries around it. It’s doing this incredible innovation in so many ways. The food, the culture is astounding. But at the same time, they’re evil in their own ways.
COWEN: Are you allowed to tell us why you can’t go back?
WESTHOFF: Basically because I’d be worried of being put in a Chinese jail just for my work. When I went there before, I didn’t have proper credentialing, necessarily, so that’s reason enough.
COWEN: What’s your favorite part of China?
WESTHOFF: I love being in Beijing, and I love the food and the music culture. I don’t know, everything about it really.
COWEN: And given what you’ve absorbed and learned about China, what view might you have on the trade war that maybe the rest of us would not?
WESTHOFF: Unfortunately, on a podcast that so many economists listen to, I probably should just stay out of this.
COWEN: Well, it could be a noneconomic insight about how the Chinese perceive it, or what citizens are allowed to know about the trade war, or —
WESTHOFF: In general, they’re not allowed to know anything that the government doesn’t want them to know. For example, no one knows anything about fentanyl because no one wrote about it, so I’m sure that there’s a complete lack of credible information.
COWEN: Now we’re about at the middle of our segment. Therefore, we turn to underrated versus overrated. We are going to get to rap music, but some of these will leap ahead a bit. But let’s start off with an easy one. Taylor Swift — underrated or overrated?
WESTHOFF: I’d have to say underrated. People are always complaining about her for some reason, but she does nothing but make amazingly great and catchy songs, so I see no problem with her.
COWEN: Gil Scott-Heron, possibly a forerunner of rap music — overrated or underrated?
WESTHOFF: I would say underrated, generally — his body of work, but overrated as the forefather of rap music, for example. People are often citing him, but I don’t see him being the main creator.
COWEN: Clint Eastwood?
WESTHOFF: Clint Eastwood as a director, probably underrated. I like so many of his films. But as a public intellectual, I’m sure quite overrated.
COWEN: The city of St. Louis?
WESTHOFF: Completely underrated.
WESTHOFF: St. Louis has so much going for it that people don’t realize. The architecture is gorgeous. It’s kind of a crumbling, decaying city, but there’s a beauty in that.
The St. Louis Cardinals are an amazing small-market franchise that always punches above their weight. It’s kind of like a social activity just to go to the games. People that go know nothing about baseball. They just go to have a beer and chat with each other.
There is a lot of parking, there is incredibly cheap housing, and —
COWEN: Why don’t more people move there, then? Why isn’t it a no-brainer? “I’ll go to St. Louis.” One great university, a lot of hospitals.
WESTHOFF: Yeah, there’s some even more good universities —
COWEN: What’s the catch?
WESTHOFF: For one thing, the crime rate is very, very high, and it’s also made to seem even higher because the county and the city are tabulated separately. I think people see these statistics and they’re like, “Ohhh.” The Ferguson unrest five years ago — I think it was a very important thing that happened, but I think it generated negative publicity for St. Louis.
COWEN: New Jersey hip-hop — underrated or overrated?
WESTHOFF: Again, very underrated. I think New Jersey gets a bad rap in just about everything, but the first popular hip-hop song, “Rapper’s Delight,” came from New Jersey. The Sugar Hill Records was basically like a hit factory in early hip-hop. All of these important people like Queen Latifah and Naughty by Nature, and even Jay-Z spent a bunch of time in his early days coming up in New Jersey. So it’s very important.
COWEN: So where does the underrating come from? Everyone talks about the South Bronx, right? Why don’t they talk about New Jersey? Any possible reason for that?
WESTHOFF: Yeah, exactly. It’s like, “Where are you from in New York?” “Well, the South Bronx.” “Well, what part of the South Bronx?” “Oh, this part.” But if you’re from New Jersey, it’s just New Jersey. It’s just one big place. It doesn’t have its own little regional identity.
COWEN: Mixed martial arts — overrated or underrated?
WESTHOFF: I’ve got to say overrated, but that’s just because I don’t know anything about it.
COWEN: Tupac or Biggie?
WESTHOFF: I was a Biggie fan, like most music critics are, for a long time, and there’s really no arguing with his style. He’s basically platonic perfection when it comes to delivering a rap song.
But I really came around to Tupac, though he’s not as smooth as Biggie. He’s not as perfect, but he ultimately was rapping about something. He has a message. He was about liberating the people, about understanding yourself and being who you are. And Biggie was mostly about parties and the club and stuff like that.
I really came around to Tupac, though he’s not as smooth as Biggie. He’s not as perfect, but he ultimately was rapping about something. He has a message. He was about liberating the people, about understanding yourself and being who you are.
COWEN: Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye?
WESTHOFF: I would have to say Stevie Wonder, I just love him so much. I love Marvin Gaye, too.
COWEN: Seinfeld or Larry David?
WESTHOFF: Seinfeld. Again, there’s just like a platonic perfection about so many of those jokes that it probably will never go out of style.
COWEN: But was Larry David the true creative element behind Seinfeld?
WESTHOFF: I don’t think so because he wasn’t even there for part of it. I don’t know, I ride for Jerry more.
COWEN: Coen brothers or Quentin Tarantino?
WESTHOFF: The Coen brothers by a million miles. There’s almost not a bad Coen brothers movie. I say it’s like pizza and sex: even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.
COWEN: And what’s the best Prince album?
WESTHOFF: The best Prince album — I’m going to just be generic and say Purple Rain because everything about it is great from beginning to end.
COWEN: I love side one, but side two drags — for me it’s Sign o’ the Times.
COWEN: I think I go back to it more, or even the very early albums, the short EP, I forget what it’s called. It may have been the first one.
WESTHOFF: Okay, well, I’m not a Prince expert.
COWEN: Now, some questions on rap music more directly. And again, this is drawing on your two wonderful books on rap music — one on West Coast rap, the other on southern rap. Does the concept of authenticity still matter or even exist in rap after so many years? Or is it simply so much of a commercial product that we toss it out the window, and just think of it as like a Taylor Swift pop song?
WESTHOFF: No, I think authenticity really does still matter. It’s built into the DNA of the music. And every time a rapper goes Hollywood, if you will, there’s someone who’s young and hungry, who comes up, who’s come out of poverty, who is not being groomed for stardom at all. They speak in a language that really resonates with young fans. And it’s just constantly happening.
COWEN: But how can you be transgressive in rap today? It seems we’ve attained the limits on misogyny, use of various words which I will not name, citations and approval of violence. What is there left to do? Haven’t we just hyperinflated away all possibilities of shocking people?
WESTHOFF: I think that’s a misconception, actually, about hip-hop, is that it’s transgressive. I think it’s a fairly conservative art form at its core. There are rules of how you do it; there are even sort of unwritten rules about what you talk about. It’s kind of like mafia movies in a way — there are conventions, and people tend to stick with them.
COWEN: Does it matter that now Hasbro owns Death Row Records?
WESTHOFF: [laughs] Well, it’s certainly funny, but Death Row Records has long ago ceased being important, so it probably doesn’t matter.
COWEN: If you had to pick who’s the most important rapper right now to understanding the rap and hip-hop landscape in 2019, who would you cite and why?
WESTHOFF: I would probably still say Kendrick Lamar because everything is so political now, and Kendrick has this amazing ability to appeal both to the kind of marginalized communities and the political muckety-mucks, if you will. He can speak to everybody. And he pulls it off, which is so hard to do.
COWEN: What has been the political impact of rap, in fact?
WESTHOFF: I think it’s been really profound. I think that Barack Obama cited rappers and rap lyrics before, and I think it’s brought a voice to these under-served communities that people tend to ignore. In St. Louis, for example, when someone is murdered from the north part of the city, it’s barely even news. But hip-hop is something that all young people of all races listen to, pretty much, and it brings these messages to a big audience.
COWEN: This question is maybe a little difficult to explain, but wherein lies the musical talent of hip-hop? If we look at Mozart, there’s melody, there’s harmony. If you listen to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, it’s something very specifically rhythmic, and the textures, and the organization of the blocks of sound. The poetry aside, what is it musically that accounts for the talent in rap music?
WESTHOFF: First of all, riding a beat, rapping, if you will, is extremely hard, and anyone who’s ever tried to do it will tell you. You have to have the right cadence. You have to have the right breath control, and it’s a talent. There’s also — this might sound trivial, but picking the right music to rap over.
So hip-hop, of course, is a genre that’s made up of other genres. In the beginning, it was disco records that people used. And then jazz, and then on and on. Rock records have been rapped over, even. But what song are you going to pick to use? And if someone has a good ear for a sound that goes with their style, that’s something you can’t teach.
COWEN: So how do you train yourself to be better at rap? Say you’re 17, you feel you have some talent. You decide, “I want to be a rapper.” What is it you go out and do?
WESTHOFF: Well, the traditional way is through freestyle battling or just freestyling. Just rap about everything you see, always be rapping. But the sad thing is that a lot of people are just never going to get any better.
COWEN: As you point out in your book, aptly titled Original Gangstas, some of the important early West Coast rappers were, in fact, gang members or violent. Or they have not-so-wonderful histories. But if rap is a skill that requires a lot of practice, are you saying these were actually high-conscientiousness individuals? How does the whole picture fit together?
WESTHOFF: Oh, yeah. When it comes to NWA, the two main talents in NWA were Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. Both of them not only weren’t in gangs, but their early songs were specifically decrying the gang life. They were mocking gangs and telling people to stay away. They were really concerned with their craft, and that’s all they did for fun. It’s another, I think, misconception about hip-hop music.
COWEN: So how hard did they work?
WESTHOFF: They worked incredibly hard. It wasn’t work to them. Dr. Dre just wanted to do nothing but make music all day long.
COWEN: What management lessons do you think we can learn from successful hip-hop groups?
WESTHOFF: I think that just plying your trade on the streets, if you will. Not trying to get a job and be employed by someone else. To start your own business right in the area you live. Easy-E was also a member of NWA. He has a cool voice, but he wasn’t superstar talent out of the box.
COWEN: And he didn’t work real hard, right?
WESTHOFF: He worked on the management side. He built NWA, pretty much from scratch. So that was his great contribution.
COWEN: What management lessons can we learn from the southern rap group Outkast? And why don’t they exist anymore?
WESTHOFF: Well, Big Boi would say they still do exist, but Outkast — I think their thing was they just didn’t care what anyone else thought. They didn’t care about the existing business model. They had a vision of what they wanted to do. They knew there was an audience for it. It wasn’t East Coast, it wasn’t West Coast. They wanted to do an Atlanta sound. They wanted something that was tough, but it was also not tough. It was fun and silly, and they just did it.
COWEN: But they could earn much more money making music together. Why doesn’t the Coase theorem hold? They hate each other too much? They have other goals? Model this for me.
WESTHOFF: It’s a weird thing. I think Big Boi loves André and André is kind of “Eh” sometimes with Big Boi. André is just the quintessential tortured, creative artist, and he has more money than he needs, and he just doesn’t care about making more.
COWEN: What makes southern rap southern? Uniquely southern?
WESTHOFF: To me, it’s the beats. When you hear rap from the Northeast, it moves very fast. It’s very intellectual. It’s meant for showing off your vocabulary, largely. But southern rap is about being on the dance floor. It’s about something when you hear it, you immediately can’t help yourself from going out and dancing.
COWEN: And are the underlying sources or influences different? Where does that distinction come from?
WESTHOFF: They are and they aren’t. There’s a lot of Caribbean influence in both places, but I think it was more the culture of New York versus the culture of, say, Miami, where southern rap started. And Miami is very influenced by these beach parties, for example. The 2 Live Crew’s Luke Campbell was a DJ at these beach parties, and he just wanted to make people dance, and so started doing everything he could to pull that off.
COWEN: And how are the underlying influences in West Coast rap different?
WESTHOFF: West Coast rap comes very much from the culture, also. In the mid- to late-80s, there was the crack epidemic. There was the Crips and the Bloods. They had their own sartorial styles, and all of this was sort of consciously infused into the music. NWA didn’t plan on being an internationally known group. They wanted to appeal to people in Los Angeles and Compton and in their areas. So that’s what they did.
COWEN: Schoolly D, one of my favorites, comes up with an incredibly unique sound, what, in 1987, give or take, yet it seems he was a gangster. Now where did that come from? Are you telling me he was also a high-conscientiousness individual?
WESTHOFF: I don’t know his whole biography, like his real, real biography. There’s not that much written about him, but if I had to put money on it, I would suspect that was likely true. In fact, he said that. He usually didn’t have swear words in his early songs, but the crowds responded to it so well, he started swearing a lot.
COWEN: How did you get access to Dr. Dre for your book?
WESTHOFF: He donated a lot of money to a new USC program, along with Jimmy Iovine, who was the founder of Interscope. I talked to him under those auspices, and he was very excited and proud. He’s a very shy guy. He hates doing interviews, but I got him to open up in this context originally.
COWEN: And other than being shy, how is he different from what you expected?
WESTHOFF: I don’t know. I’ve interviewed a lot of musicians, a lot of celebrity musicians over the years. And they almost all have this natural star shine about them. They can talk to you about anything, and you feel excited to be in their presence. But with Dr. Dre, he was just a wallflower.
COWEN: Let’s say you have to give an answer — what is the best rap album? Do or die, what’s your pick?
WESTHOFF: Oh, man. This is definitely putting me on the spot. I would have to say 808s & Heartbreak by Kanye West.
WESTHOFF: It’s, again, unlike anything that existed at the time or since. It’s a really deceptively deep album. It’s about the death of his mother, the dissolution of a relationship. And the songs are not only the lyrics, but the sound — there’s a lot of auto-tune, a much-derided technology, but it has this ethereal quality. It stayed with me ever since it came out. I still listen to it all the time.
COWEN: And what is the best entry point into rap for a rap skeptic, which may not be the same as the best album? And I’m not a rap skeptic, but I know many of them. Some of our listeners, believe it or not, are rap skeptics. Where should they start?
WESTHOFF: Well, I think that a lot of people have a problem with the misogyny of hip-hop, which is understandable. The violence. So I would point them to something like A Tribe Called Quest. There’s so much Afrocentric, positive hip-hop out there, especially in the early ’90s, the late ’80s, and De La Soul. I would point them in that direction.
COWEN: How should we think about the economics of the optimal length of a rap CD, to go back in time just a bit? The CD era comes along, and there were so many rap CDs that seemed to be 79 minutes and 18 seconds.
COWEN: And I feel just about all of them are too long. Why did they do this? What is the reasoning?
WESTHOFF: I think you’re absolutely right, and I think the skits inflated all those albums. There was a time in hip-hop where you had to have not just one skit, but lots and lots of skits. They were very rarely funny. I think that, in general, shorter is always better when it comes to CDs of any genre. How often do you say, “This CD was too short?” Maybe once in a while. How often do you say a CD is too long? Very often.
COWEN: So maybe the cassette era was better for rap music?
WESTHOFF: That is completely possible. The cassettes — it changed everything about the sequencing compared with CDs. You had to have the number one song be good, and then you had to have the number one song on the other side of the cassette be good.
COWEN: If we go back to the very early days of rap music, say the very early 1980s, I think a lot of people at the time figured, “Well, this is a new trend. It might last five to ten years, or even just three to four years, and then be gone.” Was there anyone who foresaw that come 2019, rap might be the single biggest thing in popular music?
WESTHOFF: There were, yeah. I think people probably like KRS-One. A lot of these big boosters in New York saw it, but really, the executives were the ones who dropped the ball. NWA couldn’t get a record deal, for example, and everyone still thought — this was already the late ’80s — and people still thought this thing was going to peter out any minute.
COWEN: In your account, why hasn’t it exhausted itself? If it has relatively few dimensions of musical talent — well maintaining the beat, choosing the music to go behind what you’re rapping — why is it still so fresh and vital?
WESTHOFF: Well, there’s a lot more to it, too. There’s a lot of live music on hip-hop albums, for example, and it certainly is a complex art form.
I think the simplicity, though, is part of its appeal because anyone can be a rapper, for example. Rapping is such a thing anyone can pick up and try, so there’s not a high barrier of entry. People with really interesting things to say can just start doing it and get their music out there.
COWEN: So it’s almost like a garage inventor phenomenon. You can do it without needing approval from too many other people, very few veto points. You’ll get a lot of creativity, so it just mobilizes more creativity. Would you accept that hypothesis?
COWEN: What’s the musical genre that’s the opposite of that?
WESTHOFF: I think these days, it’s anything with a string section and maybe anything with a horn section. I always think about band class at school and the kids who have to lug their instruments back and forth to school. The viola, the upright bass, even something like the saxophone — who’s going to want to do this every day? I don’t know, that’s one way I think about it.
COWEN: United States aside, which other countries have the best rap scenes?
WESTHOFF: I think that there’s some great rap coming out of Nigeria. There’s Afrobeat, Afropop stuff coming from lots of parts of Africa. And I like some different French rappers, too.
COWEN: I like Algeria and Mexico. I’m not even sure it’s all still rap anymore, or what that would be.
WESTHOFF: Yeah, reggaeton and stuff, yeah. It all kind of comes together in certain ways.
COWEN: If you think about career trajectories for rap stars, I have the casual sense that they don’t last that long. Are there rap stars who just keep on getting better as they age, like Beethoven? Or is that very hard to pull off? And if so, why?
WESTHOFF: I haven’t seen a lot of that, but I don’t know why it shouldn’t be the case, though. You have blues musicians who undeniably often get better when they age. When it comes to rap stars, it tends to be like all the money — as with any celebrities — once you get a lot of yes-men around you, it’s hard to keep your creative edge.
COWEN: Is the entourage inefficient? Should we tax the entourage, discourage it? Would the world be a better place if we outlawed the entourage?
WESTHOFF: No, I’m a fan of the entourage because, for a lot of rappers who get famous — the people who supported them — there’s kind of this implicit agreement that if any of us break big, we’re going to bring the other ones. And all rappers who have entourages say that they’re basically giving jobs to people who would otherwise be engaged in nefarious behavior in the streets.
COWEN: How does male versus female taste in rap music differ?
WESTHOFF: It’s hard to generalize, but part of what I talk about in Dirty South was the reason that southern music — my book about southern rap music, Dirty South — the reason southern music succeeded was that it really focused on women and what they liked. So that tended to be more of these dance-floor songs rather than this rappity-rap-rap sort of mentality. So that’s been a big factor, I think.
COWEN: You also have an early book on dive bars in New York City, correct?
WESTHOFF: That’s right.
COWEN: How did that come about?
WESTHOFF: I was doing writing for the Village Voice. They had these different books about dive bars in different cities, and I signed up to do the one for New York.
COWEN: What is now the best borough in New York for dive bars? It can’t be Manhattan anymore, right?
WESTHOFF: No, I wouldn’t say, although the higher the street number, the more likely you’re going to find a good dive bar with decent-priced drinks. But I would say Queens. Queens has a lot of dive bars that truly are what you would imagine a dive bar to be: Christmas lights, wood paneling, Formica-type bars. And things like bar fights — if that’s your scene — can be found aplenty in Queens.
COWEN: Other than simply wanting to drink, what are, in fact, the reasons to go to a dive bar?
WESTHOFF: I think it’s just the camaraderie. If you go to a corporate bar, you’re not going to really feel comfortable chatting up people as much. And dive bars — it tends to be regulars from the neighborhood, and it’s like a second family for a lot of people.
COWEN: So the model is that it lowers the status expectations for everyone so you can say what you want, be who you want, behave in any way?
WESTHOFF: Yeah, absolutely.
COWEN: And that lowers transactions costs.
WESTHOFF: I think that is 100 percent true. These are decidedly unpretentious places, and that’s part of their DNA.
COWEN: Why don’t we run more social institutions on that basis? Or should we? Why don’t we run podcasts on that basis? Like, “Hey, here’s my dive podcast.”
WESTHOFF: Yeah, we probably should.
COWEN: Is there a European equivalent of dive bars?
WESTHOFF: Hmm, that’s a good question. It seems to me a specifically American thing in a lot of ways because in Europe, they have more beautiful, long-lasting architecture, while in the US, a lot of dive bars are just some shack somewhere.
COWEN: Is there a Chinese equivalent of dive bars?
WESTHOFF: Undoubtedly. I did not get to see any, though.
COWEN: For our final segment, just a few questions about the Ben Westhoff production function, if I may. You wrote a book on fentanyl, and it’s now turned out fentanyl is one of the country’s biggest issues. Was this simply luck? Or did you have actual insight? And if you had insight, where did that come from?
WESTHOFF: I think it had a lot to do with luck. The way I got into the story was writing about these rave drugs that were being adulterated. And then I found out about China — how these labs were making all these new drugs. It wasn’t until I was well into the reporting that I even heard the word fentanyl. And then it just took over the book.
COWEN: But how did that happen? What clicked in your mind? What was that moment like?
WESTHOFF: Well, I was writing about rave dust, and one person out of 60,000 would die at a rave. And I thought, “Oh, that’s bad.” But then I was hearing that fentanyl… many more people were starting to die. So I was like, “This is a much, much bigger problem.”
COWEN: Let’s imagine this is a dive podcast. What’s the weirdest fact about your childhood that you’re willing to tell us?
WESTHOFF: [laughs] Weirdest fact about my childhood. Well, probably just that my parents had us living this kind of weird, hippie lifestyle, where we never had chocolate. We never had anything that might be considered delicious food for children. And we all revolted, and I got so upset about this, I began shoplifting at a very young age from the local college — their little store where they had candy bars. So I’d like to say my parents drove me to crime.
COWEN: And this was in St. Louis?
WESTHOFF: No, this was when I was growing up in Mankato, Minnesota.
COWEN: Do American kids watch too much TV?
WESTHOFF: Yes, I think that they do. There are so many more things to do in life, that TV doesn’t have to be so much of it.
COWEN: Let’s say that a very smart 18-year-old comes up to you and says that in some way, they want to follow in your footsteps, to write books on disparate but very interesting and hot topics, like rap music and fentanyl, and they ask you for advice. What is it you tell them, other than the obvious, like work hard, be like a rap star?
COWEN: What do you say?
WESTHOFF: Just follow what you really want to do and what you’re really interested in. I came up in alternative weeklies, and for how underpaid we were, that was made up for by the fact that we could write about whatever we wanted. We were encouraged to follow our interests, whereas at a daily paper, you might have had a certain beat that you always wrote about every day.
And there’s stuff that, just intrinsically, you know more about, that inspires you more, and so again, you want to get to a point where it doesn’t feel like work, like you would be doing this anyway.
When I first dreamed of being a writer, I thought I needed all these life experiences. I needed to go running with the bulls, and I needed to maybe be an alcoholic. I just needed to really live.
But my feeling on that has shifted a lot. Now I think just the opposite, that there’s plenty of stories out there. The things to write about are all around you, and you need to discipline yourself, get your health right. Like I said, I try to be very careful about what I eat. I’m very big on exercise, long distance running, yoga, getting my body right, getting enough sleep every night. It’s not glamorous, but I feel like it benefits my work a lot.
COWEN: So you’re a big believer in practice?
COWEN: What do you do to practice writing, to become a better writer? Obviously, you write, but what else can you do?
WESTHOFF: This is part of that, but just journaling. When people think about writing, they think, “Oh, I have to write a profound short story.” But I always say, “No, just write everything that’s happening to you.” Nonfiction, to me, from the average writer, from the entry-level writer is almost always a thousand times more interesting than some fiction they’re writing.
COWEN: Do you love book tour?
WESTHOFF: Do I love book tour? I’m very grateful to be on book tour. The food is difficult, it’s kind of a grind, but I am certainly happy to be here on this podcast.
COWEN: And last question: do you have any sense what your next book might be, if you’re allowed to tell us?
WESTHOFF: I think it’s going to be about the murder of my little brother from the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. His name was Jorell Cleveland, and in 2016, he was murdered. He lived in Ferguson, and the murder is still unsolved, so I want to find out what happened that led to his demise.
COWEN: Wow. Ben Westhoff, thank you very much.
WESTHOFF: Well, thank you.