Confessions of a Bo-Fessional

Pub date August 19, 2009
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features


That Bo & Sprite, I mix it up and tip it every day and night

Shady Nate, "Bo & Sprite," The Bo-Fessional

DRUGS I’m in the backyard of Shady Nate’s aunty’s house on 28th and "Zipper" (Chestnut Street) in West Oakland, watching Lil Rue of Livewire pour four ounces of purple syrup into a liter of Sprite, which turns the hue of pink champagne. With the residue, he coats a cigarette, Shady coats a Black&Mild, and Jay Jonah coats a blunt, which sputters and foams as it burns. When Rue licks the syrup cap, however, Jonah protests this breach of etiquette, though the dispute dissipates as the bottle goes around.

The syrup in question is promethazine-codeine cough syrup, known variously as "lean," "sizzurp," even simply "purple" (wreaking linguistic havoc since "purple" also means weed). "Lean" derives from its characteristic side-effect: if you drink enough, you need to lean against something to stand. West Oakland’s term of choice is "Bo," as in "Robitussin." Bo first oozed into rap in the late ’90s via the South, associated with the slowed-down chopped and screwed sound invented by Houston’s DJ Screw. One of Shady’s OGs, Big Mayne, assures us Bo’s been in Oakland forever, though formerly cheap liquor was its vehicle. (Drinking it straight is called "raw.") Soda is a comparatively recent innovation, indicating Bo’s increasingly youthful demographic, which extends to middle school.

"In ’95, I ain’t seen no one sippin’ syrup but OGs," Shady recalls. "We didn’t know what it was. Around 2000, it started to pop — couple motherfuckers knew about it but not everybody. But now, it’s like a fad. Like Mac Dre came with the thizz, it’s syrup now."

As Shady notes, Bo has supplanted Ecstasy as the hood’s must-do drug. But Bo is more likley to kill you; promethazine causes extreme drowsiness and potentially, in large enough doses, heart attacks or respiratory failure. DJ Screw himself died of respiratory failure at age 29 in 2000. In December 2007, six months after his post-prison triumph with UGK’s No. 1-debuting Underground Kings (Jive, 2007), Pimp C, 33, succumbed to a lethal combination of syrup and his preexisting sleep apnea.

The possibility of death has, of course, never deterred drug use except in individual cases; even so, as a trend, Bo is a risky high. Addictiveness aside, the best part of the high, I’m told, occurs on the brink of nodding off. (Jonah claims that nodding off at the wheel, not overdose, is the leading cause of Bo-related death in West Oakland.) But the target — "catching your nod" — seems easy for the inexperienced to overshoot, particularly when the delivery method is a beverage that tastes like it was designed for kids.

Tastes? Well, yes, I took a few pulls from the bottle, purely for journalistic purposes. Four ounces among four people isn’t enough to make you lean or nod, but it’s enough to get the idea. I was pretty lifted for three hours, then mildly so the rest of the day. The promethazine considerably enhances the codeine: my head felt pleasant, like a halo extended a few inches between me and the world, yet the sensation was crisp, not foggy, at least at this dosage, peaceful rather than giddy. This was a one-time trial for me, but I could easily see wanting to extend the high.

Indeed, extension is the point; Shady’s ideal is to nurse four or more ounces over the course of the day. In terms of rap hedonism, Bo has ushered in a new vibe. You don’t guzzle, you "tip" or "kiss" it. Instead of ballin’, you brag on stinginess, "I ain’t sippin’ with you" being a common refrain. Generally I’ve found people in the ghetto generous with weed — the blunt’s a preeminently social event — so Bo’s antisocial element is striking. "I done seen fights over the lacers," Shady laughs, referring to the use of the residue. "It almost just went down — Jonah almost took off Lil Rue!"

On this day in July, Shady has a pair of projects in Rasputin’s rap Top 20: an album, Gasman Unleashed (PTB/Clear Label/SMC); and a mixtape, The Bo-Fessional (DJ Racks), on which every song is devoted to Bo. As we drink, I ask about its effect on his creative process.

"I can rap all fast," he says (an understatement), "but when I’m on syrup — I’m singin’, I’m harmonizin’. It slows me down."

The difference is palpable on "Bo & Sprite," his mixtape take on Kid Cudi’s "Day and Night." The choice itself is uncharacteristic, as is the weird thickness of his Bo-soaked delivery, discovering melodic filigrees only implied in the original as he spins an amusingly mundane tale of scoring — classic drug music. Most of Shady’s vocals on Gasman are lean-free by necessity, in order to achieve full speed, but Bo-Fessional serves as an inspired b-side, documenting what, in Oakland, may be the Summer of Bo.

But Bo’s already grown scarce; the members of Livewire say the police have cracked down and doctors aren’t prescribing it due to the widespread abuse. Already expensive — roughly $15 an ounce — Bo’s street price is ever increasing due to the drought, which limits Shady’s indulgence to roughly once a week. This might be frequent enough, given Bo’s potential dangers. I very much understand the attraction, but at the same time, Shady and Livewire are talented dudes with a lot to live for.