Courtesy of Fredo Santana's Instagram page

As Drill pioneer Fredo Santana is laid to rest today, sophisticated trap rapper Tony Cartel shares his thoughts on hip-hop’s role in the spread of lean culture, and hip-hop’s responsibility to put an end to it. As told to Tiffany Walden.

I first learned about lean back in 2009. Chicago wasn’t really hip to it yet. I used to travel back and forth to Texas, and that’s how I got my hands on it. That’s where the culture around lean originated and is still heavy to this day. My Texas homies used to keep liters of it in the refrigerator. One day, I went to grab what I thought was Sprite because I was thirsty. My guy was like, “Nah. Don’t open that one.” Then I noticed three more 2-liter bottles of Sprite in the fridge that was full of that lean shit. Lean was simply the culture in the South.

Then Lil Wayne got popular. So did Gucci Mane and Future. They started flooding the streets with free mixtapes, and every song talked about doing drugs, popping pills and sipping lean. As the transition happened from studio albums to free mixtapes on online streaming sites like Napster and DatPiff, pill and lean culture started penetrating the hoods outside of the South. Between 2009 and 2011, I saw the demand and price for lean increase like crazy on the streets of Chicago.

The thing about lean is, it’s comparable to crack on the addiction scale. I didn’t know that at first. I thought lean was harmless like weed. I knew its promethazine-codeine mixture helped people mellow out, especially if they’re worrying about some shit or dealing with some type of pain. However, I quickly saw young people turning into crackheads for it – like, ready to rob for it or being very specific about the purity of it. I saw young n*ggas turning into zombies, spending all of their money on lean and pouring up everyday and losing their ambition for life. I saw young guys having seizures from it. That changed my whole outlook on it. I stopped selling it.

But see, experienced lean drinkers are able to live longer because they know how to pour up just the right amount that they need at the time. It’s also an expensive drug because codeine and promethazine are not easy medications to get. So the average Joe makes his lean stretch by rationing it off instead of drinking a whole pint. Once the young guys get in the rap game and start making money, though, it’s nothing to pour up more than they usually would. That’s when the addiction gets worse.

Fredo Santana’s death is a sad one. (Ed. note: Santana reportedly died from a seizure. Officials haven’t yet released the cause of death, but Santana once explained his health problems may have been a result of lean addiction). Hopefully, his death is an eye-opener, too. Fredo isn’t the first rapper to battle an addiction to lean. Pimp C died off the syrup in 2007. Back then, though, lean was seen as this pricey but casual drink, and rappers romanticized Pimp C’s death. Pimp C was the personification of lean culture. In 2015, A$AP Yams died from a drug overdose. Lean was his drug of choice, too. Rappers celebrated Yams death, and that made lean even more legendary.  

If anything good can come out of Fredo’s story, it’s that people are now concerned about lean and slowly growing opposed to it. I think hip hop needs to assist with putting an end to lean culture. We have to start rapping about lean like its our enemy, like the shit is not cool. Future put out a whole mixtape in 2016 called Purple Reign that was an ode to the shit. In the old days, heroine used to be the Hollywood drug. Musicians abused heroine and sang about it, too. Today, lean is the new Hollywood drug because more and more musicians are rapping about it. In my opinion, hip hop is one of the main forces behind the spread of lean. So now it’s hip hop’s responsibility to change that narrative, for real.

If you’ve got an opinion about something Chicago-related, email us at