When Michael Penn II was nine years old, he had his first sip of alcohol. Mistaking his father’s glass of Hennessy in the fridge for a glass of Coke, the young Penn confidently took a sip of the dark beverage. The moment it touched his lips, he realized the mistake he had made and spit it back into the glass.
“I forget who was over at the time, but my dad started just laughing,” Penn said. “He was like, ‘Yeah, that’s what you get!’”
That was 14 years ago. Now Penn is 23 and he hasn’t touched a drink since — an anomaly for someone so entrenched in hip-hop culture. Rapping under the pseudonym CRASHprez, Penn, like many rappers, focuses on his unique perspective and experiences in his music. A big part of that experience is his choice to stay sober.
“I’m at the point where people who are close to me, they know not to press me for that anymore,” Penn said. “I tell them, ‘If you see me with a drink, something’s f--king wrong.’”
Vices come in many different forms — marijuana, alcohol, gambling — the list goes on and on. Music often plays a pivotal role in spreading the ideas of self-destruction and indulgence for the sake of escaping from our everyday problems. EDM and rave culture routinely glorify the use of MDMA. Countless indie rock groups praise the use of psychedelics and weed. Many hip-hop artists have developed flourishing careers by describing their excessive partying filled with booze, weed and lean.
According to Penn, telling these stories is a double-edged sword. He says recognizing the reason people discuss drug use or drinking in their art is essential to the overarching narrative. Escapism plays a central role in music and, many times, that escapism is glorified. Loads of artists neglect to illustrate the repercussions that come with diving into a pool full of liquor.
“Is it important to tell those narratives or not hide who you are? Absolutely. If you’re being true to it, absolutely. There’s a very thin line between narrating your story and crossing the line and glorifying it,” Penn said. “My thing is, as a rapper, from a craft standpoint, if you’re gonna talk about that drug s--t, give me both sides. Don’t just present it like everything is gonna be f--king alright.”
Penn’s sobriety is a lifestyle choice; he doesn’t preach about the evils of alcohol and drugs because he doesn’t believe that it’s his place to act. Instead, his focus lies in acknowledging the forces that drive us to self-destruction. Everyone has their own vices.
“Outside of what liquor or weed or pills or whatever the case may be, there’s always forms of escapism. I feel like that’s a very human thing. Humans love to find ways to destroy themselves. That’s fascinating to me.”
Alcohol has been the cause of trouble and pain for his family and friends on multiple occasions, so he’s been exposed to the negative consequences. In Penn’s case, his habits give him the chance to tell people there are alternatives to excessive drinking and drug use. His main vice, unhealthy food, serves as a cathartic alternative to substances.
“For all the drugged out s--t, super f--ked up s--t, where’s the alternative to that? Who’s gonna step up and put those messages out there?” Penn said.
Since hip-hop’s inception in the Bronx, authenticity and storytelling have been major factors in the genre. KRS-One, Eric B. & Rakim and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five told their unique, elaborate tales of living in crime-ridden neighborhoods in order to spread the message and lessons from their struggles to the world.
In the same vein, Penn’s narrative focuses on telling his story, no-holds-barred. His life is laid out on the table. Exploring the good, the bad and the unusual allows for a natural conversation to develop within the culture as a whole. Accepted or not, his perspectives are out there, ready to interact with the world.
“The culture shifts. The drug shift is a time shift. The function of an MC was to rock a party from jump,” Penn said. “It’s not this. It’s not like, ‘I’m off xans. I’m off lean. I’m off this. I’m off that.’ That just evolved over time I suppose.
“I think me sharing my personal story is much more important than me trying to DARE ad people. I always look at rap today like it’s in dialogue with something. It’s always in dialogue with history. It’s in dialogue with each other.”
Penn’s ideas on sharing his personal story translate flawlessly into the music of CRASHprez. His last full project, more perfect., is filled with references to previous projects from rappers who use music to tell their own stories like Kendrick Lamar and Pusha T. It’s his way to take messages, often drug related, and reinterpret them from his perspective.
On “Pollo y Porno,” he twists ScHoolboy Q’s lyrics “Weed and brews / Weed and brews / Life for me is just weed and brews” into the bridge “porn and food / porn and food / life for me is just porn and food.”
In a sense, Penn’s mission is to give people the information they need in order to make their own educated decisions. Whether it’s simply offering an alternative to the music focusing on drugs or if it’s addressing the issues associated with pornography and bad eating habits, CRASHprez continues to start new conversations that keep himself and his listeners growing as humans, no matter how flawed.
“We’re just an infinite Google doc, and then this s--t just shuts down one day when we die. You’re just supposed to keep editing that motherf--ker. You’re not supposed to exit the window.”
Hip-hop culture, to a certain degree, has grown to a point where excessive, self-destructive habits often outweigh the messages that some artists are trying to tell. Michael Penn’s sobriety is a testament that any artist, regardless of the current status quo, can create works of art that spark conversation among an audience in an attempt to bring new perspectives to the table.