The opioid epidemic is rampant in the United States. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), opioids contributed to 47,600 overdose deaths in 2017 — 67.8 percent of all drug overdose fatalities.

In an effort to bring awareness to the seriousness of the situation, author/educator Dennis Vanasse has recruited EPMD legend Parish Smith to discuss the dangers of opioid addiction and how Hip Hop’s profound influence can aid in the fight to end drug abuse.

Vanasse, who was Joyner Lucas’ high school teacher and remains close friends with him to this day, has been working on autobiographies for Smith, Sticky Fingaz, Wu-Tang Clan’s Cappadonna and Spliff Star.

In his spare time, he’s a college professor and special needs teacher at an elementary school.

Smith, of course, is one-half of the iconic New York duo EPMD and co-mastermind of classics such as “You Gots To Chill” and “Da Joint” alongside Erick Sermon.

As part of Addiction Awareness Month, Smith and Vanasse will continue traveling across the U.S. attempting to educate young people on the dangers of drug abuse. During a candid interview with HipHopDX, the two discuss why it’s an important topic, the power of fame and what they believe can lead to change.

HipHopDX: Why is this topic important to you on a personal level?

Dennis: Opioid addiction is ravaging communities all over the world and it needs to be spoken about. One of the things that really rings loud is there’s been a negative stigma associated to addiction throughout the years, dating back to 20, 30 years ago. What Parish and I are doing is we’re replacing that negative stigma through education and talking about it on this platform to create social awareness that can make a much more immediate and positive impact. The hope is, by reaching out to the communities and working with kids, that we can change their lives and create discussion. It’s through discussion and education that you make a difference. Every community, some more than others, is impacted by addiction.

Opioid addiction has no face. It could be absolutely anybody. There’s all different varying levels of it. It’s real. And, when you have … You know, I think we’re living in a society today where if you have a level of communication with kids and individuals, it creates a discussion and you’re going to get somewhere. When you create awareness, it leads to acceptance and educating others about social topics. And this is right now is probably one of the most important topics in the world and definitely in the United States.

HipHopDX: I agree. A year or two ago, I did an editorial addressing the prescription pill epidemic and how it’s often glorified in rap.

Dennis: I’ve also been a teacher, professor and educator for the last 25 years, and I’ve seen how addiction can ravage a community. With Hip Hop being the most influential culture, why not start here? I’ve been connected with Parish for four years. Parish and I’ve collaborated on other social issues and tasks. One of the most important ones was, we collaborated on autism a couple years ago. Parish did some events with me and he’s one of the architects of one of the most influential genres out there. He has such a strong voice and when he speaks, especially through social media, we have these vehicles to get these words out here a lot faster than we could 20, 30 years ago.

HipHopDX: Absolutely. Parish, do you have any sort of personal connection to this crisis? And, what made you want to get involved?

Parish: As an artist, you put your life into all of this work and masterpieces. But at the same time, if you have this addiction, that addiction can prevent you from actually seeing how good the work that you put out there went.

Through the music, becoming an artist, traveling and doing shows, let’s say you get in an accident or you get hurt, that can start the road to addiction. Most people who are hiding in the dark don’t realize that in the long run, what is the point of doing all of this hard work if you’re not even going to be around to see it at the end? So, this is just trying to open up a little dialogue, like look how many artists have dropped classic albums and they’re not even here.

HipHopDX: It seems like drug abuse and alcoholism kind of go hand-in-hand with the music industry. Why do you think that is? Why do you think so many artists gravitate toward that “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” lifestyle?

Parish: I don’t think it’s on purpose. I just think it’s the speed, the fast pace. Sometimes you love the music so much and you’re so wrapped into it, it’s hard letting it go. You’re not even realizing there’s levels in life. There’s levels in music. And then sometimes, you just have to know when to grow up so you can be around to see it. One of Eminem’s album covers that stick out to this day was very simple [2010’s Recovery]. He was walking up the road on the yellow line. Like, back to 12 o’clock, start over. If you can get back to the present and a healthy mind, then that’s where all the creativity lies. You owe it to yourself.

HipHopDX: Mac Miller was only 26 when he died. He didn’t even get the chance to really grow up and get to that level where it’s like, ‘OK, maybe I need to stop doing this shit and do something different with my life.’ And, that’s the biggest tragedy to me. They get in these situations and it’s too late.

Parish: Sometimes you’re not even aware. If you become more mature and you make music then you get in your rhythm. You got one album and then your fans, they want another one. So, you go back in and you want to make the fans happy. Sometimes, structure and balance is important if you want to last for the long run.

Dennis: First of all, there’s another name I want to throw in that I know a lot of the millennials love and that’s Lil Peep. But I think one of the issues sometimes and why people don’t talk about issues such as this is they have been stigmatized. I always use the word individuals when I talk about somebody that has this condition. We want to look at the individual person before we talk about it. These are individuals that may have been villainized in the past who are actually suffering from a disease.

What we need to do is through discussion and through this stigma is, we need to create a society that shows more love and more empathy. We shouldn’t be talking bad about people and we should be trying to remove this stigma. Then, I think individuals will be more willing to step out and talk about it because it’s a disease. They need treatment. They don’t need people who are looking at them in a certain way.

HipHopDX: A lot of the substance abuse does stem from mental health issues in the first place. So, a lot of these people are trying to self-medicate. Having more empathy towards people with mental health issues is paramount.

Parish: Yeah, that is the key. Because, when you take off, the next thing you know you have full access to everything; anything that you want. And me coming in, just speaking from the novice standpoint of view, being on the outside and then coming in to this fast pace, everything is fun. You know — the Hip Hop. You’re thinking it’s the norm. But once you sit down, you start to think like, “OK, there’s no way possible to make 30 countries drinking like all these 40s like this and smoking all of those trees.” It’s not going to happen. That’s where you begin to have to give and take with yourself, to know your limits.

HipHopDX: It’s got to be strange because so many artists are put on a pedestal. You have these people basically worshiping you and willing to give you whatever you want.

Parish: If you write a rhyme and you say something about weed. Then, when you say that and you go on tour, this is what your fans are thinking in basically every city. Now, you just said that on a double-platinum album and you got a 40-city tour in front of you. What do you think’s going to happen when your tour bus rolls up? Everybody got a blunt waiting for you. In the beginning, it’s fun because you think that’s what it’s supposed to be. But again, you got to know your limits.

HipHopDX: Let’s say you made that song. All of a sudden you’re 10 years in and you decide to clean up your life. Do you think it’s hard for people go back and kind of reinvent themselves in a sense?

Parish: I think it’s all about you evolving to the best that you can actually be. Then the people who’s following you, they evolve too. It’s like you don’t have to drink 12 40s. You can drink one [laughs]. You get to the point where they’re like, “Yo, would you like a Bud Light?” and you say, “Nah, I’m good.”

HipHopDX: It’s great you’re using your platform. Parish, you are using your very large platform to address something very important. Do you guys kind of hope that more people take heed and do the same thing?

Parish: There’s nothing wrong with partying. There’s nothing wrong with having fun because that’s what life is all about. You just got to know your limits.

HipHopDX: But when you get to that point where it’s no longer fun, then what?

Dennis: It’s almost like we have to adapt and change the Hip Hop lifestyle.

Parish: Artists got to remember, there’s no supervision. You’re supposed to be supervising yourself. So it ain’t like your parents are saying, “Yo, listen, don’t mess with this or don’t mess with that.” That’s supposed to be a part of your commitment to Hip Hop culture — doing the right thing. That’s one of the responsibilities.

HipHopDX: Dennis, you just hit on that. I got a shirt from stic of dead prez that says, “Healthy Gangsta Lifestyle.” It’s about changing that perception.

Dennis: We can do that by incorporating more positive lifestyle mantras and affirmation in Hip Hop. It can happen. Anybody can be an agent of change. Basically, living is the new cool.

Parish: Right. Besides, who would be doing all this work not to be here to see it? I thought the object of the game was to get old, sit in the rocking chair with the fireplace and tell war stories.

HipHopDX: And look at your platinum records on the wall.

Parish: You know?

Dennis: I just couldn’t imagine not being around to enjoy the success. You look at the Mac Millers, the Lil Peeps and Jimi Hendrix … let’s not let their life be in vain. Let’s make people aware of what their struggles were and encourage others through educating and having discussions to help people get help. There’s a lot of resources out there today, but this epidemic is growing so quick, there needs to be that much more.

HipHopDX: I don’t smoke, drink or do drugs. That’s literally the best decision I’ve ever made because I don’t think I would be here if I was on the road like I was on. I think there should be success stories out there. If we bring awareness to all of this, it could really change things.

Parish: Hip Hop is still young. It’s not old.

HipHopDX: Sugar Hill Gang just celebrated 40 years of “Rapper’s Delight.”

Parish: This particular epidemic wasn’t here back then. It’s kind of like when you used to fly on the plane and people could smoke cigarettes. But as the world grew, and the world began to evolve, you can’t smoke.

Dennis: We need to encourage people to not shame individuals who are honest about their struggles. They’re brave enough to step forward and share their struggles. Don’t shame them for their honesty. Working as an educator for years, children are impressionable. They’re very impressionable. They look at the Parish Smiths. They look at people and they’re looking for those role models. When you’re in the public eye, you are a role model. When you can be a voice of an agent of change, it speaks volumes. These positive mantras and these things, this is what children need. With an architect like Parish using his vehicle, using Hip Hop, it’s a great way to get this positive message out about something that is so stigmatized.

Parish: That’s what this is all about. It’s for the person who’s thinking there’s nobody out there and nobody cares like, “Yo, I can’t make it.” It starts with you realizing that you have to have the energy from within. My whole motto is keep it high school and you’re good money. Did you like the way you were in junior high? Did you go to junior high and elementary in that state? You got to try to get back to your original state, and you owe it to yourself to finish up so you can complete your dreams.