Hold On, Is Dabbing Actually a Weed Reference?

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When I first heard the word 'dabbing' pertaining to dance, it popped up on the trending bar of my Facebook newsfeed, early in the NFL season: "Cam Newton Seen Dabbing." My first that was, "Holy shit! Cam Newton is going to get suspended, thus murdering my fantasy football season and ensuring that none of my relatives will get anything nice for Christmas!" (PS: I'm broke.)

As it turns out, the "dab" in question was not the overly complicated way of ingesting concentrated marijuana that I was familiar with, but the actual name for that thing Cam does when he shoves his face into his elbow like a subway rider sneezing during flu season.

You've probably seen a windfall of dabbing over the past few months. Like anything embraced on any level by young, popular African Americans, the move has been warped and diluted by old, out of touch white people -- squeezing the simplistic dance move into desperate grabs for Millennial relevance and attention (Hillary's cool!), or as a way to make morning newscasters look even more dopey and out of touch than usual. Basically, it went from an actual dance move from underground hip-hop to a one-step Macarena for morons. Remember how funny it was when grandpa did it at Thanksgiving dinner?

Now this always amused me, because -- given the nature of the move, its name, and where it came from -- I've always thought it was a direct reference to marijuana use that flew over the heads of the tragically un-hip like Black Mirror references at an Amish dinner table. But like any great story of the 21st century, Lil' Bow Wow got involved, and shit got way more complicated.

People dabbing and dont know the origin

Posted by Bow Wow on Monday, December 7, 2015

Bow Wow weighs in

You may remember Lil' Bow Wow (or just Bow Wow, as he's outgrown his lil'-ness) as the pre-teen rapper whose videos were consistently sandwiched between episodes of Hey Arnold!, or, if you're 80, from CSI: Cyber . Anyway, he posted the video above, unprompted and uncomfortably close-up, man-splaining the origins of the dab -- basically, that it's referencing smoking dabs and the subsequent coughing fits that commonly accompany the hits. And the Internet exploded accordingly.

People roasted him for calling out the origins of the dance (as if that somehow ruined it). People called him out for pretending to be above this type of culture, despite "crip walking on Nickelodeon," as some Facebook commenters alluded to. And most importantly, people totally skewered him for -- allegedly -- whiffing on the origins of the dance. Notably, some of the Atlanta rappers who have popularized and become associated with the move say Bow Wow's explanation was totally wack (am I using that right?)

Overall, most people who had authority in the subject think the diminutive rapper/actor should probably stay out of it. But is there actually any truth to what he is saying?

Welcome to Atlanta, where the dab was born

For the most part, Atlanta rappers like Migos (who are in the video above), Rich the Kid, PeeWay Longway, and Skippa da Flippa have been unofficially credited with bringing the dab from the streets of Atlanta to the masses -- though Cam Newton is the dude who really brought it to mainstream American consciousness.

But, as you can see (and hear) in the video above, Migos denies Bow Wow's claim that it has anything to do with drug use. But... they never really do say where it came from, or even where the name came from. Since I admittedly know as much about ATL hip-hop as a squirrel does about quantum mechanics, I turned to a source closer to the situation. 

"What you have to understand about Atlanta, especially with slang and things like that, it's like another world. Unless you are really close to the situation, you probably won't be able to keep up with these words and their meanings," Mike Jordan, a Thrillist contributor living in Atlanta, told me. He knows a thing or two about Atlanta and its music scene, and even to him, the roots of the dab are shrouded in mystery. 

"It's so hard to tell where this word came from. It might be something Migos picked up on the street, or something they heard about. It is definitely from Atlanta's street culture, but it's hard to pinpoint where. They might not even know the origin themselves, and just thought it was a good move. That it just looked good. But sometimes people pick up words and use them with their own intentions -- Atlanta has a weird culture, slang and moves get picked up and passed on all the time, sometimes people forget what they really mean."

Are we getting the full story here?

OK , so Migos -- the Baryshnikovs of the dab -- deny the weed connection. Someone in tune with Atlanta and its slang admits the origins of the word are murky at best, and no one is coming forth with an iron-clad story of how the dab came to be an actual thing. The most clarity they'll give is describing it as a way of "fashion." Hmm.

Here's where we veer into pure (though semi-educated) speculation: What if the dab is exactly what Bow Wow said it was? What if it was directly referencing dabbing, coughing, and all the negative connotations that come with it? What if these ATL rappers are just keeping that shit on the DL (did I do that right?) in order to save face, and continue the mainstream's love affair with the seemingly harmless dance craze -- I mean, they are getting a lot of attention from it.

And obviously, with that attention comes Benjamins (did I say that right?). A craze this big is insanely marketable. 2 Chainz alone claims to have made a staggering $2 million off of dabbing Ugly Xmas sweaters. Do you think Hilary Clinton would be dabbing on national TV if she knew it was referencing coughing from high-potency marijuana wax?

The case against the dab

This is obviously pure conjecture.


Migos and the rappers they roll with are no strangers to weed. Here are some of their song titles, for reference: "Contraband," "Dope in my Sock," "Scooby and Shaggy," "Pipe It Up," "Ounces," and the list trails on, almost eternally. And here, is a sample line, from "Pipe It Up": "Pipe it up, pipe it up, pipe it up, pipe it up/I'm just doing my dab, I called it the pipe it up/All this dab a ni**a dripping"

Admittedly, "Pipe" in this setting (especially after hearing Mike's view on Atlanta slang) might not even refer to smoking at all. Knicks fans will probably remember J.R. Smith's infamous usage of the phrase to refer to his... um... J.R. junior. And like Mike said before, ATL slang is a whole world unto itself. But, I mean...c'mon.

"I see what you are saying there," Mike told me, when I shared my theory of Migos playing it cool in order to keep the dab on mainstream America's radar, "but the only thing is, I haven't known them to really care or give a shit about anything in the past. They've always been huge in Atlanta, but now, they are getting some serious coverage all over because of the dab, so there might be some motivation there to play it kind of cool. But again, it might hard to see them even caring if everyone knew this move was about weed."

In all fairness, this wouldn't be the first time slang from songs, or dance moves, have been embraced my lame-ass people across the country, without realizing the implications. Let's look at words like "Skeet Skeet," "Bando," "Trap," and "Superman the Hoe." They mean "ejaculate," "an abandoned house used for selling drugs," "the corner where drugs are sold," and "ejaculating on a woman's back, then sticking a bed-sheet on her like a cape," respectively.

The "Bankhead Bounce" was (reportedly) a crack cocaine-influenced dance, made popular by Michael Jackson and copied in suburban living rooms across the nation. Players for the Washington Redskins and the Alabama National Championship team have recently been captured mimicking a dance, the "Ran Off on da Plug Twice," created by the rapper Plies in his song "Ritz Carlton," which is apparently about running away from the cops.

This shit happens all the time. Drugs and sex are a big part of rap culture. And sometimes, it bleeds through onto the unsuspecting masses, who might be yelling "Skeet-Skeet!" while dancing with their NaNas at their Cousin Bob's wedding reception, without realizing the horror of the situation.

Let's hope Migos are telling the truth, for Hillary's sake

So, is Migos not telling the full truth about their newly famous dance fad? Or, is it really (inexplicably) not associated with marijuana at all? Well -- there may be a third option.

"You know, the dab has been around for a few years, to be honest," Mike confided, racking his brain for any memories of the dab, pre-Migos. "It's possible someone just did it, and they picked it up, not even thinking about the origin of it."

This is an interesting possibility. Can the dudes who once literally rapped "My bitch got the dope in her panties," not realize the dance they do every 30 seconds is directly tied to marijuana? I suppose it's possible. For now, I'd like to give them the benefit of the doubt. If the Migos and their crew are unaware of the translation, and no one really associates it with drugs anymore, then does it even really matter where, when, and how the original term was born, if it has taken on a new meaning?

I'm not sure if I'm still riding the high from binging Making a Murderer, but one thing is for sure: something here doesn't fully add up. Though, we may never uncover the real truth -- and let's be honest, the dab will probably fade back into anonymity as soon as Carolina gets bounced out of the playoffs, as all fads do eventually.

That being said, a big part of me can't help but want to believe that the (possible) future President of our United States just pretended to take a massive of hit of concentrated weed wax, and cough her ass off into her elbow on national television.

So, until further notice, believe is exactly what I'll do. 

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Wil Fulton is a staff writer for Thrillist. He's been listening to Migos for three hours straight. Follow him @wilfulton.