‘You have to stop one day’: Miami rapper Fat Nick opens up on drug abuse and mental illness

Nicholas Voutsinas, a rapper who goes by the name Fat Nick, in his studio in South Miami-Dade on Oct. 20. Voutsinas overcame drug addiction after Gustav Elijah "Lil Peep," a personal friend and rapper, died of drug overdose in 2017 at the age of 21. 

Nicholas Voutsinas, a Kendall-based rapper who goes by the name Fat Nick, started using drugs in 2013 to drown out his anxiety. He would take a swig of drank — a potion of cough syrup, candy and soda — that sat on the corner of his bedside table from the night before and follow it with a Percocet, an opioid pain reliever.

This process became a daily routine for about five years: taking multiple pills and always going back for refills. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Then his close friend Gustav Elijah Ahr, most commonly known as dark rock and rap artist Lil Peep, died of an accidental fentanyl and Xanax overdose in 2017. More than a year later, Nick decided to quit cold turkey.

“If you don’t stop, what are you going to do, die?” Nick, 27, said. “Because that’s the reality of it. You can’t be on drugs your whole life.”

Nick released his fourth mixtape, “Gorgeous Glizzy Gordo,” on Nov. 5, including 12 tracks and features from Robb Bank$, SosMula and Shakewell. The mixtape title was born after he sent a private message to Canadian superstar Drake — who then called him “Gorgeous Glizzy Gordo” after finding out they both used the same LA jeweler. Nick said he loved the name and wanted to pay homage to the four-time Grammy winner.

Following the release of his latest project, Nick says he’s on a path toward his third year of sobriety in January — and hopes others will take preventive measures to reduce the likelihood of fatal overdoses.

Along with XXXTentacion, Ski Mask the Slump God and other artists born out of the “SoundCloud era,” Nick said he struggled with depression and anxiety and developed a cult-like following of fans who experience similar mental health issues. In the song “Ice Out,” released in 2018, Nick raps, “I’m okay now, percy keep the pain out,” referring to how he used opioids to cope with his mental illness.

“I definitely feel like this SoundCloud era...definitely helped out kids with that s—, because we relate with them, and they relate with us, and that’s something you didn’t get from hip-hop back in the day,” he said.

With nearly a million Spotify listeners and about 780,000 followers on Instagram, Nick said he doesn’t regret taking drugs and recognizes it helped him rise to stardom. Drugs will always be in the rap culture, Nick said, and so users must be safe when they’re doing it.

“Obviously don’t do it, but if you’re going to do it, be safe with it, you shouldn’t mix, you should be around good people, you should do this,” he said. “It might not sound like something people want to hear, but it’s what kids need to hear.”

Andrew Adolph or Shakewell, a 29-year-old rap artist, met Nick at a venue in Santa Barbara in 2015. He said their friendship revolved around drug use. Shakewell recalled the euphoric, mind-numbing feeling as they gulped Percocets, slurped lean and watched scary movies.

“I don’t know if it fueled the fire of addiction, but it definitely made it more easily available,” Shakewell said.

Shakewell, who said his father is a recovered Vicodin addict, took Percocets for the first time on his 15th birthday. The average adult takes 1 capsule every six hours for moderately severe pain, according to Mayo Clinic. Shakewell received 30 to 50 10-milligram Percocets after getting his wisdom teeth removed and decided to preserve them.

“I think it was in my blood waiting for me, you know?” he said. “And once I just tried it, just to see what it was about, I got turned on to it.”

Shakewell said Nick’s decision to get clean did not deter their friendship, and he is making his own strides to stop using opioids and other hard drugs recreationally as well. He described his drug use as a Band-Aid to cover up his anxiety, suicidal thoughts and trauma. Although he has admitted to slipping up, Shakewell said he hasn’t used opioids for more than a year and a half.

“I don’t think anyone really starts using drugs to get rid of the problems,” he said. “You started because it’s something to do or it’s fun, but then you realize that it’s an easy, quick escape to all your problems.”

Fatal consequences of misusing opioids

Dr. Spencer Eth, a University of Miami psychiatry professor, said opioids are a carefully monitored medication effective at relieving pain — but they carry the risk of tolerance, withdrawal, overdose and death.

“I think opioids are actually a more insidiously dangerous substance than the others,” Dr. Eth said in reference to marijuana, benzodiazepines, an anxiety and sleep medication, and cocaine.

Psychiatric disorders such as anxiety and depression are correlated to substance abuse, Dr. Eth said. As a depressant, opioids depress brain function, which can often make an illness worse.

“Clearly, somebody who’s depressed is at greater risk for suicidal behavior when they have medications that can end their lives,” he said.

Columbia University psychology professor and neuroscientist Dr. Carl Hart noted that the larger society is misinformed on addiction and drug-related deaths.

About 80% to 90% of drug users do not develop a drug addiction, Dr. Hart said in a 2015 Ted Talk. About 10.3 million people ages 12 and older misused opioids in 2018, making up only 3.7% of the population. Outside factors such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and job loss are likely to lead to a drug addiction.

“They have to look beyond the drug itself and kind of look at the whole person and see what’s going on in that person’s life,” he said.

Dr. Hart was first encouraged to study drug addiction and abuse after witnessing crack cocaine destroy his neighborhood of Carol City, located in what is now Miami Gardens. Hart, who is a heroin user, said a number of people die from overdose because they’re unaware of the drug’s true content, he said.

“The likelihood of dying from a single opioid, also, is relatively low,” he said.

For example, A$AP Yams, the founder of New York hip hop collective A$AP mob, died of an accidental overdose in 2015, after opiates and benzodiazepines were found in his system.

Drug culture in hip-hop

David Canton, a University of Florida African American Studies director and history of hip-hop music and culture professor, said rap and hip-hop artists will continue to talk about drugs until consumers decide they’re tired of it.

During the origins of hip-hop in the early 1970s, marijuana was sold during concerts or park jams in the Bronx. In the ‘80s, hip-hop artists like Ice-T released “I’m Your Pusher” and Public Enemy released “Night of the Living Bassheads,” both of which criticized rampant crack cocaine abuse in their communities. In the ‘90s, lean rose to prominence through the Houston rap scene through Pimp C of UGK and DJ Screw. More recently, rappers like Future popularized Percocet, such as in the song “Mask off,” reciting “Percocets, Molly, Percocets.”

The concern Canton raised was the prevalence of opioids like Percocets that are laced with fentanyl. The powerful synthetic opioid, similar to morphine used to treat severe pain, is 50 to 100 times more potent. Digital Underground founding member Shock G, also known as Humpty Hump, died from an accidental overdose of fentanyl, ethanol and methamphetamine in April.

“These numbers are getting out of control,” Canton said. “Maybe one day once we get a big-name person, they might start considering, ‘OK, you know what, we got to do something different.’”

Michele Scatamacchia, or music producer Mikey the Magician, said he has known Nick for a decade and remembers Nick crisping Kit Kats, fried chicken and cheesecakes in a deep fryer the day they met.

As the big brother within his friend group, he said he has never used opioids recreationally and hopes other rappers will take steps to get clean as Nick did.

“I’ve just seen firsthand what it’s done to people, so, yeah, I don’t want to fall down that rabbit hole,” he said.

Nonetheless, Nick called it hypocritical for him to lecture kids to avoid drugs — admitting that he dismissed adults who told him not to as a teen. However, with the prevalence of drug overdose deaths within his inner circle, he knew that quitting early on his own terms outweighed the cons of popping pills and downing drank every day.

“You’re either on drugs for a long time, or you’re gonna die, you get me?” he said. “You have to stop one day, so why wouldn’t I stop now?”

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