The History of Straight Edge

Straight edge. We’ve all heard this term at least once in our lives but how many of us know what it actually means?


Well, by definition, Straight Edge is defined as an individual who abstains from using drugs, tobacco, and alcohol. That’s it. Tons of people have been leading such lives for ages but for some reason, people felt there needed to be a word for it. Over time, the term has evolved and a lot of people will argue that straight edge actually goes beyond drugs, also preventing casual sex and endorsing a vegan lifestyle. Depending on who you talk to, it varies. Let’s stick to the basics though, folks.

I myself have been referred to as being straight edge several times in my life but I honestly don’t and never have identified with the expression. I mean sure, I don’t drink nor do I use any drugs outside of medicine my doctor prescribes me but I’ve generally always disliked labels. I’m just me being me. Nevertheless, I have no problem with people who do lead the clean lifestyle and honestly, from a health standpoint, it’s probably better to be sober than messed up on all sorts of illicit substances. Where did straight edge originate? Well like most movements, it started with music.


Punk rock musicians have practiced straight edge methods all throughout the 1970’s but it wasn’t until one man brought it to the forefront that it sparked a revolution. Ian MacKaye was a musician from Washington D.C. who fronted the punk band, Minor Threat, in the early 80’s. The music was all about distorted guitars, pounding vocals, and songs that were quick and to the point.


MacKaye brought his personal beliefs of teetotalism and being-drug free into the spotlight with their most famous song appropriately titled Straight Edge, a 45-second long, hard hitting punk anthem decrying the debaucherous behavior of drug users and letting people know that it’s alright to be a moshing but sober enigma. The term was coined in that moment and initiated an entire culture that stood strong throughout the decade.

The song not only brought Minor Threat success, it influenced the entire punk genre and helped other bands in the DC area get noticed such as Bad Brains, Rites of Spring, Teen Idles, and Black Flag. Black Flag’s third lead singer, Henry Rollins, was also a prominent figure in straight edge (though he’s stated in interviews that he doesn’t care for use of the phrase) and went on to become a television and radio personality and author. Not bad for the man who laid out vocals on the all-time classic record, Damaged.

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Minor Threat produced other uplifting and at times, even controversial, tracks with powerful messages such as religion and racism. Examples include: In My Eyes, Guilty of Being White, I Don’t Wanna Hear It, and Filler. If you haven’t listened to these tunes or any Minor Threat in general, you are doing yourself an injustice. Listen to them now. NOW!

Minor Threat sadly didn’t last long as they broke up in 1983. Ian MacKaye then went on to gain his greatest mainstream success with new band, Fugazi. They left their mark though as being one of the biggest and most influential punk rock acts of the 1980’s. Fugazi picked up where Minor Threat left off and scored a following in 1988 after the release of their most famous track, Waiting Room.

Straight Edge still exists in music today combining hardcore punk attitude with headbanging heavy metal. Bands such as Throwdown and Earth Crisis have continued to preach the ideals of the lifestyle through crunching guitar riffs and pure aggression.

You’ll notice that the subculture is often stylized as sXe. The X came about when underage kids used to try to get into punk rock shows that served alcohol and the venue staff would draw a huge X on their hands with black marker to inform the bar staff not to serve them. This became the universal sign for straight edgers. Some going as far as to travel in public and attend shows sporting huge X’s on their hands.


You would think being straight edge would bring a positive outlook on life but that unfortunately wasn’t always the case. A lot of its followers have been categorized as being physically violent. There have been several news stories over the years of  militant straight edge disciples preying on people and organizations who don’t share their views. In 1996, a Salt Lake City adult male by the name of Clinton Colby Ellerman spent two years in jail following a robbery of a mink farm while his 19-year-old brother Douglas Joshua faced a 30 year sentence (he wound up serving seven total) for his role in the bombing of a fur breeders company in 1997. Both men strongly followed the anti-drug lifestyle and opposed animal cruelty.


Another SLC resident, 15-year-old teen, Bernardo Repreza, was stabbed to death by two teenagers after a brawl with a group of self-proclaimed straight edgers in 1998. After these two incidents, Salt Lake City legally deemed Straight Edge as a street gang by police. After several fights in Reno Nevada, where people partaking in drug use would often tussle with straight edge crews, it’s also been legally proclaimed as such by authorities in 2005. Does this make everyone who follows the principles of straight edge bad? Of course not and it Reno’s case, it just sounds like unfair generalizations. There is a dark side to everything, sadly.

Straight Edge has gone beyond punk rock as there are several key figures in other platforms who publicly identify with straight edge such as former professional wrestler, C.M. Punk, outspoken right-wing guitar aficionado, Ted Nugent, Canadian singer, Bif Naked, and comedian Penn Jillette.

Straight Edge is still at large today with thousands of people continuing to identify as such. Like any lifestyle, it’ll always have its critics but all power to the men and women who relate to it. I hope readers walk away with this knowledge and where it all comes from and why it continues to be the phenomenon it is today.

To read more about the Ellerman’s arrests: and


Written by Matthew Reine

is a New Yorker with a strong passion for film and television. Also the biggest Keanu Reeves fan you know.

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