Perceptions about drugs and the social environment may be important influences on cigarette, alcohol and drug use, yet little is known regarding the perspective of early adolescent boys and girls, especially among minority urban youths. Among 351 African-American low-income urban youth, 9 through 15 years of age, completing a community-based computerized questionnaire, 25% acknowledged alcohol, cigarette, and/or illicit drug use in the past 6 months; 19% expected to use one of those substances in the next 6 months. Family exposure to drugs increased the likelihood that youths expected to use drugs by factors of 4.5 (boys) and 2.5 (girls). Other factors (feelings about drugs, community drug use, long-term expectations) distinguished users from nonusers or had different associations with use in boys and girls. Gender-specific perceptions about drugs may have the potential to be modified in drug and substance use prevention programs.