The State Of Rap

March 21, 1993|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

They're trying to make hardcore rap disappear," says rapper Chuck D. in "The 13th Message." This track, which he describes as a "P.E.S.A. -- Public Enemy Service Announcement," is the first thing heard on the "CB4" soundtrack. But unlike the movie, which pokes fun at much of the rap industry, Chuck D. isn't kidding at all.

By "they," he doesn't mean some amorphous specter of establishment disapproval. He blames black radio, which is "trying to make hardcore rap disappear by making the rap DJs obsolete." He complains the government wants hardcore to "vanish," pointing out that "The whites who consider themselves the establishment . . . fear that rap is the beginning of cultural overthrow." He even claims that President Bill Clinton "wants to see hardcore go ghost."

Are "they" out to end hardcore, to "make it final for the vinyl," as Chuck D. has it? Coming at a time when N.W.A. alum Dr. Dre has the country's No. 1 single, and both he and Naughty by Nature have albums in the top five, many of the industry would answer Chuck D.'s accusation by saying, "Don't believe the hype."

"I don't think it's anything organized," says Timothy White, editor in chief at Billboard. "It's just a reactive thing. I think anybody aware of it has a strong opinion about it, or even a range of strong opinions. That's the nature of the music."

Others, though, are not so sanguine -- and with reason. "I think the perception that hardcore is under siege is definitely correct," says Robert Christgau, a senior editor at the Village Voice.

"The attempt to chill political speech is real," he adds. "Even though I don't always agree with the politics [of these records], I think it's ominous."

Need evidence? Just look at the last election. George Bush and Bill Clinton may have differed on how to fix the economy, but both agreed that the politicized raps of Ice Cube, 2-Pac and Sister Souljah were dangerous and divisive.

Then there was Body Count's "Cop Killer." It wasn't a rap song, but was denounced as such because the group included rapper Ice-T. Likewise, it was Ice-T who pulled the track after police organizations mounted protests, threatened lawsuits and reportedly even phoned in bomb threats against Warner Bros. Records, the label that released the Body Count album.

But the greatest threat to hardcore rap has been on the corporate level. Part of the police strategy against "Cop Killer" was to mount a boycott against Time-Warner, the media giant that owns Warner Bros., and the aftershock of that campaign is still being felt. Several rap acts have been ordered to re-record songs that could be construed as being anti-police, and at least one, the Boston-based Almighty RSO, was dropped after

releasing a cop-bashing single.

In January, Warner Bros. dropped Ice-T from its roster, citing "artistic differences" over the cover art for Ice-T's new album, "Home Invasion" (see accompanying review). But a "well-placed source" told Billboard that the dispute wasn't because anyone at the label had problems with the album or its art; it was that "corporate wanted it changed."

For "corporate," read "Time-Warner."

Feeling the pressure

Even rappers without ties to large corporations are feeling the pressure. Take the Geto Boys, for example. Because their label, Rap-A-Lot, is distributed by the independent Priority Records, the group has so far had no trouble releasing "Crooked Officer" as a single, or in getting the video shown on the equally independent BET. But MTV, which is part of the Viacom conglomerate, refuses to show the clip even after the group changed the song's chorus from "Mr. Officer, crooked officer, I wanna put your ass in a coffin, sir" (as on the album) to the less controversial "Mr. Officer, crooked officer, why you wanna put me in a coffin, sir?"

Obviously, it's difficult for any rap act to get air play for a single that seems to threaten the police. But as Bushwick Bill of the Geto Boys explains, "Crooked Officer" is not an anti-police diatribe, but a protest against corrupt cops.

"It isn't just something that we came up with just to mess with all police officers,"' he says. "Because not everyone is crooked, not everyone is bad. We're not doing a song that's about killing cops. We're talking about killer cops, cops that are going around abusing their authorities. That's all it's basically about."

What angers Bushwick, though, is that the people feel more threatened by raps than by movies dealing with the same subject. "Look at 'Serpico.' That's a true story about the New York City police department trying to kill this one honest cop. They have to keep changing him from police department to police department, hoping that none of the crooked cops would kill him.

"Then I was watching 'The Godfather,' where Al Pacino says, 'You're not a cop. You're a dishonest cop, you're a crooked cop, that makes the force look bad.' And it's true.

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