Some rappers not 'gangsta,' but violence sells

March 01, 1994|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,Sun Staff Writer

In a Northwest Baltimore apartment, Edward "Slick" Harris and Caletta "Muva Lita" Brown sit in a tiny room illuminated by an orange bulb and crammed with stereo equipment. Slick flicks on the stereo, and both bob their heads as music plays.

They rap alternately as the bass pumps.

"Finding the wisdom was my only wish,

"Mama never said there'd by nights like this.

"Screaming and screaming, wishing I was dreaming,

"Hey wisdom come and help I'm being chased by a demon."

Their rap, titled "Wisdom," carries a positive message. Slick and Muva Lita eschew the violent message of gangsta rap.

"It's just not what we represent. But we still lay it down hardy and bring out our message," Slick says.

Their raps are fantasies, he says, a story played to a "hard, phat, pumping beat."

Slick and Muva Lita have chosen a different course than many rap artists who are drawing attention these days -- gangsta rappers whose macho genre has been criticized for its vulgar lyrics, glorification of street violence and degrading characterizations of women.

"But it's the type of rap music that we want to do, and we've got a lot of people who like it," Slick says. "It's all right with us if we ain't into gangsta rap." Gangsta rap has sparked criticism inside and outside of the music world. The genre's detractors have held protests at record stores, the U.S. Senate held hearings last week to discuss its emphasis on violence, and the NAACP has noted its opposition to some lyrics that are of "the vilest nature."

In addition, some gangsta rappers -- whose music is often strewn with tales of violent braggadocio -- have gained notoriety for acts of violence. Snoop Doggy Dogg has been indicted on charges of accessory to murder in the death of a Los Angeles man. Tupac Shakur was recently found guilty of assault and battery and faces up to six months in jail.

Slick and Muva Lita, members of the Shock Trauma rap posse, have been performing for more than five years. They have not made it to the big time, and they believe their preference for positive raps has stifled their careers.

The way Slick and Muva Lita see it, big names such as Ice Cube, Ice-T, Dr. Dre and Eazy-E have made gangsta rap the preferred music in the inner city. They don't think positive raps draw as much attention as those laced with violence and vulgarities.

"It's not interesting to hear something positive. Negative is juicy, it's interesting," says Muva Lita, 19, a graduate of Forest Park High School. "But we're not selling out. We have a purpose here, and that's definitely not to give people negative things."

Slick and Muva Lita have played at clubs and festivals around town for years, and a record company has expressed interest in hearing a demo tape of their raps. But they can't afford to cut a tape because banks and investors aren't willing "to take a chance" with them -- because their raps are positive, they think.

"We told them we'd pay them back and then some, but we can't get the interest," Muva Lita says.

Record sales don't necessarily bear the theory that gangsta rap is the dominant style. Many of the best-selling rap singles of 1993 weren't gangsta records, nor are most singles on the the current Billboard rap chart.

But whether they're right about the chances of making it with positive raps, Slick and Muva Lita see themselves as having a responsibility to those who hear their music.

"We don't want to be labeled as false prophets," says Slick, 22, a Woodlawn High School graduate who works for a carpet company in addition to rapping. "A rapper has more control over what happens in the world than any preacher.

"You might hear a rapper say something like, 'I ain't start to be no rapper to be a role model,' but they don't have no choice. Once you put yourself in front of all those people, you're now a role model."

The Rev. Curtis A. Jones, pastor at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, agrees that rappers have become "modern-day prophets" for youths.

"This does a lot of destructive things in the way it shapes the psyche," Mr. Jones says. "It's anger [in the rap], but we have to counter with the message of hope and truth. It's another obstacle. But what's different is that it's within our community."

The Rev. Frank M. Reid III, pastor at Bethel A.M.E. Church, says greed motivated the record industry to push gangsta rap.

"We must be concerned not only about the gangsta rappers, but we also must be concerned about the gangsta television executives and the gangsta record companies who get rich off of the lyrics of these young men and women while breeding violence in our community," Mr. Reid says.

Music industry executives say that while rap music of all types sells well, the demand for violent or abusive rap lyrics is declining.

Peter Edge, director of arts and repertoire at Warner Bros. Records, says his company's search for talent is not limited to gangsta rappers. Mr. Edge says that in some ways, it is an advantage if rappers don't perform gangsta rap, because the genre has "kind of played out."

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