Rumors of war and the reality of death Change: Gangsta rappers crave a hard edge but are slipping over it.

B4 He Was 2Pac

September 21, 1996|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Originally, gangsta rap was all about attitude. It was about acting tough and living large, playing off ghetto stereotypes to come on like the baddest mothers ever to walk into a recording studio.

Sure, some gangsta rappers originally were gangbangers. Eric "Eazy-E" Wright admitted to having pimped and dealt drugs before turning to the music business, and Ice-T has alluded to even darker doings during his gang period. But gang life wasn't a part of their rap career; it was just an image, and an attractive one at that. Because unlike real hoods, gangsta rappers used violence not to intimidate enemies, but to attract fans.

Or so it seemed. But since the death of Tupac Shakur from injuries received during a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas on Sept. 6, some have begun to wonder just how much of an act the gangsta ethos really is. That surely will be among the issues addressed in New York tomorrow, when a Nation of Islam-sponsored "day of atonement" will bring a bevy of rap stars to Harlem's Mosque No. 7.

2Pac, as he was known, was no stranger to violence. He'd been arrested in connection with shootings in 1992 and '93 (though charges were later dropped), and later served time for simple assault and for sexual battery. Clearly, he didn't just talk the talk.

But there was something different about the shooting that took his life. Although police are investigating reports that the incident stemmed from a scuffle Shakur and his crew got into earlier that evening, the shooting seemed too professional merely to have been the work of a couple aggrieved toughs.

Not only were the assailants able to pick out which vehicle in the 15-car convoy 2Pac was in, but they apparently used assault rifles to shoot through the car door, thus ensuring they'd hit their man. Tellingly, Death Row CEO Marion "Suge" Knight, though sitting next to Shakur, was only grazed.

Naturally, the fans have their own theories: that 2Pac was taken out, that the shooting wasn't a random incident but part of an East Coast/West Coast rap war.

None of it is verifiable, of course, but that doesn't make it especially implausible. Particularly not if you look at some of the history of Death Row Records.

From the first, Suge Knight made himself known as a tough negotiator. But where others in the record industry cut deals like Michael Milken, Knight came on more like Michael Corleone. When Knight started Death Row, he wanted producer Andre "Dr. Dre" Young as his partner; trouble was, Dre was under contract to Eazy-E's label, Ruthless Records. So Knight negotiated Dre's release. And, according to court documents, he did so by turning up at Ruthless with a couple of his crew and several baseball bats. It was not baseball season.

Far more disturbing are the stories of bad blood between Knight and Sean "Puffy" Combs, the president of rival rap label Bad Boy Records. In August 1995, Jake Robles, a Death Row employee and friend of Knight, was shot after an argument at a party in Atlanta. No charges were filed, but witnesses claimed the shooter was one of Combs' bodyguards. Knight made no public comment, but the New York Times quoted an unnamed associate who promised that Knight would "settle the beef his way. On the street."

It's difficult to say which is more disturbing -- that such stories exist, or that they seem so widely believed. Factor in additional details, such as rumors that Knight was about to invade Combs' turf by establishing an office for Death Row East in New York, and it's hard not to wonder if people aren't taking that "Godfather" stuff a tad too literally.

Ironically, these rumors of an East Coast/West Coast war arrive just as Dr. Dre -- having extricated himself from the Death Row machine earlier this year -- has hit the airwaves with "East Coast/West Coast Killas." The single argues that the East/West rivalry is killing rap.

Timely as this message is, it seems unlikely that rap will ever erase such rivalries entirely. Competition has always been a part of hip-hop culture. In the '70s, Zulu Nation sponsored "battles" in which rival MCs would spar verbally; in the '80s, Run-D.M.C. defined the notion of "hardcore" with the eloquently dismissive "Sucker M.C.'s."

It's the extra-musical aspects of this rivalry that worry. Settling a rivalry with rhymes on a stage is one thing, settling a beef with guns on the street quite another. And while it would be nice to think that some of this will be settled by the "day of atonement" meeting tomorrow, one suspects that we haven't heard the end of this yet.

Pub Date: 9/21/96

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