Don't cry for gangsta rap Living the life: Music won't change because recording star who glorified violence is killed.

March 17, 1997

THE SLAYING of Christopher Wallace, the rap music star known as Biggie Smalls or the Notorious B.I.G., has record stores everywhere increasing orders for his new album. Mr. Wallace was killed by a drive-by gunman a week ago in Los Angeles. Given the similarity of his death to his song lyrics, it is expected that the new CD with the eerily prescient title, "Life after death," will eclipse his 1994 million-seller, "Ready to die."

And that is the shame of it. Even as rap music fans lament the death of Mr. Wallace and plead for the violence associated with "gangsta rap" to end, it is clear that his death will, for a time, reinvigorate the genre's popularity. The slaying six months ago of rival rapper Tupac Shakur spurred sales of his last albums and enticed more people to see two movies released after his death in which the former Baltimore School for the Arts student appears.

The deaths of Mr. Shakur and Mr. Wallace may even be related. There is speculation that each shooting might have grown out of a personal feud between the two that was related to the battle between their rival record labels. Gangsta rap is a hybrid that developed in Los Angeles, home of Death Row Records, for which Mr. Shakur recorded. Mr. Wallace recorded for New York-based Bad Boy Entertainment. Fights were not uncommon when rappers for the two labels were in the same room.

Such commotion was criticized by rap artist and producer Andre Young, also known as Dr. Dre, who after leaving Ruthless Records to co-found Death Row has now started his own label, Aftermath Entertainment. But the truth is that gangsta rap sells because it romanticizes the violent lifestyles that Mr. Shakur and Mr. Wallace sought to exemplify. Their deaths in a hail of bullets were exactly what their fans were told to expect. In fulfilling prophesy they will sell more records, albeit posthumously.

Given that scenario, it is difficult to have any confidence that rap music will change because of the death of Mr. Wallace, whose assailants, like those of Mr. Shakur, remain unknown. More likely is that lesser stars will see in these deaths an opportunity to become the next Tupac or Biggie. They will rap about the dangers of being a gangster in music videos that vividly depict all the hedonistic rewards of living such a life. Death is just part of the action.

Pub Date: 3/17/97

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