Gangsta R.I.P.? In the aftermath of the Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls murders, rap's gun-toting, hype-happy subgroup has sunk like lead. Whether it can make a comeback is the question.

March 10, 1998|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

In the wee hours of March 9, 1997, Christopher Wallace -- a man known to millions of rap fans as Biggie Smalls or Notorious B.I.G. -- was shot to death while sitting in a black Chevy Suburban outside the Petersen Automotive Museum in the Wilshire district of Los Angeles.

Coming barely six months after the similarly violent demise of fellow rap star Tupac Shakur, Biggie's death left the rap world reeling. There was an immediate outpouring of grief -- and a flood of rumors. Many wondered if the two deaths weren't an outgrowth of the much-hyped gangsta rap "war" between the West Coast crew of Death Row Records (of which Tupac was a part), and the East Coast posse of Bad Boy Records (whose numbers included Biggie Smalls).

A year later, both murders remain unsolved, with no indictments pending. Bad Boy's chief, Sean "Puffy" Combs, shifted gears to a more pop-oriented sound and had a banner year, dominating the charts through his own singles and those he produced for the late B.I.G. Meanwhile, Marion "Suge" Knight, the head of Death Row, is serving a nine-year prison term for assault after having had his probation revoked in February last year.

But another casualty in these shootings may have been gangsta rap itself.

Although posthumous albums by both Biggie and Tupac sold well, they were the exception among gangsta acts. Where once the charts were clogged with gun-totin', hard-cussin' hits by the likes of Dr. Dre, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Ice Cube, Ice-T and the Geto Boys, the biggest rap singles of the last year have been perky, party-oriented jams by such artists as Will Smith, Li'l Kim, Heavy D, FreakNasty and the ubiquitous Puffy Combs.

Gangsta albums are still being released, of course -- they're just not doing the business they used to. Last week, for instance, saw the release of the soundtrack to "Caught Up," an album that includes contributions by Snoop Doggy Dogg, Kurrupt, Mack 10 and the Luniz. Three years ago, a lineup like that would have guaranteed the album would enter the charts in the Top Five; instead, it came in at No. 30.

Other career paths

Most of the genre's big stars, though, are barely active. Dr. Dre hasn't released anything since "Dr. Dre Presents the Aftermath" was released in late 1996 (although he is said to be completing an album with Snoop). Ice-T is more often found in movies or on TV than on the rap charts; his last album was with the thrash metal band Body Count. And after releasing a reunion album in the spring of '96, the Geto Boys once again went their separate ways.

Still, it's hard to say just how much of a real shift in sensibilities this trend represents. Many in the hip-hop community will argue that the whole "gangsta rap" movement was all hype anyway.

First, "you have to accept the notion that there was such a thing as gangsta rap," says Bill Stephney, president of Step Sun Entertainment. A musician and producer who got his start working with the likes of Public Enemy, Stephney declines to acknowledge "that there even was such a thing" as gangsta.

"But for the more violence-oriented music that did reflect either gang life or drug-trade life, it seems to be that that's on the wane," he says. "And it has been on the wane, even preceding the deaths of Biggie and Tupac."

In part, that may be because rap music, like everything else in popular culture, runs in cycles. To that extent, the gangsta boom may be like the slasher-flick craze of the '80s. Like gangsta recordings, slasher flicks were considered sexist and gory, were accused of desensitizing teen-agers to violence and were denounced by parents' groups across the country. But as the novelty wore off, the boom went bust -- just as gangsta rap seems to be doing.

"There's a certain window of time when [a style] is popular, but like all aspects of youth culture, it has a limited shelf life," says -Stephney. "Sooner or later, no matter what it is, it's going to go by the wayside as something else emerges."

Lasting impact

The deaths of Tupac and Biggie also have had an impact. "The unfortunate deaths of these two stars have depressed a lot of people in the music industry, and affected people as they write and as they create music," says Danyel Smith, the editor of Vibe. "It's something that they think about when they're writing lyrics and creating beats."

Certainly, that seems to have been the case with Will Smith. While accepting a Grammy last month for the Best Rap Solo Performance, Smith praised Biggie and Tupac as "prophets" and announced that he and collaborator DJ Jazzy Jeff would "dedicate this Grammy to the memories of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls."

At the same time, the deaths are also having what Stephney describes as a "chilling effect" on the allure of guns and gangs. "They served as a checkpoint, if you will, for the culture," he says. "Saying, 'Well, wait a minute -- we're not supposed to be dying over rap records.' "

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