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Gangsta rap rules at the checkout counter
The Black Eyed Peas are huddled around a low table overflowing with pizza and soggy Japanese takeout, but at the moment the Los Angeles rap trio is gnawing instead on a frustrating and familiar challenge: Why do even the lamest hard-core rap acts seem to sell more albums than hip-hop artists who resist violent cliches?
The group's leader, Will I Am, finally hits on a metaphor. "Nobody likes to eat peas," he practically shouts. "Nobody wants to eat something that's good for them. They want the sugar, they want the stuff that's going to rot out their teeth. Our music is like vegetables."
He laughs, shrugs, then adds, in a slightly more serious tone, "There's something wrong with humans. They want some s--- that ain't going to benefit nothing."
The Black Eyed Peas are part of a wave of music that, if put into a box, might be labeled "positive rap," and includes artists such as Jurassic 5, Common, the Roots, Mos Def, Slum Village and Dilated Peoples. All receive critical acclaim, but none has come close to rivaling the stardom or sales of top hard-core rappers. The last Puff Daddy album, considered a flop, has sold 1.4 million copies, while none of these artists has been able to even come close to the platinum level of 1 million.
"I'm not mad that gangsta sells that much," Will says. "Hey, I'm glad hip-hop is selling. I'm not mad at (those artists), but I am mad at corporations, the record companies. Those are the people that are limiting hip-hop's diversity with just one form of music."
In the rap world, radio stations, record companies and fans devote the lion's share of their money, time and attention to "gun-totin', bling-bling, gangsta, street-life stuff," as Will puts it. In the pantheon of the genre's superstars, the biggest names -- 2pac, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, the Notorious B.I.G., Snoop Dogg, Nas and now Eminem -- all put out music steeped in violence and death, anger and insult.
"There's obviously a level at which the rebellion and the rage is what people hear and react to at a really visceral level," says Alan Light, editor in chief of Spin magazine. "That's still one of the appeals of rock 'n' roll and much of the reason that hip-hop stole a lot of the energy and momentum from rock 'n' roll in the last decade. That thrill, that danger. I don't think there's any way around that."
Hip-hop is beginning its third decade as a pop music force, and as a whole it remains a wide-ranging, colorful landscape of musical strains and styles. But the dominant commercial peak on that landscape is hard-core rap, and it casts a long shadow. "It's not easy in the valley," says the Chicago rapper Common. "But I think it will get better."
There is cause for his optimism.
The huge success of Lauryn Hill's "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill," a 1998 album that has sold 5.9 million copies and won four Grammys, showed that a humanistic, soulful brand of hip-hop can ascend to the heights of pop. That built on the similar success Hill had with the Fugees and the solo accomplishments of another alumnus of the group, Wyclef Jean. Hill's success seems to dovetail with the careers of Erykah Badu and Macy Gray, R&B-leaning artists who have stirred uplifting hip-hop into their soul food mix.
Others, though, say that hard-core rap has become just that -- the hard core of the rap world, so solid, entrenched and lucrative that other factions of the genre struggle to be seen as anything more than novelties or niche, boutique acts.
Jimmy Iovine, chief of Interscope Records, has seen his company sell millions of albums with hard-core acts such as 2pac, Dre and Eminem. Now his company is trying to break Jurassic 5 and Black Eyed Peas, but Iovine says that with audiences used to the glitter and grit of hard-core, the positive rappers have an extra challenge: Without the familiar imagery or shock-value aspects on their side, they must more than match the music of their gangsta rivals.
"Their songs have to be so much better, they really do," Iovine says. "They have to do better just to get through."
There have been notable exceptions to the "only violent rap sells" axiom. Hammer and Will Smith sold millions of albums with pop-leaning, sometimes cartoonish rap, but the former was widely scorned by the hip-hop community and the latter grappled with music credibility issues as film became his focus. The Beastie Boys too are a major hip-hop force, and, with the exception of some satirical mayhem in their early work, they have done so with nonviolent lyrics. But the best-selling rap albums of 2000 -- discs by Eminem, Nelly, Dr. Dre and DMX -- owe far more to the gangsta tradition.
"We put out music that doesn't display these things, that doesn't glorify violence or sex or misogyny," 2na says.
It seems fitting that Jurassic 5, an act that has been showered with critical praise for its craft and humanistic themes, got its start at a club called the Good Life, a fountainhead for L.A. underground rap talent in the early 1990s. There is irony, however, in the earliest inspiration for this high-minded group: fury and bitter envy.
"We couldn't get a record deal because of all that gangsta rap s--- that was popping, that's all anybody wanted to hear," Chali 2na of Jurassic 5 recalls with a chuckle. "Our themes varied, but because of that it was all mostly anger at those gangsta cats. We couldn't get a chance because of them. We were a misfit club going against the grain. And we were mad."
2na says he's not mad anymore, but it would be hard to blame him if he retained some rage. His group's first full-length album, "Quality Control," earned glowing reviews upon its release last year and the group's concerts have a building buzz as one of the hot tickets in live rap.
But seven months after its release, "Quality Control" has fallen out of the Top 200 and sold only 271,000 copies. Hard-core stars such as Jay-Z routinely top that total in less than a week.
One of the challenges facing positive rap is commercial radio. In this age of conglomeration and bottom-line pressures in the radio industry, the play lists around the country show less and less of the regional variation that helped push new music in the past.
MCA Records President Jay Boberg says it was an uphill battle to get radio attention for the Roots and Common, the two acts in this movement that have enjoyed the most success on the airwaves.
Eventually, some stations took a chance on the Roots' "You Got Me" and it clicked, becoming a modest radio hit and "the first song from this evolving genre that had really had a commercial radio breakthrough, Boberg says. Common's "The Light" built on that success and Boberg hopes this new strain of hip-hop will be a challenging music that finds a mainstream audience in the way alternative rock did after beginning as an underground current in the 1980s.
The Roots have sold 749,000 copies of their most recent album, "Things Fall Apart," while Common's last disc, "Like Water for Chocolate," has topped 635,000 copies -- making them the most successful discs in this new movement, which Boberg calls "musical, conscious hip-hop." Those totals are solid but not spectacular, and on their own they're not enough to change the minds of radio programmers.
Despite MCA's commitment, Will from Black Eyed Peas says most record companies have also stacked the deck against acts that try to stray from the genre's hard-core mainstream.
Does that anger extend to Interscope Records, a label that signed Jurassic 5 and the Peas but also has a long history of success with and devotion to the gangsta rap arena? "Yeah, I'm frustrated with them too. It's like that with everybody -- you get lazy. You don't want to take risks with other things."
Iovine acknowledges that the music industry often displays a herd mentality -- "People bang stuff to death if it makes money" -- and that has made hard-core the single sensation in hip-hop in recent years. But he says labels' investments in this crop of positive rap is a signal that interest is percolating in a new sound with an old-school flavor.
Light, the Spin editor, says that mood and angst play a part in the changing winds of the pop music scene as well. Hard-core rap -- along with rap-rock, the aggro sensation in the rock arena -- suggests America's youth may be more interested in rage than grooves at the moment.
"I think hip-hop has been a diverse community for years and years now," says Light . "The party music and the more progressive social commentary wing has never gone away. It waxes and wanes a bit, but it's also always been part of what's out there in hip-hop."
One of the more intriguing elements of hard-core rap's success story has been the mind-set of the fans who consume the music. According to an oft-cited statistic, as many as 75 percent of rap albums are bought by young white males, most of them suburban. That number has been contested by some and dismissed by others as a product of the nation's demographic and economic realities (most kids are white and their families account for the most disposable income), but it is a topic that weighs on the minds of the positive rappers, who long for a larger audience but ponder what that audience finds in the music it embraces.
"I don't understand it," Common says. "I think it may be that (hard-core) is an escape for them. It gives them a fantasy of a dangerous world. It gives them something they find exciting, and maybe it scares their parents and they like that."
"It almost seems like you have to be slightly wicked in some fashion to succeed in this society," 2na says. "It's sad. It never seems like the good guy wins. But I'm here to try to do what I can to remedy that. Hopefully, somebody will listen."