When New York rap performer L. L. Cool J and his group step onto the Hollywood Palladium stage for a New Year’s Eve concert tonight, there’s bound to be some anxiety among those in the 4,400-capacity auditorium.
Rap fans, parents, musicians and police may still remember the night of Aug. 17, 1986, when 40 youths were injured and four were arrested in a gang flare-up at a rap show featuring Run-D.M.C. at the Long Beach Arena.
They may also recall the fighting that broke out among members of at least eight Los Angeles gangs during a rap show featuring U.T.F.O. last month at the Palladium. About 24 youths were ejected by security guards. Police reported that a shot may have been fired during the melee.
Four days earlier, a 19-year-old youth in New Haven, Conn., died from stab wounds sustained during a rap concert.
Reports of these occasional but highly publicized problems at rap shows around the country raise the question: Can rap music--with its aggressive, jackhammer rhythms and often hard-edged street imagery--be performed safely in Los Angeles?
“My opinion is that rap is very safe,” said Palladium manager Dick White, who views the gang danger as exaggerated. Rap’s critics, he said, fail to see how the music follows in the footsteps of punk and other rock styles, which at times have sparked rebellious instincts of some young people. Besides, he added, most rap fans aren’t gang members.
“All we had was a fight,” White said, insisting that the Palladium incident was no different from fights at other rock concerts or sporting events that are not reported in the press. White said he wouldn’t book tonight’s rap show at the Palladium if he could not guarantee the safety of fans.
Most rap concert promoters, performers and venue operators contacted by The Times agree with White: Rap lyrics don’t cause violence. Indeed, many of rap’s themes denounce drugs and gang violence.
Nonetheless, many defenders of rap acknowledge that street-gang rivalry can muscle its way onto the dance floor--a social reality which has changed the way rap concerts are staged, or whether they are booked at all.
“Whenever you have a mix of (youths) from rival neighborhoods, you’ve got a potentially explosive situation,” said Tony Massengale, assistant director of the Community Youth Services Gang Project, a city and county-funded anti-gang program.
According to Los Angeles Police Department estimates, there are now more than 500 street gangs with more than 50,000 members in the Los Angeles metropolitan area.
“With no sense of pride, we’re No. 1,” Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner said in a recent interview. “We are the gang capital of the United States in terms of numbers, in terms of violence, in terms of its overall impact on the entire criminal justice system.”
Bill Adler, publicity director of Rush Artists Management, Rush Productions, which represents such nationally known rap acts as Run-D.M.C., L. L. Cool J and the Beastie Boys, said he learned about Los Angeles’ gang problems the hard way. A confrontation between Latino and black street gangs broke out last year when Run-D.M.C. played the Long Beach Arena.
The aftershocks were immediate. The Palladium canceled a Run-D.M.C. concert the following night, while other venues around the country, Adler reports, hesitated about scheduling Run-D.M.C. and other rap groups.
“Frankly, the Long Beach incident scarred us, and continues to do so today,” said Adler.
Rush Management attempted to prevent further damage to the reputations of their rap groups by initiating its own image-rebuilding campaign. Two months after the Long Beach free-for-all, Run-D.M.C. went on the air over KDAY-AM (1580) in Los Angeles to call for a day of peace among South Los Angeles street gangs.
Rush Management also deployed a five-man team to coordinate security with police, anti-gang groups and venue security staffs for the remainder of its ’86 and ’87 concert tours. The five-man team also sets up a security perimeter around venues and a 650-foot metal barricade called a “snake” to keep fans from crashing the show on concert night.
Rap fans also have to pass through airport-style metal detectors. Double barricades are placed in front of the stage to prevent spectators from rushing the performers. On average, Adler said, Rush spends about $15,000 a show on security for rap events, roughly double what is spent on most other rock concerts.
Other venue operators have followed Rush’s example. Facility Management has adopted an eight-point plan to determine whether a group will be allowed to play the Long Beach Arena. The firm’s plan calls for, among other things, coordination with local “police and fire departments in order to develop and review intelligence regarding the history” of various acts.
The management firm says it is basing its decision whether to book an act “solely upon the demonstrated public safety record of the group.”
The 1987 Run-D.M.C. tour, Adler said, did much to help restore rap’s image as a safe activity. The group, he said, performed in more than 70 shows, including one before 11,000 fans at the Pacific Amphitheatre in Costa Mesa and three at the Greek Theatre attended by 6,000 fans each night--without serious incidents.
Other rap shows--including an L. L. Cool J event for 9,000 persons at the Los Angeles Sports Arena in July--proceeded without apparent incident.
Still, the memory of Long Beach remains strong.
“I don’t think we are going to have Run-D.M.C. back here in a very short time,” said Mike McSweeney, a spokesman for Facility Management Inc., which operates the Long Beach Arena.
Although no new rap acts have since been booked at the arena, McSweeney maintains that its doors have not been shut to rap groups. Nevertheless, he asserted that rap concerts won’t be scheduled at the arena unless patron safety can be guaranteed.
The Forum in Inglewood has also turned down recent requests for rap acts in the 18,000-person venue because of the music’s troublesome reputation, said Claire L. Rothman, Forum general manager and vice president.
“If in order to make our audience feel comfortable we have to make (the Forum) an armed camp, then we have to decide against (rap groups),” Rothman said.
Last month’s disturbance at the Palladium, for example, erupted despite searches of the show’s estimated 2,600 patrons with hand-held and walk-through metal detectors. Palladium management also instructed its security staff to deny entry to concert-goers who wore “colors,” or colored clothing typically used by black street gangs.
“We turned some away who had colors,” White explained. “We refunded their money. We always look for it. It’s part of our security checking system.”
Sgt. Mike Schneider, an Los Angeles Police Department officer, said the Palladium’s “color” checking system apparently didn’t work very well. He said police officers, who arrived at the Palladium after the fight broke out, identified gang members wearing colors associated with at least eight Los Angeles-area gangs.
Emblems of gang membership can be as flagrant as a colored handkerchief in a rear pocket or as subtle as the piping in a pair of shoe laces, said Massengale. As a result, he said, security staffs at many venues have not been properly schooled in gang crisis intervention.
Equally significant, some civil rights advocates say, are potential civil rights violations committed when youths are excluded from shows because of their attire.
“It’s impermissible for anyone who operates a public accommodation to attempt to discriminate on the basis of gang affiliation or perceived gang affiliation,” said Joan Howarth, assistant legal director of the Los Angeles American Civil Liberties Union.
“It is possible, and in certain circumstances, appropriate, for people who manage public accommodations to impose across-the-board dress codes in an effort to prevent disorderly conduct,” continued Howarth. But blanket prohibitions, she said, aren’t lawful when they’re directed against one racial or ethnic group known for favoring particular dress styles.
White doesn’t believe the Palladium’s security staff has violated the civil rights of its rap music patrons: “We do whatever is necessary to protect our patrons.” The color checking, he insisted, is done very discretely and individuals who remove their gang colors are always welcomed.
Not all rap groups thrive on the street chic young gang members admire. Groups such as Whodini or Salt & Pepa, a female rap act, emphasize romantic and sexually explicit themes.
Russell Simmons, president of Rush Artists Management, said rap “‘unquestionably appeals to a new breed of gangster, (but) it also appeals to millions of other people. To the extent that violence sometimes occurs at rap concerts, it makes sense, because it’s the only music that speaks directly to and for that community.
“But one thing I don’t want to do is blame the victim on this. Anybody with any sense will tell you that rap music doesn’t provoke these kids. Its implied message is: ‘I’m young, I’m black, I’ve made a success of myself on my own terms. I don’t have to wear a tie and be a sucker. If you work hard you can do it too.’
“To me, that’s a message of hope.”
But even rap music can’t erase the racism, drugs, substandard education and dismal job prospects that contribute to gang behavior among many black, Latino and Asian youths, said Leon Watkins, director of Family Help Line, a program for parents with gang children.
“I’m saying there is a permanent underclass of youths who have records of 19 to 20 repeat arrests, who cannot read or write,” Watkins said. “What do you do with these thousands of youths? These are the ones who go to the concerts because they don’t have anything to lose.”