Rap music is as much a part of New York street culture as Yankees' manager Billy Martin. So who would've guessed that the year's hottest rap label would have its headquarters not in the Big Apple, but in London.
Called Jive Records, the label signed its first rap artists, Whodini, nearly six years ago. However, 1988 has been a banner year for Jive, which already had one Top 5 Black Album on the Billboard charts with Kool Moe Dee's "How Ya Like Me Now," and has another on the way, courtesy of Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince's "He's the Deejay, I'm the Rapper."
But what makes Jive's success so intriguing is that it marks the resurgence of independent record labels. One of the most refreshing sidelights of rap music's growing commercial appeal is that--thanks to the music's outlaw image and street-corner origins--it's been left in the hands of tiny, New York-based independents like Tommy Boy, Profile and Def Jam, which now have a chance to share the Hot 100 with the industry's corporate titans.
Jive is distributed through industry giant RCA Records, but enjoys considerable autonomy. It's a good bet that if any RCA big-wigs saw "By All Means Necessary," the current album by Boogie Down Productions, they'd be diving under the board-room table--its cover features a group member brandishing a machine gun. (Another new album, by 22-year-old rapper Too Short, has language so filthy, Jive had to invent a fictional label--Dangerous Music--to release it.)
Jive actually began as a music publishing firm, which now represents such heavy-metal heroes as Def Leppard, Poison and Iron Maiden. "But we saw so many parallels between rap and metal that we knew it was a good direction to go," explained Barry Weiss, Jive's New York-based marketing chief. "Both metal and rap stimulate strong peer identification between fans and the groups, both use clothing as a badge of distinction and both have a strong rebellious image.
"Rap is really the music that speaks for black culture today--these songs are anecdotal chronicles of street life in late-'80's urban America. The kid who would gone the Motown route 15 or 20 years ago is the kid who's geared toward rap today. The dance music you see on the R&B; charts just doesn't speak to teens anymore. They're full of anxiety, they have dreams that are not being fulfilled--and rap is the only music that captures that mood today."
The major-label corporate brass finally have gotten the message. Def Jam (home of L.L. Cool J, the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy) has been a big hit-maker for CBS Records, its distributor. Warners just signed a pact with Cold Chillin' Records while MCA is distributing Uptown Records, home of Heavy D & the Boyz.
In hindsight, it's easy to see why white kids are equally enamored of rap. "They like the slang, they like the feeling of rebellion," said Weiss. "And their parents hate it, which probably really helps."
Weiss realizes that controversy usually boosts record sales. Last year, for example, Kool Moe Dee's "Go See the Doctor" was denounced as being sexually explicit. Jive simply dubbed it a "safe sex" record and marketed it with promotional condoms. Weiss also defended the shotgun cover pose on Boogie Down Productions' album, saying that group leader K.R.S. One was echoing a similar pose from a famous photo of black activist Malcolm X.
"We feel we should give our artists as much latitude as possible," Weiss said. "K.R.S. had a message he wanted to get across about violence and he thought this would make people take notice. These guys are really bright and have a lot to say, so we figure we should be supportive."
Weiss was particularly eager to erase the prevailing image of rappers as a posse of "monster-cable laden" rap fanatics. "I remember the day we signed Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, their manager told me to ask them about their SAT scores. So I asked the Prince, and he told me he got a 1470."
Weiss laughed. "I told him, 'You beat me--I'm a white Jewish guy and I got a 1250!' "