COVER STORY : The Uncivil War : The battle between the Establishment and supporters of rap music reopens old wounds of race and class


I got my 12-gauge sawed off

I got my headlights turned off

I’m ‘bout to bust some shots off


I’m ‘bout to dust some cops off.

Cop Killer, better you than me.

Cop Killer, f--- police brutality!

--Ice-T, “Cop Killer”

Ice-T is fed up with George Bush, Bill Clinton and other politicians taking potshots at rap artists.

In the three months since Ice-T’s graphic inner-city anthem “Cop Killer” was released by Sire Records, it--along with the whole realm of urban rap music--has become a flash point in the 1992 presidential campaign.

“I don’t know what Bush and Quayle and the rest of these guys are so upset about,” says the 30-ish Los Angeles-based rapper, whose real name is Tracy Marrow. “After all, don’t these politicians realize the country was founded on the kind of revolutionary political thought expressed in my song?


“I mean, haven’t they ever listened to the national anthem? Anybody knows that the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ is really just a song about a shoot-out between us and the police. Have they forgotten that Paul Revere became a Revolutionary War hero for warning everybody, ‘The police are coming, the police are coming?’ ”

When it’s all over, the Rap Battle of 1992 probably won’t rank up there in American history with the Revolutionary War or the War of 1812. But it has reopened the old American wounds of race and class. And the debate--which had been couched as a conflict between free expression and moral responsibility--has degenerated into an uncivil war of words enveloping politicians, business people, artists and others.

Rap’s strong rhythms and sometimes poetic, sometimes tortured rhymes have moved out of the nation’s big-city ghettos and into the mainstream of popular culture. The music, which runs from the neo-bubblegum sound of Atlanta’s pubescent Kris Kross to the “gangsta” threats and bravado of Compton’s N.W.A., has become a $700-million-a-year business--with whites buying three-fourths of all rap records sold. It has become a big moneymaker for such international entertainment conglomerates as Sony, Philips and Ice-T’s record label at Time Warner. Hammer sells Pepsi. General Electric’s NBC prime-time lineup includes “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.”

But it’s rap’s grittier, militant street component that has moved the music from “Entertainment Tonight” to “Nightline.” It has sparked a sociopolitical firestorm that has been largely absent from pop music since the heydays of Dylan, the Beatles, Hendrix and the other ‘60s icons who stormed the gates of the Establishment. The works of Public Enemy, Ice Cube and Ice-T are as contemptuous of today’s reigning order.

And the order is as defensive as ever. From Bill Clinton to Dan Quayle, politicians have introduced the messages of militant rappers, many of whom were unknown to the great mass of voters, to the national debate. Some critics see the worst sort of political cynicism at work: For Clinton, attacking Sister Souljah a few weeks ago was an easy play to conservatives who believe Democrats are too beholden to blacks; for Quayle, going after Ice-T’s “Cop Killer” was Willie Horton II, a not-so-subtle reinforcement of the stereotype of the criminal black male.

Another homie got murdered

In a shakedown

And now his mother’s at the funeral

Havin’ a nervous breakdown

--Ice Cube’s “Dead Homiez”

The debate over rap really goes beyond the presidential race and looks to the music’s place in today’s cultural framework. Is it for real? Is rap an important art form that taps a vein of the black, urban experience that has been hidden since the ‘60s’ civil rights fights? Or is it simply a commercial contrivance designed to tap the pocketbooks of America’s mall-roving teen-agers?

“This kind of rap may be shocking, but it’s popular for a reason,” says Nova University law professor Bruce Rogow, who defended Miami rap group 2 Live Crew in a notorious obscenity trial two years ago. “‘It reflects deep feelings that are shared by many members of the culture. The forces who are trying to shut this music down are living in a cocoon. Our leaders need to listen, not chide or censor these artists.”

“What we have here is a bunch of businessmen who have irresponsibly decided to make money on products that threaten lives and encourage the kinds of anarchy that you folks in Los Angeles have just been through,” says Oliver L. North, the ex-Marine, ex-Reagan White House aide and ex-Iran-Contra figure who has joined a national effort to block the sale of Ice-T’s “Cop Killer.” “The people who put this stuff out must be held accountable.”

“Why, now, all of a sudden in 1992, the minute a black man puts out a song with the slightest revolutionary message, does everybody want to silence you?” asks Ice-T, whose “Body Count” album is actually rock music, not rap. “Can’t these jokers find anything more important to base a political platform on?”

Maybe not, for rap has become a political buzzword this season--alongside “cultural elite,” “family values” and other terms.

President Bush entered the fray three weeks ago with a broad attack on the entertainment industry’s “sick” practice of producing films, TV programs and music that glorify cop killing.

“It’s wrong for any company . . . to issue records that approve of killing a law enforcement officer,” the President said at the opening ceremonies for a Drug Enforcement Administration office in New York.

Vice President Dan Quayle has repeatedly chastised “elitist” executives for marketing “obscene” entertainment that runs counter to the traditional values of mainstream culture. He has been especially critical of the company that released “Cop Killer.”

“Time Warner is making money--a lot of it--off a record that is suggesting it’s all right to kill cops,” Quayle says. “That’s wrong! There is a huge cultural gap between the high-priced decision-makers of Time Warner and the cops on the beat who are putting their lives on the line for us. The problem is that records like ‘Cop Killer’ do have an impact on the streets--the wrong impact.”

“It’s not like the White House expresses any interest in trying to resolve the polarization that this song reflects,” says Jeff Ayeroff, co-chairman of Virgin Records and co-founder of the recording industry’s Rock the Vote voter registration campaign. “They just want to exploit the fear of this potent black artist to their own political advantage.”

But Republicans aren’t alone on the anti-rap bandwagon.

Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton has denounced New York rapper Sister Souljah as a racist for comments she made in a Washington Post interview, including, “If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?”

The Arkansas governor first used an appearance last month before the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition to criticize Souljah, comparing her comments to remarks made by former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke.

Clinton, who said he targeted Souljah for criticism because of her influence on young people, said her comments were “filled with . . . hatred.” The Democratic nominee reiterated his remarks last week in New York.

And Jackson’s indignation at Clinton’s remarks did little to dissuade the candidate from choosing as his running mate Sen. Al Gore (D-Tenn.), whose wife Tipper has long been a critic of hard-core rap.

She and Susan Baker--wife of longtime Bush confidant, Secretary of State James Baker--founded a media watchdog group called the Parents Music Resource Center to police record lyrics. The group initiated the 1985 Senate hearings on potentially harmful lyrics and was instrumental in pressuring the music industry to reluctantly introduce a voluntary labeling system to identify “offensive” albums. Ice-T’s 1987 debut album, “Rhyme Pays,” was the first record to carry a parental warning sticker under that plan.

Many black rappers--including Ice-T and Sister Souljah--contend that they are being unfairly singled out because their music reflects deep changes in society not being addressed anywhere else in the public forum. The white politicians, the artists complain, neither understand the music nor desire to hear what’s going on in the devastated communities that gave birth to the art form.

“The reason why rap is under attack is because it exposes all the contradictions of American culture,” Souljah says. “What started out as an underground art form has become a vehicle to expose a lot of critical issues that are not usually discussed in American politics. The problem here is that the White House and wanna-bes like Bill Clinton represent a political system that never intends to deal with inner city urban chaos.”

It’s just a matter of race

‘Cause a black male’s in their face

--Public Enemy’s “Revolutionary Generation”

The politicians may not only be out of touch with rap musicians; they may also be missing the boat with many of the nation’s young voters and teens. Rap is not just a misunderstood art form embroiled in a First Amendment battle. It’s also a very hot commodity.

“I think the general impression for a long time has been that rap is an underground form of music primarily purchased by African-Americans, but that’s just not the case,” says Mike Fine, co-owner of the New York-based research firm Sound Data. “Our research shows that while most people over 44 years of age loathe rap, people under 25 love it--especially kids under 18.”

And, says Fine, the most surprising fact about rap these days is who’s buying it. According to a recent Sound Data survey, 74% of all rap music sold in 1992 was purchased by white consumers.

Ever since the nation’s six major music distribution groups entered the lucrative rap market in the late ‘80s, sales have skyrocketed. Last year, the genre accounted for about 9% of the music industry’s $7.8-billion domestic sales total--a $100-million increase over the previous year, according to figures provided by the Recording Industry Assn. of America.

Although statistics indicate that rap is most popular in the South, sales are booming on the West Coast, East Coast and continue to surge annually in the North Central and Midwest.

Despite little or no radio airplay, records by rap acts have routinely begun to dominate the nation’s pop charts, holding their own against much more heavily advertised albums by established rock superstars. Indeed, rappers scored three Top 10 singles and two Top 10 albums on last week’s national pop rankings as reported in Billboard magazine, the music industry’s leading trade publication.

While executives can thank the daily cable television video program “Yo! MTV Raps” for turning white teen-agers on to rap, most record companies still rely heavily on word-of-mouth buzz to generate sales.

By and large, many of the genre’s most commercially successful stars--including Hammer and Kris Kross--capture audiences almost entirely by pumping out funky beats. But what attracts many young white suburbanites to the music is rap’s blatant anti-Establishment message and the fact that the young black performers who deliver that message irritate their parents so.

“Rap goes against the Establishment and the conservative point of view,” says Los Angeles rapper Ice Cube. “Black people aren’t the only ones fed up with the system. White kids that are tired of their so-called leaders failing them too. That’s the reason parents don’t like their kids listening to us, ‘cause we’re starting to be like heroes to them now. When (Public Enemy’s) Chuck D. raps ‘Fight the Power,’ these kids know what he’s talking about. . . .

“The average rap fan respects Ice-T and Sister Souljah far more than they do Quayle and Clinton and Bush.”

“Rap asks many questions that these politicians can’t answer and provides insight and alternative to the mainstream opinion,” Public Enemy leader Chuck D. says. “It brings common sense to the table in a time when sense is not common.”

Rap’s defiant “gangsta” image got a big boost in 1989 when an FBI public affairs officer sent a letter to N.W.A.’s Los Angeles record company, Priority, claiming that “F--- tha Police,” a song on the group’s “Straight Outta Compton” album, encourages violence against law enforcement officers.

The group’s reputation disturbed so many law enforcement agencies around the nation that police officers in some cities refused to provide security at N.W.A. concerts.

Public Enemy, a black suburban Long Island rap group whose members sport military outfits and preach self-esteem and empowerment through education, also has a substantial white following. The group drew criticism from Arizona Gov. Fife Symington in January for releasing “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” a controversial video that featured the mock assassination of fictitious white racist officials.

Many rappers accused of inciting violence--including Ice Cube and Chuck D.--say the primary reason they write such graphic street tales is to expose the self-destructive futility of gang violence, prostitution and drug abuse.

Eric Kronfeld, president and chief operating officer of PolyGram Holding Inc., which owns Mercury, A&M; and PolyGram Records, defends the right of rappers to deliver controversial messages.

“It’s true that the voice of the black community as expressed in rap lyrics frequently runs counter to the majority view in America, but that’s simply because African-Americans are a minority in this country,” Kronfeld says. “And while we all understand why politicians rant against rap during an election year, I think it would be completely myopic for anyone to seriously insist that the voice of a disenfranchised oppressed minority should be repressed.”

Black to the bone

My home is your home

So welcome to the Terrordome

--Public Enemy’s “Welcome to the Terrordome”

The furor over Ice-T’s “Cop Killer” song erupted June 11 when the Combined Law Enforcement Assn. of Texas (CLEAT) called for a boycott of Time Warner, the record’s distributor, demanding that the $12-billion media giant disassociate itself from the song and apologize to officers nationwide.

Sixty members of Congress fired off a letter to Time Warner denouncing the media giant for its affiliation with “Cop Killer” and the rock album it was on, “Body Count.”

California Atty. Gen. Daniel E. Lungren sent letters printed on government stationery to the chief executives of 18 record-store chains in the state urging them to stop selling the record. The Los Angeles City Council and County Board of Supervisors adopted separate motions condemning distribution of the song.

The National Rifle Assn.--which eight years ago lobbied heavily against legislation that sought to ban “cop-killer” ammunition capable of penetrating police armor--took out full-page ads in newspapers pledging legal assistance “to the interests of any police officer shot or killed if its shown that the violence was incited by Ice-T’s ‘Cop Killer.’ ”

Unnerved by the controversy, at least 1,400 record outlets pulled “Body Count” off their shelves.

At press time, more than 500 members from a variety of local and national police organizations--including the Los Angeles Police Protective League--were scheduled to stage a protest Thursday outside Time Warner’s annual shareholders’ meeting in Beverly Hills.

“What we’re talking about here are corporate executives who hide behind the American flag and the First Amendment so they can profit off the advocation of police murder,” says Ron DeLord, president of CLEAT. “Most Americans do not believe that the Constitution was designed to allow irresponsible people to call for the murder of others under the guise of entertainment.”

North, the former National Security Council aide who played a key role in the Iran-Contra affair, entered the fray two weeks ago, calling on the governors in all 50 states to bring criminal proceedings against Time Warner for marketing “Cop Killer” in violation of sedition and anti-anarchy statutes.

The 48-year-old retired Marine colonel--who now owns a firm that sells bulletproof vests to cops and runs a Washington-based tax-exempt foundation known as the Freedom Alliance--says he has hired an attorney specifically to assist state prosecutors in filing as many court cases as possible against the media giant.

“Time Warner must not be allowed to get away with this outrage,” North says.

George Bush is a terrorist

He creates terror in the minds

And neighborhoods of Black people

--Sister Souljah’s “Killing Me Softly”

Time Warner officials declined to be interviewed for this article, but have vowed repeatedly in recent weeks not to withdraw the record, citing First Amendment principles.

A coalition of entertainment industry groups--including the Recording Industry Assn. of America and the Hollywood Women’s Political Committee--joined the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, People for the American Way and the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression this week in supporting Time Warner’s free-speech stance regarding the Ice-T matter.

Joe Smith, president and chief executive officer of Capitol/EMI Music, Inc., says he does not take kindly to insinuations made by North and Quayle that executives at entertainment companies have some hidden agenda to undermine the traditional values of society.

“The arrogant assumption that people who are making decisions in music, film and television don’t have moral values and aren’t concerned about the welfare of their own families is so ludicrous,” Smith says.

“The money that Time Warner stands to make on the Ice-T record is so insignificant in the overall picture. When you realize that this giant multibillion-dollar corporation is taking a free-speech stand on a record that barely sold a few hundred thousand copies, there can be only one reason why they’re holding their ground. It’s a matter of principle.”

Al Teller, chairman of MCA Music Entertainment Group, echoed Smith’s concerns.

“We are ardent supporters of the First Amendment and for anyone to take the position that executives at entertainment companies have some kind of calculated agenda to force-feed the American public a particular point of view, it’s patent nonsense,” says Teller. “Corporations are not going out of their way to profit from this kind of music.”

You teach freedom of speech

As long as Black men don’t say Howard Beach

Rodney King or Bensonhurst

Tawana and Latasha

Don’t say Jew or Korean

You’re acting like a bad human being

--Sister Souljah and Ice Cube’s “Code of Silence”

Despite the music industry’s current staunch public First Amendment stance on the “Cop Killer” issue, industry insiders say free speech is still a relative concept at most record labels.

Geffen Records, whose roster includes the rock act Guns N’ Roses, refused in 1990 to distribute a graphically violent and sexually explicit Def American album by the Houston-based rap group the Geto Boys. Digital Audio Disc Corp. also declined to press the compact-disc version of the album before Time Warner agreed to distribute the record.

Atlantic Records--a Time Warner subsidiary--reportedly pressured Miami rap group 2 Live Crew to alter song content and artwork on its “Sports Weekend” album and persuaded the heavy-metal act Violence to remove a song called “Torture Tactics” from a 1990 album.

Ice-T says Time Warner even talked him into changing the name of his album from “Cop Killer” to “Body Count” for fear that retailers would not stock the album.

Still, the “Cop Killer” controversy, which has boosted Ice-T’s album unit sales from about 200,000 to 320,000, has done little to diminish the rapper’s commitment to speaking his mind.

“The fact of the matter is that my records are just going to get rougher,” Ice-T says. “Wait until the people who didn’t like ‘Body Count’ hear my new album, man. I mean I’m really talking crazy on it. I got this one song on there that describes exactly what I’ve been going through. It goes like this:

Bush, Quayle and Clinton

Got a problem with me

The mother f----- T . . .

They’d like to take me out

And make me a goner

They’re even tryin’ to sweat Time Warner

Why? For tellin’ the truth to the youth?