Critics fear hip-hop is eroding kids' morals and touching off violent episodes like the recent rampage at Magic Mountain. Are these entertainers truly poisoning young fans' minds? Or is that just a bum rap? : Rap's Bad Rep

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When hundreds of young concert-goers rampaged through Magic Mountain and nearby Santa Clarita on April 17, a park spokeswoman blamed the violence on the type of audience attracted to rap concerts. She pledged to never again schedule such performers at the amusement park.

Two years ago, five Dodge City, Kan., teen-agers initially pleaded not guilty to murder, claiming a rap record drove them insane. They later changed their plea to guilty.

And L. A. rappers such as Ice-T and NWA have spun out records that aroused the ire of law-enforcement officers, who accuse them of advocating violence against police.

Rap has been called one of the most important music forces to emerge in two decades. Its pounding beat and staccato rhymes exploded on the streets of urban America in the early 1980s and since have become the theme music and lyrical heart of a vibrant youth culture called hip-hop.

In 1991 alone, rap generated more than $700 million in recording industry sales--roughly 9% of the music industry's $7.8-billion market. Its unique sound has become mainstream, used to sell everything from Kentucky Fried Chicken to movie soundtracks. Recently, at the suggestion of incoming executive director Benjamin Chavis, the NAACP--one of the oldest and most respected civil rights organizations--commissioned a rap song to promote itself to a younger generation.

As rap's popularity escalates, however, so does the controversy that swirls around it. A growing chorus of critics has accused some rap performers of corrupting young minds and encouraging violent behavior. Because of the age and size of the music's core audience, they say, rappers have an obligation to send out responsible messages.

But how much influence does rap really have on its youthful listeners? Many, from record company executives to high school students, agree that it plays a critical role in the lives of many fans, affecting the way they dance, dress and speak.

Still, there is disagreement about how much power any kind of music can have over its listeners' thoughts and behavior. Teens and adults alike say society fails to recognize the intelligence of youth, who, they say, can differentiate between make-believe and reality. And for those children who cannot, they add, the burden of responsibility rests with the families who raised them--not on the music they celebrate.

Young rap fans caution it is wrong and simplistic to believe music can dictate their actions. Upbringing and circumstance steer a child's behavior, they say, not a record on a turntable or a performer posturing on stage.

"I think kids know the difference between right and wrong, music and reality," says Jon Shecter, editor of The Source, an influential rap magazine. "They know it's not right to go kill somebody, (and) if they're driven to that, that's not the fault of the music."

Last year, a Philadelphia-based firm, Motivational Educational Entertainment, released a marketing study that said rap was the only medium considered credible by black, urban youth. Dubbed "Reaching the Hip Hop Generation," the research found that many African-American teens were so alienated and disillusioned by life in harsh environments they were virtually immune to "mainstream" messages, be they from a so-called community leader or a favorite athlete.

Not everyone agrees with such drastic conclusions. But few doubt rap's impact--on youths of all races.

"If anything is influencing kids it's rap artists," says Shecter. "What they're saying, what they're wearing, their political point of view--all these things are elements of the hip-hop culture."

That troubles some others. "The concern I have with some rap performers is the way they have exploited a bad situation, life in the ghetto, gang warfare," says Bob DeMoss, youth culture specialist with the Christian organization Focus on the Family.

"They've stepped into the arena of glamorization. . . . If anything, they ought to be using their powerful platform to show urban America a way out."

Digable Planets, KRS-1, Arrested Development: Name the artists and Domingo Maldonado's probably got their CDs. But they are not his role models. Instead he is influenced by his father, a machinist with a ninth-grade education who has worked hard to support his family.

"I have to know people to respect them," says Maldonado, 18, a student at Jordan High School in Watts.

During a school break, Maldonado and a group of friends help educate a stranger about the music they love. A favorite teacher walks in the room, looks over, and walks away. "I respect her more than (rapper) Ice Cube," says Salvador Solis, 18. "She's been here for a long time."

The teen-agers, both black and Latino, say it is the driving beat that attracts them and many other young people to rap. That, and the music's honesty.

Not yet out of high school, they look upon the media and politicians with grown-up cynicism. Rap, on the other hand, reflects their reality.

"We've experienced what they're rapping about," Maldonado says of the violent events described in some rap songs. "We're just enjoying the music now."

Yet, they admit some kids are heavily influenced by rap music and the hip-hop culture it spawned: They constantly mouth favorite songs and mimic the style and dress of favorite performers. For those young people, the teens say, rap artists could be a more positive influence.

"Give us resolutions to our problems, not (situations) we know already," says Zulma Rivera, 19, Jordan's student body vice president. "They have the power. They should do something with it."

Paris, 25, is a moderately successful performer who has been called the Black Panther of Rap. His messages mainly revolve around themes of black self-empowerment and pride, and he recognizes the power he has through his music.

"I realize people listen to everything we say," says Paris, who drew strong criticism for a song called "Bush Killer," which referred to a figurative assassination of the former President. "Hip-hop speaks directly to the disenfranchised."

Many forms of communication have an impact on young people, he notes. But "since (rap's) the single most important form of art right now (for youth), I see it as carrying a stronger burden, a bigger part of the weight."

He says that he witnessed rap's positive impact as a college student, when he first heard the socially potent messages of the group Public Enemy: "Because coming up I didn't know anything about my people, my history. It served as a catalyst for me to want to know about myself."

But he acknowledges that a song can plant a negative idea in some young minds: "To pinpoint hip-hop as the source of violence is unfair, because there are so many other sources. But I recognize that hip-hop is influential."

Paris says if he had his way, messages about education and self-respect would outnumber tales of misogyny and drive-by shootings. But he says he respects diversity and the right of performers to rap what they please: "Some people are going to take the responsibility, and others aren't. . . . To each his own."

Scarface says he is nobody's role model. A member of the Geto Boys, a hard-core rap group whose repertoire includes "Assassins" and "Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta," Scarface says he's not out to "try and impress you by saying I'm some re-creation of Malcolm X, that I'm trying to be some role model.

"I rap for the money."

After all, asks the 22-year-old rapper, what's the use? "If you listen to Ice Cube or Paris and the 'pro-black' rappers, they talk about sticking together. But we ain't coming together. (So) It's not influential."

And Scarface, whose real name is Brad Jordan, makes no apologies for a commercial his group made for St. Ides malt liquor. McKenzie River Corp., which brews the fortified beverage, has been strongly criticized for using rappers in its advertising. Critics charged that the ads attracted the attention of rap's young audience.

"You got to be 21 to get the drink anyway," says Jordan. "We ain't breaking no laws. We're just advertising this man's product. . . . And if Colt 45 (malt liquor) asks me to do a commercial, guess what? I'm going to do it. And I don't even drink beer."

Several music industry executives note that rappers are not the only celebrities to advertise or endorse alcoholic beverages and other products. For more than a decade, television commercials for brewers such as Miller Brewing Co. and Anheuser Busch Cos. Inc. have been littered with professional athletes and musicians. More recently, such companies have even sponsored tours by rock performers.

"I believe that too much responsibility is often put on (rap) to be more than entertainment and music," says Jonathan Van Meter, editor in chief of Vibe, a new rap magazine scheduled for publication in August by Time Inc.

Adds Source magazine's Shecter: "Rappers are leaders because of the pedestal they've been put upon by their fans. (But) it's up to them to decide what they want to do. If the artist doesn't want to take on that burden we shouldn't force them."

Van Meter adds that rappers must be prepared to deal with the ramifications of whatever they record, but he cautions that rap is entertainment. A child's values, he says, are the parent's responsibility.

Shecter and others think they know why so much is asked of rap performers as opposed to other entertainers: Fears about the influence of predominantly black rap artists on white youths.

"Nobody's asking if Nirvana are leaders of youth," says Shecter, referring to the white musicians in the alternative rock band. "The more popular (rap) gets with white kids, the more concerned the political Establishment becomes (about) its potential influence on kids."

DeMoss, of Focus on the Family, says there is reason to be concerned about the power of rap's messages. And he says television commercials that resemble music videos evidence how companies use entertainment to influence young people.

"If you can sell a child Bugle Boy jeans or hamburgers" with video-like commercials, he says, "it's not honest to say videos don't contribute to the selling of an idea, a notion, or a value."

DeMoss says his Colorado-based organization is concerned with all forms of entertainment, not just rap, and he disagrees that children are solely the responsibility of individual families:

"We're in this together. Art is powerful. The question is can we use it in a responsible fashion and still enjoy a wide range of expression."

Raul Miranda, 45 and the father of two pre-teens, realizes the power entertainers can have on youth.

The L. A. man remembers sitting at home Sunday afternoons as a young boy, watching John Wayne movies. Wayne's flickering image took on many forms--cowboy, hero, soldier.

While Miranda, a retired fighter pilot, wonders if it was perhaps those movies that helped inspire him to become a Marine, he recognizes that it was ultimately his decision. The man he became was the result of many factors--least of all the influence of a movie star.

And as Miranda's children listen to rap music, he recognizes that rappers will ultimately be no more responsible for his kids' actions than John Wayne was for his.

"We try to shift the blame onto (other) people," he says. "If (parents) are concerned about what their children are listening to, they should make sure they have an alternative explanation. You have to be a good role model."

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