Once, before congressional hearings, newspaper headlines and the word gangsta overwhelmed it, rap music was a world in which Puma tennis shoes with colorful fat shoelaces, sweat suits, breakdancing battles in the street and boom boxes were more important than posing with guns and drinking malt liquor.
It was fun. There was a time in the early to mid 1980s, when the message coming from artists like Afrika Bambataa, Kurtis Blow, MC Shan and the Fat Boys was simply about fun and release, using the music to create anthems to party and to show good-hearted territorial rivalries.
Now, as rap's biggest star, Snoop Doggy Dogg, heads to court today to face charges of murder, rap will once more be on trial. The spotlight will again be on the relationship between the music's frequently nihilistic and misogynistic lyrics and the real-life violence of many high-profile rappers.
Less noticed, particularly by those who have been drawn to the music only recently, is the fundamental change in tone that rap has experienced in less than a decade. How did this music, which bounced from its roots in the parks of the Bronx and Harlem in the late 1970s to today's international commercial success, become so caught up in amorality?
Various rap experts and historians pointed to several important turning points in the genre's short history:
* The changing of the guard in the 1990s. Rap's major stars of the decade before, like Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions, whose messages about black empowerment started national slogans and the wearing of African pride medallions, were replaced by rappers like Snoop Doggy Dogg and Geto Boys, whose lyrics placed more emphasis on drug selling and survival in neighborhoods like South-Central Los Angeles and Houston.
* The marketing strategy by record companies. Noting that even the most hard-core rap music was enjoying popularity with white as well as black audiences, labels began to mass market and promote the image of swaggering black men holding guns and drinking beer on album covers. As a result, rap's biggest heroes have come out of the new "gangsta" surge.
* Young rappers, hungry for the money and fame, often came to believe that securing a record deal meant selling themselves as thugs or looking "hard." Increasingly, the strength and "rep" of a rapper is based largely not just on his ability to articulate the struggles of "the 'hood," but also on staying close to the lifestyle of the streets, said Dream Hampton, who has written extensively about rap. This duality creates a problem for most, pushing them to continue the habits of the streets, "staying true" while trying to stay clear of the trouble that often comes with it.
* The move of rap's power base from New York to the West Coast caused a dramatic change in the sound and content of rap. Los Angeles and the Bay Area not only became home of the music's biggest sales, but also influenced its writers. Los Angeles' gang culture, steeped in fatalistic warfare between hundreds of gang "sets," took hold of the once-playful or socially conscious lyrics and replaced them with powerful portraits of gang life and crack cocaine dealing.
The effect of these changes, and the way they were magnified by rap videos on MTV, has been to distort rap's true nature, said Los Angeles rap expert DJ Tech.
Tech co-hosts a popular Saturday night "hip-hop" (rap culture) FM radio show, "The Wake Up Show." He takes pains to eliminate "gangsta"-style rap records in favor of rap's classic records that Tech said show "true skill rather than saying how many people you can kill."
But purists like Tech are battling rap's image that is often tainted by images of top performers shackled in courtrooms. The murder case against Snoop Doggy Dogg, aka Calvin Broadus, whose songs recall his days as a gang member in Long Beach, figures to become the biggest blot yet.
Broadus, 23, whose smooth, laid-back style on his debut album, "Doggy Style," has earned an estimated $48 million in the last two years, is accused of driving the car from which his bodyguard, McKinley Lee, shot and killed Philip Woldemarian at a Westside park in August.
In the last four years, other rappers, including Slick Rick, Dr. Dre, and most notably, the talented yet troubled Tupac Shakur, have had run-ins with the law. The incidents, which range from murder to rape to assaults on women, have created an atmosphere in which the audience often cannot separate the boasts of machismo from reality.
Shakur--who was cleared of shooting two off-duty policemen in Atlanta and is awaiting sentencing on a sexual abuse conviction--was involved in another incident last month when he was robbed and shot five times in New York's Times Square. Another rapper, DaSean Cooper, aka J-Dee of the group Da Lench Mob, is scheduled to be sentenced later this month for murdering a man in Inglewood.
Despite the personal responsibility that all rappers must assume, hip-hop writers say this tendency to veer toward trouble cannot be blamed totally on the artists.
"Many of these artists do not come from safe, calm environments," said S.H. Fernando Jr., author of "The New Beats," a book on the history of rap music. "They live in stressful environments where their celebrity makes them a target."
Rappers frequently say they are the subject of robbery attempts and threats by police and fans. Members of the New York rap group Wu-Tang Clan, whose album "36 Chambers of Death" went platinum, were arrested and harassed by police in San Francisco after the officers mistook them for robbery suspects. Many rap groups have had their homes robbed, jewelry stolen, or have been confronted by overzealous fans.
Part of the problem, experts say, is the tendency of "profiling" (showboating) rap stars who flaunt themselves on records and in their personal lives as neighborhood superstars.
"Rap music didn't used to be so self-indulgent," said rap writer Hampton. "When he wrote his lyrics, Chuck D. (of the group Public Enemy) looked to crime bills, drug laws and Congress. He talked about important things happening around us in the black community."
Songs like Public's Enemy's critically acclaimed 1989 single, "Fight the Power," touched a spark in the hearts of millions of African Americans by using abrasive lyrics to talk about political and social issues. In an attempt to fight off the "thug" stereotype of black males, Public Enemy tried to craft new, more complex definitions of the black existence while maintaining its street-level roughness.
Kevin Powell, who writes about hip-hop for Vibe magazine, said objections to rap's lyrics by politicians and religious leaders have been proportionate to the music's burgeoning popularity with white teen-agers and college students.
Much of this controversy can be traced to disputes between police and rappers from NWA's 1989 battle with the FBI over a song to Ice T's "Cop Killer" in 1992. These songs pushed rap's monologue from subtle messages against police brutality, long widespread in rap music, to all-out assaults, exacerbating an already tense relationship between police and black males.
Rappers consistently began to write in the starkest terms about how joblessness, the lure of selling crack and the resulting violence affected a generation of young black Americans. The increased outbreak of gun violence in poor neighborhoods and limited economic opportunities directly sparked the music the rappers were writing. Barely out of the 'hood themselves, sometimes having sold drugs and carried guns themselves, rappers were forced to straddle the line between performer and the masses they tried to reflect.
Cheo H. Coker, who has covered the Bay Area rap scene for the last few years, said rap's energy and inspiration, which comes from the streets, will consistently control its messages. The tension that envelops the music is inevitable because of the social baggage that the performers bring with them.
"A great deal of it has to do with the intensity of the music," Coker said. "And a lot of people just gravitate toward the hard stuff. Black music will always speak to whatever goes on in black life in America."