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Hard-Core Street Hits the Road

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

DMX and Jay-Z have each conquered the nation’s album charts with their brand of hard-core, street-scene rap. But can the two New Yorkers also triumph on the road, where rap rarely has found success?

Def Jam Records will announce today that the label’s two top-selling acts will collaborate for a 10-week national arena tour that hits Southern California in April. The label’s leaders say the Hard Knock Life tour is a bellwether for the future of hip-hop as a meaningful player in the realm of live music.

“This is a very big and important show,” said Lyor Cohen, chief executive officer of the New York-based Def Jam. “We will create a blueprint for successful rap concerts the way Lilith Fair and Lollapalooza created blueprints for [other types of music].”

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The tour kicks off Feb. 26 in North Carolina and includes shows at the San Diego Sports Arena on April 16 and the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim on April 17. The tour also will feature Method Man, Redman and DJ Clue. Ticket information is expected to be announced soon.

As Cohen and others acknowledge, previous rap tours often made headlines more for controversy than commerce.

Disorganization and a perception of danger have dogged the genre’s shows and kept away many fans. That is especially true among the estimated 70% of rap album buyers who hail from the suburbs, according to Irv Gotti, the Def Jam executive who signed DMX to the label.

“If they think they’re going to get beat up, they’ll stay at home and listen to the CD,” Gotti said. “But they’re ready to come if we can put on a show where they can have a good time.”

To date, rap hasn’t been able to find the audiences that turn out for pop, rock and country music. Last year, for example, only two rap tours--Puff Daddy’s Bad Boys Tour and the Smokin’ Grooves festival--were among the Top 100 grossing tours in North America, and neither cracked the Top 50. That’s an especially weak showing for a genre that last year accounted for roughly 10% of all U.S. album sales.

Why the gap? Industry sources agree that rap tours traditionally have been sabotaged by disorganization, a perception of danger and the focus of rappers on their studio work instead of live performances.

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Cohen acknowledges those problems, but he says he sees a golden opportunity in the Hard Knock Life tour to let two multiplatinum performers tap into their burgeoning audiences. If DMX and Jay-Z succeed, Cohen says, the ground rules for rap as a concert enterprise will change.

“If you want to tap in the most real rap, the gutter rap that’s true to what’s going on, these are the two guys,” Cohen said. “That’s why people have wrapped their arms around them.”

DMX and Jay-Z have put out three albums between them in the past eight months that rang up more than $82 million in sales. DMX hit No. 1 on the album sales chart with both of his 1998 releases, while Jay-Z held that top spot for five weeks with his newest album, “Vol. 2 . . . Hard Knock Life.”

Their success is not a product of going mainstream. The two rappers are, as Cohen says, “still gutter.” That means songs that are unflinching in their violent subject matter, graphic language and menacing swagger.

How intense is the music? A good hint is the cover of DMX’s latest album, “Flesh of My Flesh Blood of My Blood,” which depicts the scowling Yonkers, N.Y., native bare-chested and completely coated in blood.

When “Flesh” debuted in late December, it ousted Garth Brooks’ record-setting concert album from No. 1, capping an amazing year for DMX that saw him also portray a street hustler in the Hype Williams film “Belly.”

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Success has been a struggle for the 27-year-old rapper, whose real name is Earl Simmons. It was during a stint in jail, he said in an earlier interview, that he found his voice as a rapper. DMX was signed to Ruffhouse Records in the early ‘90s, but his first recorded efforts flopped commercially.

His music caught the ear of Gotti, who brought the rapper to Def Jam two years ago. By the time his “It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot” hit stores last May, DMX was a major rap player with an unusual trademark: Many of his songs are peppered with growls and barking, a nod to his beloved dogs. “A dog is your best friend,” DMX said. “I can kick my dog in the ass and say, ‘Come here, boy’ or ‘Come here, girl,’ and they’re right back at me. . . . My dog will die for me without even blinking.”

While Gotti says DMX is “still street, still at people-level,” he says Jay-Z maintains the air of an aloof, untouchable hustler. Where DMX’s music is gruff, sonic fury, Jay-Z’s rhymes are slick and boastful.

The hustler lifestyle--full of references to guns, drugs and sex--saturates the intricate raps of Jay-Z, who, like DMX, expanded his music persona into an acting career in 1998 when he starred in his own direct-to-video production, “Streets Is Watching.”

With the heavy airplay hits “Can I Get A . . . “ and “Money Ain’t a Thing,” the 27-year-old Brooklyn native’s “Vol. 2 . . . Hard Knock Life” ruled the album sales chart throughout October and earned three Grammy nominations. Now the rapper is embracing the role of rap mogul by cultivating younger talents, including Memphis Bleek and Diamonds in da Ruff.

Jay-Z (real name: Shawn Carter) first hit the rap scene with his work with hip-hop pioneers such as the Jaz, Original Flavor and Big Daddy Kane, but his breakthrough came with a duet with Foxy Brown on the soundtrack for “The Nutty Professor” in 1996.

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That set the stage later that year for his debut album, “Reasonable Doubt,” and its vivid tales of a savvy master criminal--a concept that was embraced by a New York audience looking for its own version of gangsta hip-hop. The menacing imagery presented by both rappers will raise concerns for some about the safety of their shows. To overcome any perception of danger, Cohen said, there will be a strong emphasis on security.

There will be no intermissions or set changes, and event staff will “know and understand” rap crowds, Cohen said. While safety is the hot-button issue, Cohen said rap events have been hampered more by the concert industry mind-set. The nation’s promoters are generally uncomfortable or unfamiliar with rap and its stars, he said, creating stumbling blocks for the genre.

One success story, though, has been the Smokin’ Grooves festival, cited by many in the concert industry as groundbreaking despite only moderate commercial success. The three Grooves tours, launched by the House of Blues, have been noted for crisp production and strong acts, including the Fugees, Public Enemy and Busta Rhymes.

The Hard Knock Life organizers hope to put on an equally disciplined show, but with more sellouts. Win or lose, Gotti said, they know all eyes will be on this major tour.

“It only takes one idiot to punch somebody and start a riot,” Gotti said. “I hope people don’t wild out. If they do, there won’t be no more big tours after this one.”

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