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Conference Looks Into the Violent Heart of Hip-Hop

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The subject was well-worn: violence and hip-hop culture.

Then why were people suddenly shouting?

There was Ice-T, the pioneer of LA gangsta rap music, notorious for his violent--and sometimes misogynist--lyrics, sitting on a panel late Saturday afternoon at Cal State Los Angeles discussing why rap music was violent.

“I’m a person who deals with violence always in my music,” he said. “Masculinity runs this world. The person who’s violent gets control. Peace gets nothing.”

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And he had more: “Is rap the problem or are we just rapping about the world? I’d rather have my kids know how the real world is so they’re prepared--so they know people will kill you. . . .”

Moderator Kimberly King, a psychology professor at Cal State girded for verbal battle. “Well, I know people have a lot of things to say,” she said with a chuckle.

Ice-T smiled and sympathetically patted her shoulder. “You’re a peaceful woman. You see a greater day,” he said. “I hope you’re right.”

Passionate voices wanted to be heard--all at the same time.

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“You can’t live by hate,” said one audience member in the front--Sherman Hershfield, a 63-year-old white neurologist-turned rapper. (That’s right--he’s even been written about in the pages of this paper.) Eventually, Hershfield became so agitated as he and Ice-T volleyed comments that King had to stand up and remind him there were others waiting to talk.

“Hip-hop brought all these different people together,” said graduate student Thomas Lee, with a nod to the ethnic mix in the meeting room at the university’s student union. “Violence couldn’t do that. . . . If you go around telling kids they need to combat violence with violence, you’re not saying anything different from what’s on TV,” Lee said.

The urban hip-hop culture has influenced music, dance, clothes, language. Now it’s even infiltrated that most sedate of formats--the university symposium.

Ice-T was booked as the luncheon keynote speaker for Saturday’s daylong conference at Cal State. He later reappeared as a panel participant. The event, sponsored primarily by the university’s Cross Cultural Centers and the Pan African Student Resources Center, was free and open to the public.

Trying to define hip-hop culture is a little like trying to define pop culture--everyone steeped in it has a slightly different take. “Hip-hop is a rebellious culture that came out of the streets,” said Garth Trinidad, the host of KCRW’s “Chocolate City,” who sat on a panel. “It was a way to get East Coast gangs to chill out and compete.”

Trinidad breaks the culture down into “four food groups"--the deejay (who plays the music), the MC (who speaks or raps to the crowd), graffiti artists and dancers. Of course, the jewel in the crown of hip-hop culture is rap music, so it was fitting that Ice-T should speak.

At this point, the 42-year-old recording artist, movie actor (“New Jack City”), failed TV star (the 1997 drama “Players”) and Hollywood Hills homeowner (he paid cash, he said with pride) is a long way from his days in LA street gangs. Even his most controversial moment--as the auteur of “Cop Killer,” the song that glorified shooting police officers--is now eight years past.

Still, he was unapologetic about the way his lyrics deal with violence--and women. “A woman asked me, ‘Why do you use the word bitch?’ I rap about problems. Bitches are a problem, whether you’re male or female.”

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Hmmmm. It wasn’t clear whether he was tagging both men and women with that label, but maybe he didn’t want to make it clear--especially since a fourth of his audience was female.

“He’s very sophisticated,” mused King, the psychology professor. “He knows how to interact with people.”

King believes hip-hop “has a lot of potential to reach black youth. . . . The conference is really about using hip-hop as a method of social change.” Midafternoon, on the patio outside the student union, an open mike was set up for budding artists, and a deejay played music. Would-be rapper Enrique Guerra braved wilting heat to perform in Spanish and English--"I consider myself a lyricist"--before a crowd of about eight, one of whom was practicing her cartwheels on the grass.

The 22-year-old Guerra is working on a degree in electrical engineering. But he couldn’t pass up the microphone. “I’m constantly rehearsing,” he said.


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