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Putting the cuffs on 'gangsta' rap songs
The record industry is quietly putting an end to violent, angry "gangsta" rap songs that portray the killing of police officers.
Rappers are still writing and recording songs about shooting cops, but some executives have decided that album cuts with such "incendiary" lyrics as "Mr. Officer, I wanna see you layin' in a coffin, sir" or "die, pig, die" should no longer be released on corporate-owned record labels.
One Time Warner-affiliated record company has flatly banned cop-killing songs, while other labels owned by the publishing and entertainment conglomerate have warned rappers to clean up their lyrics or take their music elsewhere.
MCA and PolyGram officials also have been taking a hard line, while executives at other labels acknowledge that they have quietly beefed up lyric review committees to screen troublesome, violent and sexually explicit rap projects before they get released.
"Is there a sensitivity to the issue?" asked one official at New York-based PolyGram Records. "Absolutely. But it isn't just about cop-killing lyrics though. If a song was about murdering and raping 12-year-old girls, there would certainly be concern toward that kind of lyric also."
"I thought artists in America were supposed to have freedom of expression," declared Oakland rapper Paris--who last week released his "Sleeping With the Enemy" album on his own label after Warner officials rejected a song called "Bush Killa" that depicts the stalking of President George Bush. "I guess standing up for free speech is bad business these days."
The most recent corporate efforts to clamp down on "incendiary" rap are the clearest industry reactions to last summer's explosive "Cop Killer" controversy.
Critics said that song by rapper Ice-T glorified the murder of police, and both Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle sided with law-enforcement groups in protesting Time Warner's release of the record. Time Warner pulled the song July 29 at Ice-T's request after police groups picketed the media conglomerate's shareholders' meeting in Beverly Hills.
Just two weeks later, Warner Music Group executives met with rappers Ice-T, Kool G. Rap, Live Squad and Paris and warned them to change their lyrics on some songs or find another label for the material.
Paris was "shocked" by the Warner officials' request.
"I would hope what happened to me will convince people in the rap community that the guys who run these big companies are not necessarily our allies," Paris said. "The companies are afraid to infuriate the stockholders or the powers that be who pull their purse strings."
Warner officials refuse to discuss their meetings with rappers and deny there is a corporate policy banning "incendiary" lyrics.
But rappers and record company insiders say Warner Music labels pressured Da Lench Mob, Juvenile Committee and the Boo-Yah Tribe to change lyrics and dropped Almighty RSO over the police-killing song "One in the Chamba."
Nowhere has the pressure been greater than at Time Warner-affiliated Interscope Records, where rapper Tupac Amaru Shakur and the label are facing a suit by a Texas widow who says that Shakur's anti-police "2PACALYPSE NOW" led to the shooting of her highway trooper husband.
While the firm intends to fight the case in court, Interscope co-owner Frederick W. (Ted) Field said Interscope will no longer release songs containing "incendiary" lyrics.
"Interscope encourages artistic freedom and we take our responsibility as a barometer of social consciousness seriously," said Field, a Hollywood film executive and leading financial donor to the Washington-based anti-censorship group, People for the American Way.
"And while each album will continue to be considered individually, we will not release any album in the future that advocates cop killing. It's with a great deal of regret that we would step in and say this doesn't fly for us, but it's an issue for a company of our size and it's an issue for the majors as well."
Dr. Dre's "Mr. Officer," in which he describes a cop in a casket, will not appear on Interscope's release next week of the Los Angeles gangsta rapper's "The Chronic." Indeed, several major record distributors are said to have passed on the album because of the song.
Even the future of Ice-T's much-anticipated "Home Invasion" album is in question. Time Warner's Sire Records delayed the release of what the Los Angeles rapper once referred to as his "rougher" and "crazier" follow-up to "Body Count," which contained "Cop Killer." Originally planned for a December release, the record is not expected out until late February.
Warner officials say the record will be late because Ice-T was "inspired" to return to the studio to add new songs. But sources said the new material was being recorded to replace "incendiary" tracks that executives have wanted deleted since August.
While Time Warner has the great bulk of rap stars, it is not alone in its efforts to tone down the music. MCA Music Entertainment pulled a single by New York rappers FU2 off the market and PolyGram-owned A&M Records asked Intelligent Hoodlum to delete a song from his upcoming album.
Bruce Rogow, the Nova University law professor who successfully represented Miami rap group 2 Live Crew in its 1990 obscenity trial, believes that the high cost of fighting free speech court battles has helped put an end to corporate America's recent love affair with hard-core rap.
"I don't think anybody truly believes these lyric lawsuits are viable, but they can cost a company hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight," Rogow said. "Boycotts and court battles can generate enormous negative publicity with the upper middle-class white American Time magazine crowd. And that's something the corporate world fears and shuns."
Angry gangsta rap, however, is still finding its way into the market place.
One of the hottest-selling records in the United States right now is Los Angeles rapper Ice Cube's hard-edged "The Predator," which entered the pop charts last month at No. 1 after selling a whopping 193,000 copies during its first week in the stores.
The album--still hovering in Billboard magazine's pop Top 20 this week--includes several fictional tales about post-riot Los Angeles in which the acclaimed rapper retaliates violently against unjust police action.
Bryan Turner, president of Priority Records, the small independent Los Angeles label that releases Ice Cube's material, said he has no intention of backing off his label's longstanding commitment to controversial free speech.
Says Turner: "Ice Cube is a real artist and while I'm not saying I condone everything he says, he has the constitutional right to express his view of reality. It's important for the rap community to understand that Priority Records continues to have a strong commitment to freedom of expression and that we stand by our artists."
Turner believes the conglomerates that own the major labels are getting gun-shy about hard-core rap simply because they do not earn enough money off the genre to justify the negative publicity it sometimes generates.
Atlanta rapper John Battle of Success-N-Effect--whose "Ultimate Drive-By" rap revenge fantasy on Ichiban Records depicts the assassination of several public officials, including former KKK leader and politician David Duke and ex-LAPD Chief Daryl Gates--agrees.
"Right now, all the big companies are having a problem with fictional songs about killing public officials," Battle said. "But, what will it be next? You think it's bleak out there now. Just wait. It's going to get a lot worse."