Drumbeat of Criticism Continues as Rap Music Moves in New Direction

By Daniel B. Wood, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, June 26, 1996 | Go to article overview
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Drumbeat of Criticism Continues as Rap Music Moves in New Direction


Daniel B. Wood, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Steve Brown likes the beat and rhyme of newer rap groups like The Fugees: "The lyrics are about moving up in life and reaching out to people," says the beak-capped teen.

His buddy, Tyler Del Rhuey, likes older "gangsta rap" like that of Dr. Dre: "I like the tough language and attitude ... down on bad parents, dumb teachers ... stupid cops," he says.

The two Los Angeles roommates, hanging out on a street corner here, encapsulate a controversy that is once again brewing nationwide about the evolution, appeal, and social effects of the rhythmic, rhyming street music known as rap.

Have artists and producers of the genre heard the public criticism of recent years that their imagery is often too graphic about guns, gangs, sex, and violence? Have consumer boycotts against retailers and radio stations increased or decreased the music's appeal and sales?

The questions are being asked anew as another round of salvos is fired at the music industry from a coalition led by former US Education Secretary William Bennett. Along with Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut, Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, and others, Mr. Bennett opened what he called "Round 2" in an anti-rap war last month by attacking five top record companies for selling music laced with "degrading and indefensible" lyrics.

"These companies have the blood of our children on their hands," said C. Delores Tucker, head of the National Political Congress of Black Women. She also participated in the Washington press conference that marked the beginning of a national radio talk-show ad campaign.

Ms. Tucker, Bennett, and others played lyrics containing graphic depictions of violence and sex from five labels, including music by Wu-Tang Clan, Geto Boys, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, and heavy metal bands Cannibal Corpse and Lords of Acid.

Time Warner, Sony, PolyGram, Thorn EMI, and Bertelsmann Music Group are targets of the coalition, which two years ago pressured Time Warner to sell 50 percent of its stake in Interscope Records, a subsidiary that focused on controversial rap artists.

But the answers are less clear as to whether such public denouncements have resulted in creative or other changes by artists and producers. In what some see as dramatic evidence that the activism has had an effect, sales have fallen off steadily since 1991, down from 10 percent of the total music market in 1991 to 6.7 percent in 1995.

"This is a clear indication that the popularity of rap music as a percentage of overall music sales has seriously declined," says Tim Sites, spokesman for the Recording Industry Association of America, which keeps the statistics.

Declining sales

But the falloff may be due more to an aging musical style and changing consumer tastes than the efforts of parents and other concerned moralizers.

"The public outcries and activism of recent years have raised tremendous consciousness about the social concerns of rap music," says Mickey Granberg, director of government relations for the National Association of Recording Merchandisers. "But to explain this decline as anything but an evolution in creativity and taste would be presumptuous."

With room for minor exceptions, her comment echoes that of key industry watchers, artists, producers, critics, and record retailers nationwide.

"The reason rap sales are falling is that {the music} is boring over time," says Mike Fratt, head buyer for Homer's, an eight-store record chain in Nebraska.

He notes that what he calls a "very limited box rhythm" remains constant with little innovation since "Rappers Delight" became the first million-seller in 1979. He says top rap acts today like Coolio, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, and Tupac Shakur are moving in a melodic direction, adding soul-based, rhythm-and-blues motifs from the '50s and '60s.

"Gangsta rap is done," says DMC (Darryl MCDaniels) of the pioneer rap group Run DMC.

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