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Rap : Striking Tales of Black Frustration and Pride Shake the Pop Mainstream

April 02, 1989|ROBERT HILBURN

Jerry Heller, a record-industry veteran who over the years has been involved with such acts as Elton John and the Electric Light Orchestra, now manages N.W.A and Eazy-E, as well as more conventional black acts like Rose Royce.

"The remarkable thing about this scene is that you can make a record for a few hundred dollars," Heller said recently at the Celebrity Theatre in Anaheim, where his two bands were part of a rap bill that sold out two shows at the 2,500-seat hall.

"What that means is that you can just throw it away and try something else if it doesn't turn out right. It encourages you to try new sounds and experiment. It's not like it is at the major labels where you end up spending so much making the record, you have to put it out even if it doesn't sound any good."

In the explosion of the late '80s, rap sections of record stores have become showcases of records by strange-sounding new groups and labels. Among the latter: Delicious Vinyl, Ruthless, Select and Cold Chillin'.

Increasingly, however, major labels have begun to show up on the rap charts.

Simmons' Def Jam--distributed by Columbia Records--continues to be the most significant label. Its acts range from De La Soul, whose debut album features so many delightful pop-culture escapades that it may well be the "Sgt. Pepper" of rap, to Public Enemy, whose leader Chuck D has been hailed as the Bob Marley of rap.

Though its language can be as forceful at times as N.W.A's, Public Enemy's music has a political rather than gangbanger emphasis. The idea isn't so much to reflect life on the streets but to raise social awareness and build a renewed sense of black determination and pride.

Public Enemy's politically charged "Yo! Bum Rush the Show" album in 1987 arrived like an electric jolt. Its aggressive tales of black activism were accompanied by a stage act in which the group's aides paraded around with imitation Uzis.

When one song urged listeners to pay attention to controversial Black Muslim minister Louis Farrakhan and another seemed to condone attacks on police, there were concerns about possible anti-Semitism and irresponsibility.

Like Run-D.M.C., Public Enemy leader Chuck D (real name Carlton Ridenhour) comes from a middle-class background in the New York suburbs. During his teens, his parents sent him to a study program where some of the teachers were former Black Panther Party members. The program stressed an intense examination of black culture.

While advocating greater black unity, Chuck D made it clear in interviews after the release of the album that he wasn't urging racial separation or advocating violence.

If "Yo!" seemed chiefly directed at the black rap audience, Public Enemy's follow-up, "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back," was addressed equally at the new audience of whites that had become interested in rap.

About "It Takes a Nation of Millions," Chuck D said, "I wanted to put together a classic album so that years from now it would be looked at the way Marvin Gaye's 'What's Going On' or 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' are viewed today.

"I think we are going to see more of that ambition because rappers are discovering what it takes to make a really good album. Before, all their attention was just into getting a record out there. There were so many things working against you. . . . The radio, the record companies."

Asked if he thinks of himself more as a record maker or as a social commentator, Chuck D sighed, then said:

"It's important that we educate our people as well as entertain them. We have to walk that line, not just to our people, but people in general, . . . tell others how the black person feels about his situation in America or in the Western world.

"That's one reason there is so much confusion over rap. White audiences think they are familiar with the black experience, but they aren't. That's why they find the language and symbols sometimes shocking. And sometimes they are shocking because we are trying to get people's attention.

"When I said Uzis on the first album, I was talking about the power of words, but if I had said words , nobody would have thought twice about it. That gave us a chance to show them what we were talking about."

One of the challenges, he said, is writing songs that speak equally to black and white audiences.

"To me, that's one of the most exciting things about what's happening in rap.

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