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The New Guard : Pop music: The success of albums by such acts as M. C. Hammer and Sinead O'Connor is part of a larger breakthrough that indicates increasing acceptance of fresh faces among fans and radio programmers.

May 17, 1990|STEVE HOCHMAN

There's been a change on the pop music charts. The old reliable superstars that have in recent years been the anchors of pop sales are having to make room for new faces and new styles.

The most dramatic examples involve the success of Irish singer Sinead O'Connor, whose "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got" is entering its fifth week as the nation's best-selling album, and the finally indisputable arrival of rap, which had been viewed for nearly a decade by the record industry as little more than a passing fad.

The success of albums by such rap acts as M. C. Hammer and Public Enemy is also part of a larger breakthrough of new acts that indicates increasing acceptance of new faces among pop music fans and radio programmers.

Though individual rap acts, including Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys, have had platinum albums in the past, the new rush of rap best-sellers has caught the industry by surprise.

"Everyone was scared of rap," said Michael Martin, music director of Los Angeles radio station KIIS-FM (102.7). "But rap is unavoidable. When you have people like M. C. Hammer (having big hits), people have to stop closing their ears."

Concurred Al Tavera, Martin's counterpart at KPWR-FM (105.9): "It's amazing how well rap is doing with adults as well as kids. That's a trend I see changing. I think the audience is accepting (rap) more than a few years ago."

A check of the Billboard pop albums chart confirms this. Hammer's "Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em" album, with sales at about 2 million, is pushing O'Connor for the No. 1 spot and is joined in the top dozen albums by the rap-influenced Bell Biv Devoe's "Poison" at No. 9 and Public Enemy's controversial "Fear of a Black Planet" at No. 11.

The Top 15 singles include the title cut from the Bell Biv Devoe album at No. 8, Digital Underground's "Humpty Dance" at No. 14 and Hammer's "U Can't Touch This" at No. 15.

"We never expected something like 'Humpty Dance' to work like that," said Tavera. "We thought it would be a nice underground record, but it turned into a major pop single."

But rap's not alone in bringing new vitality to the sales charts, which--except for occasional breakthroughs such as Paula Abdul and Soul II Soul--were chiefly the domain in recent years of veteran superstars.

O'Connor is joined in the Top 12 albums this week by Depeche Mode, which was formerly considered a cult band, and rookie Lisa Stansfield.

"It seems the major superstar acts are taking the safe route, coming out with very formula songs," said Martin. "Radio listeners take a more aggressive stance, which is where the new names are coming out. Not that (listeners) don't like hearing Phil Collins or Michael Bolton any more, but in between they like hearing the M. C. Hammers and Bell Biv Devoes and Digital Undergrounds that are crossing over to become hits."

The irony is that rap's success has a lot to do with its reliance on the familiar. Hammer's hit, for instance, is built on a sampled bass line from Rick James' 1980 hit "Super Freak."

"Half the people don't know they're hearing M. C. Hammer," said Martin. "We get people calling asking, 'Would you play "Super Freak," but the one with the rap in it?' "

But the success of rap goes beyond that, as evidenced by the Public Enemy album, an angry black power statement that has had a lot of media attention, but virtually no radio play outside of the nation's few specifically rap-oriented stations. That, say some industry observers, proves the legitimacy of the form, dismissing the notion that the album is selling largely on the strength of the critical debate it has stirred.

"I don't think people run out and buy things just because they're controversial," said Warner Bros. senior vice president and director of sales Lou Dennis. "You've got to like what you're buying. Your curiosity might get you, but it's not like the old days when they used to ban a book in Boston and then everybody would try to buy it. I think people are reacting to the Public Enemy album because it's saying something they want to say."

The arrival of the best-selling newcomers these days is no accident, suggest representatives of record companies and retail outlets.

"One thing our business has determined is that you have to have stars of tomorrow," said Lou Mann, vice president of sales at Capitol Records, whose roster includes both new-guard chart-topper Hammer and old-guard Heart, whose new album is currently No. 3. "There has been an emphasis for the last 18 months on developing new talent and we're starting to see the fruits."

Mitch Perliss, director of purchasing for Show Industries, the parent company of the 75-store Music Plus chain, says that he hasn't seen any increase of sales, but he is seeing better quality sales, i.e. the same customers seeking wider variety than before.

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