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COVER STORY : The Uncivil War : The battle between the Establishment and supporters of rap music reopens old wounds of race and class

July 19, 1992|CHUCK PHILIPS | Chuck Philips is a regular contributor to Calendar. and

President Bush entered the fray three weeks ago with a broad attack on the entertainment industry's "sick" practice of producing films, TV programs and music that glorify cop killing.

"It's wrong for any company . . . to issue records that approve of killing a law enforcement officer," the President said at the opening ceremonies for a Drug Enforcement Administration office in New York.

Vice President Dan Quayle has repeatedly chastised "elitist" executives for marketing "obscene" entertainment that runs counter to the traditional values of mainstream culture. He has been especially critical of the company that released "Cop Killer."

"Time Warner is making money--a lot of it--off a record that is suggesting it's all right to kill cops," Quayle says. "That's wrong! There is a huge cultural gap between the high-priced decision-makers of Time Warner and the cops on the beat who are putting their lives on the line for us. The problem is that records like 'Cop Killer' do have an impact on the streets--the wrong impact."

"It's not like the White House expresses any interest in trying to resolve the polarization that this song reflects," says Jeff Ayeroff, co-chairman of Virgin Records and co-founder of the recording industry's Rock the Vote voter registration campaign. "They just want to exploit the fear of this potent black artist to their own political advantage."

But Republicans aren't alone on the anti-rap bandwagon.

Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton has denounced New York rapper Sister Souljah as a racist for comments she made in a Washington Post interview, including, "If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?"

The Arkansas governor first used an appearance last month before the Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition to criticize Souljah, comparing her comments to remarks made by former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke.

Clinton, who said he targeted Souljah for criticism because of her influence on young people, said her comments were "filled with . . . hatred." The Democratic nominee reiterated his remarks last week in New York.

And Jackson's indignation at Clinton's remarks did little to dissuade the candidate from choosing as his running mate Sen. Al Gore (D-Tenn.), whose wife Tipper has long been a critic of hard-core rap.

She and Susan Baker--wife of longtime Bush confidant, Secretary of State James Baker--founded a media watchdog group called the Parents Music Resource Center to police record lyrics. The group initiated the 1985 Senate hearings on potentially harmful lyrics and was instrumental in pressuring the music industry to reluctantly introduce a voluntary labeling system to identify "offensive" albums. Ice-T's 1987 debut album, "Rhyme Pays," was the first record to carry a parental warning sticker under that plan.

Many black rappers--including Ice-T and Sister Souljah--contend that they are being unfairly singled out because their music reflects deep changes in society not being addressed anywhere else in the public forum. The white politicians, the artists complain, neither understand the music nor desire to hear what's going on in the devastated communities that gave birth to the art form.

"The reason why rap is under attack is because it exposes all the contradictions of American culture," Souljah says. "What started out as an underground art form has become a vehicle to expose a lot of critical issues that are not usually discussed in American politics. The problem here is that the White House and wanna-bes like Bill Clinton represent a political system that never intends to deal with inner city urban chaos."

It's just a matter of race

'Cause a black male's in their face

--Public Enemy's "Revolutionary Generation"

The politicians may not only be out of touch with rap musicians; they may also be missing the boat with many of the nation's young voters and teens. Rap is not just a misunderstood art form embroiled in a First Amendment battle. It's also a very hot commodity.

"I think the general impression for a long time has been that rap is an underground form of music primarily purchased by African-Americans, but that's just not the case," says Mike Fine, co-owner of the New York-based research firm Sound Data. "Our research shows that while most people over 44 years of age loathe rap, people under 25 love it--especially kids under 18."

And, says Fine, the most surprising fact about rap these days is who's buying it. According to a recent Sound Data survey, 74% of all rap music sold in 1992 was purchased by white consumers.

Ever since the nation's six major music distribution groups entered the lucrative rap market in the late '80s, sales have skyrocketed. Last year, the genre accounted for about 9% of the music industry's $7.8-billion domestic sales total--a $100-million increase over the previous year, according to figures provided by the Recording Industry Assn. of America.

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