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Critics fear hip-hop is eroding kids' morals and touching off violent episodes like the recent rampage at Magic Mountain. Are these entertainers truly poisoning young fans' minds? Or is that just a bum rap? : Rap's Bad Rep


When hundreds of young concert-goers rampaged through Magic Mountain and nearby Santa Clarita on April 17, a park spokeswoman blamed the violence on the type of audience attracted to rap concerts. She pledged to never again schedule such performers at the amusement park.

Two years ago, five Dodge City, Kan., teen-agers initially pleaded not guilty to murder, claiming a rap record drove them insane. They later changed their plea to guilty.

And L. A. rappers such as Ice-T and NWA have spun out records that aroused the ire of law-enforcement officers, who accuse them of advocating violence against police.

Rap has been called one of the most important music forces to emerge in two decades. Its pounding beat and staccato rhymes exploded on the streets of urban America in the early 1980s and since have become the theme music and lyrical heart of a vibrant youth culture called hip-hop.

In 1991 alone, rap generated more than $700 million in recording industry sales--roughly 9% of the music industry's $7.8-billion market. Its unique sound has become mainstream, used to sell everything from Kentucky Fried Chicken to movie soundtracks. Recently, at the suggestion of incoming executive director Benjamin Chavis, the NAACP--one of the oldest and most respected civil rights organizations--commissioned a rap song to promote itself to a younger generation.

As rap's popularity escalates, however, so does the controversy that swirls around it. A growing chorus of critics has accused some rap performers of corrupting young minds and encouraging violent behavior. Because of the age and size of the music's core audience, they say, rappers have an obligation to send out responsible messages.

But how much influence does rap really have on its youthful listeners? Many, from record company executives to high school students, agree that it plays a critical role in the lives of many fans, affecting the way they dance, dress and speak.

Still, there is disagreement about how much power any kind of music can have over its listeners' thoughts and behavior. Teens and adults alike say society fails to recognize the intelligence of youth, who, they say, can differentiate between make-believe and reality. And for those children who cannot, they add, the burden of responsibility rests with the families who raised them--not on the music they celebrate.

Young rap fans caution it is wrong and simplistic to believe music can dictate their actions. Upbringing and circumstance steer a child's behavior, they say, not a record on a turntable or a performer posturing on stage.

"I think kids know the difference between right and wrong, music and reality," says Jon Shecter, editor of The Source, an influential rap magazine. "They know it's not right to go kill somebody, (and) if they're driven to that, that's not the fault of the music."

Last year, a Philadelphia-based firm, Motivational Educational Entertainment, released a marketing study that said rap was the only medium considered credible by black, urban youth. Dubbed "Reaching the Hip Hop Generation," the research found that many African-American teens were so alienated and disillusioned by life in harsh environments they were virtually immune to "mainstream" messages, be they from a so-called community leader or a favorite athlete.

Not everyone agrees with such drastic conclusions. But few doubt rap's impact--on youths of all races.

"If anything is influencing kids it's rap artists," says Shecter. "What they're saying, what they're wearing, their political point of view--all these things are elements of the hip-hop culture."

That troubles some others. "The concern I have with some rap performers is the way they have exploited a bad situation, life in the ghetto, gang warfare," says Bob DeMoss, youth culture specialist with the Christian organization Focus on the Family.

"They've stepped into the arena of glamorization. . . . If anything, they ought to be using their powerful platform to show urban America a way out."

Digable Planets, KRS-1, Arrested Development: Name the artists and Domingo Maldonado's probably got their CDs. But they are not his role models. Instead he is influenced by his father, a machinist with a ninth-grade education who has worked hard to support his family.

"I have to know people to respect them," says Maldonado, 18, a student at Jordan High School in Watts.

During a school break, Maldonado and a group of friends help educate a stranger about the music they love. A favorite teacher walks in the room, looks over, and walks away. "I respect her more than (rapper) Ice Cube," says Salvador Solis, 18. "She's been here for a long time."

The teen-agers, both black and Latino, say it is the driving beat that attracts them and many other young people to rap. That, and the music's honesty.

Not yet out of high school, they look upon the media and politicians with grown-up cynicism. Rap, on the other hand, reflects their reality.

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