Disney's making rap music? It may seem like an odd partnership: the conservative, squeaky-clean Disney and a controversial music genre frequently slammed for misogynistic, sex-and-violence content.
Yet before the mega-success of Walt Disney Records' "Aladdin" and "The Lion King" soundtracks, what was the company's big bonanza? If you guessed "The Jungle Book," "Fantasia" or "Mary Poppins," guess again: It was 1979's "Mickey Mouse Disco" that took double platinum honors.
So here comes "Mickey Unrapped," a riskier venture into urban musical territory, which Disney hopes will bring similar success.
The all-rap album is set for release Tuesday, featuring Mickey, Minnie, Goofy et al. mixing it up in original songs and parodies of rap hits with Tag Team rap duo, Color Me Badd and Whoopi Goldberg. On the album cover is Mickey, his hands gesturing in vague rap style, wearing street gangsta chic: a backward baseball cap and oversize baggy jeans, belted well below his skinny waist.
Mark Jaffe, vice president of Walt Disney Records, expects major crossover appeal.
"There are more rap albums purchased in suburban America than urban America. Rap has truly taken over the American popular psyche like no other since disco," he enthused. "We think the popularity of this parody of rap will be enormous.
"Mickey's really into his rapping: 'I'm so cool, My ice cream never melts.' But he's Mickey, he's been Mickey for 60 years and he hasn't changed. He's just having fun with a new popular music form in America. The songs are parodies: 'Ice Ice Mickey,' 'What a Mouse,' 'You Can't Botch This,' 'Ducks in the Hood' and then, of course, the single 'Whoomp! (There It Went),' which features the original artist Tag Team," whose "Whoomp! (There It Is)" was a monster hit in 1993.
Jaffe stressed that the album's goal was to "provide a positive lyrical approach, and we were very conscious of how we chose our lyrics and the context in which they were sung. Perhaps I should say, with this album more than any other, we were conscious of that."
One double-entendre was apparently overlooked, however, in "Whoomp! (There It Went)," which is featured as the album's single and its live-action/animated music video. The street term "get busy"--applied to Mickey and friends--may have an innocuous meaning to most parents, but there's a "wink-wink" sexual connotation that's just as familiar to many young people.
"In the music video, (the characters) are in the context of a party and Mickey and Donald and Goofy are dancing during those segments," Jaffe said.
"But in speech there are always double-entendres people don't really intend. We can't control how people perceive and interpret lyrics that were not intended to have any other meaning than the positive lyrical messages we produce with the albums."
Al Bell, former Motown president and founder of Bellmark Records, Tag Team's label, had a slightly different reaction. "I thought I was fairly current," he said after several moments of chagrined laughter. "I thought I was hip. I should have asked my son. . . . But I love that part and in the video, they're dancing. . . . Oh, my goodness."
Bell, who is known for his insistence that his rap artists do clean lyrics, said he was delighted at the idea of one of his favorite childhood icons being involved with the young rap duo Tag Team.
"With Tag Team, I saw it as really institutionalizing them. . . . Further, I really appreciated it because I've been concerned about the bad rap that rap music has gotten, because most of the media focus has been on the negative aspects of it. I thought it was sort of unfair. That genre has had more of a profound effect than any other on young people. The Mickey album adds a positive position on rap music and puts balance on the marketplace."
A quarter of a million albums have been shipped for Tuesday's release and Disney's full-bore marketing strategy includes "a direct response commercial" that began running on cable and UHF channels Aug. 15, a "really aggressive" retail co-op advertising campaign, print and television appearances and special events.
In retail outlets, the album will be placed not only in the children's music section but "wherever popular music is sold," Bell said.
"One of the things we've been fighting at the retail level is the notion it's a kids' record. We've made it plain to them that this is not a kids' record, it's a hit record, and hit records appeal to all demographics, kids or not."
Preliminary reaction to the single, already getting airplay in some pop markets, is "positive. They've been inundated with telephone calls from adults and kids who are in love with it," Bell said.
Rob Marriott, an editor at the Source, the leading national rap music magazine, doesn't see the album succeeding with a crossover audience, however.
"There's no way. The rock (demographic) is not trying to hear Mickey Mouse. Disney is about making money and rap music makes money and so it makes sense--when disco was hot they had an album. It's kind of corporate logic. It's a safe bet we won't be reviewing it."
Marriott said he had seen the "Mickey Unrapped" TV promo, but had not heard the album.
Bob DeMoss, youth culture specialist for the Christian media watchdog group Focus on the Family, said, "It's perfectly fine for Mickey Mouse to use rap music in a positive way. Perhaps some of the artists who are set on so much negativity can get a clue. . . ."
Jack Thompson, the Miami attorney who led the anti-obscenity crusade against Miami rap group 2 Live Crew, hasn't heard the album either, but he is an enthusiastic Disney fan--"my 2-year-old son is absolutely out of his skull about 'The Lion King.' "
He does have a reservation about "Mickey Unrapped," however.
"Disney doing a rap album is like Mother Teresa wearing lace garters," he said.