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Rap's Role in Crime Refuels Lyrics Debate

September 28, 1996|H.G. REZA and LILY DIZON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

After Joseph Edward Gallegos shot to death three friends from Orange County this week, his minister and friends were quick to note the 18-year-old man's obsession with hard-core rap and suggest the music played a role in the killings.

The suggestion that Gallegos, who died in a police shootout Tuesday several hours after slaying his roommates, was at least partly motivated by a form of rap characterized by violent street tales coincides with a national debate about lyrics and their message.

Charges that songs cause people to do unspeakable acts are not new. Convicted mass murderer Charles Manson's followers said he was influenced by the Beatles' songs, and critics over the years have alleged that heavy-metal music turns listeners into devil worshipers.

But there is wide disagreement among experts over what effect--if any--music with violent content has on listeners.

What is consistent is that the courts have upheld the free speech rights of artists and their music despite frequent complaints over the years that some lyrics are lewd, inflammatory or incendiary.

In 1992, a federal appeals court in Florida overturned 2 Live Crew's obscenity conviction for their rap album "As Nasty as They Wanna Be." In 1988, a Nevada court dismissed a lawsuit by a couple who claimed Ozzy Osbourne's heavy-metal "Suicide Solution" had caused their son to commit suicide.

Colorado police say that Gallegos, despondent over a breakup with his girlfriend, listened repeatedly to gangsta rap artist Brotha Lynch Hung's song "Locc 2 da brain," which describes a street gangster who kills his enemies with a 9-millimeter handgun.

Gallegos used such a weapon to shoot Steven David Bates, John Anthony Lara III and Joshua Turville just after midnight, Tuesday. The men, all age 20 and lifelong friends, were 1994 graduates of El Modena High School in Orange.

The young killer had a long criminal history that included assaults and occasional use of the drug crystal meth, a potent form of methamphetamine that experts say can cause paranoia and violence. The son of divorced parents, he also had several run-ins with the law: According to Colorado officials, he had 13 convictions for a variety of offenses, ranging from shoplifting to two assaults.

But Gallegos' choice of music nevertheless seized the attention of friends and the minister who tried to straighten out Gallegos' life, even if some in law enforcement are not convinced it played a role.

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Dwight Eisnach, spokesman for the Colorado Juvenile Parole Board, said there was no evidence in Gallegos' lengthy criminal file showing "that rap music had any unusual or undue influence on his action."

The minister acknowledged that Gallegos had been high on crystal meth for three days before the murders. But he nevertheless blamed Brotha Hung's lyrics for stripping away Gallegos' last layers of inhibition and making it easier for him to shoot his friends.

"He got to the point where he didn't value human life," said Pastor Jeb Bryant of Calvary Chapel in Bayfield, Colo., who had become a mentor figure to Gallegos. "All that music is preaching killing. It preaches senseless violence."

Some agree.

Dr. Paul King, a Memphis, Tenn., child psychiatrist who has testified before Congress about the effects of rap music on children, said that the violent content of such albums "glorifies violence and the streets."

"I'm not saying it's a cause and effect, but it's an inspiration for some kids' behavior," King said. "Many kids have told me that hearing the same song and its words over and over makes their behavior OK. In their mind, it's OK for them to commit violent acts, especially when they're already twisted by hate and anger and tainted by drugs."

Vocal critics of gangsta rap and heavy-metal music such as the Parents Music Resource Center, a group formed in the 1980s by Tipper Gore, wife of Vice President Al Gore, continue to charge that the lyrics corrupt young listeners.

"I don't think that every child who listens to rap music will be corrupted," said Barbara Wyatt, president of the center. "But if a youth is vulnerable and at risk, it can tilt him in the direction of violence. It's a very powerful tool. You don't play a lullaby to get men to go to war. Rap impacts what you think and what you do."

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If you hear a rap song's lyrics long enough, "it breaks down your inhibitions," Wyatt added. When this happens, "people don't feel badly about what they do." When heard through earphones, rap lyrics "go right to the brain."

Brotha Lynch Hung declined to comment Friday. But Cedric Singleton, executive producer of Hung's record label, Black Market Records, said neither the artist nor his song should be blamed.

The continuing argument that rap is responsible for some killings "is really crazy, because there are other issues in society that lend to this type of violence," Singleton said. "The music is a reflection of society, not the other way around. Artists are reporters, reporting on what they see in life," he said.

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