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COVER STORY

Large and In Charge

Rap hasn't merely survived the shocking deaths of hip-hop leaders Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. It's thriving now, thanks to a fresh infusion from today's masterminds.

July 26, 1998|Marc Weingarten | Marc Weingarten writes about pop music for Calendar

Ever since it bubbled up from the urban underground two decades ago, the most controversial and flamboyant American pop music since rock 'n' roll has gotten a bum rap.

Dismissed by mainstream critics and shunned by radio program directors as a fringe genre, rap music was viewed with derision and outright disdain, particularly by white taste-makers who laughed it off as a passing fad.

But that was then.

Twenty years and tens of millions of record sales later, there's no disputing that rap has survived--and thrived.

Not only has it irrevocably altered the pop music landscape and become a dominant force on the nation's sales charts, but it has also spurred a cultural revolution that has pushed the music's sounds and images into everything from advertising to fashion.

Still, late last year there was renewed skepticism about rap's commercial and artistic future.

One question: Could rap maintain its stronghold after the murders of two of its biggest and most innovative stars--Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G.--and the dramatic decline of its most celebrated label, Death Row, after the incarceration of its chairman, Marion "Suge" Knight?

Another concern: Would fans eventually be repelled by the way the music's violent imagery was being played out on the streets--not to mention the continuing, relentless misogyny?

In retrospect, the questions were probably as naive as the early misgivings about rap's future. Thanks to a seemingly endless influx of new talent, rap's sales are up almost a third over last year's $1.4 billion take, which represented 10% of total U.S. record sales.

And rap shows no signs of abating. Upcoming albums by Snoop Dogg, Timbaland and the Wu-Tang Clan's Ghostface Killah, and the seemingly endless stream of hit acts tied to rapper and label owner Master P's No Limit banner (the late-'90s equivalent of Death Row) should keep cash registers humming well into the new year.

"Creatively, hip-hop stagnated a bit when Tupac and Biggie died," says Jermaine Dupri, an Atlanta-based rap and R&B producer who recently released his first solo album on his own So-So Def label. "But now, you've gotta come up with a really good record to make an impact, 'cause there's so much good stuff coming out, and the competition is fierce."

Where rap once struggled to find acceptance within the mass culture, it has now become a ubiquitous mainstream presence. Whether it's Busta Rhymes hawking Mountain Dew on a Sunset Strip billboard or Warren Beatty donning gold chains and a knit cap in "Bulworth," rap has completely infiltrated American media.

"The reality is if you're not in the rap business, you're not in the music business," says Elektra Entertainment Group chairman and CEO Sylvia Rhone, whose roster includes such platinum rap acts as Rhymes and Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott.

In fact, rap's influence is so pervasive that it has emerged as the first musical style since the '50s to truly rival rock 'n' roll as the primary music of choice for American youth culture. It's already battled rock to a standstill on MTV, where a video by rap producer-turned-solo-artist Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs gets as much airplay as anything from Matchbox 20 or Third Eye Blind. And it's virtually no contest on the sales charts, where rap albums and singles regularly clog the national Top 10 lists.

Although rap maintains a strong African American base, most rap albums are bought by white fans. According to a recent SoundScan survey, two-thirds of all rap music in 1997 was purchased by white consumers, and nearly 50% of all rap music is purchased by those under 18. Much of that money, retailers say, comes at the expense of rock.

"Urban kids set the trends, then the suburban kids follow en masse," says Jesse Washington, editor of Blaze, a new hip-hop magazine from the publishers of Spin and Vibe. "Hip-hop's got more of a lock on youth culture than ever before."

"The bottom line is, it's connecting with young people because a lot of it is great stuff," says Elektra's Rhone. "It's not only an art form, but it's the new rock music for the new millennium."

One of the most remarkable aspects of rap's appeal with white suburban mall rats is their appetite for music that plumbs the darkest depths of ghetto life.

Although the loaded term "gangsta rap" has long gone out of style, a variation on that hard-core subgenre is dominating both the pop and rap charts, and it's mostly coming from one man.

Percy Miller, a.k.a. Master P, isn't the only bright new star in rap--he shares the spotlight with newcomers such as Wyclef Jean, DMX, Silkk the Shocker, C-Murder, Canibus, Timbaland & Magoo and John Forte.

And Master P hasn't quite achieved the mainstream recognition of Puff Daddy, currently rap's biggest crossover superstar (see accompanying story).

But Master P may well be rap's biggest power player--and kingmaker--of the moment.

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