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No Gangs. No Guns. No Sale?

Positive rappers can't seem to interest fans or radio stations in their nonviolent themes. Whether it's because of the business or the zeitgeist, hard-core still rules.

February 04, 2001|GEOFF BOUCHER | Geoff Boucher is a Times staff writer

The Black Eyed Peas are huddled around a low table overflowing with pizza and soggy Japanese take-out, but at the moment the Los Angeles rap trio is gnawing instead on a frustrating and familiar challenge: Why do even the lamest hard-core rap acts seem to sell more albums than hip-hop artists who resist violent cliches?

The group's leader, Will I Am, finally hits on a metaphor. "Nobody likes to eat peas," he practically shouts. "Nobody wants to eat something that's good for them. They want the sugar, they want the stuff that's going to rot out their teeth. Our music is like vegetables."

He laughs, shrugs, then adds, in a slightly more serious tone, "There's something wrong with humans. They want some s--- that ain't going to benefit nothing."

The Black Eyed Peas are part of a wave of music that, if put into a box, might be labeled "positive rap," and includes artists such as Jurassic 5, Common, the Roots, Mos Def, Slum Village and Dilated Peoples. All receive critical acclaim, but none has come close to rivaling the stardom or sales of top hard-core rappers. The last Puff Daddy album, considered a flop, has sold 1.4 million copies, while none of these artists has been able to even come close to the platinum level of 1 million.

"I'm not mad that gangsta sells that much," Will says. "Hey, I'm glad hip-hop is selling. I'm not mad at [those artists], but I am mad at corporations, the record companies. Those are the people that are limiting hip-hop's diversity with just one form of music."

In the rap world, radio stations, record companies and fans devote the lion's share of their money, time and attention to "gun-totin', bling-bling, gangsta, street-life stuff," as Will puts it. In the pantheon of the genre's superstars, the biggest names--2pac, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, the Notorious B.I.G., Snoop Dogg, Nas and now Eminem--all put out music steeped in violence and death, anger and insult.

"There's obviously a level at which the rebellion and the rage is what people hear and react to at a really visceral level," says Alan Light, editor in chief of Spin magazine. "That's still one of the appeals of rock 'n' roll and much of the reason that hip-hop stole a lot of the energy and momentum from rock 'n' roll in the last decade. That thrill, that danger. I don't think there's any way around that."

Hip-hop is beginning its third decade as a pop music force, and as a whole it remains a wide-ranging, colorful landscape of musical strains and styles. But the dominant commercial peak on that landscape is hard-core rap, and it casts a long shadow. "It's not easy in the valley," says the Chicago rapper Common. "But I think it will get better."

There is cause for his optimism.

The huge success of Lauryn Hill's "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill," a 1998 album that has sold 5.9 million copies and won four Grammys, showed that a humanistic, soulful brand of hip-hop can ascend to the heights of pop. That built on the similar success Hill had with the Fugees and the solo accomplishments of another alumnus of the group, Wyclef Jean. Hill's success seems to dovetail with the careers of Erykah Badu and Macy Gray, R&B-leaning artists who have stirred uplifting hip-hop into their soul food mix.

Others, though, say that hard-core rap has become just that--the hard core of the rap world, so solid, entrenched and lucrative that other factions of the genre struggle to be seen as anything more than novelties or niche, boutique acts.

"I embrace all aspects of hip-hop," says Fred Jordan, producer of "DFX," MTV's hip-hop show. "Any inroad created by the music creates more opportunity for others. I view it as trying to reach the masses more. But after awhile, you would think that fans want an alternative from 'I have my gun, I have my car, I have my gold,' whatever."

That said, Jordan still praises hard-core rappers for bringing to light the realities of inner-city life. He is enthused especially by the success of OutKast and Mos Def, acts that deliver eclectic, intelligent hybrids of hip-hop without losing the gritty, street edge. Jordan was hopeful that OutKast's strong sales might signal an openness among fans that would help De La Soul, a veteran act that offers vivid but nonviolent hip-hop, with its acclaimed comeback album last year.

"I was totally expecting it to be through the roof," Jordan says glumly. "I finally thought that music had caught up to them, but they were also still ahead of the curve. But once again we see that it didn't translate to commercial success."

Jimmy Iovine, chief of Interscope Records, has seen his company sell millions of albums with hard-core acts such as 2pac, Dre and Eminem. Now his company is trying to break Jurassic 5 and Black Eyed Peas, but Iovine says that with audiences used to the glitter and grit of hard-core, the positive rappers have an extra challenge: Without the familiar imagery or shock-value aspects on their side, they must more than match the music of their gangsta rivals.

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