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Rapping out battle lines

How did an anonymous rhymer become the most prominent voice in a war between Enimen and hip-hop's main magazine?

January 17, 2003|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

In two decades as a rapper, Ray "Benzino" Scott has remained a minor player -- he can claim no gold records, no hit video on MTV or BET -- which makes it all the more fascinating that he is the most aggressive provocateur in an ugly war that pits rap's biggest star, Eminem, against the genre's most successful journal, the Source magazine.

This week, Scott released an album that includes a track, titled "Lift Up Your Skirt," which portrays Eminem as a cultural carpetbagger, a white artist undermining a black art form. That attack escalates considerably in the February issue of the Source in a five-page interview with Scott and an accompanying cartoon poster that depicts Scott holding a gory trophy: the decapitated head of Eminem. At the top of the cover, Eminem and Scott are shown in facing photos with a challenging caption: "Step into the arena."

Issues of race, street credibility and success have often roiled the rap community, especially when white superstar rapper Eminem has been considered, but how did a fairly anonymous Boston rhymer become the most prominent voice in the matter? Especially now, in 2003, when many of the most acclaimed black rappers have repeatedly embraced Eminem as a talent whose urban background overrides many questions of color?

Part of the answer appears to be the curious relationship between Scott and the Source, a relationship that has given Scott a consistent presence in the publication, considered the Rolling Stone of hip-hop. Through the years, Scott has been reviewed, interviewed and even framed in a poster with his son, despite a recording career that has bounced him to six music labels and been largely ignored beyond the pages of the magazine.

On two occasions, in 1994 and 1999, the coverage given to Scott has led directly to the resignations of the magazine's senior editors and some staffers. At the time they protested that Scott, a longtime friend of the Source's publisher, David Mays, was getting behind-the-scenes career support at the cost of journalistic ethics. (A spokeswoman for the Source said Mays was not available for comment.)

Now Scott's relation to the magazine is official. The February issue identifies him in the masthead as "co-founder and visionary." The title does not jibe with the oft-told history of the magazine's being launched in 1988 as a one-page newsletter by then-Harvard student Mays. (In addition, Scott's new album, on Elektra Records, comes with a special offer: three free issues of the Source.)

The perception that Scott is using the magazine -- and the Eminem attacks -- to stir interest in his career is spreading in the hip-hop world, and Web sites are already brimming with rumors, criticism and petitions calling for boycotts of the Source or Scott's resignation.

"It's ridiculous," Scott said of the notion that he uses the Source as a personal propaganda machine. "If anything, the Source has hurt my career."

That is disputed by Selwyn Seyfu Hinds, former editor in chief who quit in 1999. He said he quit because a review of Scott's music was tweaked to make it more favorable.

"The Source has given preferential treatment to Benzino over the years and he has a great deal of influence, and that's the reason I'm not there anymore," Hinds said. "Now, the agenda of Benzino and the magazine has become mixed and indistinguishable. Once it was done behind the scenes, now it's becoming a very transparent thing. That may put the Source in a danger zone as far as its credibility."

To Scott himself, the only issue of creditability that bears discussion is the matter of Eminem and his impact on hip-hop, music that sprang up some 20 years ago in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods in New York.

"There is a double standard in the highest degree," said Scott, who believes that Eminem's success is a disgrace because it is driven by a white-dominated industry and white-dominated audience who want a "blue-eyed, blond" performer.

"They are scared of the real thing," Scott said, "and we [black artists] can't get our songs on the radio. Our music is too real."

And what of race issues evoked by the success and power of Mays, a white businessman? Scott said Mays is part of authentic hip-hop culture and Eminem is not.

"This not a race thing," Scott said. "I'm talking about Eminem and what he does to hip-hop, what he stands for morally, and what he doesn't stand for.... We can't talk about our pain, we have to do songs that fit on the radio. And he can get away with anything. Nobody else is selling. He isn't the best rapper, but he's the only one selling."

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