LOS ANGELES — Steve Brown likes the beat and rhyme of newer rap groups like The Fugees: "The lyrics are about moving up in life and reaching out to people," says the beak-capped teen.
His buddy, Tyler Del Rhuey, likes older "gangsta rap" like that of Dr. Dre: "I like the tough language and attitude ... down on bad parents, dumb teachers ... stupid cops," he says.
The two Los Angeles roommates, hanging out on a street corner here, encapsulate a controversy that is once again brewing nationwide about the evolution, appeal, and social effects of the rhythmic, rhyming street music known as rap.
Have artists and producers of the genre heard the public criticism of recent years that their imagery is often too graphic about guns, gangs, sex, and violence? Have consumer boycotts against retailers and radio stations increased or decreased the music's appeal and sales?
The questions are being asked anew as another round of salvos is fired at the music industry from a coalition led by former US Education Secretary William Bennett. Along with Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut, Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, and others, Mr. Bennett opened what he called "Round 2" in an anti-rap war last month by attacking five top record companies for selling music laced with "degrading and indefensible" lyrics.
"These companies have the blood of our children on their hands," said C. Delores Tucker, head of the National Political Congress of Black Women. She also participated in the Washington press conference that marked the beginning of a national radio talk-show ad campaign.
Ms. Tucker, Bennett, and others played lyrics containing graphic depictions of violence and sex from five labels, including music by Wu-Tang Clan, Geto Boys, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, and heavy metal bands Cannibal Corpse and Lords of Acid.
Time Warner, Sony, PolyGram, Thorn EMI, and Bertelsmann Music Group are targets of the coalition, which two years ago pressured Time Warner to sell 50 percent of its stake in Interscope Records, a subsidiary that focused on controversial rap artists.
But the answers are less clear as to whether such public denouncements have resulted in creative or other changes by artists and producers. In what some see as dramatic evidence that the activism has had an effect, sales have fallen off steadily since 1991, down from 10 percent of the total music market in 1991 to 6.7 percent in 1995.
"This is a clear indication that the popularity of rap music as a percentage of overall music sales has seriously declined," says Tim Sites, spokesman for the Recording Industry Association of America, which keeps the statistics.
But the falloff may be due more to an aging musical style and changing consumer tastes than the efforts of parents and other concerned moralizers.
"The public outcries and activism of recent years have raised tremendous consciousness about the social concerns of rap music," says Mickey Granberg, director of government relations for the National Association of Recording Merchandisers. "But to explain this decline as anything but an evolution in creativity and taste would be presumptuous."
With room for minor exceptions, her comment echoes that of key industry watchers, artists, producers, critics, and record retailers nationwide.
"The reason rap sales are falling is that [the music] is boring over time," says Mike Fratt, head buyer for Homer's, an eight-store record chain in Nebraska.
He notes that what he calls a "very limited box rhythm" remains constant with little innovation since "Rappers Delight" became the first million-seller in 1979. He says top rap acts today like Coolio, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, and Tupac Shakur are moving in a melodic direction, adding soul-based, rhythm-and-blues motifs from the '50s and '60s.
"Gangsta rap is done," says DMC (Darryl MCDaniels) of the pioneer rap group Run DMC. "It has reached as big as it can get. I don't think people want to keep hearing about guns and robbin' and rapin' ... anymore. Now it's about giving solutions to the problems that the gangsta rappers are talking about."
The image of rap that has suffered in recent years is the narrower view of turbulent, mostly poor, street life in urban America. Defenders of the raw, caustic images say it reflects the true-life situation of the American underclass. Detractors say it reinforces the lowest motives of youth that need to be guided out of poverty.
Public outcry about rap peaked in the late 1980s as record sales by more than 100 artists soared, while some of the industry's most prominent performers were arrested for murders and shootings. Lyrics on a 1991 Tupac Shakur album referred to gangs shooting police, while Snoop Doggy Dogg was tried and acquitted for killing a man last year.
During the same period, school, civic, and parent groups concerned about forms of rock as well as rap music were active nationwide, pressuring record companies to voluntarily identify and label records with strong language, expressions of violence, sex, and substance abuse. In 1990, a 1-inch-by-1-5/8-inch parental advisory logo was universally adopted, and last year additional measures were taken to encourage retail sellers to cooperate by not selling logo-bearing recordings to youth 17 and under.
Darryl James, founder and editor of Rap Sheet Magazine, says the recent outcries have had an effect not on the demand for rap or on the expressive outlet for artists, but on marketing and promotion efforts.
"The majors [record companies] turned tail and have tried to wash their hands of as much rap as possible," he says, since the Time Warner flap of two years ago. "Now less of the big superstars are being pushed."
"As time went on," DMC says, "we knew we had a medium, a vehicle that could change things because people look up to you and will listen and do what we do and wear what we wear. So we had to become responsible for what images we portrayed to the public."
Keith Clinkscales, president of Vibe Magazine, agrees that many of the harder-edge forms are on the way out but that newer names like Bahamadia, De La Soul, and the Lost Boyz are reenergizing the genre with refreshing new instrumentation and melodies that hybridize rhythm and blues.
"The majority of groups are leaving behind the route of disgusting lyrics," he says. But he feels rap itself is here to stay as a genuine American art form that has achieved permanent acceptance in the mainstream, as evidence of its use in commercials by such figures as basketball star Shaquille O'Neal, and by clothing and shoe advertisers.
Mr. Clinkscales, Mr. James, and others decry Bennett's use of free media and paid advertising to attack what they see as a valid expression. Using the war chest of the conservative organization Empower America, Bennett has run ads on talk shows encouraging listeners to call a petition hot line to pressure targeted labels to drop the offensive music acts.
Several observers say a tepid media response to the recent Bennett news conference shows the issue has moved off the radar screen for most Americans.
"It seems to me Bennett is making a lot of noise about something that is a nonissue," says one major-company official here who asks not to be identified. "Everyone is sort of yawning and saying, 'I've heard this before.' "
Parents as watchdogs
Many people agree with Bennett and other critics of rap that much of the lyrics is "degrading and indefensible." But some of them say it is the responsibility of parents, not politicians, to make choices for their children.
"For more than a decade, the US recording industry has responded to the legitimate concerns of parents who may find some music lyrics objectionable and who wish to limit their children's exposure to certain recordings with explicit content," says Hilary Rosen, president of RIAA, which represents 95 percent of the music released in the US.
She says that all the albums singled out by Bennett are already labeled with a standard advisory notice that reads, "PARENTAL ADVISORY, EXPLICIT LYRICS."
"Do these people seriously believe music is the cause of this country's problems?" she asks.
While some see the Bennett action as political opportunism in an election year, others see it as a legitimate use of First Amendment privilege as guaranteed by the US Constitution.
"People and artists have the right to put out this music, and Bennett has the right to say they don't like it and try to get others not to buy it," says Elliot Mincberg, legal director for People for the American Way, a non-partisan, constitutional liberties organization.