BOSTON — Just a few years ago, rap music was considered by many to be the enfant terrible of the musical world.
Now, 20 years after the Sugarhill Gang burst onto the national scene with "Rapper's Delight," the genre is becoming as mainstream as Garth Brooks and platform shoes.
While many of its lyrics remain as raw as ground chuck, rap is gaining a wider audience - and, in fact, is now the top-selling musical format in America.
Consider this week's Grammys, when Lauryn Hill became the first hip-hop artist to ever win Album of the Year. Last year, actor Warren Beatty crafted his satire "Bulworth" around rap's language of protest. In perhaps the ultimate sign of acceptance, Martha Stewart, America's arbiter of good taste, appeared at the MTV Music Awards with rapper Busta Rhymes.
But it's not so much that rap has gone mainstream as that the mainstream has finally caught up with the music. "I don't think the music itself has changed," says Sacha Jenkins, VIBE magazine's music editor. "But since we now have a generation of kids around the world who have grown up listening to rap music, it was only a matter of time when the demand for the music would grow."
Everything from rock to the tango has ignited a firestorm of criticism when it first hit the airwaves. (Remember all those warnings about "Elvis the Pelvis?") But the one surrounding rap burned hotter and longer, given the genre's raw lyrics and gangsta influences.
A few years ago, everyone from Tipper Gore to Bob Dole cringed in horror at rap lyrics bragging about guns and prostitutes. In 1992, Ice-T's "Copkiller" sparked a major free-speech battle. The furor over gangsta rap peaked in 1996-'97, when two of its rising stars, Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, were shot and killed. Both cases remain unsolved.
But today, rap is generating more dollar signs than headlines. Last year, for the first time, it outsold country - up till then the reigning US format. And while hip-hop's roots are deep in black urban America, last year more than 70 percent of albums were purchased by whites.
This change in listeners' tastes hasn't gone unnoticed by radio stations.
Patricia Cunningham, a host for KCEP, a black-owned R&B station in Nevada, says hip hop is a culture that is not going away, just like rock 'n' roll before it. Music that used to be heard only on black-owned radio stations is now played on pop music stations.
"I think everybody is realizing you have different styles in rap just like you do in other music," Ms. Cunningham says. "You have good lyrics and bad lyrics and good taste and bad taste... And I think people are realizing it's here to stay. They're used to the sound."
Hip hop's roots began in the Bronx, N.Y., in the late 1970s. Hip hop encompasses a culture of rap, rhythm and blues, and reggae music with clothes and graffiti-like art to go with it. Today's lyrics still tell harsh stories of what it's like [growing] up on the streets of America. As a result, hip hop has emerged as the voice of a generation.
While rap lyrics will never be the equivalent of show tunes, the ones honored by the music academy this week were more of the PG variety. Actor/rapper Will Smith, who first made rap safe for the suburbs in the late 1980s with humorous songs like "Parents Just Don't Understand," picked up a Grammy for best rap solo performance. In his acceptance speech, Mr. Smith, star of "Men in Black" and this summer's "Wild, Wild West," talked about a truly terrifying experience he'd had earlier that day: his first parent-teacher conference.
The big winner was hip-hop diva Hill, who picked up five awards for her deeply personal amalgam of soul, reggae, and rap, "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill." It was the most ever won by a woman. Accepting her award for Best New Artist, Ms. Hill read from Psalm 40 and thanked her children for being her inspiration "and for not spilling anything on Mommy's outfit."
What Hill sings about is typical of other hip-hop artists. "She talks about things that are relevant to hip hop and to young people coming up in black America, ranging from love, to education ... to sex, to growth, to change," Mr. Jenkins says. He noted that not every Shakur song was about guns or violence, even though that's the bad-boy image that has always been attached to the murdered rapper. "You can have Will Smith or Biggie Smalls, just like you can have the Rolling Stones or the Beach Boys."
Sean "Puffy" Combs, head of Bad Boy Entertainment, has assisted in the transformation of rap into a commonplace sound. Mr. Combs, also a rapper himself, helped promote a softer image, putting rap into the rhythm-and-blues category and sampling (recycling) songs from the Police and Diana Ross.
Rap artists and their music will probably become even more mainstream as time goes on, Jenkins says.
The kids who grew up on rap in the early days "become old people, and old people run things in this world," he says. "There's always a changing of the guard. The youth are expressing themselves with rap music that isn't so new any more."