THE thing that finally convinced KPWR was the calls. True, there was an advertiser boycott threatened against the radio station here if it didn't do something about the controversial rap songs it was playing.
But in the end, enough listeners - mothers, teens, leaders - expressed concern over certain lyrics that the FM station decided to drop the use of three derogatory words in the music it plays.
The move last week by KPWR, one of the most popular radio stations in southern California, is the latest development in a budding national backlash against explicit rap music.
Worried that certain rhyme could inspire crime, some police, clergy, black leaders, and others have been crusading against the so-called ``gangsta rap'' that celebrates violence and contains lyrics expressing hate.
Now a number of radio stations in major urban markets are banning the music or masking certain words.
The move revives an enduring debate over whether what comes out of our woofers can influence behavior. It poses a collision of commerce, artistic expression, and social responsibility. It mirrors the broader introspection in the land, growing more intense by the day, over the impact of violent images and words from all sources - TV, movies, video games - and what, if anything, should be done about them.
``It definitely is another symptom of the renaissance of interest in values in our culture,'' says Brian Stonehill, director of the media studies program at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. ``While everybody cares about freedom of expression, people also realize we have a responsibility to choose and filter.''
Gangsta rap, the latest manifestation of hip hop, has raised a few eyebrows ever since it began to take off in Los Angeles in the late 1980s with albums from N.W.A. (Niggaz with Attitude) and Ice-T.
As the primarily black musical genre has moved up the charts and into the mainstream, though, eyebrows have arched higher - even within the rap community.
To aficionados, which includes plenty of white suburban teenagers, the music that glorifies violence, gangs, guns, and sexual conquest explores a subject that many prefer to ignore: the turbulent and truculent streets of urban America. They see its harsh lyrics validating the anger many young blacks feel.
Critics, however, say violent and misogynic imagery has gone far beyond being rebellious and informing the world about inner-city life. They say it promotes the idea that it is all right to kill, rape, and abuse drugs.
Gangsta rap's image hasn't been helped by the recent arrest of some of its most prominent performers - notably Snoop Doggy Dogg, on murder charges, and Tupac Shakur, who was charged in the shooting of two off-duty police officers in Atlanta. Some of Mr. Shakur's best-known lyrics on a 1991 album discuss gang members shooting police. The arrests prompt the question: When it comes to rap, does life imitate art?
Concern runs deep among some African-American leaders, who worry about the message the music is sending to already beleaguered black youth. Last summer at a rally in New York, the Rev. Calvin Butts of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem drove a steamroller over tapes and CDs he considered offensive. The National Political Congress of Black Women has launched a petition drive to pressure record companies.
``At best, the music creates an environment in which it is easier for a youngster to become violent or act out violence,'' says Khalid Shah, president of Stop the Violence Increase the Peace Foundation, an Inglewood, Calif., group that campaigns against some forms of rap.
Caught in the crosscurrents are the nation's radio stations, which have to worry about the bottom line as well as listeners' tastes.
Burbank, Calif.-based KPWR will garble three words - nigga, bitch, and ho (whore) - when they come up in songs. Although the station faced a boycott of its advertisers by Stop the Violence, managers say the main reason it decided to take some action was the views expressed by listeners in several open-air forums. While many thought KPWR shouldn't do any censoring - indeed, had a duty not to - others demanded deletions.
``There were enough people out there who were either offended or didn't feel it necessary to have those words in to maintain the integrity of the music,'' says General Manager Doyle Rose.
Other stations have gone further. WBLS-FM in New York decided last week to ban songs that advocate violence or have lyrics that are hateful toward women or gays. KACE-FM in Los Angeles has already been doing that, as have some stations in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore.
Some rappers and record industry officials believe the moves will have little impact. Many already provide edited versions of songs to radio stations, while the full tonic is sold in music stores.
Others note that stations have been reluctant to play the music anyway. ``It is only recently that they have started to play it, and now that they are getting flak, they're pulling it,'' says one record industry representative.
Aficionados decry the attempt to control rap on any level. They see it as a violation of free speech and artistic integrity. Indeed, some argue one reason why the genre is attacked is that people don't consider it real art and because it is dominated by blacks.
All of which means the lather over lyrics will continue.
``It is a discussion we will be hearing for some time,'' says Ken Barnes, editor of the weekly publication Radio & Records. ``A lot of people who are very active music consumers are buying this stuff.''