Music: The return of the rap pack

If you thought rap was dying out, think again. A new generation has the US in its grip.
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The Independent Culture
A year or two ago, rap music was in trouble. Tupac Shakur and Notorious BIG were dead, Death Row Records, home to the baddest gangstas, was in chaos and the music seemed to have outlived its usefulness. Critics dismissed it, radio programmers played anything else, and many assumed it would go back to where it started in the urban underground two decades ago.

Not so now. Despite death, violence and misogyny, the influence of rap and its black urban counterparts on music and fashion is more pervasive than ever and, in the US, it has become the near-dominant force on the sales charts.

An influx of new rappers whose names are not yet as common as Puff Daddy - Master P, Missy Elliott, DMX, Silkk the Shocker, C-Murder, Canibus, Timbaland & Magoo and Notorious BIG's 400lb heir-apparent Big Punisher - have pushed rap sales up almost a third over the past year to around $2bn (pounds 1.26bn), about 15 per cent of total US sales.

On the charts, rap singles and albums dominate and soon-to-be released albums by Snoop Doggy Dogg, Timbaland and the Wu-Tang Clan's Ghostface Killah, look certain to continue the run. Many record executives talk of an explosion of talent not seen since rock's infancy.

"With a few exceptions in rock music today, most of the spirit that we all felt in the mid-Sixties and early Seventies from rock'n'roll is now being delivered by young hip-hop artists and producers," said Jimmy Iovine, head of Interscope Records and producer of John Lennon and U2, recently. "So it's only natural that audiences are responding. We have seen a fundamental shift in the direction of popular music."

If there is any one label that has managed to emulate the success of Death Row of a few years back, it is Master P's New Orleans-based No Limit Records, which has sold more than 20 million albums and is churning out hits in the hard-core style favoured by Eighties gangsta rappers NWA and Snoop. Mostly, he signs his family and friends - Master P's younger brothers are C-Murder and Silkk the Shocker.

"I just make stuff that the average person can relate to," explains Master P, who is now so busy that he has stopped making records himself. "It's not about specific 'hoods, which is what so many other rappers have done. It's universal, 'cause I've seen life from both sides, and I've seen what's gone on in lots of different communities."

Despite all the fuss made by anti-rap crusaders, who found the lyrical content of the music unpalatable and put the record companies under pressure from shareholders to tone down their fare, violence and misogyny sells better than ever. No Limit's DMX, whose debut album It's Dark and Hell is Hot went in at No 1 on the pop album chart, is the thuggish bad seed following in the tradition of Tupac Shakur.

Last month, DMX, whose real name is Earl Simmons, was arrested for allegedly raping a woman he met at a New York strip club. If this is true, DMX is simply walking in the shoes of his dead forebears - he rapped about it in a song beforehand: "If you got a daughter older than 15, I'm a [gonna] rape her/Take her on the living-room floor, right there in fronta you/Then ask you seriously, `What you wanna do?' "

Wu-Tang Clan's Ol' Dirty Bastard is also keeping the faith and getting into trouble: there is a warrant out for his arrest on shoplifting charges just a month after he was shot and wounded in an apparent robbery attempt at his home.

Record companies may have established committees to vet their rappers for lyrical content, but they have found it hard to balance social responsibility with record sales - especially when the DMX and his kin match the popular taste. Moreover, if rap once struggled to find acceptance with white record buyers, suburban white teenagers are now its principle market. According to a recent survey, two-thirds of all rap music last year was purchased by white consumers, half of it by under 18s.

In point of fact, the Beastie Boys' new album Hello Nasty sold 700,000 copies in its first week - the fastest-selling record of the year to date. If one excluded Master P and the rest of the hard-core rappers, rap is still a powerful sales forces and whether it's Busta Rhymes hawking Mountain Dew on highway billboards or Warren Beatty donning gold chains and a knitted cap in "Bulworth", rap has completely infiltrated American media.

A recent LA Times article stated simply that "rap's influence is so pervasive that it has emerged as the first musical style since the Fifties to truly rival rock 'n' roll as the primary music of choice for American youth culture".

In fact, much of the growth in urban music has come at the expense of rock music, according to industry watchers. "White boys with guitars are in a very bad situation, they're unpopular, even MTV has gotten rid of them," says Julia Chaplin, music news editor at Spin magazine. "Their only hope, unless they're like Pearl Jam, is to get themselves some turntables and samplers."

Moreover, the rules of urban music have changed and rap is no longer exclusive to those of a non-gangsta persuasion. There are the girls (Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliott, Li'l Kim, Foxy Brown, Mia X), intellectual rappers (Canibus), arty experimentalists (The Lyricists Lounge), big-cock lover men (Method Man, Maze), social issue addressers (Wyclef Jean), and single- minded party men (such as Busta Rhymes).

Geographically, the business has shifted too. New York and LA have given way to Atlanta, Houston and New Orleans as its creative centre and, according to Chaplin, are taking over from Puffy Combs' New York-based domination. "This southern slow-jam stuff is taking the stage. Puffy is still going but there is only so much of it you can take. Plus he hasn't done anything new in a while," she says.

"Before grunge came along, rap was the top-selling thing and with grunge everybody said rap was on the way out and there was really a dry spell.

"Cobain was talking about his pain and all these other guys were talking about blowing heads off. Then Puffy came out and pretty much changed everything with a much more mellow sound.

"That opened the door for a lot of black entrepreneur labels from the south and that's where it's headed now - much more mellow and radio friendly. Every record label in the country is beefing up its urban music division."

But whether or not black urban music transplants rock as young America's dominant musical form, everybody sees a bright future. Russell Simmons, the impresario who released the first records by LL Cool J, RUN-DMC and Beastie Boys in the Eighties, finds that rap's early vision has been vindicated.

"Twenty years ago, they asked me if rap had a future, because people thought it was a joke," he says. "But the idea that it's a novelty is over. We haven't sold out to become mainstream - the mainstream has come to us.

"The great thing is, the old folks still think of it as dangerous, which only makes it more appealing to youth culture. As long as we continue to meet resistance from the cultural gatekeepers, rap will survive."