Hip-hop’s rap sheet

Hip-hop artists seem to spend more time these days in courts than in the recording studios. It’s almost as if rappers, in particular, have jumped from the Billboard charts to the most-wanted lists.

Jay-Z was arrested early Friday, outside a Manhattan nightclub, on a charge of illegal gun possession. He also is scheduled to appear in court on Monday on charges that he allegedly stabbed a music industry executive in December 1999.

The Jay-Z arrest is one of many recently involving hip-hop artists and rap sheets. The media closely followed this year’s courtroom appearances by Sean “Puffy” Combs and Eminem.

Since the 1996 murder of Tupac Shakur and the 1997 death of Notorious B.I.G., rappers – in particular gangsta rappers – have battled against those who blame the music for the daily violence acted out on America’s inner-city streets. Guns, violence and demeaning images of women are seen as rap’s calling cards. The artists who make the newspapers do so for their actions and lifestyles far more often than for their music.

Making Headlines

According to USA Today, Jay-Z, whose real name is Shawn Carter, was arrested when police allegedly found a loaded gun found inside his vehicle. The rapper and three other men were scheduled for arraignment later Friday.

“We believe that the evidence in this case will show Jay-Z to be not guilty. We expect a quick resolution,” Jay-Z’s lawyer, Robert Kalina, said in a statement released Friday, according to MTV.com. “I would like to point out that numerous other celebrities have often used armed security guards.”

Eminem was sentenced on Tuesday to two years’ probation for carrying a concealed weapon and fined $2,500. He also will have to undergo counseling, submit to drug testing and ask the court for permission to travel overseas.

In March, Sean “Puffy” Combs, who now wants to be known as P. Diddy, was acquitted of charges of illegal gun possession and bribery, bringing to an end a 15-month ordeal that began after a shooting in a New York nightclub. Combs could have faced up to 15 years in prison.

Hip-hopster DMX was arrested in March 2000 for allegedly driving with a suspended permit and possessing marijuana. DMX, who did not surrender until after February’s Grammy Awards, pleaded guilty two weeks after his arrest. DMX received the maximum 15-day jail term and a $400 fine.

Rapper Lil’Kim has denied reports that she and her entourage were involved in a March shootout outside hip-hop radio station Hot 97 WQHT. Capone-N-Noreaga, another group present at the radio station’s event, is believed to be involved in a dispute with Lil’ Kim, according to the New York Times.

Detectives have attempted to question Lil’ Kim and Capone, but the artists and their representatives are “not being cooperative,” MTV.com reported. Both rappers have denied their involvement in the incident.

“The media loves to make hip-hop music look bad,” said Quest, the founder and chief executive officer of UndergroundHipHop.com. “[They are] trying to portray a lifestyle that doesn’t exist.”

The media has trouble understanding hip-hop, he says, so it wants to suppress the music genre.

“They want to hope it’s a phase that will go away since it’s rebellious music,” he said.

“A lot of times hip-hop is under the media microscope,” said Charles Tremblay, sales manager for New York-based Rawkus Records. “They [musicians] are seen as guilty before innocent.”

Exploring Rap’s Roots

The world of rap music is a complex one. It is a part of inner-city culture, though it is swiftly making its way into the mainstream. It is about freedom of expression and, as originally conceived, was an alternative to physical violence. Consider the age-old tradition of “playing the dozens” from which rap music derives. “Dozens” was a way of taunting another person, a kind of back-and-forth exchange of insults involving humor and personality rather than real malice.

In rap’s infancy, the “dozens” mentality was evident: rappers went to war on their microphones, debating who had the best record, song, rap or rhythm. Sometimes the exchanges went on over several songs, and many were quite public, such as the heated lyrical exchange in 1998 between L.L. Cool J and Canibus.

Quest described 1997’s brand of hip-hop as “happy hip-hop,” citing such performers as Puff Daddy and Mace, who sang about nonviolent topics.

But as the genre has evolved, the conflicts seem to have moved out of the musical and into the physical, with various rap stars finding themselves in trouble with the law.

Debating the Culture of Violence

And so the debate begins. The music causes the violence, some say, while others claim the music simply expresses the violence. This kind of chicken-and-egg argument surrounds rap music even at the best of times, and when the violence hits the news, the pundits begin their speeches and analyses.

“Rap music is a part of the inner-city culture…. You can’t separate it,” S.H. Fernando, CEO of Word Sound Records and freelance writer for Vibe magazine, said.

He sees rap artists as the troubadours of inner-city life.

“Rappers are writers, poets, and their music is a form of expression,” he said.

Fernando and others see the violence expressed by rap music as coming from the inside, from a way of life, and heading out into the world. Others, though, see outside influences creating the violence in the music.

“I don’t feel hip-hop is violent,” Quest says. “Violence in hip-hop has to do with economic repression.”

Hip hop is a reflection of culture and also a definition of culture, said Devaron, producer for the North Carolina-based Nebulous Entertainment and owner of hip-hop music Web site beatvault.com.

There is violence in film and on television, but music in violence generates more of a public outcry, he said.

“People look at it [violence] like a thorn when it’s all around us,” he said.

Creating Shock Value

Twenty-first century rap seems to strive for shock, going beyond both the political and the personal to question some of the deepest held American values. Eminem, the blond-haired bad boy from Detroit, perhaps personifies the shock value of today’s rap. Eminem’s critics condemn his lyrics as violent, homophobic and misogynistic. His own comments on public reaction to his work indicate that he doesn’t seem to think the public “got it.”

“[The Marshall Mathers LP] had a lot of criticism when it came out,” he said in an interview with CDNow. “A lot of people didn’t get me, didn’t really get what I was trying to do. They didn’t get the joke, I guess.”

Hip-Hop Sells

Controversy over violent rap lyrics inevitably increases record sales, Fernando insists. Sometimes, the smallest incident will bring a musician to stardom.

Eminem, for example, entered Billboard Charts at No. 2 with his debut record, The Slim Shady LP, in March 1999. The album went platinum four times and won two Grammy awards, including Best Rap Album. On May 23, The Marshall Mathers LP debuted at No. 1 on Billboard charts. The album sold four million copies in the five weeks following its release and is now eight times platinum.

And who are those fans, the ones buying the Eminem albums, the ones responding to the controversial press? According to Quest, teens between the ages of 14 and 15 years old are the target demographic.

“People at that age are rebellious and angry, they are going through puberty,” he said. “They will play music that they know their parents are going to dislike it.”

Devaron said he believes that the reality of hip-hop is being distorted. Rap music is corporate, no longer taking importance to what the rap artist has to say, he said

Still, music will always be a reflection of society, he said.

“Hip hop will never go anywhere,” Devaron said. “It’s a voice of the voiceless and it can only metamorphose from here.”