Even though rap moguls Irving and Christopher Lorenzo -- the heads of the music label once known as Murder Inc. -- have been acquitted in a money-laundering trial, hip-hop still may not beat the rap on its often-troubled image.
"As a whole, I don't think the trial will do much to change the public's perception of rap and hip-hop," said Murray Forman, professor of communications and cultural studies at Northeastern University in Boston. "For those who are not part of that community, who do not follow it closely, it will secure the image they have in their imagination. For them, it will reaffirm some of the pre-existing notions they already had."
A federal jury decided Friday that the Lorenzo brothers -- known professionally as Irv and Chris Gotti, in homage to the Gambino crime family -- were not guilty of racketeering. Prosecutors argued that the brothers' nom de guerre went beyond mere entertainment. They alleged that the Lorenzos knowingly laundered more than $1 million for convicted druglord Kenneth "Supreme" McGriff in the 1990s and used part of the money to help build Murder Inc., which boasts hip-hop stars such as Ashanti and Ja Rule.
In exchange for the brothers' money-laundering services, prosecutors said McGriff -- who is also suspected of being involved in an alleged plot against rapper 50 Cent in 2000 -- provided them with protection.
McGriff, the prosecution said, presented himself as a music-industry executive, and relied on the Lorenzos to pay for limos and stays at luxurious hotels.
"All of it was a fraud," Assistant U.S. Attorney Sean Haran said. "He wasn't a music executive. He was a drug dealer, and they [Irving and Christopher Lorenzo] knew it."
The brothers' defense conceded that they had an association with McGriff and that it gave them "a certain street credibility" in the hip-hop world. However, the brothers say there was nothing illegal about their relationship with McGriff.
"There's nothing illegal about knowing a criminal, about socializing with a criminal, even doing business with a criminal, unless you commit a crime," defense attorney Gerald Shargel said. "Irv and Chris Lorenzo committed no crime."
If convicted, the two men would have faced up to 20 years in prison and the possible forfeiture of millions.
Defense attorneys argue the Lorenzo brothers are victims of guilt by association. But perhaps they have also been victims of guilt by image.
They didn't shy away from the gangsta rap image. Besides adopting the Gotti stage name, they called their music label Murder Inc. before renaming it "The Inc." earlier this year because of what they perceived as an image problem.
"It's easy to say that Irv and Chris Gotti brought this on themselves. It's too easy to say that," said Erik Parker, music editor of Vibe magazine. "But that shouldn't have any impact on their guilt or innocence. One shouldn't have any bearing on the other. One should be able to name their music label whatever they want and take whatever name they want to take."
However, fair or not, the persona a rapper or hip-hop artist chooses to adopt -- and the image he wishes to put forward -- may come at a price. The casual fan -- and the less-than-casual observer -- may associate rappers with rap sheets. The list of stars who have generated headlines over the years with their legal troubles instead of hit CDs reads like a "Who's Who in Hip-hop."