Why Rap Will Never Beat Its Bad Rep

Before departing Death Row Records and becoming a kinder, gentler pitchman for Sprint and other products, Snoop Dogg proudly spoke of his past notorious affiliation with the Crips and flashed gang signs in his videos. At the height of his superstardom, he went on trial and was acquitted of murder charges in the shooting death of an Ethiopian immigrant affiliated with a Los Angeles gang.

Death Row Records chief Marion "Suge" Knight has had repeated legal woes and was released from prison in 2001 after serving time for assault and weapons violations. Philadelphia rapper Cassidy faces murder charges for a shooting incident that left one dead and two people injured.

Today's best-selling rap artist, 50 Cent, has built a mini-empire on his violent past. Known for his graphically violent lyrics and surviving being shot nine times, he has used his street credibility to produce two hit CDs and a video game, and to star in the movie "Get Rich or Die Tryin.'" He is also producing a series of books.

Unfair Stigma

Still, despite rap and hip-hop's penchant for legal controversy, some observers say it is unfair to stigmatize all artists as criminals.

"There has been an association in the mainstream media between rap and hip-hop and crime and some of it is very real," said Parker of Vibe magazine. "Crime in rap gets spotlighted. But for the most part, it is an anomaly. Most of the artists are not involved [in] crime."

Some critics suggest that the media sometimes do not allow rap artists with ties to violence and crime to escape their past. When Johnny Cash was arrested for drug possession at El Paso International Airport in 1965, he wasn't known forevermore as "The Man With Drugs." He was the legendary "Man in Black." John McEnroe and Sean Penn were once known as "bad boys" -- McEnroe for his outbursts on the tennis court and Penn for his assaults on the paparazzi. But over time, they outgrew their images and their infamous exploits faded in the public's memory.

Perhaps 50 Cent's "Get Rich or Die Tryin" persona will also fade. But for now, his gangsta image sells.

"He's doing something that makes him look like some entrepreneurial, marketing genius," said Forman of Northeastern University. "But you never hear that. Instead, all we hear about is his getting shot [nine] times. And I don't think he's living the same kind of lifestyle he was when he was shot."

Rap Sheet Doesn't Mean Rap Sales

Still, neither crime -- nor a criminal record -- guarantees record sales.

Lil' Kim released "The Naked Truth" six days before she started serving her 366-day sentence for perjury, and the CD debuted at No. 6 on the Billboard charts in October with 110,000 copies sold. By the middle of this month, her CD exited Billboard's Top 100 after having sold only 250,000 copies. Rapper Jamal "Shyne" Barrow, who is serving a 10-year sentence for assault, released "Godfather Buried Alive" from prison to much fanfare in August 2004 and it opened at No. 2 on the Billboard music charts. However, by November 2004, the CD was knocked off Billboard's Top 200 sales list after selling only approximately 400,000 copies.

Relatively clean-cut rap star Kanye West has been a Grammy winner and a top seller since his 2004 debut "College Dropout." He hasn't generated headlines with arrests but with his music and post-Katrina tongue-lashing of President Bush. And LL Cool J, Will Smith and Queen Latifah have remained crossover stars without mug shots and shootings.

Though some critics say the trial of Irving and Christopher Lorenzo will not affect rap's image in the long or short term, the future of The Inc. hangs in the balance.

Despite the success of Ja Rule and Ashanti, the label has not produced as many hitmakers as once hoped. However, the acquittal means the Lorenzo brothers can continue running the label and not have to hand over millions to authorities. For now, The Inc. is still in business.

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