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.
Guilt By Association, Guilt By Image
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."
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.
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.