Thug Life or Tame? Rappers Stray From the Street

Auburn added, "Snoop gets props for life. I can't think of what he would have to do to get his pass revoked. When gangsta rap started to blow up in the mainstream, he was sort of the symbol for that. He was the icon. ... The rules are different now. He can act silly on TV and it's OK."

Add to that the fact that many young hip-hop listeners don't know or care how today's rap icons rose from the streets to stardom. That allows rappers to cultivate multiple personas. While the shady parts of their past are a point of pride in their rhymes, they're quick to hide them when it comes to mainstream endorsements. 50 Cent hawks Vitamin Water now; how many of his young fans know his feel-good product of choice used to be coke?

"I have two teenagers and their recognition of Ice Cube is from the 'Barbershop' movies, not rapping," said Gail Mitchell, Billboard's senior R&B correspondent. "There's a whole generation out there that doesn't know what people like Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Snoop brought to the table."

To be sure, there's a whole class of rappers more interested in rhyming than getting rich. Notably Nas, who promoted the release of his latest album by joining a group of protesters in front of Fox News' New York headquarters.

But rap and pop culture partnerships are only going to grow. Sure, Lil' Wayne sold a million copies of "The Carter III" in one week, thus far the largest first week sales for any album in 2008, but that type of success isn't common in any segment of the music industry these days. If they want to make bank, rappers must look outside the hip-hop sphere; if the rest of the world is looking to tap growing middle-class markets in India and Asia, why not them too?

"In terms of livelihood, it's all about being able to get into the mainstream. It's not like the old days where you can rely on a recording career," Mitchell said. "You've got to reach as broad of an audience as you can and India -- that's a pretty broad audience."

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