Big, bad, and now buff like baseball slugger Barry Bonds.
Hip-hop stars, cultural icons for youth around the world, have now been linked to steroid use.
Some of the biggest names in rap -- Mary J. Blige, 50 Cent, Timbaland and Wyclef Jean -- may have used performance-enhancing drugs, according to an ongoing investigation that was launched two years ago by the Albany, N.Y., district attorney's office. The names of the rap stars appeared in a story in the Albany Times Union that the DA has refused to confirm.
Few would say hip-hop stars -- with their music personas of drugs, violence and misogyny -- are getting a bad rap. But those familiar with the culture say steroid use is more about beauty and album sales than strength and endurance.
LL Cool J's six pack sells.
"As they approach 40, they are wondering how they can stay relevant. It's like Botox or plastic surgery," said David Canton, who teaches a class on the history of hip-hop culture at Connecticut College. "Rappers are part of American society, and it's a young person's industry."
R & B singer Mary J. Bilge is 37; rappers Timbaland and Jean are 36. Other image-conscious singers who haven't been connected to steriods are also aging: mega-muscular LL Cool J turned 40 this week, and record producer Dr. Dre is 43.
"They're getting older," Canton said. "Baseball players are doing it. Why not take a little. It makes a difference when you come back with an album and you look a particular way. It boosts sales."
The Albany DA's office said it was "not confirming, denying or discussing" any of the celebrities. Their names were reportedly found on customer lists, Internet prescriptions and credit card records at a Florida pharmacy known for illicit Internet sales, according to the Albany newspaper.
None of the celebrities has been charged with breaking the law. Although it is illegal to possess steroids without a prescription in the United States, police can only charge a person caught red-handed, according to Orth.
"Our investigation has never focused on the user," said DA spokeswoman Heather Orth. "Our philosophy is if they are using drugs they have a problem and have to deal with the issue. We go after the source."
Muscle Mass in Women, Too
Anabolic steroids are synthesized male sex hormones that promote muscle mass -- in both men and women. When prescribed legally, medical steroids are used to treat growth problems in children, anemia and chronic infections like HIV.
Listed as a Schedule III substance along with morphine, opium and barbiturates, they can be just as psychologically addictive and dangerous, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Agency.
The New York probe has focused on Signature Pharmacy in Orlando, Fla., a "compounding" facility that "flies under the radar" of law enforcement and has a "lot of leeway" in modifying drugs and selling them online, said Orth.
So far, 24 have been charged in the Albany probe and 10 have pleaded guilty. Last year, the investigation yielded the names of several New York City police officers. Professional athletes have also been linked but not charged, including Met relief pitcher Scott Schoeneweis and St. Louis Cardinal slugger Rick Ankiel, according to published reports.
Internet blogs have been buzzing with speculation about the rappers. A month-old video on YouTube asks, "Did they go to the gym or are they on steroids?"
A spokesman for Blige, who has reputedly used the human growth hormone jentropin and ocandrolone, denied the singer had taken steroids, according to Associated Press reports. Other entertainers were not available for comment.
Hip-hop historian Canton said he is not surprised that the baggy pants set is beefing up, especially those creeping toward 40.
"I've heard rumors," he said. "The last time I saw Timbaland [in 2002], he looked overweight. But when I saw him last year on an award show, he was all muscled. A flag goes up. You put two and two together."
Today's rap -- like the rest of American culture -- deifies the perfect body. "I changed the game, I got 'em doing stomach crunches," rapped LL Cool J. His last three album covers show him shirtless.
"This reflects society's obsession with body types," said Canton. "LL Cool J always had a physique that was popular with female consumers. There is a relationship between his body type and buying albums."
Canton cites Oprah's obsession with weight loss and the popularity of shows like Tyra Banks' "America's Next Top Model."
"Hollywood looks a particular way and rap artists are just getting into that," he said.
"Mary Bilge is getting older," said Canton. "She just came out with an album, and it's hard to maintain that look. It's a full-time job staying in shape. Dr. Dre and Busta Rhymes have added muscles as well. Timbaland said he had lot of self-doubt when he started out. Going to the gym and lifting weights became an obsession."
But, said Canton, the hip-hop culture and its role models wield great influence among the young, "without a doubt."
While rappers may not be "great respecters of the law," they do not have as much influence as is popularly imagined, according to developmental psychologist Jeffrey Arnett.
"Any time something like this gets in the news, it makes steroid use seem more acceptable because it's happening among people they admire, and it is going to make it more likely among youth," said Arnett, who teaches at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.
"But I'm also a skeptic about that simple equation between media influence and adolescent behavior," he said. "They [rappers] do lots of things that kids don't end up doing."
While rap has been popular for 15 years popularizing the "gangsta" culture, there is no evidence it inspires violence, according to Arnett, who said the national crime rate among adolescents has actually gone down.
Young children may be vulnerable to media images, but teens "are not easily manipulated," according to Arnett. "They know the difference between entertainment and reality."
"You can listen to these gangster rappers talk about their gun rights and drug use and how they treat women, but maybe you just like the beat."