New York Hip-hop Summit Draws Stars

NEW YORK ( — A strikingly subdued group of rappers is meeting with politicians this week to tackle hip-hop's often controversial image in the media.

For the rappers, the ongoing Hip-Hop Summit at the New York Hilton Hotel offers a chance to voice their opinions about the industry — and enjoy a reunion.

Rap legends Naughty by Nature and 2 Live Crew mingled with hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and up-and-coming rappers including Talib Kweli during Tuesday's opening session. Today's speakers were to include Queen Latifah and Sean Combs (a k a Puff Daddy, P. Diddy, etc.), and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan was slated to deliver the keynote address.

"I think it's going very well," said Simmons, the founder of Def Jam Records and the summit's organizer. "We're here also to celebrate and know our power, and how influential we are … to build on what we have."

What they have is one of the most profitable arms of the music industry. Yet like their rock-star predecessors, the flamboyant personalities topping the charts continue to find their lyrics debated in Washington, D.C.

Just last week, the Federal Communications Commission fined a Colorado radio station $7,000 for playing Eminem's "The Real Slim Shady." The station said it thought the song it played was a clean version of the track, but the FCC still deemed the version indecent.

Typically Divided Hip-hop Community Unites

Politicians, religious leaders, and the musicians are meeting largely behind closed doors. When they wrap up Thursday, they hope to have a unified plan for the industry as it moves forward.

Members of the NAACP and rapper Chuck D were among the first speakers to take the mic in the opening session. Chuck D focused on marketing, accusing record labels and the media of "narrowcasting" — preventing a diverse range of hip-hop artists from getting airplay and attention.

Rising star Kweli said outside the meetings that the three-day seminar brings together a community that is often divided by feuds among its musicians.

"It's a good, positive direction, it's good that the people involved in hip-hop are the ones that are taking responsibility," said Kweli.

Prime on his mind, and on most of the artists', is freedom of speech.

"I've been fighting this battle for about 12 years now," said 2 Live Crew originator Luther Campbell. "It's good that everybody is now collectively trying to get together to understand what the actual issue is. And what the political issues are."

Black Artists Targeted?

Campbell was among the first rappers to put a warning label voluntarily on one of his albums. He says he's at the conference to voice concerns over "open" attempts at censorship in Washington, D.C.

He said he's concerned by efforts spearheaded by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., to crack down on record labels, movie studios, and others in the entertainment industry who market violent or sexually explicit material to kids.

"Our own is attacking us," Campbell said of the former Democratic vice-presidential nominee. "It's not Bush, it's not the Republicans, who are known as being right-wing, anal people … so it's kind of weird."

He feels that politicians are especially targeting black artists.

"Before it was just music; now it's the entire black music industry, it's the entire black movie industry," Campbell said.

"Most artists are really spilling the beans on the politicians [in their works]. They're saying the struggles that we go through every day in dealing with the police, they're saying the struggles we have to deal with just being black in the United States of America — a lot of politicians don't like that."

He's not knocking parents' concerns about the potential impact of lyrics. He says parents should learn what their kids are playing in their rooms. "Parents should definitely be concerned. I'm a parent myself — that's why I put the [warning label] sticker on there," said Campbell.

Kweli agreed that many rappers feel parental concerns.

"I'm a parent and I would say the vast majority of hip-hop artists are parents, so when you talk about parents, you're also talking about hip-hop artists. I know there are artists who I listen to who I would never play around my kids," he said.

Politicians Say Industry Must Self-Regulate

The summit also drew politicians, including Democratic Reps. Cynthia A. McKinney of Georgia, Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, and Earl Hilliard of Alabama. FCC Chairman Michael Powell is also slated to attend.

"We're here to ask the industry to set up standards so it can regulate itself, so it can police itself. This would be in line with what the movie industry has done," Hilliard said.

He suggested that rappers might prefer to rate their own content before the government does it for them, as proposed under a Senate initiative.

"Since we do not know the hip-hop generation, we do not know the hip-hop industry; we feel that those who know the industry can regulate it better," Hilliard said.

Rapper Treach of the Grammy-winning group Naughty by Nature agrees that artists should be in charge of their lyrics.

"We created this whole culture, so we have a right to control it," he said.

But don't expect Def Jam's Simmons to encourage rappers to change their words. "We absolutely are not trying to clean up anything," he said.

And, he jokes, this is just the beginning: "Eminem's records are fun, but there's much scarier records we want to make."