April 22, 2005 — -- From Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to Alice Cooper, musicians have long tried to project a "bad boy" image, often to help pique public interest in their music. But what's going on these days in the world of rap music -- and its surrounding culture, known as hip-hop -- is really something else.
The very first rap record -- 1979's "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugar Hill Gang -- was a revelatory paean to fun and equality -- with even a dash of patriotism. But here's the new message of rap and hip-hop, courtesy of the top-selling artist Curtis Jackson, also known as 50 Cent: "I put a hole in a n---- for f---ing with me / Better watch how you talk, when you talk about me / 'cause I'll come and take your life away."
It's telling that Jackson chose the moniker 50 Cent to pay homage to Kelvin Martin -- a legendary Brooklyn stick-up kid from the 1980s, who is believed to have committed more than 30 murders and was also known as "50 Cent." This outlaw quality is not just an image from a music video on MTV or BET -- it has, in some cases, become a reality.
Clearly, something has changed in the world of hip-hop in the last 26 years.
Enter the Rev. Al Sharpton, former presidential candidate and civil rights activist. He is now leading a crusade against what he sees as an increase in violent criminal acts that are becoming hip-hop's major selling point. "We must do something about this pattern of violence that is then used to promote product and records," Sharpton told ABC News. "I think that that is the wrong signal to send to young Americans."
Sharpton says that record companies and radio stations often glamorize criminality and promote the feuds -- sometimes with bloody consequences. He wants to hold the hip-hop industry accountable. "They ought to announce a 90-day ban on any artist who's found to engage in violence or allow those around him to engage in violence for the purpose of some kind of disagreement in the industry," Sharpton said.
Sharpton says if the government can get involved with steroids in baseball or obscenity in broadcasting, it should certainly involve itself when the marketing and promotion of hip-hop on the public airwaves results in violence.
Both the Lil' Kim and 50 Cent shootings happened at Hot 97, New York City's No. 1 hip-hop radio station. Artists often come to the station, where they are encouraged to publicly knock their rivals. On Feb. 28, 50 Cent was pressed over and over about his faltering relationship with his labelmate and former protégé Game.
"Every record that he's selling is based on me being on his record with him," 50 Cent said.
"Was there a point when you felt he was being ungrateful about this?" asked the Hot 97 host.
"Yeah!" said 50 Cent. "That's why it bugged me out. I think he has a problem with my position. I think he'd like to be 50 Cent, like the head of the situation."
Immediately after the interview, bullets started flying outside the record station's offices, and a member of Game's entourage was wounded.
It was only a few days later that 50 Cent's new album from Interscope "The Massacre" was released, selling 1.1 million copies in a mere five days and earning the distinction of the second-best opening week in the history of hip-hop, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Soon afterward, he and Game called a truce and donated $250,000 to the Boys Choir of Harlem. Some wondered if the whole thing had been a publicity stunt.
"Some of this is hype, and some of it is not," New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly told ABC News. "You know, cutting through just what is and what isn't is not that easy." However, Kelly said, this case was not confusing. "Our detectives think that this shooting was real. Fifteen minutes later, there was apparently a retaliatory shooting at another record company location."
Talk show host Wendy Williams, a former Hot 97 employee who now works at WBLS in New York City, suggests that her former employers may instigate feuds and even may be delighted when they lead to violence. Executives from Hot 97 declined to speak with "Nightline." But insiders say it is not just the radio stations that stand to gain from violence in hip-hop; it's also the major corporate-owned record labels.
"Interscope by itself is by far the largest hip-hop record company," notes David Mays, CEO of The Source, a magazine dedicated to hip-hop. "The argument can be made that they [Interscope officials] have an interest in this violence taking place and they've done nothing to date to take any positive action to try to address the issue."
Interscope officials also declined an interview.
Hip-hop mogul Damon Dash -- former CEO of Roc-a-Fella Records and current CEO of Damon Dash Music Group -- says that hip-hop is being unfairly scrutinized. "We're under the microscope so much, anytime something negative happens from anybody within the hip-hop demographic or culture, it's automatically blamed on the music," Dash told ABC News.
Dash also argued that some criminal activity -- and some unfair law enforcement scrutiny -- comes because "a lot of people that are successful in hip-hop are definitely coming from a very extreme circumstance."
But Sharpton isn't having it. "They can't use that excuse to me," Sharpton says. "I come out of the same 'hood. I come out the same kind of background, which is why I know we don't need this perpetuated. We need this to be dealt with."
Corey Miller raps under the name "C-Murder." Miller's new album, released last month, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard independent charts and was in the Top 5 on the Billboard R&B/hip-hop and rap charts. It's a feat made all the more remarkable by the fact that Miller recorded parts of the album and some of a video from inside the Jefferson Parish jail in Louisiana, serving a life sentence with no chance of parole for killing a 16-year-old at a nightclub.
Miller insists he is not glorifying criminality. So what does the lyric mean when he brags of doing things "you never heard-a?"
"Well for the fact that me doing this album in jail and doing my video," Miller told ABC News in a phone interview. "Just outstanding things, I mean as a black man, that a lot of people wouldn't be able to do or wouldn't even think about doing."
Why does the jewel box sticker of his album say "behind bars, still thuggin'?"
"It means I'm behind bars and I'm not changing who I am as a person," Miller said. "'Thuggin' to me means that I'm standing my ground and being the person I am."
What's perhaps most jarring about Miller's album is how accepted it is within the current climate of hip-hop to have a convicted murderer releasing albums from jail.
The revolving door between hip-hop and the criminal justice system is nothing new. In 1997, the founder of Death Row records, Marion "Suge" Knight, was sentenced to nine years in prison. Rap superstar Tupac Shakur also served time before being killed in 1996.
Even hip-hop mogul Sean "P Diddy" Combs -- with his fancy upscale clothing line and relatively benign lyrics that are the epitome of how mainstream rap and hip-hop have become -- has not been able to escape the violence that plagues the world of hip-hop. At a New York City nightclub six years ago, after a patron insulted Combs, a member of his entourage -- Jamal "Shyne" Barrow -- pulled a gun and fired into the crowd. From the prison where he is currently serving a 10-year sentence, Shyne recently signed a $3 million record contract with the Island Def Jam label, part of Universal.
And being in jail on weapons charges has not stopped Beanie Sigel's new album -- from Damon Dash Music Group -- from debuting at No. 3 on the Billboard charts.
It's a guilty pleasure, admits talk radio host Williams, who says that you cannot take the 'hood out of hip-hop. "Hip-hop is not necessarily from a household where said child goes off to Cornell and becomes a rapper," she said. "If that's the case then you'll have all hip-hop music sound like Will Smith. I'm from the suburbs, I'm raising a son, I don't want to hear happy rap. Isn't that terrible? But it's true."
"The blueprint now is an image that promotes all of the worst aspects of violent and anti-social behavior," said Source editor Mays. "It takes those real issues of violent life that occur in our inner cities, it takes them out of context."
Attorney Londell McMillan, who represents Lil' Kim and many other hip-hop performers, says the record labels and radio stations push the artists toward a more violent image. "They all seek to do things that are extraordinary," he said, "unfortunately it's been extraordinarily in the pain of a people. They are often encouraged to take a certain kind of approach to the art form."
Added NYPD Commissioner Kelly, "Whereas some of the other violence was sort of attendant to the business itself, now I think they're trying to exploit it and make money off of it."
But C-Murder says if he projected a more benign image his career would be over. "I wouldn't sell a record because my fans would know that's not me," he said. "They don't expect me to just sit in that booth and write about stuff that the news or the media want to hear about."
Record executive Dash adds there is a double standard between predominantly black and predominantly white music. "I remember Woodstock Part II was a mess," Dash said, referring to the 1999 rock 'n' roll concert festival that exploded in a mass of riots and rapes. But, Dash said, "nothing more about it than that" transpired. "There wasn't any new laws, there wasn't any investigations. It just was."
Dash insists that Sigel's time in prison is being used to show the consequences of his criminal acts. While Sigel is in prison, Dash is supervising his clothing line, "State Property" -- named after clothing given to prisoners.
Sharpton says what media giants are doing to market hip-hop is causing nothing short of a crisis. A few weeks ago, he met with three commissioners at the Federal Communications Commission and urged them to join his campaign.
"This is the same FCC that affected a national election around the exposure of Janet Jackson's breast, that may have offended some Americans, but didn't hurt anybody," Sharpton said. "But [with] actual bloodshed there's been no response." Broadcasting experts caution that Sharpton's proposal raises all sorts of First Amendment issues.
Finally, as a sign of just how heated matters can proceed in the high-stakes world of hip-hop riches and reputations, Williams reports that after her initial interview by ABC News, she received a rather ominous phone call "from an acquaintance at a record label who, after finding out I participated in this piece here, suggested that I not continue because it would not be good for my physical well-being."
Talesha Reynolds, Courtney King and Henry Navas contributed to this report.