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Record chiefs silent as debate grows over rap lyrics

SATURDAY, MAY 12, 2007

NEW YORK — Facing fierce criticism of sexist and depraved rap lyrics, top music industry executives planned a private meeting. They would discuss the issue, they said, and “announce initiatives” at a press conference afterward.

That was three weeks ago. The press conference was canceled, without explanation. And ever since, music’s gatekeepers have been silent.

Leaders of the four major record companies, which control nearly 90 percent of the market, may fear cracking the door to censorship. Others say the record chiefs are “scared to death” of further damaging sales in an industry already hobbled by digital downloading — or that they choose to remain in the shadows rather than protect “indefensible” lyrics.

Or perhaps they are leery of stepping into a racial minefield: While black rap artists recite those lyrics, the top execs are white — like the man who ignited the controversy, radio host Don Imus, fired for describing a women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos.”

“They want this whole thing to go away and keep doing what they’ve been doing, which is selling records,” said Don Gorder, chair of the Music Business/Management Department at the Berklee College of Music.

While music industry leaders remain reticent, others are reacting very publicly:

Ebony magazine pulled the rapper Ludacris from its June cover. Verizon dropped pitchman Akon after video surfaced of the singer simulating sex with an underage fan on stage. Chart-topper Chamillionaire says his new CD contains no curses or n-words. Percy “Master P” Miller, founder of No Limit Records, whose son Romeo also is a recording artist, says he’s starting a new label for “street music without offensive lyrics.”

“I was once part of the problem and now it’s time to be part of the solution,” Miller, whose gangsta raps once sold millions of albums but have been met with indifference lately, told “I am ready to take a stand by cleaning up my music and follow my son’s footsteps and make a clean rap album.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton, who protested outside major record labels last week, is planning to lead busloads of protesters to music executives’ homes in the Hamptons over Memorial Day weekend.

“It’s indefensible,” Sharpton said of why the record executives keep silent. “They’re hoping it’ll go away. We’re not going anywhere. We plan to continue to march until those three words are gone, until those four companies agree in some way that the use of the words “nigga,” “ho,” and “bitch” should be beneath our standards.”

Sharpton met recently with executives from Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group Corp. and Sony BMG Music Entertainment, who “expressed different measures of concern” but made no commitments, he said. The four major recording companies account for close to 90 percent of U.S. music sales through traditional distribution channels, said Jerry Goolsby, who holds a chair in music industry studies at Loyola University, adding that it’s difficult for the industry to track sales in the emerging digital landscape.

Sharpton said there seems to be a double standard when it came to controversial lyrics. In the 1990s, the songs “They Don’t Care About Us” by Michael Jackson (which included terms like “Jew me” and “kike me”) and “Cop Killer” by rapper-turned actor Ice T drew a strong response from the industry. Jackson was even forced to re-record his song.

“I didn’t hear any of these guys jumping up talking about free speech when Michael’s record came out,” Sharpton said. “But you can talk about blacks and women? Why is it “nigger,” “ho” and “bitch” is below our standard? You can’t have it where blacks are the only ones in America where there’s no standards.”

Some in the music industry, such as Russell Simmons, one of hip-hop culture’s chief architects, have defended rappers’ free-speech rights. Simmons, who got rich by co-founding and then selling the seminal Def Jam label, recently called for the three words at the center of the debate to be treated the same as extreme profanities and consistently blanked out of “clean” and radio versions of songs.


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