Sen. Bob Dole’s recent rap on rap music underlines the culture gap in that music genre: Politicians are getting worked up about music they’ve never listened to, while music execs are haughtily defending lyrics they don’t understand.
“I’d like to say I know every (street) reference for a penis or dope, but the fact is I don’t,” admitted a label legal eagle who reviews lyrical content for potential legal problems. “The A& R guys know our limitations. But under the guise of artistic freedom stuff often sneaks through the system.”
At a Hollywood fundraiser two weeks ago, Dole lamented the “mainstreaming of deviancy” in show business and singled out Time Warner, which has been the target of consumer and shareholder protests in the past over such rap offerings as “Cop Killer.”
In fact, record companies BMG, Thorn-EMI and Polygram all have larger shares of the rap market than Warner Music Group, primarily through their deals with independent labels that sport some of the genre’s more hardcore members.
All of TW’s competitors have a piece of the rap music pie – which is estimated at only 8% of the $12 billion annual recording industry.
Few labels make as much money in it as BMG, through the distribution of Jive Records and EMI, home to popular artists Da Lench Mob, Paris and Geto Boys.
Dangerous/Jive’s album “Cocktails,” from rapper Too Short, is widely considered among the most offensive in the genre, with its numerous sexual references and explicit tales of sexual prowess and exploits. Jive artist Spice 1 and Rap-A-Lot Records’ hardcore rapper Scarface both have cop killing fantasies on their discs, while many rap songs sport titles that refer to drugs, including marijuana, such as Method Man’s “Tical” and Channel Live’s “Mad Ism.”
Ice Cube – a founding member of rap groundbreakers N.W. A – fronts “Friday,” currently the hottest soundtrack in the U.S. The album is rife with veiled references to dope, sex and violence.
Ice Cube’s lyrics may seem inscrutable – “I’m flying all over town with my girl, half a chicken up her cock” – but rap devotees understand that the rapper is driving around with his girlfriend, who is smuggling a large quantity of cocaine.
Such rapspeak raises the question: are the label’s business affairs suits as tuned into the lyrics as the fans?
Warner Bros. is among the record companies with a system for lyric review, while labels such as Priority, Jive and Def Jam are seemingly less cautious.
By contrast with the veiled rap references, alternative rockers like Nine Inch Nails – who are distributed by Warner-affiliated Interscope Records – makes it easier to determine the meaning of lyrics.
“I am a big man (yes I am) And I like having a big gun. Got me a big old dick and I, I like to have fun,” are among the lyrics from the group’s “Big Man With a Gun” track.
But Interscope insiders say the company has parameters for lyrical content, and will refuse to release albums that advocate cop killing and other egregious acts of aggression.
Since Interscope has released albums by Snoop Doggy Dogg and Dr. Dre (whose title to his multiplatinum disc “The Chronic” refers to potent marijuana), it seems clear that the label has few qualms about releasing explosive material.
But record execs say it is unfair to judge lyrics taken out of context, since there may be a satirical meaning to the words or the delivery may affect their interpretation.
Copies of the lyrics to “Big Man With a Gun” were distributed to members of Time Warner’s board of directors last week by former education secretary and drug czar William Bennett and C. Delores Tucker, president of the National Political Congress of Black Women.
Tucker asserts the music industry is “destroying our society” and offers the eyebrow-raising view that “white executives who run the music business make these artists get down in the gutter and use pornography and profanity.”
Rap’s critics also seem to have ignored songs filled with sexual references offered by top 40 acts such as Columbia’s Ini Kamoze.
Time Warner chairman Gerald Levin has instructed his lieutenants to investigate ways to sticker albums that they hope will appease critics; however, sources at WMG assert the conglomerate will stand firm in the face of fire.
And though the music giant may be under fire for some of the more outrageous rap records it releases, execs at WMG recently approved Interscope Records’ closing of a new seven-year deal with controversial rap label Death Row Records.
The move steps up Interscope’s involvement in rap music and secures Time Warner an additional revenue source above the $50 million it earned last year from the manufacture and distribution of Interscope product.
The Death Row deal seems to undercut WMG’s stated position that it wants to move away from rap music. It was closed at the behest of WMG execs who funded the purchase of distribution rights to Death Row products and suggested Interscope move swiftly to close the deal.
Throws cold water
The pact also throws water on speculation that Levin – under fire from high-profile government and community leaders for distributing rap music – may want to sever ties with Interscope and was even considering divesting its music division.
But such a divestiture was widely dismissed by insiders and rival label chiefs last week, who doubt that Levin would ditch an extremely profitable music division merely to appease a presidential candidate or to avoid potential congressional roadblocks to cable deregulation. While Interscope’s relationship with the media conglomerate will be further put to the test next month with a release from controversial rappers Tha Dogg Pound, many expect the successful indie label to weather this latest storm of controversy over rap music.
Analysts also note that valuing the company would be difficult and Levin, though under pressure to reduce debt, would not seek a fire-sale price for the world’s largest music division.
All in good time
Thus, protracted negotiations and shareholder approval would likely extend the timing of the sale beyond the life of the controversy.
Interscope generated more than $125 million in domestic revenues last year. And contractual prohibitions preclude Levin from refusing to release Interscope’s records or ask label execs to censor its artists’ material.
The only option would be to release Interscope from its deal with WMG. Interscope sources said that should that happen, it would not be obligated to return any of the more than $120 million WMG has invested in the label in the last five years. Interscope would also be free to seek a new suitor.
WMG recently added $80 million to Interscope coffers, boosting its ownership to 50% of the label.