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Hip-Hop Fridays: Rap's Reputation Leaves Promoters Uncertain by Ian Hill

In years past, KWIN's Summer Splash concert has drawn thousands to Weber Point and the Stockton Arena with lineups featuring many of rap's top stars.

But fans will be disappointed if they're expecting hard-hitting rhymes and earth-shaking bass tonight when Summer Splash returns to the arena. Only one rapper, New York City's Mims, is set to take the mic. The remainder of the bill features family-friendly R&B acts such as Chris Brown.

It's not because of a lack of interest in rap, nor is it a sign of the genre's impending demise. Stockton remains a hip-hop city, as rap sells well in record stores and booms from cars on streets. A two-day Christian rap event begins tonight at the Stockton Empire Theatre.

The genre's absence from Summer Splash instead reflects some of the challenges rappers and their fans face here and across the country. Rap is at a turning point in 2007, with critics becoming increasingly vocal about its misogynist and derogatory lyrics. CD sales are slipping and the perceived threat of violence is driving up costs for concert promoters.

Summer Splash co-promoter Hardin Fultcher IIIsaid the cost of insurance is the reason tonight's show features only one rapper. He spent between $4,000 and$5,000 insuring the event. In comparison, Fultcher spent $17,000 on insurance last year for a bill headlined by Bay Area rap star E-40.

"The last two or three years, we've had more rap artists on there because that's who everyone wanted to see," he said. But "the insurance that they require and the police force and the security has taken a toll on everyone."

Insurance isn't the only issue in modern rap. Radio host Don Imus' derogatory on-air comments about the Rutgers women's basketball team earlier this year led to a renewed debate over similar language in hip-hop. The NAACP held a mock funeral for the "N-word" Monday in Detroit.

KWIN program director "Big" Mike Elwood said he carefully edits some rap songs to make them appropriate for radio, while edgier tracks are played only at night. It allows the station to avoid the controversy that brought down Imus, he said.

"You stay out of the fire and you won't get burned," Elwood said. "It's our responsibility to police it."

Stockton rap often tells gritty, hard-edged stories using lyrics that can't be printed in a family newspaper. Local urban music producer Teak Underdue, 27, said use of the "n-word" is too well-established in local rap to disappear.

Underdue added that, while the word can be offensive, some believe using it in an inoffensive context can help change its meaning.

"We have a thing with taking something negative towards us and making it cool," he said.

Stockton rapper Dejon "Samraw" Bennett, 33, added that the controversy surrounding rap lyrics also can be good for the genre, as its rebellious image could draw new young fans.

"You get a lot of people against it, and you get more people interested," he said.

But hip-hop scholar Marc Lamont Hill, an assistant professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, also emphasized that rappers and their fans should be open to critiquing themselves. They understand the music and its culture, and are therefore better equipped to make positive, long-lasting changes than critics who aren't fans.

Hill, along with some local rappers, noted that the controversy over lyrics and the decline in album sales doesn't mean hip-hop is dying. Artists in many genres are selling fewer CDs as more fans turn to the Internet for music.

Underdue added that rap fans tend to be younger, more technologically savvy and interested in downloading songs than fans of other genres.

Other rappers, however, are worried about their future. Stockton's Aaron "Ren" Mena, 32, said record labels today seem more interested in alternative hip-hop artists such as Lupe Fiasco and Pharrell than hardcore rappers such as many in Stockton.

Still, what rap is going through today is not necessarily new in popular music. Other genres have faced similar struggles in the past, as Stockton rapper Justin "Icarus Jones" Newsom states on his upcoming CD, "Smokesignals and Satellites":

"Just the other day I shuddered to hear somebody mutter some (expletive) about how rap was headed to the gutter/so I uttered some words that made him stutter and stop cold/see they said the same thing about rock 'n' roll."

You can Email Ian Hill

Editor's Note: This was first published at

Friday, July 13, 2007

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