Gangsta Wars: Ice-T's ''Cop Killer'' sets a Precedent for Rapper-label Battles
By David Browne and James Bernard, Entertainment Weekly
Another month, another rap controversy. Or so it seemed when Bay Area-based rapper Paris announced that he would be releasing his new album, Sleeping With the Enemy, himself after it had been rejected by Tommy Boy Records, a Time Warner subsidiary. The reason: the song ”Bush Killa,” a gangsta-rap fantasy about gunning down the President, among others. Paris says the album was also submitted to Island Records, but that label’s corporate parent, PolyGram, nixed its release as well.
The "Bush Killa" incident is merely the latest aftershock of the controversy over Ice-T’s ”Cop Killer” (recorded with his hardcore band, Body Count). Tragedy, a.k.a. Intelligent Hoodlum was asked to remove the song ”Bullet” from his forthcoming A&M album; Warner Bros. also passed on releasing an album by Kool G. Rap and D.J. Polo because of antipolice material. ”Making a record about killing the President is not the easiest way to make money,” Paris says. It is, however, a good indicator of who can and who can’t stand the heat in the gangsta-rap kitchen these days. The winners and losers thus far in the Paris incident:
*Paris: The rapper’s first album, The Devil Made Me Do It, was released in 1990, earned middling reviews, and sold a modest 250,000 copies. Thanks to ”Bush Killa,” advance orders for Sleeping With the Enemy went from 75,000 to 200,000, and Paris has already garnered the most publicity of his career. He also received ”compensation” from Tommy Boy, said by the label to be ”a very low six figures.”
*Time Warner: A probable winner in the eyes of its stockholders, who most assuredly were not looking forward to more of the police-organization boycotts and threats that resulted from the release of ”Cop Killer.”
*Independent Record Companies: As more and more gangsta rappers encounter corporate resistance to their kinds of songs, they’ll be more likely to opt for smaller companies with no corporate strings attached. Labels like Priority, which distributes albums by Ice Cube, N.W.A, and the Geto Boys, already look like heroes of free speech. ”I’d advise anyone to go independent now,” says Paris. ”It’s a sign of the times.”
*George Bush: Big sympathy gains: He lost the election and was threatened by an irate rapper.
*Time Warner: After its troubles with Ice-T and Kool G. Rap and D.J. Polo, the company does not come off as the most artist-supportive outfit on the planet. Executives declined to comment.
*Island Records: Once considered a powerful independent label (U2, Steve Winwood, etc.), Island was purchased by PolyGram three years ago. The kibosh on Sleeping With the Enemy shows how much PolyGram’s thinking has influenced Island. (According to an internal PolyGram memo, the album ”is probably criminal on the part of Paris and possibly on the part of the record company which releases the album and wholesalers and retailers who handle it.”) Says Peggy Dold, vice president of marketing at Island Independent Labels: ”People are looking at the risks more, but they’re not categorically pulling away from political rap.”
*Tommy Boy Records: Beyond forking over a six-figure sum to Paris, the label — also the home of De La Soul and Naughty By Nature — drops a notch in all-important street credibility for shying away from the album.
*Rick Rubin: Another candidate for street-cred fallout. According to Paris, Rubin passed on releasing the album on his Def American label (home of iconoclasts like Andrew Dice Clay and Slayer) because of pressure from his parent company, Time Warner. A spokesman for Rubin, however, denies the story, saying Rubin was unable to secure the rights to release the album himself.
*Teenage Rap Fans: At Musicland, the nation’s largest record-store chain, customers under 18 will have to show ID to buy the Paris album. ”We don’t want to comment any more than that,” says a Musicland spokeswoman.