RAP DEFIES TRADITIONAL MARKETING

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Members of Operation PUSH who organized the recent Rap Summit in Chicago were hoping the 200 African-American teens in attendance would focus on violent rap music and its effect on urban crime and gang warfare.

And they did. To a degree. But when executives from several prominent record companies took the stage to field questions, most of the 15-year-olds who approached the microphone asked variations on the same question: How can I get a record deal?

These amateur rappers were frustrated. They lashed out at the media for creating the term "gangsta rap" and were clearly tired of debating the impact gangsta lyrics have on young listeners. But mostly, they wanted to know why young, black artists no longer have control of the music they created.

The biggest rap audience is not black. According to SoundData, a Hartsdale, N.Y.-based company that provides Billboard with the data for its weekly album rankings, roughly 75% of rap records are owned by white teen-agers.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, Operation PUSH's founder and a speaker at the rap summit, compared rap's popularity to the rise of rock 'n' roll.

"Motown spread to the suburbs. Sports heroes spread to the suburbs," the Rev. Jackson said. "This music is universal, and no segment will be untouched."

And though record companies love rap's cross-cultural success, they say they can't explain it.

Promotion executives from some of the biggest rap labels-Def Jam, Warner Bros., Mercury and RCA-say there's no big push to market the music to whites.

"Rap is self-propelling," said Kirkland Burke, Warner Bros. Records' Midwest regional manager, who attended the rap summit. "No record companies are marketing gangsta rap. They don't understand how to sell it, they don't know what to do with it; they just know it sells, and half the time they don't know why."

What they do know is that an album's fate is determined very early on; if a rapper creates a "buzz" at clubs and parties, success is guaranteed.

"How I market it and how the major companies market rap is to take it to the streets," said Cathy Carroll, Midwest regional promotion manager for Epic Records. "When I worked with rap for MCA, I'd take the music to clubs and parties where they play a lot of rap. If you can get a club to play a song a couple of times, then the rap DJs might pick it up."

The streets where a rap album begins, of course, are very far from the suburban record stores where it ends up. To get there, the music must ride on good word-of-mouth and plenty of exposure on MTV: Music Television.

"White kids see it on MTV, VH-1 and Black Entertainment Television," Mr. Burke said. "They want to be hip so they buy it."

The few rap artists who have been specifically promoted to white teens, like Vanilla Ice, typically don't last because their image and music aren't "true," said Russell Simmons, chairman of Rush Communications and founder of the legendary Def Jam Records.

But the record industry's seeming inability to force a rap artist on consumers doesn't mean marketers are turning their backs on the craze. Rush Communications operates a store in New York's SoHo neighborhood called Phat Farm, where kids can buy bright and baggy hip-hop clothes.

And no record label is above releasing a "clean" version of albums carrying offensive language, Mr. Simmons added.

The secret, it seems, is to avoid compromising the music's street credibility by marketing specifically to blacks or whites.

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