A Gangster Wake-Up Call

The news carried through the palms and poverty of southern Los Angeles, birthplace of hardcore rap, like a tune no one could stop humming. Eazy-E, the multimillionaire rapper and producer, wasn't looking or acting like himself lately. His smooth, fudge-brown complexion had turned scaly, ashen. The bounce in his jaunty stride had gone flat. Even those -who knew about his bouts with asthma were unnerved by the violent cough that shook his small, but once well-muscled, body. Then, on March 16, came the word: Eazy-E, a founder of N.W.A (Niggaz With Attitude) and hard-core rap, was hospitalized with AIDS. Cedars-Sinai Hospital was flooded with 10,000 phone calls of concern; the most frantic were from the rapper's many former girlfriends and onenight stands worried for themselves. Ten days later, withered and weak, Eazy-E, born Eric Wright, died from complications of AIDS at the age of 31.

Eazy-E was the first major rap star to die of AIDS, but not the first hard-core rapper to live out his own reckless lyrics celebrating the gangster lifestyle. Grammy award-winning producer-rapper Dr. Dre is in a halfway house and rapper-actor Tupac Shakur is in jail (box), while reigning superstar Snoop Doggy Dogg faces life in prison on conspiracy-murder charges. to which he pleaded not guilty. Yet these and other gangster rappers who extoll the virtues of bullets, bitches and 40-ounce beers, of "getting paid" and pocketing "mad loot," have been idolized as urban heroes. The ghetto-centric lifestyles projected in their lyrics and videos, and their "hard," take-no-prisoners ethos, have become standards for millions of swaggering, pants sagging Americans, both black and white. Will any of these followers, mostly young men, change their attitudes about money, sex and violence now that gangster rap appears to be doing a drive-by on itself?

The troubles of Eazy-E and the like have served as a warning, or "wake-up call." in the words of veteran rapper Heavy D, one that the stars are beginning to relay to their fans. In a jailhouse interview with Vibe Magazine, Shakur repudiates his famous embrace of the "thug life" (words tattooed across his torso), calling it "just ignorance." A week before Eazy-E died, his lawyer read a letter in which the rapper emphasized that anyone could get AIDS, that it "doesn't discriminate."

His deathbed plea may already be having some effect in his old neighborhood. The Minority AIDS Project in South-Central Los Angeles reported a near 80 percent increase in requests for AIDS testing. "This was more than what we had when Magic [Earvin Johnson] made his announcement, and I think that's because this is the world Eazy came from," says Bishop Carl Bean, executive director of the AIDS Project. "These people are who he was."

At My Brother's Keeper, a youth center and dance club in Atlanta, young African-Americans say that they, too, were moved by AIDS claiming Eazy-E, whom they considered one of their own. "I was like, damn, I'd better chill out," says Mike Johnson, 14, saying he needed to reduce the numbers of his sexual partners. Mark Jeeter, 17, says the death "blew my mind away. It made me really realize that if you go around having sex with different people, you're going to end up like him."

In another world, quiet and cloistered, Tony DeCicco sits in his room at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., studying psychology to a gangster-rap beat booming from his stereo. A native of Herndon, Va., DeCicco is one of many white suburban youths who see rap music as an "alternative to alternative music." (Sixty-four per-cent of those who purchase hard-core rap are white, according to Soundata. But only 8 percent of all white consumers buy the genre, compared with 34 percent of blacks.) In high school, DiCicco adopted a "hard" rap persona, partly for acceptance and partly for rebellion. "I was drinking 40s [40-ounce bottles of malt liquor] and hanging out with my friends and getting into a lot of fights," the 21-year-old recalls. Today, he still enjoys the music, calling it "powerful," and saying that it's important to "keep an ear out to the street." But he has dropped the gangster guise. "I want to have some effect on the world around me," he explains. "I don't think that lifestyle is a means to getting yourself heard and having people take you seriously."

Of course, DeCicco, who has a post in the college's student government, had an easy way out of the rap world. But many of hardcore's most devoted listeners have few such options. In the poor and dangerous neighborhoods that gave birth to it, the music simply highlights the dark side of inner-city reality in rhythms and sound.

Keyon Maxon, 15, lives in Compton, a low-income, black and Hispanic town just south of Los Angeles, where N.W.A was formed. To him, people dying young and going to jail, he says, is "an everyday thing," no cause for soul-searching. The impression left by the violent ambush of Tupac Shakur on Dale Butler, 18, also of Compton, is one of admiration for the rapper. What moved him most was that Shakur took five bullets at close range rather than hand over his jewelry to robbers. "It takes a lot of heart to do that," he says.

Even on the more affluent, tree-lined campus of Beverly Hills High School, students like Andrew Taylor and Roy Suh, both 17, still cling to hard-core rap to express their own teen rage. Taylor, who is white, and Suh, a Korean-American, dress in rap styles as Mercedeses and Cadillacs cruise by blaring the latest rap jams. "The essence about being a G [meaning gangster, though Taylor and Suh insist they are not criminals] is not giving a damn, not caring about what people think of you," he says. "People respect that."

Of course, rap is not just an attitude; it's a billion-dollar business. Will the weight of recent negative headlines bury gangster sales along with the gangsters? Probably never. Tupac's newest album, "Me Against the World," which was released last week while he was in jail, debuted at No. 1. Numbers aside, though, rap mogul Russell Simmons of Def Jam Records believes that artistically, gangster rap's hold is slipping. "This style of music was in decline anyway," he says. "With or without their problems this type of music is on its way out, because how many times can you say 'Fuck the Police [referring to an N.W.A song]'?" Treach, the leader of Naughty by Nature, best known for its adultery anthem "OPP," sees a mellowing of the rap message. He's had unspecified run-ins with the law, he says, but now he's helping to raise the son of his girlfriend (Pepa of Salt N' Pepa), and that's made him reconsider. "We think about what the kids out there are hearing us say. That's because we are getting older and can see what impact our words have." Nowadays, when performing "OPP," the group urges listeners to use condoms.

But teenagers don't always take advice or absorb object lessons-even from their rapper heroes gone wrong. Many teenagers say that if they had the wealth and prestige of a Snoop or a Dr. Dre, they wouldn't make the same mistakes. No reckless excess for them. Eazy-E killed himself by being promiscuous, says 14year-old Calvern Wallace of Harlem: "I guess he thought he was different from everybody else." Jenkins Johnson, 18, of Austin, Texas, says, "If I get rich I'm gonna stay normal, stay in the same house." He pauses. "Maybe get a little bigger house." Henley Varner, manager of an Atlanta rap group, doesn't expect young people to change their ways just because some rappers got in trouble. "We're talking about young kids here," says Varner. "They think they're invincible. They think nothing can happen to them." That's what Eazy-E thought.