Music, Money, Murder

IN BUSINESS, THE BEAT tends to go on no matter what. Consider the music industry, especially the increasingly bloody rap subgenre known as gangsta. When superstar Tupac Shakur was killed in September, Arista Records was zeroing in on a $75 million joint-venture deal with Sean (Puffy) Combs, the producing whiz behind New York-based Bad Boy Entertainment. Combs and Bad Boy were strongly disliked by another record bigwig, Death Row Records owner Marion (Suge) Knight, a man with a violent past. And Shakur, Death Row's talented, but troubled, hit seller, was stoking a harsh feud with Combs's biggest seller, Christopher Wallace, the rapper stage-named the Notorious B.I.G. All of this unpleasantness alarmed record giant Arista, especially the wide, though inaccurate, speculation about a possible Bad Boy link to Tupac's ambush. How to protect its investment in Bad Boy? Put a ""key man'' clause in the deal with Combs, 26. A standard tool in corporate America, the provision allows a company to purchase life insurance on pivotal executives and collect on it in case of death.

No doubt, Arista had intended to safeguard its investment. But Tupac's murder underscored the need to do so. Now, six months later, Arista's worry has been tragically and starkly driven home. As everyone knows, Biggie, whose record contract Arista half-owns through the Bad Boy deal, was murdered several days ago on Death Row's and Tupac's turf, Los Angeles. Authorities don't know who killed the 24-year-old or why. Yet for now Arista's investment is about to pay off in a big way. Biggie's second album, distributed by Arista, will soon hit the stores. And his murder will fuel sales beyond the multiplatinum expectations before his death. ""I'm so sorry to see that he's going to sell lots of records based on his death'' rather than ""solely on the merits of his music,'' says Lance (Un) Rivera, a business partner of Biggie's. A bloody pattern is developing: rap star is murdered; his music is released posthumously; tens of millions of dollars flood record-company coffers. That's what happened in Tupac's case. Death Row released his latest album through Interscope Records, which is half-owned by Universal Records (formerly MCA), a subsidiary of Edgar Bronfman Jr.'s Seagram Co.

With the second murder of a rap star in six months, the music industry again faces the question of whether business should continue as usual. And from many the answer is a resounding yes when it comes to most rap music. And that's not surprising, considering the flood of hit rap records that fatten the bottom line. Surfacing in the 1970s, rap was a vibrant, artistically provocative new musical form from America's black urban community. In 1987 the music industry accorded rap its own separate category, alongside rock, R&B and jazz. Last year rap generated more than $1 billion in receipts.

But gangsta has been a far different story. Gangsta rap, which chronicles the bleak, often violent life of the nation's toughest black neighborhoods, has increasingly sparked controversy since it emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Much of the controversy has centered on violent lyrics. And the music industry, insisting that it is defending artistic freedom and arguing that music doesn't cause violence, has weathered a storm of criticism. Now some prominent industry executives are privately asking whether greed is blinding record companies to the rising body count and other violence associated with the music.

Other industry insiders blame some of their fellows for the harsh spotlight now on the business. To cash in on the once undeniable popularity of gangsta rap, they say, some record companies have been willing to do business with people of questionable backgrounds. A lot of fingers point at Interscope Records and its various corporate backers, which has included Time Warner and now Universal, for their dealings with Knight and his Death Row. Knight, who had a reputation for strong-arm tactics, reportedly has ties to the Bloods street gang. He was recently sentenced to nine years in prison for violating his probation. Combs, on the other hand, has played a dangerous game, playing the tough-guy record exec as a promotional gimmick. Hardly a gangsta himself, he attended Howard University and was a protEgE of hip-hop pioneers Russell Simmons and Andre Harrell. One label mogul says, ""People will have to decide whether they will make money doing anything, even though it's not illegal.'' A decision to tone down the music may lose money, but save lives.

Puffy Combs and Suge Knight have each lost a top artist to murder. Knight is in jail; Combs is in fear. Each now faces a challenge of recovering the promise his company once enjoyed.

Death Row Records is distributed by Interscope, which is half-owned by Universal (formerly MCA).

CEO Marion (Suge) Knight

Artist and Titles

Tupac Shakur: "All Eyez On Me"

Snoop Doggy Dog: "Doggy Style"

Dogg Pound: "Dogg Food"

Bad Boy Entertainment, is half-owned by Arista Records, which is a subsidiary of BMG. CEO Sean (Puffy) Combs

Artist and Titles Fthe Notorious B.I.G.: "Ready To Die"

Total: "Total"

112: "112"