Rap takes a Texas-style beating... By now, some of you probably know how Bill Ratliff, a Republican state senator from Mount Pleasant, feels about the rap industry -- and if you don't, you soon will. Recently, Ratliff snuck a rider into the state's $86 billion budget proposal that pretty much sums up his disdain for the music, those who make it and their (according to him) promotion of criminal violence, drug abuse and the degradation of women. Ratliff's rider wouldn't solve any of those social problems, or even do much to stop rap music, but it would let him and the state of Texas parade their purity. How? By prohibiting state investments in any companies that record or produce music that advocates any of the above, not to mention necrophilia, bestiality and pedophilia.
While the Ratliff rider stops short of specifying any one musical genre as off-limits to state funds, it's hardly a secret that the senator (who was unavailable for comment) is targeting rap -- specifically that of the gangsta ilk. Houston, home to Rap-A-Lot, Suave and several other smaller independent rap labels, is widely considered the Gulf Coast hub for the form, and as you might expect, local criticism of the Ratliff rider is easy to find. Rap-A-Lot General Manager Bruce Toval recently sent a letter to Ratliff protesting the measure, and the word is definitely out among local performers.
"I think it's more symbolic than anything. It's like a virus. It could start off real small and spread," says Willie D, one-third of the seminal Houston rap trio the Geto Boys and an outspoken radio personality on the Box. "Everybody sees what it is; everybody knows what it is. It's like somebody saying, 'What can I do -- what power do I have -- to impact gangsta rap.' It's an indirect attack on [us]."
It sure looks that way. It's easy to argue that the rider is little more than one conservative legislator's attempt to draft his distaste for a certain style of music into law. Obviously, Ratliff has a personal stake in this; legislative sources close to the senator have indicated as much, and come to think of it, so has he. He despises the stuff, recently labeling gangsta rap "an absolute American tragedy."
Ratliff's attempted this sort of thing before, proposing a similar investment ban a while back that failed to make it past the House Pensions and Investments Committee. This time around, though, there's a good chance the rider will make its way into law. Because the measure involves no direct appropriation of funds, it's not subject to a line-item veto. So to kill this one rider, Governor Bush would have to veto the entire budget, something it's hard to see him doing just to keep a few music industry folks happy. If Bush does sign off on the budget by his June 22 deadline, then the investment ban would become law, and Ratliff's opinions would become the official opinions of Texas. And while there may not be a multitude of state agencies falling over themselves to invest in the rap industry, the example it sets is chilling enough -- especially when you consider that such a ban would be the first of its kind in the nation.
Personal agendas and nasty precedents aside, the most distressing thing about the Ratliff rider might well be the way it's written. The text is so rampant with generalities that its enforcement could legitimately encompass much popular music, past and present. The Rolling Stones' "Under My Thumb"? Out, because it degrades women. Cole Porter's "I Get a Kick out of You"? A goner, since the original also mentions a kick from cocaine. And what about Aerosmith's "Janie's Got a Gun"? Firearms, incest, pedophilia, rape, child abuse: Talk about a tune that is acutely vulnerable to Ratliff's wrath. If Ratliff has his way, labels such as RCA, home to those sexist ZZ Top boys, and Island, home to the late spliff-smoking Bob Marley's catalog, would be just as susceptible to state disapproval as Rap-A-Lot and Suave.
Ratliff's folks, of course, claim that those opposing his investment ban have the senator all wrong. An engineer by trade, Ratliff saw the measure as a business decision more than anything else, they claim. Certain state agencies own significant shares in corporations such as Seagram's, which is the parent company of MCA, a national distributor for Death Row Records and rap artists such as Tupac Shakur and Snoop Doggy Dogg, and that being the case, Ratliff's supporters want to know, why should Texas give Seagram's its money? What's the point, they ask, in devoting millions to crime enforcement and prevention, while also sinking money into a form of music that glorifies the very lawlessness the state is working to combat? And besides, they continue, why would a label like Death Row care? What's one or two investors in the big picture?
Lovely reasoning. It's not going to have an impact anyway, so why oppose it? But if it isn't going to have an impact on anybody but the poor portfolio managers who'll have to run every company Texas invests in through a background check to see if any of their fingers are in dirty musical pies, then, well, why propose it? Could it be ... politics? Wonder how many rappers vote in Mount Pleasant.
Variable Buzz... Over the last few months, radio insiders have been predicting major changes at the Buzz. Some have even hinted that the station might switch formats to (ugh) adult contemporary. And with the recent weeding out of artists such as Marilyn Manson and Tool from KTBZ's playlist, one has to wonder: Is the Buzz going soft?
Hardly, says KTBZ General Manager Ellen Cavanaugh, though she admits there have been some changes. "[We] are not an adult contemporary station; [we] are a modern rock station," she claims. "We have removed some of the harder artists, but we still play Nine Inch Nails, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden -- a lot of our core artists remain."
That edgier, gloom-and-doom stuff was actually "impeding the station's growth," says Cavanaugh. "The really super-negative, nihilistic, Beavis and Butt-Head, chainsaw-on-the-chalkboard stuff. It's not mainstream enough. The grunge factor has diminished, and the angry attitude so prevalent back then is gone. What worked in 1989-'90 doesn't work today."
To aid in the Buzz's transition from a heavier alternative format to what the station calls "mainstream modern rock," an old cohort of Cavanaugh's, Californian Jim Trapp, has taken over as program director, replacing his one-name predecessor, Cruz. "Nothing negative" can be made of Cruz's departure, says Cavanaugh, adding that the parting of ways was inevitable. "We have different paths to take," she says.
And Cavanaugh gives her assurance that the Buzz isn't headed down some wimpy path. "Mainstream does not equal watered-down, diluted, wussy music," she says.
Maybe so. But something tells me Beavis wouldn't approve.
-- Hobart Rowland
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