Bad Rap

The Hennepin County library system just wanted good clean fun on its CD rack. What it got was a free-speech debate that won't quit.

For the past year, 65-year-old Sanford Berman, head cataloger for the Hennepin County library system, has had a problem: Coolio. Among the memos and files stacked on his desk sat a copy of the California rapper's 1995 frat-hop smash, Gangsta's Paradise. Not just any old copy. Call it the "edited" (or "sanitized" or "clean") version. Anyone who's ever pulled one off the shelves at Target knows them all too well. Edited albums are an industry stand-in for the originals--doctored clones in which "offensive material" (as deemed by some retail chains and the Federal Communications Commission) has been smothered by bleeps, dead air, and PG-13 language, and so come off sounding like Jerry Springer episodes with beats.

Late last fall, Berman was instructed by his colleagues in the county library's Popular Materials Collection Group (PMCG) to do his duty: Give the Coolio-lite disc a subject heading that would distinguish it from the 255 other, unadulterated hip-hop CDs the system's 26 primarily suburban branches keep in circulation (including the original Gangsta's Paradise). Berman likened his assignment to "collaborating in censorship."

Censorship might be a strong word--any patron with a card, from toddlers to senior citizens, can check out the original albums--but the library's agreement to provide what Berman considers "expurgated materials" moves a long-running free speech debate into an entirely new context. The issue, simply stated, is whether public libraries should, in response to patron requests, spend taxpayers' money on albums that have been "cleaned up" by abridging their lyrics.

For quite some time, as Gangsta's Paradise languished on his desk (as it had in storage the previous year), Berman felt that entering the title into the catalog was not only ethically objectionable, but a violation of rules that govern public libraries across the nation. "The American Library Association maintains that libraries are not supposed to label materials 'evaluatively,'" Berman notes. "So coming up with a subject heading like 'clean rap music' would be violating that injunction." Matthew Richards, deputy director of the Chicago-based American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom concurs, adding his convictions that "evaluative labeling prejudices the minds of library users toward the works."

Still, the Hennepin County system has deployed a different logic. Jeffrey Gegner, who heads the PMCG, made the decision to buy two abridged rap albums--four copies of Coolio's and seven of LL Cool J's Mr. Smith--in November of 1996. He reasons that the library was simply responding to "patron requests" for the material. And while Gegner can't determine the age of each curious rap fan, one children's librarian in Richfield described them as younger patrons whose parents didn't want them hauling home music of questionable lyrical content.

Throughout the controversy, Gegner has been strenuous in emphasizing that the original, uncensored records are not leaving the shelves. "It was never a consideration to buy only clean CDs," he says, going on to stress that the library "serves a very diverse community and we try to accommodate the needs of that community."

True, Berman says, but that mission doesn't justify stocking the edited materials. This past May, Berman aired his opinions at a meeting of the eight-member PMCG. He offered the board his own research on music censorship nationwide while taking pains to point out that the library does not offer any other expurgated materials--no books, no films, no magazines, period. Gegner says that the committee considered Berman's complaint, reviewed library policy, and issued instructions that Gangsta's Paradise and Mr. Smith be prepared to enter the collection.

They then sat in limbo for another year while Berman searched for a way to file them without violating the ALA's guidelines. Last week Berman announced that he'd found a fix: Enter the albums in the catalogue under either the nonevaluative subject headings "rap music" or "gangsta rap" and add to their bibliographical record the exculpating citation, "'clean' version--as determined by vendor." Ostensibly Berman's problem has now been solved, but his sense of ethical obligation continues to distract him. "I wish," he says, "the damn things weren't here in the first place."

For Berman and a small group of like-minded Hennepin County Library employees, the issue of sanitized CDs exists well outside the rarefied world of library politics. "Essentially," he says, "this purchase implies that the library is selecting expurgated material when the original material, material that does not violate the integrity of the artist, is available. The stimulus of this censored version is twofold: one, an attempt by the record companies to get airtime for the piece, and two, to get kids to buy it. Another fundamental reason is that Wal-Mart simply will not retail the original, legitimate versions, and these cut-up versions wouldn't exist if it did."

The Wal-Mart mention refers to the Arkansas-based discount chain's policy on carrying sanitized CDs, and not just hip-hop CDs. In 1993, Nirvana's In Utero, which features a song called "Rape Me," hit stores. But not Wal-Mart. Suits there demanded that Nirvana's label, Geffen, rerelease the album with the song title, as listed on the album sleeve, changed to "Wait Me," effectively rendering the song meaningless. In 1996 Wal-Mart refused to stock Sheryl Crow's self-titled second album after she refused to rewrite the song "Love Is a Good Thing," which contains the lyrics "Watch our children while they kill each other/With a gun they bought at the Wal-Mart discount stores." (It's Wal-Mart custom to carry firearms, tobacco, and alcohol where allowed by law.) As Dale Ingram, Wal-Mart's director of corporate relations, told the New York Times recently, "Producers of music know up front that Wal-Mart will not carry anything with a parental advisory sticker on it." Producers of high-powered shotguns have not been placed under similar scrutiny.

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