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.

It should be pointed out again, if only for emphasis, that the music industry's cooperation with Wal-Mart has played a huge role in how music is sold in the U.S., mainly because the purchasing habits of chains like Wal-Mart, Target, and Best Buy have held tremendous sway over the distribution and consumption of pop music. Wal-Mart sells more than 50 million albums a year (roughly one-twelfth of all sold in the U.S.), and by undercutting smaller, independent stores with lower prices, they've become increasingly monolithic in dictating what kind of music gets heard in Middle America.

For his part, Berman maintains that the influence of what he calls "Wal-Mart culture" on the local library suggests the workings of an insidious marketplace morality, even if Hennepin County has ordered only 11 CDs to date, spending, at most, $12 a copy.

"The library's argument is that parents have asked for the material, and that since we are committed to a 'patron-driven' logic we must meet their demands," he says. But keep in mind, he goes on, "These decisions are not only patron-driven, but market-driven. This might be hyperbole, but it asks the librarian to become a marionette for Wal-Mart, the record industry, or, by the same token, the whims of publishing conglomerates."

Daniel Ruen

The decision to go with the airbrushed materials also means that library branches will be stocking some downright loopy retread copies of the original albums, a phenomenon rap fans know all too well, in all its myriad guises. Take "I'm Not a Player," the 1997 single by the New York rapper Big Punisher. The song's tagline, "I'm not a player, I just fuck a lot," was cleaned up to hit the airwaves (for its smash follow-up, "Still Not a Player") as "I'm not a player, I just crush a lot." The fascinating edit was meant to turn the thuggish, 300-pound gangsta rapper into an amorous teddy bear, but his harsh delivery actually turned his paean to casual sex into a strange conflation of misogyny and violence; the idea of the verb "to crush" as a euphemism for sex could make the Marquis de Sade cringe.

There are countless examples like this--from NWA's 1988 gangsta grail Straight Outta Compton to Mase's teeny-hop hit of last year, Harlem World. There are, too, numerous anti-censorship organizations that have been engaged in a protracted fight against the so-called Wal-Mart mentality since Tipper Gore first hoisted her parental advisory torch back in the Reagan '80s. Yet very few of their members--including Richard Matthews, who regularly monitors such activity for the American Library Association--say they could not have predicted the Hennepin County-style permutation of the larger free-speech debate that has touched every library that ever carried Portnoy's Complaint.

Yet before local anti-censorship radicals put the final touches on their make-your-own-at-home letter bombs, all interested parties should keep in mind that the Hennepin County Library system isn't banning or burning (or, in this case, melting) anything. Again, the obvious difference between the library's decision and Wal-Mart's is that the library is carrying both the edited and unedited versions of every "clean" hip-hop CD it gets requests for. Gegner says the system considers one of its duties, as library policy puts it, to satisfy "diverse patron needs"--including those expressed by parents who would rather unedited CDs, like pornographic female rapper Lil' Kim's "vagi-smut," not be their children's only choice on the shelf.

You can follow that logic in a number of directions. One could argue that the library, acting as a chronicler of our shared cultural heritage, might wish to have the edited CDs on file for future patrons interested in researching a crucial moment in American pop music history. Berman agrees, but maintains that instead of being stocked at county branches, "they should be on file at academic libraries, where they can be used for scholarly purposes."

Nina Crowley, a former children's librarian in Leominster, Mass., who now heads the anti-censorship group Massachusetts Music Industry Coalition, is discouraged that what she refers to as "parents' rights" now factor so heavily into a library's decision as to the content of the materials it carries. But she does concede that the appearance of edited CDs on public library shelves isn't nearly as offensive as an across-the-board ban on hip-hop discs, and only so far as "no one is kept from taking the originals out."

Other stalwarts aren't nearly as permissive. Dave Marsh, a first-generation rock critic who keeps an eye on music censorship issues in his journal Rock and Rap Confidential, shares Berman's view that libraries have a duty to avoid censored material in any form. When presented with arguments for the addition of sanitized materials, he replies: "I don't even want to answer that, because if I were to think like that, I'd be thinking in the mind of a censor. Since librarians are the great bulwark against censorship, this labeling is very sad. Presumably they're trying to head off complaints, but as soon you put one of the bowdlerized things on the shelf, you're saying the other ones are wrong."

No one who has been following library politics for the past few years could accuse the Hennepin County Library of acting conservatively, or even apolitically; in analogous situations the library has been remarkably cutting-edge. The system is nationally known for its 1997 refusal to deny minors the means to gain access to Internet pornography on library computers, as well as its groundbreaking, Berman-directed initiative on submitting innovative subject headings to the Library of Congress for adoption. "We've had 'erotic drama' and 'gay erotic drama' in our catalog since 1991. The Library of Congress accepted them in September of this year," Berman notes. "We've had "hate groups" since 1985, and the Library of Congress took it in August. There are hundreds of these examples. We're still trying to get them to accept "corporate welfare," "classism," "working poor people," and "gangsta rap."

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