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.

Daniel Ruen

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.

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."

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."

By his own account, Gegner's arguments on the CD purchases stem from that same desire to account for a diversity of views within the community and to support, in his words, "intellectual freedom." Which is where the impulses behind the two viewpoints collide, and sparks start flying.

There is, however, one demographic neither Berman, Gegner, nor anyone else involved in the turbulence has considered: hip-hop artists themselves. "I can understand the guy who doesn't want his 14-year-old to hear the word 'cunt,'" says Slug, a local rapper whose own records might come with edited companions should the library ever wish to stock them. "Maybe I'm getting old. Maybe it's because I'm a parent now, but there's a difference between a Lil' Kim record and a J.D. Salinger book. I mean, fuck, dude, some of this shit is pornographic!" But, as of last month, not all of it. If Slug's daughter wants to get an earful of the kind of music daddy makes without being contaminated by its seamy lingua franca, all she needs is a library card and the knowledge that, in Hennepin County, Coolio is a "gangster," not a gangsta. She'll find the spiffed-up version, as of this month, out on the shelf, right beside its evil twin.

To some, Slug's sentiment may be the rhetoric of a concerned parent, even if you won't find many suburban-branch soccer moms echoing his diction. For Sanford Berman, it's the language of denial. "I don't think you're doing kids any favor by isolating them from reality," he says. "In terms of stimulating curiosity, it's just going to make them want the real thing that much more."

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