Hip Hop War

The Minister vs. the Mogul

While at Mosque No. 7, Muhammad summoned groups such as A Tribe Called Quest, Wrecks-n-Effect, and Afrika Bambaata's Zulu Nation to his 127th Street temple to settle differences. Four years ago, shortly before Zulu Nation chief B.O. was gunned down in the Bronx, Muhammad said that B.O., a reputed street thug, accepted a challenge from him to turn his life around. "One of the toughest days of my hip hop ministry was preaching at B.O.'s funeral," Muhammad said.

Before rapper Tupac Shakur was assassinated in 1996, Muhammad recalled that after Shakur was robbed and shot outside of a recording studio in Manhattan, Shakur asked him to throw a ring of security from the Nation of Islam's elite guards around him. Muhammad said he repeatedly admonished this "thug for life" to shed his gangsta image and work with young hip hop fans who were joining the rival Bloods and Crips gangs as the so-called "East Coast, West Coast" battle between Sean Combs's Bad Boy Records and Suge Knight's Los Angeles-based Death Row Records crews flared.

Muhammad claimed that on Knight's first visit to Harlem several years ago, he introduced the feared gangsta rap producer to Afrika Bambaata and Cool Al Herc, the godfathers of hip hop. He later approached Knight during a break at a Grammy award ceremony in New York and "urged him to stop terrorizing" Combs and Andre Harrell, another music executive. And for the past two months, Muhammad has been a spiritual adviser to Jamaal Barrow, while continuing to lambast hip hop executives who spurned his pleas to clean up the culture.

But Russell Simmons views Muhammad as a hindrance. "Conrad Muhammad's whole popularity is based on attacking hip hop," Simmons claimed. "That's how C. DeLores Tucker got famous. These attacks will not endear him to the rap community. It will not support people like him."

Simmons argued that Muhammad owes an "apology" to rappers and hip hop executives he has skewered. "They have closed ranks against him," the rap millionaire maintained. "Because of his comments in the media, they have shut him out." Simmons derided Muhammad's nearly 20-year crusade against offensive lyrics, saying it has "amounted to zero," and countering that rap music has flourished under his artistic vision. "Do you know how many records we put out this year?" he asked. "There is a big difference in the influence we have. We have a much bigger army than he could ever put together. He can't hurt us."

Simmons insisted that his summit is not intended to upstage Muhammad's event. He explained that it will be the third in a nationwide series of summits organized by the Reverend Al Sharpton and David Mays, publisher of the hip hop magazine The Source. The last summit was held at Harvard Law School's Criminal Justice Institute and was moderated by famed law professor Charles Ogletree. The summits are aimed at drawing up a code of conduct for rap's increasingly influential—but often criticized—hardcore artists. Rappers Master P., Fat Joe, RZA of the Wu Tang Clan, Queen Latifah, Ray Benzino of the Boston-based group Made Men, Barrow, and Treach were present. Master P. and Barrow defended violence in some of their music as a reflection of crime in neighborhoods where they grew up, but said fans should not try to live out their songs, according to the Boston Herald, which covered the event. "It's entertainment but it's social commentary, too," said Benzino.

Simmons agreed, pointing out that much of what the artists rap about is not sexually explicit or violent. "They will get back to writing from their hearts," he predicted. "This summit will celebrate, defend, and fix rap music, but I want rappers to continue to stick with the truth. I can't force my religion or anything else on them." He said that interference by "outside forces"—such as Muhammad—only make rappers "more rebellious."

Summit No. 3, Simmons said, also will focus on why successful rappers still must deal with racism in their daily lives. After rapper Jay-Z and his crew—bodyguard Hamza Hewitt, driver Romero Chambers, and Tyran Smith—were pulled over on April 13 outside a Manhattan nightclub, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani defended the notion that the New York Police Department is engaged in "rapper profiling." Undercover cops claimed they spotted Hewitt shoving a gun into his waistband. "The NYPD targets people who illegally possess guns," said Giuliani, whose "Afriphobia" has been long cited throughout the black community as a major factor in the encouragement of racial profiling by police. Added Giuliani, "Here's a way not to get into trouble with NYPD: Don't shoot anybody, don't rob anybody, don't rape anybody, and don't carry guns illegally."

Simmons said that at his summit participants will demand that rapper profiling be stopped. But last week, Muhammad raised eyebrows when he brushed aside the call for an investigation into an alleged "pattern and practice" of singling out rappers, claiming that it was a diversion by artists who want to carry on their gangsta behavior. Muhammad described as "suspicious" Simmons's "sudden outspokenness" on rapper profiling in the wake of Jay-Z's arrest. Jay-Z is signed to Def Jam Records. "Jay-Z, one of Russell's main artists who advocates gangsta, pimp, and thug images, is in trouble with the law again," Muhammad noted.

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