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Since the disputes are part of the lyrical form of gangsta rap, are the beefs, in fact, genuine? Despite rumors circulating for weeks about a tiff between 50 Cent and Game, 50 only brought the issue into the open the week of his new album's release.
Simmons rejects the idea that the disputes are a marketing ploy. "This is the mind-set," he says. "If they were two hustlersand they areand they have a beefwhich they doand that beef got interfered with, this is how they'd handle it." Todd Lynn, the comedian who was fired from Hot 97 over a song that used a racial slur and mocked tsunami victims, calls the station management "jackasses," but insists, "I honestly don't believe that they have anything to do with creating these beefs," or with hyping them.
Regardless of where the beefs start or if they are real, DJs are the ones who decide the kind of play they get. And it's not a painless choice. "I don't think any on-air personality starts the beef. I think artists make that decision all by themselves," says MTV VJ and syndicated Wake Up Show host Sway. But once a beef breaks out, Sway says, "You put the radio personality in a catch-22 because I don't think anyone wants to amplify thator to some people, glamorize thatbut if you don't the man across the street might."
So DJs are under big pressure to talk about these beefs. But, adds Sway, "how you talk about it and how you deal with it is important." The DJs could warn listeners that the beef might be just a record-selling ploynot deadly serious. Or they could talk about more important beefs, like the Iraq war or police brutality. Too often, however, they obsess over the stress between the stars. "They laugh about it, but these are people's lives," says Rosa Clemente, a member of a coalition organizing protests against Hot 97 after the station aired the offensive song about tsunami victims. "This is very serious, what's happening, and it's very sad that Hot 97 will do anything for ratings at this point."
Hot 97 isn't the only station that plays the game. In an interview with 50 Cent on February 28 before the rapper appeared on Hot 97, Power 105's Ed Lover promised at the start to talk about the "negative energy" in 50's life. "We have to," Lover said. Asked why the station had to discuss rap grudges, Power 105.1 program director Michael Saunders said in a statement, "As media professionals we have to ask artists questions about disputes. However, we try to downplay rivalries as much as possible because we are aware of our role in the hip- hop community. We realize the importance of not putting any fuel in the fire that might ignite individuals who surround the artists on a daily basis."
But during his interview, Lover devoted several minutes of airtime to 50's feuds with Fat Joe, Jadakiss, and Nas. He wanted 50 to reveal "what's your beef with each one of them individually." Then another several minutes were spent on the dispute with Game. At one point, Lover asked, "So where does he stand with G-Unit?" to which 50 answered, "He's not in my camp." At the end of the show, Young Buck called in, offering to "take care of" Game. 50 declined.
It isn't news that sensational news sells. There was proof in the coverage of the Hot 97 shooting itself: The Daily News decorated the top of its March 2 cover with bullet holes and the headline "Rap Wars," and the next day a Post story was slugged "Fan day KO'd by gritty 'Fitty' bang-bang." Nor is it earth-shattering analysis that corporate control has, according to some fans, tainted a form of entertainment. The distinction is that in this case, the media conglomerate template is being laid over a subgenre of musicgangsta rapthat often celebrates bloodshed.
"It's not like the guys in the corporation really know who the Game is or give a fuck about 50 Cent. There'll be another," says Sway. "Whatever records by whatever artists work the best." And when a dispute between rappers erupts, Sway says, "it's not about Hot 97 or [L.A. station] Power 106. It's not about any radio station in particular. It's just about radio in general. If you're going to be on the air, you're going to have to be ready to compete at all times."
Hot 97 spokesman Dudley says blaming the station lets the triggerman off the hook. But radio's impact can be destructive. Davey D recalls that when local stations in San Francisco divided up the market into black and Latino audiences, high school fans almost resorted to violence to pledge their allegiance. Political commentary, once at hip-hop's heart, has disappeared. And Simmons tells the Voice that he believes "that Biggie and Tupac's deaths were fueled by the media," although he blames the media at large, not just a few radio stations.
"I can't judge the radio station for having the dialogue that the kids are interested in," he says. The trick is to teach the listeners there is a better way, he says. Sometimes radio stations have done thatbanning artists who get violent, brokering truces among rival stars. Hot 97 itself has shown restraint at times: stopping Nas from doing a mock lynching at Summer Jam, banning Capone from its air after the 2001 shooting outside the station. But other times, Simmons says, the people in charge of media outlets "don't say these things and can't teach these things because they don't necessarily know it. A lot of times we have these people in charge and their job is to exploit." That's true, he notes, of all industry.