But gangsta rap is still a thriving business, and anyone who doubts it ought to review the sales statistics of Tupac Shakur's latest expletive-laced album, "All Eyez on Me."
The two-CD collection, released by Interscope-affiliated Death Row Records, sold 566,000 copies during its first week out--a spectacular showing second only to last year's Beatles two-CD "Anthology."
Rap artists and supporters say the $10 million generated last week by Shakur's songs not only testifies to the power of the music, but reinforces their cynicism about those who have gotten attention for criticizing rap.
"Who do these fools think they're kidding?" said Shakur, whose new album includes specific references to Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and C. DeLores Tucker, chief of the National Political Congress of Black Women, who launched the anti-rap campaign last year that pressured Time Warner to sever its ties with Interscope.
"If these people actually cared about protecting the children like they say they do, they'd spend more time trying to improve the conditions in the ghettos where the kids are coming up," Shakur said.
Shakur's and other artists' contempt for rap critics starts with Time Warner, where top executives and shareholders last year privately lambasted the urban violence depicted in music released by Death Row.
Time Warner may have washed its hands of the rap controversy in September, but that didn't stop the media giant from angling to cash in this week on Shakur's latest blockbuster.
Time Warner refused to distribute the album and its logo is nowhere to be found on Shakur's album, but the corporation quietly exercised a contract option to manufacture the record, allowing it to collect a quick $5 million from Interscope in production fees. (PolyGram distributed the album in a deal negotiated long before Interscope joined MCA Inc. this week.)
Rap supporters say Time Warner's hypocrisy doesn't end with its involvement in the Shakur project.
They say Time Warner has already pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars in publishing profit from Tha Dogg Pound's "Dogg Food," a controversial album that the company refused to manufacture or distribute after rap critics attacked it during the months leading up to the Interscope divorce.
And thanks to a lucrative long-term publishing pact signed last year with Death Row Chief Executive Suge Knight, gangsta rap lyrics from Tha Dogg Pound and other rap stars are guaranteed to generate profit for Time Warner long into the next century.
But Time Warner, rappers say, isn't the only disingenuous player in the debate.
Artists view rap critics such as Tucker, Dole and former drug czar William Bennett as little more than political opportunists.
Although rap adversaries vowed last year to hound any mainstream corporation that traffics in gangsta music, Time Warner and its five major competitors continue to penetrate the pop charts with controversial releases by such acts as Junior M.A.F.I.A., Cypress Hill, Wu-Tang Clan and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony.
This week alone, 15 of the top 100 albums on the nation's R&B chart contain graphic tales of sex and violence that could be considered offensive.
Scarcely a peep, however, has been heard out of the anti-rap forces that made Time Warner tremble.
Dole's rap crusade has taken a backseat to his run at the White House. Bennett has recently shifted his attack from rap to TV talk shows.
Tucker has spent much of the last month in depositions stemming from two contractual-interference lawsuits filed against her last summer by Interscope and Death Row.
The suits accuse her and members of her nonprofit organization of trying to persuade Knight to split from Interscope and join her new "clean rap" venture that she said would be financed by Time Warner.
Three weeks ago, Tucker announced that the FBI was investigating the sale of gangsta rap to minors based on a complaint she made to the Justice Department. Her announcement prompted the FBI to issue a release stating that the bureau is not conducting a rap probe, but is following standard protocol by reviewing material to decide whether any additional steps should be taken.
At this point, the upshot of last year's criticism of rap is negligible, rap supporters contend. (Arguably, it enriched the owners of Interscope, which signed a $200-million deal with MCA, pocketing nearly $100 million in the change of ownership from Time Warner.)
The Recording Industry Assn. of America, the Washington group whose members account for 95% of the music released in the U.S., initiated a program last year in which retailers are provided with posters to alert parents and children that some recordings may include graphic language. But record companies since 1990 were already putting stickers on potentially offensive albums with a standard advisory notice that reads: "Parental Advisory, Explicit Lyrics."
Legislators in dozens of states have tried to restrict the sale of violent and sexually explicit music to minors in recent years, but have failed so far to pass such laws because of constitutional concerns regarding free-speech rights. Courts have repeatedly ruled that violent and sexually explicit rap music is protected by the 1st Amendment and do not violate obscenity laws.
"The only reason why DeLores Tucker, William Bennett and Bob Dole made all this noise about music released by Death Row and Interscope was to advance their own careers," Shakur said.
"It doesn't matter to me if they don't like my music, I'm cool with that. They can't stop it."