Rap music has established itself as a cultural phenomenon, accounting for billions of dollars in record sales and influencing everything from fashion to advertising to television sitcoms. But fans of the music often find it difficult to see their favorites in concert.
The major reason: Concern for audience safety on the part of promoters and insurance companies, based on a history of violence at shows. But the publisher and the editor of a national hip-hop magazine believe they may have found a way around the security problems that have plagued so many rap tours: a pay-per-view concert.
Rap Sheet magazine's "Free Expression in the '90s" concert, featuring Naughty by Nature, Cypress Hill, Da Brat, Def Squad, Method Man and Wu-Tang Clan, will be televised Oct. 13 from a yet-undetermined New York City venue.
It is the brainchild of Jeffrey Stern and Darryl James, the co-founders of the Los Angeles-based magazine, who have teamed with Spring Communications Inc. of Encino as executive producers of the show.
And with negotiations under way for Ice Cube and KRS-One to be added to the bill, the show is expected to bring together perhaps the most ambitious lineup of rap talent ever seen on television. If successful, it could open a door for exposure in a field where live entertainment has been slow to develop.
"It definitely could be an alternative to touring if things don't get any better in the rap world," said Happy Walters, manager of several rap acts, including Cypress Hill and Wu-Tang Clan.
Mr. Stern and Mr. James, looking to commemorate the third anniversary of Rap Sheet, hit on the idea of a pay-per-view event after rejecting thoughts of a national tour.
"What we're trying to provide is a safe venue, which is your living room, through which you can see your favorite acts perform," Mr. Stern said. "And from the artists' point of view, they're getting great promotion. They're going to have the potential to reach a lot of fans."
For rappers, that's not always easy. Despite the broad appeal of the music, rap has yet to make much of an impact in the concert industry.
While rock and pop acts often launch national tours as soon as they release a major-label album, rappers sometimes can't be seen by their fans even after they sell a million records. Shows such as Sunday's "Summer Jam" hip-hop extravaganza at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre south of Los Angeles are pretty much limited to special-event status, rather than a part of the regular tour rotation.
In terms of ticket revenue, no rap package ranked among last year's top 40 pop music tours, according to Pollstar magazine. The highest-grossing rap tour of 1994, featuring rap trio Salt-N-Pepa and R&B; heartthrob R. Kelly, grossed $5.9 million in 40 dates to rank as the 45th biggest tour of the year. Among the artists that grossed more: rock graybeards Crosby, Stills & Nash, the Moody Blues and Rush.
"There have been some crowd-control problems and the insurance industry basically reacted by vastly increasing the cost of insurance, when and if you could find somebody who was willing to even write it," said Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of the concert trade publication Pollstar. "We're not talking so much about the artists themselves but the potential for the kind of audience that insurers feel they may attract. . . .
"If you're worried about the potential that gang members may show up at your event . . . it's a very real threat and something you have to take both security and insurance precautions against."
It's a frustrating situation for the artists, said Mr. Walters, who has put together several small-scale hip-hop tours and got Cypress Hill added to the rock-oriented Lollapalooza tour this year.
"I think it's just overreaction by a lot of people," he said. "Most hip-hop artists are good, responsible people. Just a couple of bad apples ruin it. It's not because they're bad people or not competent or capable, . . . it's because they scare the hell out of people."
It's a situation that promoters hope will fuel the interest in a pay-per-view concert.
"It causes there to be latent demand, pent-up demand," said John Rubey, executive producer of Spring Communications, whose past pay-per-view shows have included rodeos, boxing matches and Bob Dylan's 30th anniversary tribute concert in 1992. "And one of the things the pay-per-view industry likes is, only on pay-per-view, the exclusive nature of it."
The "Free Expression in the '90s" show will be available for $14.95 in 25 U.S. markets, including Los Angeles, that were designated as hip-hop strongholds through demographics research, which included album sales and radio airplay. Promoters hope to reach as many as 500,000 homes.
"Personally, I don't think that pay-per-view, at least with today's technology, will ever replace live appearances," said Mr. Bongiovanni, of Pollstar. "But if you don't have any other choice, it may well succeed in that particular genre."
And for now, fans of most rap acts don't have many options.
"I'm doing this to promote the fact that rap concerts can happen," said Rap Sheet's James, whose magazine has banned depictions of violence and guns from its editorial and advertising in an attempt to clean up rap's notorious image. "I'm going to prove that they can happen in peace while everybody's having fun."