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Facing music on gangsta rap Time Warner getting out, selling stake in record firm


LOS ANGELES -- Succumbing to months of pressure from Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and media watchdogs, Time Warner decided yesterday to get out of the gangsta rap business.

The New York media giant said it will unload its $115 million stake in the successful but controversial Los Angeles-based Interscope Records, home to such rap stars as Snoop Doggy Dogg and Dr. Dre.

Time Warner executives denied that the company was bowing to political pressure, blaming the split on contractual provisions that prevented the media giant from monitoring or editing the creative content of Interscope's recordings. Interscope executives characterized the breakup as an amicable divorce.

Rap critics were ecstatic, however, and hailed the decision as a direct response to their demand for Time Warner to dump Interscope, a company they accuse of releasing rap songs that degrade women and glorify violence.

"As I declared in Hollywood last May and have repeated across the country, shame is a powerful weapon -- and Time Warner has felt the sting of shame," Mr. Dole, a Kansas Republican, said yesterday. "Parents and concerned citizens spoke out and now we're seeing real results."

William J. Bennett, the nation's former drug czar, said, "Let this be a warning to all the other big entertainment companies. Time Warner has just set a standard for responsible corporate behavior. By this action, Time Warner has delineated what belongs in the mainstream and what belongs in the gutter."

Mr. Bennett and C. Delores Tucker, chairwoman of the National Political Congress of Black Women, launched a highly public anti-rap campaign in May to force Time Warner's hand. While Time Warner's action was hailed by rap critics, the decision to sever ties with Interscope will have no immediate effect on the kind of music or lyrics available in record stores. Interscope will either distribute its upcoming records independently or link up with another major corporation. Sources said at least two of the six major record companies are eager to do business with Interscope .

This is the second time in three years that pressure over rap music has jolted Time Warner, which agreed Friday to a merger with Turner Broadcasting System Inc. that will make it the largest entertainment company in the world. The media giant stopped distributing rapper Ice-T's "Cop Killer" in 1992 just two months after police groups picketed the firm's shareholders' meeting and threatened to stage a national boycott. Ice-T left the label soon after, triggering an exodus of gangsta rappers, including Da Lench Mob and Paris, from other Time Warner-affiliated labels.

"It's a sad day for Warner," said rapper Ice-T, who now runs his own record company. "Warner has always been considered the biggest outlet for free speech. These special interest groups won't stop the music though." While selling its share of Interscope may temporarily insulate Time Warner from rap critics, it could pose long-term problems for Time Warner's reputation with artists.

Flip-flopping on the explicit lyric issue is viewed critically by free-speech advocates, who believe it has damaged the company's credibility in the creative community. Indeed, executives at rival labels said privately that they plan to capitalize on the divorce to discourage new performers from joining Time Warner.

"I don't feel like we're bowing to political pressure," said Michael Fuchs, chairman and CEO of the Warner Music Group. "We're just facing the reality of the kind of pressures that can get put on a big company. If music is being distributed in our name, we must bear the responsibility for that music.The nature of our agreement with Interscope precluded us from any meaningful involvement or discussion regarding Interscope's music."

Interscope, which distributes explicit rap and rock music by the much-maligned Death Row and Nothing Records labels, has been affiliated with Time Warner since it opened for business in late 1990.

Headed by Jimmy Iovine and Ted Field, Interscope has forged a reputation in the industry as a creative risk-taker, pushing the boundaries of mainstream pop and transforming controversial but acclaimed underground rap and rock artists like Dr. Dre and Nine Inch Nails into MTV stars and Grammy-winning multimillion-sellers.

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