Once you get past all the posturing and rhetoric, beyond all the fancy talk about artistic freedom and corporate responsibility, the whole gangsta rap imbroglio at Time Warner can be boiled down to one word: control.
By selling its interest in Interscope -- whose roster includes Nine Inch Nails, 2Pac (Tupac Shakur), Primus and Tom Jones, as well as the gangsta-oriented Death Row Records -- Time Warner is not getting out of the gangsta rap business. True, Warner Music Group chairman Michael Fuchs did declare that his company will not be distributing "Dogg Food," the already controversial (as yet unreleased) album by tha Dogg Pound, a rap group associated with Snoop Doggy Dogg and produced by Death Row's resident hit man, Dr. Dre.
But Fuchs also said his company will continue to manufacture and distribute albums by other rap artists, and pointed proudly to Junior M.A.F.I.A.'s "Conspiracy," gangsta rap album released on the TW- distributed Big Beat label that cracked the Top 10 earlier this month.
Nor is the TW-Interscope split the "great victory for our children and America's future" that C. Dolores Tucker of the National Political Congress of Black Women would have you believe. Tucker, who had condemned the lyric content of "Dogg Food" even before the album was completed (talk about a rush to judgment!), has long argued that our nation would be better off if gangsta rap didn't exist at all. Presumably, she believes that the TW decision means "Dogg Food" will never make it to the shelves.
If so, she is incredibly naive about the ways of the record industry. When Geffen Records refused to distribute an album by the Geto Boyz a few years back, producer Rick Rubin found a new distributor almost immediately (ironically enough, that company was the Warner Music Group). Time Warner may have turned up its nose at "Dogg Food," but it's a sure bet other major labels won't, particularly when the album is seen as a guaranteed smash.
As for presidential candidate Bob Dole's suggestion that "Time Warner felt the sting of shame" -- get real. Were TW really out to mend its corporate ways, would its HBO subsidiary be so proud in trumpeting its upcoming debut of "Natural Born Killers," a film Dole has specifically denounced? Of course not.
When TW's Fuchs stated that the decision was "not about any particular kind of music" but about corporate "responsibilities," he wasn't talking about the general good of society. The responsibility he had in mind is to the stockholders: the obligation to shield their investment from profit-diminishing boycotts and cash-draining controversies. That's why TW insists the right to "review" lyrics before an album's release; what better way to forestall criticism than eliminating potentially objectionable content before it gets to the public?
Some may object that this is a form of censorship, but that's not quite the case. As the old joke has it, freedom of the press belongs to whoever owns one, and in this instance, TW is simply exercising the privilege of ownership.
Interscope, on the other hand, doesn't look at its relationship with recording artists as a matter of "ownership." Instead of trying to exert control over its artists, the label offers trust and respect, qualities concerned less with sales than with self expression. That may be one of the reasons the label wound up with so many controversial artists on its roster, but it also helps explain why those artists have had such success. A lot of listeners, after all, prefer honesty over commercial calculation.
Artists do, too, and that may ultimately prove the greatest irony in Time Warner's decision to sever its ties to Interscope. By placing such an emphasis on control, TW is in effect saying that it doesn't trust its artists, and doesn't intend to allow them to say things the corporation may find embarrassing or unpalatable. Like a parent checking homework, TW doesn't want anything going out it hasn't signed off on. And frankly, it's hard to imagine that too many of the company's artists will be flattered by such an attitude.
From Alanis Morissette and Madonna to R.E.M. and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Warner Music Group's roster is full of artists whose work is both potentially controversial and profitable. Should the Bob Doles or Dolores Tuckers of the world turn their ire on those stars, would Fuchs and company spring to their defense? Or, more to the point, how many of them will want to stick around and find out?