What's Killing Hip Hop?

From the Western Addition to the East Bay, police and wary club owners have all but banished hip hop. Have the cops overreacted? Are the clubs at fault? Or have a few well-armed fans hijacked the positive vibe of the hip-hop nation?

Paris, the self-proclaimed Black Panther of Rap, was scheduled to make his first San Francisco performance in more than three years. Rap fans were thrilled. The police were not.

Big surprise: Adorning Paris' latest album, Guerrilla Funk, is a staged photo of a bullet-riddled San Francisco Police Department officer, hanging out the window of his blood-spattered cruiser. The image was echoed on promotional fliers for a March 22 gig at the DNA Lounge, part of a West Coast tour of Priority Records artists.

Capt. Michael Yalon, commander of the SFPD's Southern Station, says that when he learned about the gig, he drove to DNA a week before the show and informed club owner Tim Dale that he'd revoke the club's entertainment permits and shutter it if any violence accompanied the show. Putting Dale on notice, Yalon cited a February shooting incident at the Sound Factory, during a Notorious BIG (Biggie Smalls) show. The not-so-subtle arm-twisting led Dale to cancel the Paris show.

"He said there could be serious ramifications," Dale says. "I couldn't risk the club on just one show."

Dale was so shaken by the police captain's visit that he canceled a second hip-hop event, a repeat performance of a show that had gone off without a hitch in February.

Meanwhile, a local promoter shopped the Paris show over to numerous Bay Area nightclubs: 177 Townsend, the Trocadero Transfer, the On Broadway and the Fillmore in San Francisco; the Cactus Club, the Oasis and FX in San Jose; and the Berkeley Square in Berkeley. All said no thanks.

"They said the cops weren't too keen on Paris," says Dan DeVita, an artist-development representative at Priority.

Paris encountered similar booking problems throughout California. In four of the seven cities on his tour, police intervened to stop the show. In Sacramento, the maneuvering of the police and the board of directors of the local Elks Lodge, where Paris was to perform March 24, approached high farce.

Over the course of six weeks, the cops and the lodge board -- most of whom are retired police officers, the show's promoter says -- used every conceivable means to cancel the performance: rumors of gang members in the bands, fire codes, dance permits, sound levels, occupancy limits. Finally, in the waning hours before the show, one police captain spoke honestly. "They said one of the reasons was Paris spoke in a derogatory way about the police," says Staci Bush of Request Line magazine, which was helping to organize the show.

The same week, clubs in San Diego and San Jose canceled Paris' show in apparent reaction to police pressure. Only Phoenix and L.A. allowed the rapper to play. The only Bay Area venue to host Paris was in predominantly white, middle-class Walnut Creek. All three shows went down peacefully.

"What is this -- some kind of police conspiracy to kill rap?" hollered New York publicist Bill Adler, who was hired by Priority to help Paris and the label respond to police harassment.

The crackdown on Paris reprises the national police campaign against Priority artists N.W.A (Niggaz Wit' Attitude) in 1989 after the group released its "Fuck tha Police" track. During that controversy, police pressured venues in eight cities to cancel N.W.A shows. Priority even received a letter from the FBI expressing its disdain for the song.

Never one to mince words, Paris calls this police offensive business as usual. "It's convenient for people to turn their backs on rap," the Oakland rapper says from the Emeryville offices of Scarface Records, the recording label he founded in 1992. "But it will come back on them. When the Arbitron ratings come out, we'll see who jumps to attention. I don't need commercial radio or clubs. People go platinum on word of mouth. The street will always dictate what the clubs do."

The police assault on Paris' tour was largely the result of his over-the-top imagery. One might even say it's wish fulfillment. But the Paris saga also reveals a broader crisis confronting hip hop. Rather than listening to the street, as Paris says, club owners have become deeply fearful of it. The police succeeded in pressuring club owners because they've become fed up with what they see as the inexorable link between rap and violence.

Surely an oversimplification. But the fact remains: Practically every Bay Area club has banned rap. So who's to blame? The cops, whose proactive tactics have brought new meaning to the concept of prior restraint? Greedy promoters, who bleed audiences of clubgoing cash but spend little of it on security? The few troublemakers who jump off with guns and knives -- mostly outside clubs? The media, whose Forrest Gump-like understanding of hip hop has stigmatized it as the music of thugs and criminals? Or the lyrics, which sometimes portray violent revenge fantasies but aren't accorded the sort of ironic distance from their subjects that we automatically extend to heavy-metal artists and Hollywood film producers?

Just what in the hell is killing live hip hop? And how can it be pulled back from the brink of extinction?

Young men were shooting their guns in the street February 18 outside Illusions, a SoMa hip-hop club. The crowd was in a state of panic. An apparent target of gunfire dashed to his car and screeched off into the night. A few blocks away, the terrified driver broadsided another car, killing its driver.

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