Biggie's murder raises questions about the future of gangsta rap

Projecting invincibility is a rapper’s stock-in-trade, but it’ll take more than tough talk and a stony facade for gangsta rap to rebound from the cataclysmic events of recent weeks.

Just days after Marion ”Suge” Knight, 31, president and CEO of Death Row Records, received a nine-year sentence for parole violations, the Notorious B.I.G., 24 (born Christopher Wallace and a.k.a. Biggie Smalls), was shot to death March 9 as he sat in his car outside a party celebrating the 11th annual Soul Train Music Awards.

At press time, the L.A.P.D. was investigating whether Wallace’s murder was tied to the putative feud between East Coast and West Coast rap camps or was some sort of twisted payback for the death of Wallace rival Tupac Shakur, who himself died in a still unsolved drive-by shooting in Las Vegas last September. (Shakur claimed that bad blood between Wallace and him may have led to his 1994 shooting in New York, though Wallace’s name has never been linked to the Vegas attack.)

The murder of Wallace, a former crack dealer who wrote songs full of sexual braggadocio and gritty criminality, comes days before the release of his eerily titled Life After Death…’Til Death Do Us Part on March 25. If sales of Shakur’s posthumous album are any indication, Wallace’s disc will likely debut in the top 10. But with two of gangsta rap’s biggest stars gone, and its most visible mover and shaker behind bars, the genre’s future could be in peril.

Consider this: Though overall sales of rap for 1996 rose 2.2 percent from 1995 (according to the RIAA), that’s largely due to rap acts like the Grammy-winning Fugees, whose feel-good vibe is steadily becoming the genre’s dominant force. Gangsta superstar Snoop Doggy Dogg’s recent Tha Doggfather has sold 2 million copies, but its sales are sluggish compared to 1993’s 4-million selling Doggystyle. Even Death Row’s vaunted double-disc Greatest Hits album, released before Christmas, has yet to sell gold (500,000 copies).

With sales ebbing and violence on the rise, how much longer will major labels stay in the gangsta game? Execs at Arista, which distributes Wallace’s label Bad Boy Entertainment, and MCA, which, like previous Death Row partner Time Warner, has come under attack for its link to the label, refuse comment. C. DeLores Tucker, whose National Political Congress of Black Women, Inc., has led the crusade against gangsta rap, now plans to redouble her efforts to inject a social conscience into the six major labels distributing gangsta. ”It always takes some tragedy to make people look where all this is leading,” says Tucker.

Aaron Anderson, general manager of G Funk Music Inc., urban artist Warren G’s record label, believes Wallace’s murder will lead to the further marginalization of all rap artists. ”People will be afraid to rent us concert venues,” says Anderson. ”We’re going to see record stores afraid to bring in hip-hop artists…. Radio is going to be more hesitant to play rap, and parents are going to say that it’s just too violent.”

If the body count continues to rise, the music industry could be forced to give gangsta rap its last rites.

(Additional reporting by Rob Brunner, Billy Johnson Jr., and Heidi Siegmund Cuda)