Musicians Cross Over from the Other Side

Tasteless, but true: It's hip to be dead in the music industry today.

And it seems that the faster musicians live and the younger they die, the more their fans want to honor them with an afterlife high atop the Billboard charts.

Sales of Run-DMC's back catalog rocketed in the days after band member Jam Master Jay was gunned down last month.

As a fellow band member, the Rev. Joseph "Run" Simmons, said at the 37-year-old hip-hop pioneer's funeral, "This is Jay's biggest hit. This is the most press he's ever gotten. This is his last gig today."

Meanwhile, tortured Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, who shot himself dead at the age of 27 eight years ago, has never been hotter.

The new compilation album, Nirvana, is riding high on the album charts, and Cobain's recently published notebooks of drawings, lyrics and thoughts are selling strong on Amazon.

Nor has death deterred the girl trio TLC, which has just released a new album, 3D, featuring Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes on four of the 13 tracks, seven months after Lopes was killed in a car wreck in Honduras.

R&B queen Aaliyah, whose life was cruelly cut short at 22 in a plane crash, has also gotten stronger in death.

Her self-titled third album was heading for oblivion with a mere 62,000 sales.

One week after her death -- and 306,000 copies later -- Aaliyah was on top of the charts. Her legend grew even more with the release of a vampire movie, Queen of the Damned, filmed six months before her death.

When Tupac Shakur died in a drive-by shooting in September 1996, his fans more than tripled sales of his album All Eyez on Me in the next seven days.

Since then, seven new albums of Shakur's music have been released along with two films, Gridlock'd and Gang Related, His record label is releasing another two-CD set, Better Dayz, on Tuesday.

Why are we so fascinated with those who live fast and die young?

Julie Grau, the editorial director of Riverhead Books, which publishes Cobain's journals, says it comes down to the artists themselves.

"We are fascinated with people who leave this earth with questions unanswered, and it certainly adds to their mystique," she says.

"In Kurt Cobain's case, we are left wondering what we've lost, as is also the case with John Lennon."

Joe Levy, music editor of Rolling Stone magazine, agrees.

"To be fair to TLC, they never put out an album that wasn't successful," he says. "But anything, for better or worse, which focuses media attention on a band is going to drive album sales . . . from Lisa Lopes burning down her boyfriend's house to the tragedy of her death."

That said, he adds, the fans' response goes beyond morbid curiosity.

"In the case of Run-DMC, there is a tremendous sentimentality and fascination," he says. "The old-school rappers who started it all are now back on the MTV news and on the radio . . . and those songs were pretty good.

"These people were innovators in their field, as was Tupac Shakur. They are lost icons in the order of James Dean . . .

"It was neighborhood reality for Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls that death may be around the corner," Levy adds. "Many of their friends didn't make it past 25, and they talked about it obsessively on record.

"It makes their work all the more special and powerful. Is it exploitative for the record companies to keep bringing it out? No.

"Is it commercially motivated? Yes."

But Levy is glad that Soundscan, which compiles the Billboard charts, no longer counts sales by dead or "inactive" artists.

"Artists like Bob Marley still outsell a fair number of chart artists today," he says. "Marley would be in the Billboard chart forever and a day."

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