NEW YORK – With several rap music labels feeling law enforcement heat for alleged ties to money laundering, drugs and even murder, some are asking if the genre's stylistically violent image rightfully reflects its bad "rap."
"When the theme of the music is thuggery, most of it being in the first person, you invite suspicion," said Matthew Felling, media director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs.
Bi-coastal battles between competing camps in the industry were common in the 1990s, and led to the killing of superstar rappers Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. 1999 also brought about the murders of two emerging N.Y. rappers -- underground legend Big L and Lost Boyz member Freaky Tah.
But a series of more recent violent incidents, including the October 2002 murder of Run-DMC's Jam Master Jay, have led to speculation of a new gang rivalry.
Several raids by authorities on Suge Knight's Tha Row (formerly Death Row Records) and Irv Gotti's Murder Inc. suggest there may be a much darker side to the rap business than just select songs glorifying drugs, guns and gangs. Authorities say Tha Row was raided in relation to a recent Los Angeles gang murder, while Murder Inc.'s N.Y. offices and studio -- known as "The Crackhouse" -- were investigated to search for financial ties to convicted gang leader Kenneth "Supreme" McGriff.
As interested and involved the authorities are in these matters, they aren't saying much.
"All I can say is that there are investigations ongoing by a number of different law enforcement agencies on many different levels," said Joe Valiquette, a spokesman for the New York FBI.
Knight, recently released from jail, has long been a target for law enforcement. His lawyer insists police have unfairly harassed the rap mogul.
"They come to his house, they come to his office, they come to every house he's ever lived in that they're familiar with," said attorney Arthur Barens. "They intimidated his wife, they intimidated his employees. What's the point of this?"
But some longtime record industry insiders argue the artists and labels bring the unwanted attention on themselves.
"If you didn't present that gangster image, you wouldn't give 'em nothing to worry about," Darryl "DMC" McDaniel of Run-DMC said in an interview with MTV. "It's kind of the rappers' fault."
Felling speculates the thugification of the industry stems from the fact labels like Universal and Sony have given artists and producers their own sub-labels. Often the rapper's friends -- some with questionable backgrounds -- are hired to handle everything from security to the money side of the business.
"As soon as you pass the mantle of leadership from a suit to part of a successful rapper's entourage, that brings with it all that mob mentality," said Felling.
But people like Knight say there's no getting away from their ties to the streets.
"If I had to stop dealing with people from the 'hood, I might as well shut down my business," Knight said. "I can't just turn my back on the people I came up with. Rap comes from the same place that I did -- the ghetto."
Street ties aside, the potential of fat pockets often overpowers the moral imperative, according to Joshua Ellison, senior editor for Junkmedia magazine.
Ellison believes major labels "have reaped tremendous rewards from these images, and it's hard to imagine why they would ever stop."
And Felling believes that crime and the industry will likely always be linked due to the gangsta genre of rap. "Rap needs headlines like these every once in a while to maintain its realness, to back up all their hard talk," he said.
The conflict doesn't seem to be coming to an end soon. 50 Cent, rap's new superstar, has been shot nine times, and has been warned by police his life is in danger.
"Where I'm from, the price of life is cheap," he told The Associated Press recently. "For $5,000, you can get somebody killed."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.