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A Different Type of Hip-Hop Battle

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A Different Type of Hip-Hop Battle

A Different Type of Hip-Hop Battle

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, checking in with Transylvania's second most famous resident - Bela Bartok.

But first, only the most jaded music fan could ignore the week's big hip-hop news. Two dueling artists - that's not always a metaphor - Kanye West and 50 Cent dropped new CDs on Tuesday. Mr. West's album is "Graduation."

(Soundbite of song, "Stronger")

Mr. KANYE WEST (Rapper): (Rapping) Now that don't kill me. Can only make me stronger. I need you to hurry up now 'cause I can't wait much longer.

SIMON: 50 Cent released "Curtis."

(Soundbite of song, "She Wants It")

50 CENT (Rapper): (Rapping) She work it girl, she work the pole. She break it down, she take it low. She's fine. She's about the dough. She's doing her thing out on the floor.

SIMON: The two have bragged about their (unintelligible) supremacy over the other. 50 Cent, whose real name is Curtis Jackson, even said that if Kanye West's record outsold his own, he would retire from making solo albums — and he's 32, but maybe he can afford it anyway. Now, we don't know whether they'll be calling each other's bluff but we do want to learn a little bit more about dispute in popular music.

And we're joined in the studio by Mazi Mutafa. He's executive director of Words, Beats & Life, an arts and educational nonprofit organization that's dedicated to hip-hop.

Mr. Mutafa, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. MAZI MUTAFA (Executive Director, Words, Beats & Life): Thank you.

SIMON: And for those who don't follow hip-hop, could you describe the differences in style and image of each of the artists?

Mr. MUTAFA: Generally, they're not two artists that are usually compared to each other. In the large part because their subject matter is usually drastically different. The easiest way to describe them would be that Curtis, also known as 50 Cent, would commonly be referred to as a gangster rapper. Whereas Kanye West, his most famous single is actually called "Jesus Walks." And for that reason, he's usually referred to as a conscious rapper, though the truth is that many of his lyrics are filled with same materialism, the same objectification of women. The primary difference between him and 50 is that Kanye has zero songs about killing anybody whereas, the great majority of what 50 Cent has recorded has either being shot by someone, shooting someone, trying to shoot someone.

SIMON: Do you have any reason to think this feud is just show business?

Mr. MUTAFA: I would think it really is because part of the reasons why there's so much talk about this has to do with the fact that in terms of record sales, 50 Cent is one of the highest-selling rappers in hip-hop history. I think, with his first two projects, I believe, his total record sale was something like 12 million. Kanye's never approached anything even remotely that high.

However - and the first we got with both end the projects because they've been set against each other, consumers have decided to vote with a dollar. And up to this point, Kanye West has been outselling two-to-one 50 Cent.

SIMON: In the 1990s, of course, there was a famous rivalry. There was East Coast versus West Coast. And for many people, it got typified with Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur. Is it inconceivable that this rivalry now in the 2000s would wind up the way that one did - in death.

Mr. MUTAFA: It has to be inconceivable. I think it's really important for the person that doesn't listen to rap music isn't really fascinated with what's going on with the hip-hop generation. To understand that what we're witnessing right now is a kind of corporate theater that there aren't necessarily rivalries that are geography-based. This is completely about who's going to sell the most records because, according to 50 Cent, if he doesn't sell something comparable to what he sold in the past, to him, and to many others, that's an indication that corporate hip-hop is dead.

Though Kanye is outselling 50 Cent, it's unclear how much of that is because it's a great album and how much of that is because people just don't like 50 Cent and they want to see - they want to call his bluff - if he say he's going to retire if he loses in sales. Let's see if that actually happens.

Part of the reason why you've seen mainstream media and NPR today taking interest in this story is because of what people think it might turn into. But the reality is that it's just about business. It's about slumping record sales for rap music labels and a desire to make better music that consumers actually want. And to draw in the attention who've kind of written hip-hop off.

SIMON: Mazi Mutafa, executive director of the nonprofit Words, Beats & Life, thanks very much.

Mr. MUTAFA: Thank you.

SIMON: And you can hear more from 50 Cent and Kanye West online at our Web site, npr.org/music.

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