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Hip-hop has been around for more than 20 years now. It's older than most of its fans. If you lost the thread somewhere along the way, here's a plot summary: Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur were gunned down, Suge Knight is still in jail, Lauryn Hill crossed over, the Beasties have cred, and there's this East Coast-West Coast rivalry that won't go away. And South Bronx rapper Big Pun passed away in February. He was 28 and he weighed 698 pounds, or 317 kg Canadian.

From the outside, hip-hop looks like a cartoon. But hip-hop sets the terms of credibility for an entire generation. Rap constitutes seven per cent of all records sold in Canada, and 13 per cent in the United States, and the figures are rising in both countries. A lot of people live their lives inside the fashions, the language, the values and the politics of this culture, and that makes it the most powerful form of popular music on the market now. Think how remarkable that is! Madison Avenue can't do it. Hollywood is not even close. So if the hip-hop nation is so real to so many, why are the rappers less life-like than Bullwinkle the Moose? What happened to the consciousness hip-hop was raising or the tracking shots of real-life experience? When did rappers turn into cartoons?

During the nineties, things got harder in the rap world. "If you pick up any Source magazine, see how many of them smile," says Kevin Barton. "They have the maddest poses." Barton is 26, the national urban co-ordinator at Universal Music Canada. "Hip-hop used to be a lot more fun," he says, "but it became darker. Gangsta rap definitely shifted hip-hop out of break-dancing and graffiti." Gangsta also put an end to the dominance of the East Coast sensibilities of Public Enemy and KRS-One; the guys who tried to give rap a social conscience.

Alok Sharma is a promoter and DJ and the host of Aural Ammunition, an underground hip-hop show on CIUT, a radio station based at the University of Toronto. "I always thought of hip-hop as another form of punk rock," he says. "It was about rebelliousness. Gangsta took things to another level. And it was the ultimate rebellion for white kids to listen to it."

The record that put together the complete crossover package was Dr. Dre's The Chronic, released in 1993. Dre (aka. Andre Young) is a former member of California's N.W.A. This quintet grabbed headlines in 1988 with its sensational underground hit Fuck tha Police. But The Chronic had something deeper going on. Spin magazine picked Dre's Nuthin' But a G-Thang as the best single of the 1990s, and named the CD one of the decade's Top 10. The difference between this disc and the stuff that N.W.A. put out was you didn't have to be down with the words. The beats were enough. Or as Barton puts it: "Dre is making music. Things sonically make sense." Yes, it's still gangsta rap. But no big deal if you don't like the content. The subject matter, the whole gangsta thang has became stylized, secondary. Dre may have been the godfather of gangsta, and he is still the most respected producer in his field, but he was just setting up for what comes next.

Dre has an uncanny and profitable knack for finding the hottest newcomers and sharing the credit. He's schedule to visit Canada for the first time next month as a headliner on the Up in Smoke tour. On-stage, he'll reunite with his surviving N.W.A. posse, including matinee idol Ice Cube. They are far from the mean streets of Compton, Calif. now. As Kevin Barton says: "Three or four albums deep, how much gangsta is left in anybody?" Perhaps a pose, maybe less.

Still, 10,000 tickets for the Up in Smoke date at Toronto's Molson Amphitheatre were snatched up the day they went on sale by backpack-wearing, skateboard-toting white kids. These kids might be hearing gangsta, but it's a safe bet they're showing up for the gig's other headliners, Dre's protégés Snoop Doggy Dogg and especially Eminem.

Snoop and Eminem have made millions selling (respectively) sex and dysfunction to kids of all ages and races. Since Eminem released his The Marshall Mathers LP in early June, he's sold one million copies and been arrested twice. Meanwhile, the sleepy-eyed Snoop is unleashing his latest CD on July 4, the very day all three performers play Toronto for this unprecedented giants-of-rap event. Snoop is an interesting case because he came out of gangsta, but he was far more interested in just being a dog in the classic George Clinton sense. Snoop liked sex and he rapped about it with a flow unlike anyone else. Dre was shrewd enough to introduce him on The Chronic and that made Snoop a star before he ever released a record.

While Snoop has always been a cartoon, Eminem is, well . . . represents a turning point in rap.

"Hi kids! Do you like violence? Wanna see me stick nine-inch nails through each one of my eyelids?" So began The Marshall Mathers LP's debut single My Name is? and the world was introduced to his two aliases, Slim Shady and Eminem. Why two? Because Mathers needs more than one self to quarrel with. He is from Detroit, 27, and white. His new CD is a deeply paranoid and comical excursion into his own dysfunction, and it is quite possibly the best release of the year. It's also been condemned by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and scores of women, including Kim Scott, Mathers's ex-wife and mother of his daughter, Hailie.

But it couldn't have been too disturbing. In the song 97 Bonnie and Clyde, Mathers killed her off and dumped her body in a lake. And between the two they still got married.

Kids get it. The teens I talked to weren't the least bit excited about the misogyny or homophobia or incest or rape on the record. They were too busy laughing at Eminem's messed-up point of view. A recent Rolling Stone article declared that Eninem "could be the next Axl Rose of hip-hop, a rage-filled, drug-addled, homicidal, charismatic talent and bona fide megastar."

Which sounds about right. "I don't take stuff like that seriously," a 20-year-old fan said. "I wouldn't play it around my parents, though. They'd be disturbed by it." The extremes of Mathers's subject matter find a safe balance in his flimsy grip on sanity. Barton says "He's asking: 'How far can I take this? How messed up can I get on it?' But it has to be comical."

When there's this much success and money attached to one guy his influence on the next wave will be huge. After a decade of sucker MCs boasting with apparent seriousness about their cold violence and the size of their everything, the time is ripe for some irony in rap. Just ask Dre. Dre saw it all when he signed Eminem to his Aftermath label. Dre saw the rise and fall of gangsta and the cross over from black to white back to black audiences. Dre's been watching the numbers rise in hip-hop's sales figures. Oh yeah, and Dre took Napster to court too, to keep all kids from the 'burbs to the ghetto from illegally trading his songs. No trick is too dirty for an old gangsta.

Eminem, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Ice Cube play Toronto's Molson Amphitheatre on July 4. For tickets call (416) 870-8000. Brent Bambury is a white guy living in Toronto. He wraps up his stint as the co-host of CBC-TV's Midday on Friday.