because "it's so hard to crack."
About 17,000 Philadelphians are expected to turn out tomorrow night for a sold-out rap concert at the Spectrum, featuring super rap stars Run-D.M.C., Whodini and L.L. Cool J. - all from New York. But in that audience, and elsewhere in the city, there are perhaps thousands of youngsters who would like to take a crack at the Walnut and make a rap city out of Philadelphia.
Here's 22-year-old Joe Ellis from West Philadelphia - better known as ''M.C. Breeze" - on the subject, in the title song of his record, It Ain't New York:
We all know where it started and
We don't mean to offend.
But it ain't New York this time everybody,
'Cause Philly is steppin' in.
Philly is steppin' in.
Rap literally rises up from city streets, from out of the throats of city kids hanging out with their friends and translating their world into rough rhymes. Sometimes the songs carry morals and messages; sometimes they're coarse and obscene. But because rap's rhythms and rhymes are easy to do, there are a lot of Philadelphia kids who dream of becoming rap stars; rap, they believe, could be their tickets out of poverty and obscurity.
"As I walk down the street I see things, and I sing about them," said Daryl Linton, 19, who lives in North Philadelphia. "See a cop on the street lock somebody up, see a girl you like, you rap about it. You don't think about it, it just comes out."
He and his friends "Petey" and "Man" last year bought two turntables, a mixer, an amplifier and an equalizer. They make music in Man's apartment with Linton as "D.J." - the sound man - and they plan to buy more equipment this summer. Meanwhile, they dream about rap fame and rap success and rap money. Rap is a way of becoming a star, says Linton, and it could be his family's ticket out of his tired neighborhood at 18th and York Streets, where he lives with his mother, grandmother, brother, sister, and a young cousin.
"I want to make an album," he said. "If this is my way of getting out the rat race, then that's what I'm gonna do. Everybody wants to make money, but I don't want to stand on the corner and sell cocaine or a joint - I wasn't brought up that way."
Linton and his friends have not put their songs and dreams onto a tape of marketable music, and so he works as a clerk in a Center City record store, ''waiting for my ship to come in."
But Ellis - the Breeze - didn't wait for a ship to come in; he went out and built his own. Breeze, who grew up in West Philadelphia, has soared to the top of Philadelphia rap on a song with the jawbreaker title of ''Discombobulatorbubalator."
It's about a young guy who goes to a local Chinese restaurant and gets into a fight with a rude Chinese waiter. "The Chinese sound like a broken tape recorder," he sings at one point, and does a nonsensical imitation of Chinese. He also speculates that Chinese food is made from cats and dogs, and sings: "They call it chop suey / but it's chopped dog tongue."
Local rap stations report that it was the most requested song in the last few months, until Philadelphia's Asian community and the city's Commission on Human Relations, offended by lyrics that included the word Chink, urged them in April to stop playing it on the air. Breeze has cut a tidied-up version for airplay (for instance, Chink is now fink), and his manager reports that the song has cracked the Walnut and is being played on the two biggest rap stations in New York.
"Everything was pretty much a surprise," says Breeze, who grew up in West Philadelphia and graduated from Mastbaum Technical High School. He started writing songs at 14 and notes wryly that he became an "overnight success" only after eight years of performing at parties, winning local rap contests and dreaming about making a record.
Breeze made his record the old-fashioned way: He earned it, literally. He delivered Domino's Pizza for two years and, together with his instrumentalist- partner, John Ware - also known as "Hand Master Flash" - they saved up the $2,000 required for a day's recording session at a local studio. In November they cut "It Ain't New York" and "Discombobulatorbubalator" in rap style. A few weeks later they were the proud owners of 500 albums - and had no one to buy them.
"So I was ridin' trolleys and the El like this," he said, holding his arms out at his sides as if carrying cartons full of records, "and I took them around to the (record) stores" in Center City, where shop managers promote records by playing them over their sound systems.
At first he was selling on consignment, but in March the song took off. ''Discombobulatorbubalator" soon began getting aired on local radio stations, and the next thing he knew, store managers were beseeching him for copies with offers of "cash up front." He said he and Flash personally sold 3,000 copies before turning over distribution to Prelude Records, which has since pressed 10,000 more copies.
Now he has a manager, Jim Hill of Pay-Hill Productions in Philadelphia, and he has a tour scheduled for Baltimore, Washington, New York and Cleveland.
And what will he do if the tour fizzles and the album flops?
"I'll go back to Domino's Pizza and save up my money and go through with it again," he said.
A lot of middle-class folks - both whites and blacks - don't like the roughness and rawness of rap. It has none of the suave urbanity of jazz and none of the gentle lyricism of, say, Lionel Richie or Stevie Wonder. But to city kids, living in a world punctuated by honking horns and subways and breaking glass, rap's roughness makes it real.
Rap is serious business for Warren McGlone. Better known to his fans as ''Steady B," he has cut three records, recently performed on the same bill when rap supergroup the Beastie Boys played in Camden, and will perform in London in mid-July. Not bad for a 16-year-old junior at Overbrook High School.
"I never get nervous" in front of a crowd, he said, "because I know what I want to do - I want to rock the crowd."
Steady has an edge that's the envy of every ambitious rapper in the city. He has an uncle in the business: Lawrence Goodman, president of Pop Art Records, a big label in rap that carries superstar Roxanne Shante.
Steady's family connections have spawned some jealousy among Philadelphia rappers, but his last record, "Do the Fila and the Peewee Dance," has sold 15,000 copies, and Steady puts a lot of energy into his music. "I write down my rhymes all the time," he said in an interview in his uncle's office on City Avenue. "If I'm on the street and get an idea, I'll pick up a paper bag and borrow a pen if I have to, and write it down."
"I get mad when people say rap is nothin', " he said. A lot of people sneer at rap the way they sneer at graffiti or breakdancing, he said, but these are important to city kids. "I was into all of it," he said. He began ''wall writing" - doing big graffiti drawings and lettering with spray paint - when he was 14, and would climb out windows at night to create huge drawings on the sides of buildings.
Wall writing, he said, "is not for (public) attention. . . . Writers don't care about nobody" but their fellow wall writers. Like rap, he said, "it was a way of getting a name for yourself when there's nothing else you can do. . . . When you get big, you're the biggest."
But being a rap star, said Steady, beats wall writing any day.
"It's a lot more satisfying," he said. "I'd rather be up on a stage than risking my life on a rooftop."
Rap rhymes are easy to construct, with the stress and the rhyme often falling on the last word of every other line, such as this verse by Philadelphia rapper Schoolly D:
All you rock-and-roll lovers
We're knockin' you out,
'Cause that's what rap
Is all about.
For those who make a tape, but don't have the dollars to press a record, several local radio stations invite them to submit their music. The better stuff will get airplay and just might launch a kid from out of the streets onto a stage.
"I get 10 calls a day from kids saying, 'I've got this group,' " said the city's best known rap DJ, Wendy Clark, who does a show on WUSL-FM under the name "Lady B." "They want to do rap because they want to be heard over the airwaves, and it's good for me to give them a chance. . . . I tell them, 'Send it in.'
"It gives your poor in the ghettos a chance to be somebody without having to be, say, a gang leader. It's a better way to get attention - I think it reduces gang war and crime - and I'm very impressed with what I hear," she said. Listeners are invited to vote for their favorite performers.
"We try very hard to steer kids in the right direction," she said. One young man whose rapping caught her ear was Eric Lowe, 18, a senior at William Penn High School. She visited the school one day last fall to judge students' rap videos, and as she signed autographs Lowe screwed up the courage to do a rap for her. She liked it, they talked, and he asked if he could be a student intern at the station. She set up an interview, and now he earns school credit as her assistant.
"I've got notebooks full of lyrics," said Lowe (who goes by the name ''M.C. Eazy-E"), and he held up four notebooks. He's done more than just fill notebooks, though: He has produced a tape called "Betty Jean" that Lady B has played on the air, and she says she is impressed with his work.
Although many popular rap songs are sprinkled with obscenities and frank, sexual lyrics, "Betty Jean" offers a surprisingly old-fashioned message.
I'm about to teach a lesson
That needs to be taught
So listen to me
And give it some thought . . .
Is gonna be
A very well-known topic:
He goes on to tell the story of Betty Jean "who had her first child when she was 16."
Her parents throw her out, and she discovers that without an education she can't get a job. She squanders her welfare checks and starts selling drugs, and the authorities place her baby in a foster home. She starts using drugs, and when she fails to pay her pusher, he "blows her away." Betty Jean is dead at 21.
"So listen to your parents when they talk to you," he says, and parts with a final word of advice: "If you want to get pregnant, first get a wedding ring."
Rap, said Eazy, is "easy to write," and while he admits to dreams of becoming a star and "making as much money as I can," he is planning to major in communications at Temple University and work some day in record production. Rapping may not make him rich, he said, "but I'm going to try to ride it as long as I can."