More than three dozen of the nation's music critics (including this one) have sent a joint letter to Newsweek protesting the newsmagazine's "Rap Rage" cover story of last week. In the letter to the editor, drafted by Greg Sandow of Entertainment Weekly, the critics lambaste the magazine for "lurid distortion" in a four-page essay, "The Rap Attitude," by Jerry Adler. The essay preceded David Gates's three-page cover story, "Decoding Rap Music." But it was Adler's essay, in which he demonized rap artists and reduced the genre to one violent dimension, that prompted the letter, which charges that by quoting lyrics from only a few groups, the article "made {rap} seem gigantically more violent, obscene and confrontational than it is ... even artists who might be controversial were misrepresented."

The letter also says that Adler barely mentions the serious, constructive rap songs on the market, overlooks its women practitioners, and fails to place rap into any musical, social, cultural or historical context, choosing instead to invent "a nightmarish -- and racist -- fantasy about ignorant black men who scream obscene threats."

Among the statements in the essay that most upset the critics: "{Rap's} most visible contribution has been the disinterment of the word nigger, a generation after a national effort to banish it and its ugly connotations from the American language" (though Adler then goes on to misspell the name "Niggas"). The protesters claim that Adler seems intent on creating a '90s buzzword concept called "The Culture of Attitude," which he calls "primarily a working-class and underclass phenomenon. ... If they had ever listened to anything except the homeboys talking trash, if they had ever studied anything but the strings of a guitar {this being a vehicle to justify the inclusion of rockers Guns N'Roses in a rap article}, they might have some interesting justifications to offer. ... Then we might have a sensible discussion with them; but they haven't, so we can't."

In another letter to Newsweek, rap entrepreneur Russell Simmons of Rush Artists Management and Def Jam Recordings writes that Adler's "screed" is a symptom of the "cultural hysteria in America" and what rapper Chuck D of Public Enemy calls "fear of a black planet." "Surely the moral outrage expressed in this piece would be better applied to contemporary American crises in healthcare, education, housing, joblessness, the environment, mass transit and daycare. ... And to the extent that rap is about rage, mightn't Newsweek and its readers be better off examining its social sources than decrying its justifiable expression? Blaming the victims -- in this case America's black working class and underclass -- is never a very useful approach to problem-solving."

Critics have taken exception to the juxtaposition of Adler's essay and the Gates overview. "In this case the order of the stories was something we debated through Friday night," says Newsweek Executive Editor Stephen Smith. "The standard practice is to put the most recent news events and controversy in the lead piece and the Adler story, while it has essayish tones, was the piece that best accommodated the news bits about the controversy over rap."

According to Arts Editor Sarah Crichton, a rap article has been on Newsweek's drawing board for the past year. "We recognized that rap is one of the most important cultural developments since rock-and-roll, one that was gaining broader and broader appeal, and yet it was a music form that a lot of people didn't understand. We set out to explain to Newsweek readers what this cultural phenomenon was all about."

The Gates overview, Crichton says, was originally much longer, with extensive history, context and explorations of rap subgenres. At the same time, a flurry of events suggested a sidebar story: the increasingly homophobic and violent lyrics by certain heavy metal bands, the sexually explicit humor of comedian Andrew Dice Clay, the controversial lyrics of rap groups such as 2 Live Crew and N.W.A., a New York Times piece by Jon Pareles questioning a new "culture of hate." In the end, the Gates report was much shortened, the Adler essay expanded and rap-focused.

"A lot of mainstream listeners are scared of rap and rap artists," says Crichton. "They look at groups like N.W.A. or PE and think civilization is going to hell. You couldn't write about rap without addressing people's fears or concerns, and that's what Jerry Adler set out to do." According to a Newsweek source, the original Adler essay was funnier and more balanced, but after various editing processes, it emerged harder and more accusatory in its "they" vs. "we" dichotomy.

A different light is shed on the rap phenomenon in "Stop the Violence: Overcoming Self-Destruction" (Pantheon, $7.95). Edited by Nelson George, this slim book traces the unprecedented collaborative effort by many rap stars and music industry people aimed at raising young people's consciousness and sense of responsibility about black-on-black crime, drug abuse and, on a more positive note, the need for education and self-empowerment. After a 1987 Nassau Coliseum rap concert in which gangs of black and Hispanic thugs preyed on innocent, mostly black concertgoers, George helped to organize an all-star rap record titled "Self-Destruction."

Among the participants: KRS-One (whose partner, Scott LaRock, had been gunned down that year), Kool Moe Dee, M.C. Lyte, Doug E. Fresh, Heavy D and Chuck D and Flavor Flav of Public Enemy. The record subsequently went gold (earning $200,000 for the National Urban League), sparking both a video and the ongoing Stop the Violence Movement. As rap itself can be, this book project is partly an educational tool: It includes sobering statistics about the disproportionate effects of black-on-black crime, letters about those effects from readers of the black teen magazine Word Up!, statements from various rappers, and several prize-winning essays from a contest sponsored by the Urban League.