RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA -- In Saudi Arabia's music shops, where employees are always careful to protect this country's Moslem values by blacking out bare legs and cleavage on Western album covers, the biggest seller is one of America's raunchiest groups.
2 Live Crew's "As Nasty as They Wanna Be," rap music so explicit that a federal judge in Florida declared the album obscene last fall, is selling big.
To be sure, someone has touched up the photo on the cover. You can barely make out the image of the gold-chained rappers looking up the legs of four women wearing ever-so-skimpy underwear.
But no one has suggested that its sensational tracks, at least one with a name most American newspapers wouldn't print, shouldn't be heard in the Saudi capital. And for 80 rials -- about $22 -- anyone can take it home.
And they do. By the hundreds, according to salesmen at music shops in Riyadh and Al-Khobar in the Eastern Province, who report that rap music is selling off the shelves.
"A lot of the Americans, they come in and buy it," says a clerk at Riyadh's branch of the 747 Record Shop. "Many of the Arabic people like it too. But I don't really think they understand the words. It is rebel music."
Rap is hot here, says a Western diplomat, because it is one form of legal rebellion against the strictures of this tightly controlled society.
Music-banning, the Western diplomat said, is largely hit-and-miss. For a time you couldn't buy Eric Clapton's "Lay Down Sally," because the word "lay" appeared on a list of words deemed offensive in the kingdom.
Now it's back, as is Michael Jackson's "Thriller," which was off-limits for a time. According to several clerks, someone in the royal family suspected the superstar of disliking Arabs. But the ban has been lifted, so the platinum album is back on the shelves, though tentatively.
It was stacked among the top sellers at one music store this week -- backward. The list of songs was in plain view. It was Jackson's picture that was hidden.
At the same time, Handel's "Messiah" is hard to find. Yet, inexplicably, the Requiem Mass is for sale.
And 2 Live Crew. Even bootlegged on the cassette tapes that are the rage these days with the U.S. soldiers. Cheap copies of American and European recordings, they're made in the United Arab Emirates and sell for as little as $2 each.
But not for long at the popular chain of 747 Record shops.
Its Saudi owner said in a telephone interview from his home office in Jeddah that he had just stopped ordering 2 Live Crew recordings.
"We're trying to clear it off the shelves," said Bakor Bagdadi nervously. "This is something that can cause big trouble for me. I only just recently realized what the words said."