Writing for rap magazines is a lot harder than it looks.

You need three distinct skills for the job. First, you must have a deep knowledge of classical poetics, so you can analyze rap lyrics. Second, you must understand musicology, so you can discourse on rap rhythms. Third, you need quick reflexes so you can hit the floor fast when the shooting breaks out.

Gunfire erupts with disconcerting frequency in the rap world. Two of the biggest rap stars ever--Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G--were gunned down a couple years ago, allegedly in a war between East Coast and West Coast rappers. Last month, Sean "Puffy" Combs was arrested on weapons charges after fleeing a gunfight in a New York nightclub. In October, two rappers were wounded and a bodyguard killed when gunmen shot up the Los Angeles studio where rapper Kurupt was recording his new album, "Tha Streetz Iz a Mutha."

Apparently, tha studioz iz a mutha, too.

Guys who review classical music can go to work in a dapper tuxedo. Rap writers are advised to strap on a bulletproof vest.

Rap and other varieties of hip-hop are now the most popular music in America, outselling rock and country and classical and generating billions of dollars. Inevitably, the popularity of rap has spawned a slew of ad-fat magazines--Vibe, Blaze, the Source, Rap Pages, XXL and Murder Dog, among others. Like the rappers they cover, they vary widely in quality.

The slickest and most professional are Vibe and the Source, which mix profiles of rap stars with articles on politics, economics and fashion. The latest issue of the Source, for instance, contains smart pieces on Third World debt, the prison industry and the hip-hop scene in Japan.

The funkiest is Murder Dog. When I first saw that title, I thought it was an antivivisectionist magazine--a PETA polemic against killing pound puppies. It's not. It's a rap mag edited by a guy named Black Dog Bone with assistance from somebody named Tokyo Shotgun. As far as I can tell, the magazine takes no position on the issue of murdering dogs. In fact, it's a tad ambivalent on the issue of murdering humans. In the current issue, columnist X-Raided--a rapper currently serving time for a murder he claims he didn't commit--seems to endorse killing people as long as you don't hit innocent bystanders: "I like to hit the nigga that crossed the game. . . . Not the spectators."

The rest of the rap mags waver somewhere between those extremes. In the latest issue of XXL, for instance, there's an informative city-by-city analysis of the effects of the federal government's decision to close housing projects. Then, a few pages later, there's a fashion spread in which the models are shown in the act of mugging Santa Claus, leaving him prostrate on the sidewalk. (For the record, the hip attire for mugging Saint Nick includes Timberland boots, Roc-A-Wear jeans and a FUBU jacket.)

Of course the main focus of all these mags is the rap artists themselves, who are almost always photographed while doing some serious, state-of-the-art scowling. Rappers are prodigies of scowling. They're great at looking cold and hard and mean. They have to be. If you're going to call yourself Hittman or MastaKilla or Ghostface Killah, you can't very well walk around grinning like Shirley Temple.

They don't talk like Shirley Temple, either. Rappers are poets who don't do a lot of pompous pontificating about iambic pentameters. They're admirably down to earth about how they make their art.

Rapper Mac Dre explained to Murder Dog why his new album, "Rapper Gone Bad," sounds different than "Stupid Doo Doo Dumb," his previous album: "When I did 'Stupid Doo Doo Dumb,' I was up under strict parole conditions," he says. "I couldn't smoke, I couldn't drink, I couldn't ride out anywhere. . . . Now I'm more relaxed, I'm back in my thug element. I'm hangin with my niggaz."

And Capone explained to the Source why he and his partner, Noreaga, like to smoke dope in the recording studio: "We need [expletive] to be thugged out in here. Hostile environment, arguin' and [expletive] like that to keep us in a New York state of mind."

Rappers use a lot of expletives, in all their myriad permutations--noun, verb, adjective and gerund. Most of the mags just publish these words, but Blaze prints them in a lighter type, as if they'd been half-erased by the resident staff bluenose.

None of the magazines censors the infamous N-word, which appears more often in one issue of the average rap mag than in the collected speeches of all the Imperial Wizards in the history of the Ku Klux Klan. Apparently, this vile racial slur--used here as everything from a friendly greeting to an insult--is okay as long as it's spelled "nigga."

Rap has its own unique style of spelling, which must drive the copy editors at these magazines crazy. In fact, being a copy editor at a rap mag has got to be the toughest job in journalism. They have to remember that Snoop spells his surname Dogg while Top spells his surname Dawg. They have to remember that "the" is spelled "tha" in Tha Eastsidaz but it's spelled "da" in Da Godfather. They also have to keep track of the correct plural form of the ubiquitous n-word. It's spelled "niggas" in the Source but "niggaz" in Murder Dog. By the time they put an issue to bed, these folks must be stark raving mad.

Their bosses have a tough job, too. Sometimes rappers who are dissatisfied with stories about themselves come to the office to visit the editors. Jesse Washington, the former editor of Blaze, was beaten by the bodyguards of one dissatisfied rapper and had a pistol pointed at his chest by another. Apparently, a bitingly clever letter to the editor just wouldn't do.

Considering that, I'd like to say this to all you rappers out there: Hey, I was just kidding about that scowling stuff. You look great, really. And I love the spelling. It's very creative. I would never even consider dissing you guys. I love you. You're the greatest. Please don't shoot me.

CAPTION: Rap and hip-hop have spawned a slew of ad-fat mags that vary from slick and smart to funky.