The New York Times rarely refers to rock stars such as Alice Cooper, Moby, and Elton John by their birth names. With few exceptions, Vincent Furnier, Richard Melville Hall, and Reginald Dwight get free passes on their alter egos, as do the likes of American Idol icon Clay Aiken (Clayton Grissom) and anti-Christ
superstar Marilyn Manson (Brian Warner). For some reason, though, the unofficial guideline that once compelled former Times critic Donal Henahan to make subsequent reference to Iggy Pop and Sid Vicious as Mr. Pop and Mr. Vicious (instead of Mr. [James] Osterberg and Mr. [Simon John] Beverly, or even Pop and Vicious) does not apply, apparently, to hip-hop artists. At the Times, the penalty for being a rapper is twofold: you are routinely called out on your birth name (no matter how nerdy and ironic it might be), and you rarely are addressed as “Mr.” This nominal double standard surfaces from time to time in hip-hop articles throughout the mainstream press, but due to the Times’s extensive urban-music coverage and its eternal struggle with honorific conformity, rap handles seem to inspire more copy dilemmas there.
Despite having sold several million discs and served as president of Def Jam Recordings under his alias, Jay-Z still gets pegged as Shawn Carter. The Times’s David M. Halbfinger and Jeff Leeds did so in reporting on the Brooklyn rap entrepreneur’s 2007 comeback, as did Los Angeles Times staff writer Richard Cromelin and the Boston Globe’s Sarah Rodman. No hip-hop artist is immune—Wu-Tang Clan ringleader RZA (Robert Diggs), Queens heavyweight 50 Cent (Curtis Jackson), and urban mogul Diddy (Sean Combs) are all routinely birth-named in the mainstream press.
Sam Sifton, the Times’s culture editor, says that while such decisions are handled on a case-by-case basis, rap artists often get special treatment. “There’s a big difference between [Houston rapper] Bun B and Tony Bennett,” Sifton says, referring to Bernard Freeman and Anthony Dominick Benedetto, respectively. “Tony Bennett took a stage name, which I think is a little different from taking an alias. Someone like Jay-Z can be Mr. Carter, certainly, or he can just be Jay-Z, but he’s never going to be Mr. Z.”
But is there a meaningful distinction between a “stage name” and an “alias”? That Sifton made an example of Jay-Z—rather than someone like, say, Ghostface Killah, whose chosen moniker is further outside the mainstream nomenclature—suggests that at the Times, at least, there is, and that rappers are in a class by themselves. Why else would Alicia Keys, a performer from beyond the rap realm—who took a stage name (or devised an alias) based on the instrument she plays—have never been outed as Alicia Augello-Cook? In Kelefa Sanneh’s October 5, 2003, Times CD roundup, Outkast rappers André 3000 (André Benjamin) and Big Boi (Antwan Patton) got name-dropped, while Erykah Badu’s birth name (Erica Wright) was never mentioned.
Even more confusing are articles that seem to follow no logic whatsoever: a December 3, 2006, Times profile on celebrity Sirius Radio hosts refers to rap personality Ludacris as Christopher Bridges (and as “Mr. Bridges” in subsequent references), but allows Eminem (Marshall Mathers), Snoop Dogg (Calvin Broadus), and Bob Dylan (Robert Zimmerman) to use their stage names. On second reference, though, Bob Dylan is “Mr. Dylan,” while Eminem remains Eminem; Snoop is only mentioned once, but judging by former Times treatments he would have been called “Snoop” or “Snoop Dogg” had his name come up again.
“If you look in our archives, which we famously refer to as our compendium of past errors, you’ll see plenty of examples of us looking ridiculous,” Sifton says. “One of the difficulties that the Times has in addressing contemporary culture, and certainly hip-hop culture, is that we risk looking stupid all the time.”
Since it doesn’t look like it will be abandoning honorifics any time soon, blanket uniformity might be the best bet for the Times to look less foolish, or at least more consistent. After all, if they can call Brian Warner “Mr. Manson,” then surely America’s finest newsrooms can honor Calvin Broadus as Mr. Dogg.