In the late 1980s, a little group called NWA came out of Compton, California to capture the hearts and minds of music fans around the world. A drug dealer named Eazy-E put together enough money to lift “gangsta rap” out of the streets of L.A. and into the living rooms of every suburban household across America. With almost no radio play whatsoever, the music spread like wildfire to teenagers everywhere. The investment worked like a charm, and Eazy-E made millions before he died of complications from AIDS in 1995.

Not only did gangsta rap create more platinum albums than you could count, it became the seminal force behind nearly every kind of hip hop we hear today. First, there was NWA, and out of that came Snoop Doggy Dogg, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre. Shortly afterward, 50 Cent and Eminem were produced by Dr. Dre, selling millions of albums apiece. After 50 Cent and Eminem came Lil Wayne and T.I., two of the leading artists of the new millennium.

So, in some ways, you could say that NWA was the genesis of most hip-hop we hear on the radio right now. Given that NWA was financed by drug money, one could easily argue that a huge segment of hip-hop has been fueled by the dope game. The “recent arrest of Kareem (Biggs) Burke”:http://www.thegrio.com/entertainment/feds-roc-a-fella-founder-part-of-ny-fla-pot-ring.php, co-founder of Roc-a-Fella Records (of Jay-Z fame) lets us know that the tradition hasn’t changed since the days of Eazy-E. Burke is accused of trafficking tons of marijuana to the state of New York.

The tie between hip-hop and criminal activity is as deep as the connection between the Supreme Court and Ivy League universities. Many of the biggest gangsta rappers typically maintain some kind of “street cred” by making continuous reference to either being a drug dealer in the past or engaging in a life of crime before finding their music. A song by the late Norotorious B.I.G called “Ten Crack Commandments” was one of the biggest pieces of his time, and even today, Rick Ross is accused of stealing his name from “Freeway Ricky Ross,” a drug king pin during the 1980s.

There’s an ugly side to this connection between hip-hop and crime that spills out into the general public. In fact, the ugliness is as deep as the artists are talented. It starts with the fact that there are several artists who’ve had their careers interrupted by prison sentences. Nearly every publicist in the hip-hop industry loves to blast out press releases about how their artist is “keepin’ it real” by going to jail. T.I.’s recent prison sentence for drug possession is simply the latest in a long line of consequences many artists have felt for their behavior.

Some artists, like the late Tupac Shakur, found his way to an early grave. While Tupac probably wasn’t killed by a drug dealer (witnesses were not very cooperative, as this was part of the whole “stop snitching” movement in black America), he was in the car with Suge Knight at the time, a man who is known for having quite a few shady affiliations. Lil Boosie, another rapper, is serving a four-year prison sentence for drug and gun possession. Even some of the ladies, Lil Kim and Foxy Brown among others, have done their time in the joint and used it to propel their careers.

Another horrible consequence of the ties between gangsta rap and criminal behavior is that black males listen to hip-hop in a way that is different from nearly any other group of people in America. We don’t just listen to the artists, we imitate them. Millions of black boys want to be like Lil Wayne, copying every tattoo, gesture and ridiculous punch line. When he goes to jail and brags about it, we end up bragging about it ourselves. Therefore, hip-hop has done its share of work to sustain the perpetual love affair between African American males and the systems designed to destroy them.

One very telling manifestation of the relationship between hip-hop and criminal activity was when the rapper 50 Cent made fun of Rick Ross because he lied about having a criminal record. One black man is ridiculing another because he never went to jail and is a law-abiding citizen. God forbid a man ever choose to become educated, that would really undermine his street cred.

Kanye West had trouble getting a record deal because he wanted to make a song about Jesus. Recording execs told him repeatedly that no one would want to hear a hip-hop song about God, Jesus or anything like it. Instead, they wanted West to pretend to be a criminal, even though he wasn’t one. Of course West proved the critics wrong, but he had to spend a lot of his own money in order to do so. Kanye’s experience shows us that the use of hip-hop music as a channel to promote deviant behavior is not just a phenomenon that was created by certain black males, it is also one that is energized and marketed by corporate America. A few million dollars of drug money served as the initial fuel for gangsta rap, but billions of dollars in corporate money has gladly taken its place.

The connection between hip-hop, black men and criminal activity is a powerful trinity that threatens to derail our entire community. The same way every hip hop artist wants to brag about selling dope, many dope dealers are arrested with hip-hop music booming from their stereo systems. You don’t have to be a criminal to be a rapper, and we should try to remember that. By tying our fates so closely to the criminal justice system and then rapping about it, we are creating the recipe for our own self-destruction.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and the initiator of the National Conversation on Race. For more information, please visit BoyceWatkins.com>