Sweeten the Image, Hold the Bling-Bling By LOLA OGUNNAIKE The New York Times P. Diddy donates $2 million for the children of New York City. Missy Elliott, on her single "Wake Up," raps: "If you don't got a gun, it's all right. If you're makin' legal money, it's all right." Murder Inc., the hip-hop label, decides to drop "murder" from its name. And 50 Cent saves his raunchier, more belligerent rhymes for mixtapes — sold on street corners and in specialty stores — releasing more restrained, radio-friendly singles for mass consumption. In the past rappers like Snoop Dogg and Ice Cube have cleaned up their acts when their careers were flagging. But today's rappers, tired of being viewed as one-dimensional gangstas and aware that more palatable images are ultimately better for business, are making a conscious effort to clean up their acts while still on top. "It's not only about satisfying your boys in the hood anymore," said Nelson George, author of "Hip Hop America" (Viking). "Now the mainstream matters as much if not more than they do." It has been a long time since hip-hop was thought of as fringe music strictly for urban audiences. "Get Rich or Die Tryin' " by 50 Cent was the top-selling album in the country last year, besting Norah Jones's "Come Away With Me." Hip-hop dominated the nominations for next month's Grammy awards. Sharing top honors with six nominations each were Jay-Z, OutKast and Pharrell Williams of the Neptunes, while Ms. Elliott, Eminem and 50 Cent each earned five. Three of the five acts in the record-of-the-year category are hip-hop singles. With this increased visibility comes new challenges. An executive at Arista, OutKast's label, said: "In the beginning, that rough shoot-'em-up stuff was part of the marketing of hip-hop. Now a lot of people consider it a hindrance. Wal-Mart won't stock your album if you're too gangster." Murder Inc. (now simply called The Inc.) is not the first label to rechristen itself. Death Row, the West Coast outfit that made gangster rap a multimillion-selling commodity throughout the early- to mid-1990's, changed its name to Tha Row after the fortunes of the company had reversed, with many of the label's biggest acts, including Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre, defecting. For Murder Inc. the decision to change its name was a pre-emptive strike of sorts. With federal investigators looking into whether the label was started with drug money, and the label's flagship artist, Ja Rule, in a volatile feud with 50 Cent, a name like Murder Inc. was proving to be more trouble than it was worth for a label whose biggest artists, Ja Rule and the R&B singer Ashanti, are as Top 40 as it gets. "Ja Rule is probably being purchased more in a mall in Virginia than on 125th Street," Mr. George, the author, said. Nevertheless Irv Gotti, the founder of Murder Inc., argued that investigators and potential business clients were having trouble seeing past his company's former name. "Ashanti is a wholesome girl from Glen Cove who in two years has sold seven million worldwide," he said. "But Revlon is like, `I don't know if I want to be in business with an artist signed to Murder Inc.' " Like sports stars before them, rappers are now hawking everything from soft drinks to deodorant and appearing in Old Navy and AOL ads. But more than just endorsement deals are at stake. Some rappers — like P. Diddy (who owns a record label, restaurant chain and clothing line), and Jay-Z (who owns a record label, clothing line, sneaker line, vodka company and sports bar) — are veritable cottage industries. "They're brand managers now, and they have to think about how their actions are affecting the brand," said Erik Parker, music editor of Vibe magazine. After years of accusing the media of misrepresentation, today's rappers and others in the business are making a concerted effort to put their spin on stories, deciding what about their lives will become news, using mainstream news media to advance their agendas. Rather than just sending out a news release notifying various press outlets about his label's name change, Mr. Gotti called a news conference, a move that is becoming increasingly popular in hip-hop these days. After news reports said that his Sean Jean clothing line was being produced in a Honduran sweatshop, P. Diddy (a k a Sean Combs) called a news conference to address the matter. Damon Dash called one last May to announce that he was adding the troubled rapper Ol' Dirty Bastard to his roster. And the rap magazine The Source recently called a news conference to play a tape of Eminem delivering disparaging rhymes about black women. "We're a lot more media savvy now," said David Banner, a popular Mississippi rapper, when asked about all the news conferences. "We have to be. Look at the way we've been crucified in the past." Mr. Banner recently joined the growing number of rap artists cultivating their philanthropic sides. He is offering five lucky fans a chance to win $10,000 in scholarship money. He said that it was not necessary to buy his latest album to win, and that his motives and those of his peers were pure, not efforts to grab publicity. "I'm not doing this to change my image," he said. "The world can think what they want of me. What I'm doing comes from the bottom of my heart. I'm trying to disperse the blessings God has given me." P. Diddy, Nelly, Eminem, Jay-Z, Ludacris and Wyclef all have charities. Some have made donations privately. Others, like P. Diddy, who turned his decision to run in the New York City Marathon into a publicity bonanza, have been more public in an effort to reshape what the public makes of them, said Mr. Parker of Vibe. "They're tired of people thinking they're just people running around with guns," he said. "They want people to know that they do have compassion, they are human beings." Even the look of some of today's top rappers is evolving. Andre 3000, the avant-garde half of OutKast, now favors seersucker pants, saddle shoes and Brooks Brothers blazers. Big Boi, the hardcore half of the duo, is now partial to 1970's inspired tuxedos and has cut his signature, shoulder-length hair. Some like Nas and Ja Rule have scaled back on the bling. "It's not cool walking around with five chains on anymore when I'm approaching 30," Ja Rule said. In a line from his new song "What More Can I Say," Jay-Z, who recently said he was retiring from rap, says: "I don't wear jerseys/I'm 30 plus/gimmie a crisp pair of jeans" and "button-ups." Button-up is slang for an oxford shirt. Theresa Sanders, a hip-hop publicist, said she was pleasantly surprised when her 16-year-old son recently asked for "button-ups" and not the oversize $200 throwback jerseys he once favored. "Jay-Z is in a position of power, so he can affect change," she said. "He can make dressing up cool." For the most part, however, the risqué lyrical content of the music has not changed. Instead, rappers have traded in hardcore beats for more melody-driven, radio-friendly fare, couching their naughty couplets in tracks tailor made for partying, toning down the misogyny and talk of violence a tad. For all of his gangster bravado, his boasts of having survived being shot nine times, 50 Cent is not above smiling pretty for the camera. He is rarely seen without a snug-fitting tank top, his well-glistened muscles always on display. And his biggest hits are far from menacing. On the song "21 Questions" he even plays up his tender side. "I love you like a fat kid loves cake," he says to a paramour who stands by him while he is in prison. "People mistakenly think hip-hop sells because it's gangster, but for the most part it sells because it's good pop music," Mr. George said. All this crossing over, however, does not suggest 50 Cent and his ilk are ready to abandon their core audience. A loss of street credibility is still considered a fate worse than death for most rappers, said Elliott Wilson, editor in chief of the hip-hop magazine XXL. "They want the trappings of pop, but they don't want to be considered pop because pop in their eyes is soft," he said. Enter the mixtape, which has become a flourishing industry in recent years. Less accessible to the masses than commercially released material, the mixtape provides rappers a forum to say whatever they please, with little concern as to how they might affect album sales or their brands. It is often in this arena that the most vicious verbal battles are played out, where beefs start and end. In public 50 Cent says his war with Ja Rule is over. But "No Peace Talks," his current mixtape, suggests otherwise. Still, he cannot afford to have his street persona get in the way of serious business. He has a sneaker deal with Reebok to think about.