Don Imus really knows how to open up Pandora's box, doesn't he?

Earlier this month, while trying to prevent his show from being canceled over his comments regarding Rutgers University's women's basketball team, the radio host attempted to divert some of the attention away from himself and onto hip-hop. During his efforts at damage control, he asked why he was being taken to task and hip-hop music wasn't.

The question didn't save his show, but it did rehash arguments that were sparked back when N.W.A first hit the scene, and again when Ice-T's Body Count released "Cop Killer" and Death Row Records first came into prominence: Does the more explicit hip-hop music have a debilitating effect on the black community — especially the children and women?

The issue seems to have infuriated MCs like T.I. and Snoop Dogg, and it's definitely struck a chord with Internet bloggers and members of the media (see "Hip-Hop On The Defensive After Imus Incident; Sharpton Calls For 'Dialogue' With MCs").

The most prominent media personality to speak out against the genre and its artists was Oprah Winfrey. Last week, she had what she called a "Town Hall Meeting" on her show about the state of hip-hop, mainly over certain lyrics, and the way some songs and images are degrading to women and steering youth in the wrong direction. Boycotts and even censorship were brought up as possible punishments.

And on Monday, in a statement on behalf of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, Def Jam/Phat Farm impresario Russell Simmons and Dr. Benjamin Chavis called for recording and broadcast industries to voluntarily remove or obscure the "misogynistic" words "bitch" and "ho," and the "racially offensive" "n---er," from "clean" versions of hip-hop songs, and to regard them in the same way as as "extreme curse words." (The words in question often are excluded from clean versions, but no uniform policy to delete or obscure them currently exists.)

Over the past several days, the conversation has spread from the media into some of our homes, our work offices, into the studios where some of the music under fire is being created.

"I honestly feel it's a lot more important things [to worry about]," T.I. said last week in his Grand Hustle Studio in Atlanta. "If you want to fix America, you have to start at George Bush and work your way down — you can't start at hip-hop and work your way up. Me, I got children and I'm with my children every day I can be there. They know if they call somebody out there a name, if they disrespect a woman, if they do anything to imitate a 50 Cent or a Snoop Dogg or a T.I. or what they see on MTV — they can't blame that on hip-hop. They gonna have to deal with Daddy. [Some] parents let their children blame it on hip-hop. I think that's the beginning of the problem, personally. I think hip-hop is being used as the scapegoat."

Fat Joe took a similar tack. "I know that Don Imus did not disrespect those young ladies because of hip-hop music," Joe said last week. "I'm 99 percent sure that he doesn't even listen to hip-hop like that. Everybody who's taking on hip-hop music are the same people who are just looking for a moment or window of opportunity. This is their moment to say, 'F--- hip-hop.' I don't know how a 60-year-old white dude has any relation to hip-hop music. What we need to know is there is freedom of speech: That's the biggest thing. My kids listen to hip-hop, they love Dipset, they love gangsta rap. But they also do great in school.

"Being that I'm a father and I take great pride in having a relationship with my kids," he continued, "they can listen to hip-hop and understand the difference between reality and entertainment. Some of these parents, if they don't want their kids to listen to hip-hop, tell them to listen to gospel [music]. Play some other kind of music! It ain't like anybody is forcing people to listen to hip-hop."

The only MC who appeared on Oprah's show was Common — other guests included Russell Simmons; Warner Music exec Kevin Liles; a slew of rap-admonishing panelists from the media, including Stanley Crouch; female students from Spelman College; and, curiously, neo-soul singer India.Arie. Although Common may not agree with her characterization of his genre of music, he said Oprah seemed willing to hear other sides of the argument.

"Oprah said that she was really open to hearing what we had to say as voices in hip-hop and also [whether we are] willing to grow and show change," Common said. "I can't speak for her, but maybe she didn't listen to hip-hop as much before, and she's entitled to that. We're all people — we like what we like. The fact is, she's open enough to say, 'It may have been something I wasn't aware of all the way, but I'm going to give it a chance. I understand it's a voice of different people.' " During Winfrey's show, Nelly and Snoop Dogg bore the brunt of the criticism, with one panelist even calling for Snoop to be released from his recording contract because of some of the language on his records. Snoop's notorious appearance at the MTV Video Music Awards, when he walked the red carpet with two women wearing giant leashes, was a heated talking point, as was Nelly's "Tip Drill" video. Neither MC was invited on the show to defend himself, according to their camps.

Oprah said that such portrayals of women in hip-hop is "not just making people uncomfortable" but is being "glamorized," and the rappers who do it aren't being held accountable. Those sentiments have been echoed frequently by others as of late, and generally, the rappers say they're just reflecting the reality of their lives and others'.

Snoop Dogg has heard all of this before — protesters have even gone so far as to publicly smash his CDs. He takes the same stance he did more than a decade ago: People who do not know him shouldn't judge him solely on his music; there are many more sides to him. Snoop, who recently visited MTV's offices to promote his new compilation LP, Snoop Dogg Presents: The Big Squeeze, said he had not seen the Winfrey broadcast but was apparently not troubled by what he's heard about it.

"I'm a fan of Oprah," he said. "I love what she does. I feel like whatever they're saying about me, negative or positive, I appreciate it. I thank you, Oprah. I'm Snoop Dogg — you can't [badmouth] me because I do so much right and I'm the person who represents me the best""I'm a fan of Oprah," he said. "I love what she does. I feel like whatever they're saying about me, negative or positive, I appreciate it. I thank you, Oprah. I'm Snoop Dogg — you can't [badmouth] me because I do so much right and I'm the person who represents me the best" (see "Snoop Says Rappers And Imus Are 'Two Separate Things'; Talks New Comp"). Snoop said he's open to sitting down with Oprah in the future. "Snoop Dogg is a father, he's a coach, he's a teacher," he explained. "I'm a man, and I do make mistakes and I'm willing to listen and learn. But a lot of times, they don't know me, so they have to speak on what they feel. But it is what it is. I appreciate you, Oprah. I've never been on your show, so thank you for bringing my name up on your show. I'm sure that'll mean another million record sales. Thank you." Others, such as Beanie Sigel, are a bit less appreciative of the comparisons between Imus' comments and hip-hop lyrics. "One don't got nothing to do with another," he said. "It's sad. Right now, hip-hop is our thing. People are starting to turn to our things. Keep the attention where it's at and address [Imus' comments]. [Hip-hop] is our form of expression to each other. It's like another language. That's our thing, the way we communicate. It's not disrespect towards each other — if it really felt that way, there wouldn't be no women in the videos because they would feel disrespected. Evidently they don't."

Another frequently raised question is: Why is hip-hop being singled out when television, films and video games are at times even more risqué and violent? "When I talk about guns in the music, [critics say] it's wrong," Sigel observed. "But what's one of the number-one-selling video games? 'Grand Theft Auto' and all that. My son plays it and you can go buy a hooker and chill in the back of the car. The movies have violence and everything, but that's OK."

Yung Joc made a similar point. "A lot of influential people are taking a stand on hip-hop," he said. "But what about the negative images you have in cartoons like [those on] Adult Swim? Movies, [TV shows like] 'Desperate Housewives,' 'Sex and the City'? They off the chain and raw with it."

So far, this latest hip-hop backlash hasn't had much effect, but some action is taking shape. New York radio station Power 105 has said it will not play music its executives consider offensive. R&B singer T-Pain, whose rise to fame has come not just from his own hits but from collaborations with rappers such as E-40 and Bow Wow, said his latest record, "Buy U a Drank," was recently dropped from three powerful radio stations for its sexual nature, just as it was heating up. The Reverend Al Sharpton was to host a $50,000-a-plate fundraiser honoring Island Def Jam Chairman L.A. Reid last week — but it was postponed. In New York, Russell Simmons and Hip-Hop Summit Action Network hosted a "closed-door meeting" with some of the most prominent executives in the music industry, including Reid, Warner Music's Lyor Cohen, manager Chris Lighty and Universal Music's Jimmy Iovine talking over the state of hip-hop and the music their companies are putting out.

"It's not scary to me at all," T-Pain said about the prospect of his record being pulled from more radio stations. "You can't stop the streets. They can pull it off radio, we still gonna have mixtapes. You can't stop the music! They can pull all the songs off radio and play nothing but gospel music — nobody is gonna ride around with radios in their cars."

Now that the debate has sparked up again, there is no denying that one way or another, the conflict — and the conversations — will go on. Fat Joe, who has met with Sharpton and community leaders in the past in an effort to find common ground, said, "Dialogue is good. Let's see what comes from it."

Elsewhere, T.I. said the best way for hip-hop not to have a negative effect on impressionable youth is for their parents to take responsibility.

"I think people are looking at athletes and musicians to mother and father their children so they can go and do whatever it is they want to do," T.I. fumed. "People want to sit their children in front of TV and go do what they wanna do and come back and expect their kids to be properly educated. It's not gonna happen."