In Defense of Rap Rock

The only thing from the ’90s no one has nostalgia for.

Lil Wayne’s 2010 attempt at rap rock was widely scorned

The dream of the ‘90s is still alive, or so we’ve often been told this year. It’s not just that Nirvana’s Nevermind turns 20 this month, with reissues and remaster jobs expected on multiple formats. (Does corporate rock’s repackaging mania still suck, or what?) Nostalgia for the period is also being carried aloft by news of the resurrection of Beavis & Butt-Head, as well as the reemergence of indie rock personas on the level of Stephen Malkmus and Beck. Even as Portlandia makes gentle fun of that city’s ‘90s-in-amber quality, one of its frontline stars, the ex-Sleater-Kinney guitarist Carrie Brownstein, is about to celebrate a musical resurgence of her own. Her new band, Wild Flag, is a supergroup comprised of alt-heroines from the ‘90s riot grrrl circuit.

But our celebration of cultural touchstones that never lost their cachet in the first place has obscured a parallel development, which is that this has been a fantastic year for rap rock, that genre not even the most sentimental ‘90s enthusiast has mourned. Rap rock’s legacy as one of that decade’s most famous culture failures is borne out by the continued, casual abuse it still receives on a regular basis. Last week’s release of Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter IV is an instructive example. It’s old news that almost everyone hated Rebirth, Wayne’s 2010 attempt at rap rock, but his new, more traditional-sounding album gave critics another opportunity to heap scorn on its predecessor. And no one could resist. “Misguided,” remembers Billboard. “Disastrous,” says the Washington Post. One of “last year’s duo of disappointments” from Wayne, says Pitchfork.

The environment is so forbidding for would be rap-rockers, it’s a wonder anyone keeps trying to square the circle. But try they do—and, this year, a few artists have successfully shifted our perceptions. The first rap-rock surprise of 2011, the “Wugazi” mixtape, was a mashup of uncommon insight and focus, wedding vintage verses by Wu-Tang Clan members to instrumental tracks from Fugazi songs for over 40 minutes. This summer’s other, more important announcement of rap rock’s renewed aesthetic integrity was the original album Exmilitary by the new Sacramento band Death Grips. The band’s coupling of contemporary avant-rock techniques with underground rap sonics feels like something that should have been done a long time ago. Perhaps it’s because rap rock has been considered such toxic ground that no one had quite discovered this hybrid strain until now.

Elsewhere, you can hear Vernon Reid’s thrilling lead guitar snaking its way through the chorus of “W.A.R.,” the title track from Pharoahe Monche’s new album, and with none of the awkwardness you may recall from Living Colour’s attempts to integrate rap into their metal grind back in the day. On All 6s and 7s, the new album from Tech N9ne, two members of the Deftones drop by to contribute a hook during “If I Could.” Tech, a storied speed-rapper, is rarely heard enunciating as deliberately as he does over this rock beat. But because the regret-tinged mood of his lyrics line up with the woeful power chords, it works.

If successes like these seem counterintuitive, they shouldn’t. Early hip-hop thrived on similarly exciting mergers of style. After Afrika Bambaataa noticed how John Lydon was putting dub to use in his post-punk outfit PiL, he cut “World Destruction” with the singer, whose intensity communicated like rap even if his timbres didn’t much resemble it. Years before their better known rethink of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way,” Run-DMC pioneered rap rock by incorporating original (as opposed to sampled) riffs. That guitar hook in “Rock Box” was the creation of session player Eddie Martinez, who recognized that a rap-rock song needn’t feature a new change in the chorus; rather, it’s a spot where the guitarist can just solo over the same riff that drives the verses. (In a form where every sonic element is a rhythm instrument, it rarely pays to get too cute harmonically.)

If rap and rock aren’t inherently mismatched, what happened in the ‘90s? While fusion eventually acquired a bad aesthetic reputation during this era, thanks to a series of ill-advised, record-company driven projects, there was a brief window in the early part of the decade when authentic hybrids seemed thinkable. The ur-text of that decade’s rap rock, the soundtrack to the 1993 movie Judgment Night, served as a major label-funded research laboratory for M.C.s to experiment alongside rock bands. The results—as you might expect after throwing Sonic Youth, Sir Mix-A-Lot, Pearl Jam, and House of Pain into a blender—went down as lumpy and uneven. The few successes, such as De La Soul’s mellow collaboration with Teenage Fanclub on “Fallin’,” featured something other than artists simply doing their respective things in the same room. They saw one act traveling a slightly longer distance to get onto the other’s turf.

When Teenage Fanclub took the distortion-pedal fuzz out of their power pop, they ended up giving De La Soul a backing track not too dissimilar from a breezy Prince Paul production. And while Dinosaur Jr. was always based on more than the lead guitar of J. Mascis—the band wrote compelling songs in addition to perfecting its brand of squall—on “Missing Link” they jammed on a single, solitary riff behind Del tha Funky Homosapien’s rhymes, just as Martinez once did with Run-DMC. This approach wasn’t a spineless surrender by the band; it allowed for the revelation of a few heretofore hidden qualities. Who knew Mascis’ groaning-stoner approach to singing could make for a perfect backing element in a hip-hop song’s chorus, tuneful without being so demonstrative that it might distract from the M.C. in front?

Merely being game for an experiment didn’t guarantee success, however. When Sonic Youth tempered their conceptual approach to rock by keeping the beat discernible and Kim Gordon’s vocals irony-free while playing with Cypress Hill on “I Love You Mary Jane,” they sounded, for the first time, adrift in the recording studio. Apocaplyse 91: The Enemy Strikes Black.”> 

Since the riskier of these rap-rock efforts turned out such varying product, it makes sense that the subsequent corporate rap rock of the ‘90s followed the blander, more conservative examples of fusion to be found on Judgment Night. Pairing the comparatively straight-ahead metalism of Helmet and Biohazard with self-consciously tough rap acts like House of Pain and Onyx might not have resulted in anything resembling a surprise, but at least everyone steered clear of immediate embarrassment. But it was this approach—the merging of grunge (and its nu-rock descendents) with rap—that lead to the Limp Bizkit-ing of rap rock toward the end of the ‘90s. And that’s the approach that lingers in the mind today, making us slow in turn to recognize the renaissance in rap-rock hybridism that’s happening in the underground.

In July, when the “Wugazi” mixtape was loosed online, a New York Times Magazine staffer admitted how, initially, he “didn’t react favorably to the news”—as if two great tastes were being put together in a way that couldn’t possibly do justice to either one. But in an era when big labels concern themselves with holding onto the niche audiences that already exist more than they dream of engineering new crossover breeds, it’s perhaps natural that homegrown rap-rock projects are proliferating. With the labels in retreat on several fronts, rap rock has the ability to define some new terms of engagement, and a renewed license to take chances.

This summer, as the at first shadowy identities of the creators behind the Wugazi mixtape were made clear, the conceptual soundness of the project began to make greater sense. One Wugazi producer, Cecil Otter, was already well known as part of the Doomtree musical collective, which also counts the rapper P.O.S. among its members. On tracks like “Drumroll,” P.O.S.’$2 2009 album Never Better pointed directly toward something like the Wugazi project—where fillips of hardcore punk are used as building blocks for no-nonsense boom-bap. Its success stems not just from the fact that the insistent rattling of the drums proves to be good backing material for fleet wordplay; when a gaggle of P.O.S.’ friends drop in to contribute a traditional hardcore shout, midway through the song, it sounds surprisingly similar to a group moment on a hip-hop posse cut. There aren’t many new sounds here, but there’s an uncanny feeling throughout for similarities between two underground scenes that have never been put together before, not least of which is the us-against-the-world bond that binds adherents together in both worlds.

The same goes for the Wugazi mixtape, which depends entirely on already recorded sounds that work surprisingly well together. With only a month’s hindsight, it seems it should have always been obvious how Fugazi’s late-period exploration of piano riffs would be a suitable substitute for the RZA’s production work on verses that hail from 36 Chambers—as occurs on the Wugazi track “Sleep Rules Everything Around Me.” Ian MacKaye’s band was expanding the language of post-punk at the same time the RZA was adding to hip-hop’s sample library, and both musicians were also experimenters with roots in hardcore traditions. Duh! Except no one recognized it until 2011.

A fruitful future of collaboration between rap and hardcore is also suggested by the new Death Grips album. The high-BPM approach used in “Lord of the Game” for example, works comfortably as both hip-hop and punk—though what truly impresses is how the actual sound quality of that percussion also rests in an in-between genre space. Zach Hill—who also drums for indie-rock guitar shredder Marnie Stern—runs a lot of his percussion work through various electronic processes. At some points, the snare hits all sound like bleats from a kit of digital samples—but even when this is the case, you can tell that it’s not mere programming, and that the weight of human hands is thrashing underneath the production effects.

While there are a few mainstream references on the band’s Exmilitary (such as a David Bowie sample), a majority of the rock moves are derived from mid-’80s American underground. (Black Flag’s “Rise Above” is sampled, and Double Nickles on the Dime, by the Minutemen, gets a lyrical shout-out.) To bring that sound up to date, Hill’s percussion effects tread on ground explored by modern noise bands like Lightning Bolt. But there’s no grunge on the record, or any acknowledgement of what rap rock became in the ‘90s. By rooting their project in both ‘80s hardcore as well as contemporary avant-rock, Death Grips leapfrog over rap rock’s draught decade in order to make their hybridism work.

Once we acknowledge that punk, hardcore, post-punk, noise-rock, and Aerosmith have all played productively with rap, it might be time to leave the bill for rap rock’s bad reputation at grunge’s door, if only by process of elimination. The form’s sludgy meters, no matter how authoritatively they might have been struck, probably always augured poorly for good hip-hop collaboration. The buzzsaw crispness of metal guitar riffing and the insistence of hardcore drumming are both more obvious ingredients with which hybridists to work. It’s a lesson even Lil Wayne seems to be learning. Rebirth may have tanked, but Wayne’s not done with guitars yet—he’s just shelving grunge as a template. The acoustic-driven single “How to Love” cracked the Top 20 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in early July and hasn’t left yet.

If you have a Spotify account, click here for a playlist of rap rock from this article.

Correction, Sept. 9, 2011: This article originally misspelled the name of the band Cypress Hill.