Casually browsing the music blogs not long ago, I read that the Roots are putting out a new album at the end of this month. Good news, I thought. I like almost all of their previous work and had recently watched them rage through a highly entertaining two-hour show full of new material, so as far as I knew, they still had the spark. To my chagrin, however, I saw that their new single, "Birthday Girl," was a collaboration with Patrick Stump, lead singer of the punk-pop band Fall Out Boy.
Now, I don't really know anything about Fall Out Boy, but I understand that I'm expected not to like them. They wear hair gel, and one of the guys in the band dates Ashlee Simpson, so it's fair to assume that they suck and that their fans are vapid teeny-boppers whose heads would explode if they heard what real rock 'n' roll sounds like. What kind of lame middlebrow loser do the Roots take me for?
The Roots news was disappointing, but not surprising. Top-notch rappers have a history of puzzling collaborations with cheesy rock 'n' rollers. Off the top of my head, I could recall a number of otherwise-respectable rappers who'd worked with middle-of-the-road top-40 types: Kanye West ("Heard 'Em Say" with Maroon 5's Adam Levine, "Homecoming" with Coldplay's Chris Martin), Jay-Z (who released a version of his song "Encore" remixed with instrumentals and vocal tracks from Linkin Park's "Numb"), Dr. Dre (who brought in Gwen Stefani to sing the hook for Eve's "Let Me Blow Your Mind"), and even the Roots themselves, who employed Nelly Furtado on the track "Sacrifice" from their 2002 album Phrenology. (This was in Furtado's nonthreatening songstress days, before she started giving her albums titles like Loose.) Indeed, the release most frequently and hyperbolically cited as the moment hip-hop ascended to commercial viability is Run DMC's 1985 remake of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way." While Aerosmith was cool then, they must be retroactively downgraded severely for releasing the love theme to Armageddon.
Why do rappers whose work I hold in such high regard have such terrible taste in rock? The answer started to become clear when I gave "Birthday Girl," the Roots-Patrick Stump song, a courtesy listen and was greatly disturbed to discover that I liked it. It's catchy; Stump has the right voice for the mellow hook, and the Roots' estimable rhythm section gives a sharp edge to what otherwise would have been a straightforward mid-tempo rock song:
Upon searching my soul, I realized that I had to admit that I in fact liked almost all the songs that I named earlier. "Let Me Blow Your Mind" is an unjustly forgotten club grinder; "Homecoming," "Heard 'Em Say," and "Sacrifice" all get stuck in my head from time to time; "Numb/Encore" is a staple of the various Workout Mega-Jam mixes that I've made over the years. I was a bit taken aback; cultural snobbery is such an integral part of my personality. I'd have to rethink a lot of things if it turned out I liked listening to Fall Out Boy, Maroon 5, and Linkin Park.
Fortunately, a quick zip through the iTunes store reassured me that I don't. Those bands have recorded some memorably hummable singles but don't have much musical range and seem to almost purposefully employ instrumentation and vocal effects indistinguishable from all the other bands working in their already well-trod genres. (Fall Out Boy seems the most promising—I could see them making an album I really liked—and while Linkin Park is never going to be my thing, they're not bad at what they do. Maroon 5 is elevator music from the depths of hell.) But these bands' songwriting and production tendencies, I realized, are beside the point. They're not in the studio to write and record a double album with a rapper; they're stopping by for a day to lay down vocals for a single.
Stump et Al. are seen by their hip-hop collaborators, I think, as living samples, picked out of the musical spectrum because their voices have some distinctive quality that the Roots or Kanye West or Dr. Dre want on their track. And, indeed, all three of those artists are known for eclectic record collections—the first person sampled on Kanye's last album is Elton John—and for perfectionism. Stefani has spoken about recording and rerecording her two lines on "Let Me Blow Your Mind" for hours before Dr. Dre was satisfied, which is illustrative. He was perfecting a Sassy Temptress effect, just as Kanye used Chris Martin to add a little Gripping Melancholy to his track about returning to his hometown of Chicago. Adam Levine has an indisputably fantastic voice for the wistful soul of "Heard 'Em Say." In fact, our civilization would be better off if he sang only hooks and covers, though his projects should still be subject to regulatory oversight.
The mental picture of the collaborator-selection process I've settled on has the added benefit of not involving any of my favorite bad-ass rappers and producers giggling with adolescent excitement over the prospect of working with a gelled-up Patrick Stump. Rather, I see them burning the midnight oil as everyone else on their cross-country charter flight slumbers away, obsessively searching iTunes until they find the exact ingredient their next hit is missing. (All the while, they sip a refreshingly crisp Coors Light; my mind's eye has gullibly internalized this Dre-featuring Coors ad.)
Of course, my mental Coors commercial would be more honest if it showed those guys doing a bit of Billboard-browsing as well. Big-time sales success is not an abhorrent sign of mediocrity for rappers, as it is to a lot of today's rockers; for many rappers, the signifiers of cool and the signifiers of mass success are interchangeable. So it's likely that even the most artistically exacting hip-hop producers weigh Maroon 5's uncoolness against their chart appeal a little differently than I would.
This is not to say that rappers have always gotten that balance right—there was a steep learning curve. While some of the examples previously cited were significant hits, the more distant history of the rap-rock crossover includes a lot of disasters. Most famous among these is probably the soundtrack to the movie Judgment Night, which featured matchups like Slayer/Ice-T and Pearl Jam/Cypress Hill. Q-Tip's 1999 song "End of Time," with nu-metal pioneers Korn, was in the same vein. Those bands are all more sonically distinctive and technically adroit than Maroon 5, but the results of the collaborations fail for an obvious reason: Rather than featuring one distinctive element of a band's sound in a backing beat, the entire group goes full blast while someone raps. It sounds like what happens when a band's MySpace page starts playing while you've already got iTunes open; it sounds, in other words, like the kind of cacophony that people like my parents think all rap consists of.
But while I'm happy that things have come around to the point at which rap-rock synergism is worth listening to, I still wonder whether I'll ever get the indie hero/hip-hop hero crossover that I crave. If any major hip-hop producers are reading this, get in touch; I have lots of great ideas! Songs like Jay-Z's "99 Problems," Dead Prez's "Hell Yeah," and countless Beastie Boys tracks demonstrate that distorted guitar riffs can make for a great hip-hop sound, provided they're kept sparse and inserted into a song with surgical precision—and, come on, Jonny Greenwood and Jack White can't even tune up without laying down the most killer sparse-surgical riff you've ever heard! On the vocal side, Wayne Coyne and Thom Yorke could contribute ethereally beautiful and ethereally nightmarish hooks, respectively. (The Roots actually do sample Radiohead on Game Theory's "Atonement," but it's not at the front of the mix.)
In these last days of the record business as we know it, established indie-rockers are as good a sales bet as anyone else. So why not get the best rap acts and the best indie acts in the studio together? It might produce some great songs, it could move a lot of units, and—I say this with significantly less condescension than I would have a few weeks ago—it might introduce some vapid middlebrow teeny-boppers to bands they'll like even more than Fall Out Boy.