In Defense of Rap Rock
The only thing from the '90s no one has nostalgia for.
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.' 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.
Seth Colter Walls is a freelance reporter and critic whose writing has appeared in Newsweek, the Village Voice, the Washington Post and the Awl.
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images.