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.