The Race of Rock? (Simmons v N.W.A. part 3)
So, yesterday was crazy, I cross-posted my Gene Simmons vs. NWA post to Google+ and actually experienced actual overtly racist responses. People saying things I could really do without repeating.
Click HERE for a link to that post
It makes me pretty sad that this happened as I was finishing a re-read of Hank Aaron's "I Had a Hammer" and watching Part One of the Ken Burns Jackie Robinson series on PBS. By the way, for anyone who ONLY knows Jackie Robinson through the awful biopic with Harrison Ford, please watch the Burns series. Jackie Robinson is one of the MOST important historical figures of the last 100 years IMHO.
Anyway, for those keeping score, here are my four core arguments in regards to the notion that Hip-Hop is not Rock:
1. Rock is not "white"
In truth, Rock is a diverse music without a "race" (like most music).
Plenty of white people have played Rock and Roll very well, but, if Rock has a "race" of origin it is certainly not white (I personally do not believe there is any biological basis for such a thing as "race" but there is clearly a socially created thing called "race" that has been used mostly for ill in this country since slavery times).
Rock comes from the Blues. Much of the early music we identify as Rock was written by Black artists (like Otis Blackwell, for instance). Often, when not written by Black people officially, it was still lifted from songs by Black artists (or outright stolen). It would be fair to say that Rock was a house built by racial "borrowing" at the very least. It is a rebel music born of poverty and pain.
If you ask many of it's more famous practitioners, they were primarily influenced by the Blues. Keith Richards pointedly included Robert Johnson songs on Rolling Stones albums, the Rolling Stones started as a Blues cover band, and Keith idolizes Chuck Berry. Eric Clapton will tell you much the same story about he started his career. Led Zeppelin was obviously heavily influenced by the Delta blues. One of the biggest collections I have ever seen of Blues records is the one owned by Jimmy Page.
I am troubled by the notion that any music can be identified by race, but I feel like many people seem to think that rock is somehow "white" whatever that means is crazy and defies history.
2. Rock is Ghetto Fabulous!
Rock came from ghettoes and poor rural communities. Many other commentators have been talking about "Rap" (I call it hip-hop myself) being bad because it is from the ghetto and has objectionable lyrics (this criticism sounds an awful lot like what older people used to say to younger people about Rock and Roll, no?). Rock and Roll, at its core, is from the streets and usually came from a place of protest, pain, and/or rebellion.
The whole notion that certain subjects are taboo in rock is a very strange argument. I cannot tell you how many times I got comments about the "controversial content" (to put it politely) in rap lyrics being the reason "Rap Sucks." Most Rock music was extremely controversial when it was released and was often subject to the same calls from conservative commentators to its quality or for censorship of its content.
This strikes me as unconscious racism because many of the people making the argument have absolutely no problem with traditional crude rock anthems like "Squeeze Box" or "Cherry Pie." These people have no problem with the thousands of celebrations of crime or human cruelty in heavy metal but can't handle the supposed "glorification of violence" that "rap" represents.
Best case, people are not very reflexive and don't apply their criticisms to the music that they like. Worst case, this argument constitutes unconscious or conscious racism.
Let me make something clear, I am not calling everyone making this argument Racists. I think there is a HUGE difference between being a racist and saying something racist. I also am concerned that people have become so concerned about being associated with racism they care more about the labels than they do about being reflexive about what they say and do.
To me, the important things to be are reflexive and anti-racist.
I understand that I could easily (even in this article) have said something that could be considered racist. To me, having a good dialog about that with people is an important part of becoming a better anti-racist.
I am also not saying you have no right to dislike hip-hop. I am saying you should not suggest that because you don't like it that means it cannot or should not be celebrated.
3. Hip-Hop (Rap) is not a monolith
I was really shocked at how many people were experts in hip-hop, especially so many people who purportedly hate "it."
Okay, what is hip-hop? I asked this several times, some people came back with a circular answer (that shitty stuff etc.), some with racist stuff (ghetto shit etc.), and some with an attempt at nuance.
But what was clear to me is that most of them don't listen to much hip-hop. Hip-hop is a global music with artists from France to South Africa. Hip-Hop is a music that incorporates genres like Funk, Disco, Punk Rock, Jazz, Blues, Country, and even Rock (the first two cross-over hits were Walk This Way and King of Rock, both with Run-DMC holding the Hip-Hop side down). I have heard rap performed by everyone from Japanese men to Transgendered Women. What is this Rap music that sucks you are talking about? Be specific, I will wait.
Got anything better than "It Sucks?" If all you have is more of the "Ghetto" criticism, see above.
For anyone else, who wants to understand the breadth of hip-hop, I heartily recommend the two Hip-Hop history books highlighted on my "Music Books" page.
4. Rock is not a monolith
Chuck Berry, Yes, Iron Maiden, The Eagles, Fats Domino, Bad Brains, Fugazi, Joy Division, and Living Color don't have much in common except that they are all playing Rock and Roll music.
What Ice Cube said at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony was 100% true, he said:
The question is, 'Are we rock 'n' roll?'" Cube asked the crowd. "And I say -- you goddamn right we rock 'n' roll.
"Rock 'n' roll is not an instrument. It's not even a style of music. It's a spirit that's been going on since the blues, jazz, bebop, soul, rock 'n' roll, R&B, heavy metal, punk rock, and yes, hip-hop."
He also said:
"Rock 'n' roll is not conforming to the people who came before you, but creating your own path in music and life. That is rock 'n' roll and that is us."
That is all 100% factually correct.
In response, Gene Simmons said that when Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix get inducted into the rap hall of fame he will change his mind (or something like that).
As I mentioned yesterday, that makes ZERO sense in response to Ice Cube's comments. Cube gave a nuanced response about what Rock and Roll "IS" and Simmons responded with something that makes zero historical sense. Led Zeppelin was borrowing, just like a hip-hop DJ samples a Led Zeppelin album.
Why is it great music when Jimmy Page does it but talentless non-music when Hip-Hop artists do it?
And why is Gene Simmons, a mediocre bass player (known mostly for spitting blood, breathing fire, and having a very long tongue), the final arbiter of what is good rock music again? I say that with respect, I am not even close to a mediocre drummer and I love Kiss. I am just saying, where does he get off?
Rock is a spirit, just like Cube said. Just because you don't like Chicago (and I don't) doesn't mean that Chicago doesn't play Rock and Roll music. There is a difference between "taste" and "genre."
Most of what I have heard so far in defense of Mr. Simmons comments are a defense of personal taste and not a coherent argument for why hip-hop doesn't fit under the Rock and Roll banner.
Again, I challenge Mr. Simmons to define Rock and Roll.
Thanks so much for listening, this topic is very personal to me.
Tell me what you think about this article and the argument between NWA and Gene Simmons, I would love to hear your opinion (if civil), leave a comment!