In accepting a historic Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction last night, rapper Ice Cube was characteristically emphatic: “You’re goddamn right we’re rock ‘n’ roll”.
Joining the four other living members of pioneering ‘gangsta rap’ group NWA on stage at the ceremony, the actor and hip hop superstar – now is his mid-forties – was as aggressive as he and his bandmates had been as local toughs on the streets of late-1980s South Central Los Angeles.
Not all in America’s powerful ‘rock god’ community were impressed. Purists like Gene Simmons of KISS have long publicly criticised the judging criteria, arguing that rap is simply not rock.
In an interview with The New York Times, Mr Cube extrapolated on his acceptance remarks, presenting an effective rebuttal. “Rock ‘n’ roll is not an instrument and it’s not singing,” he said. “Rock ‘n’ roll is a spirit. NWA is probably more rock ‘n’ roll than a lot of the people [Simmons] thinks belong there…We had the same spirit as punk rock, the same as blues.”
If rock ‘n’ roll is about pushing boundaries and subverting the status quo, they don’t come more “spirited” than NWA was.
Emerging at the height of the Crips v Bloods gang wars, the group – whose name is an acronym for “Niggaz with Attitude” – reflected an angry west coast counterpoint to the more innocent word-play that dominated the east coast hip hop of the same era.
With explicit frankness, the five young rappers forced the world to listen to the youth of America’s poorest communities, painting a picture of systemic poverty, police brutality and the tribulations of ‘thug life’.
But even if we were to adopt a more musicological and less cultural definition, it cannot be denied that rock and rap share the same roots.
Classic rock ‘n’ roll of the kind usually inducted into the Hall of Fame might have been popularised by Poms, but it unequivocally started in the States. In ‘swinging sixties’ Britain, the musically adventurous youngsters of the baby boom became heavily influenced by the groundbreaking African-American music of the ‘40s and ‘50s.
Without the gruff poetry of Mississippi Delta blues or the jump ’n’ jive of the American jukebox there is no Beatles, no Stones, no Zeppelin. There is no Hall of Fame.
Of course, rock’s true genesis (and rap’s) can be traced to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and to the folk music of West Africa. Despite the unimaginable cruelty of bondage, these rhythms of the Sahel and ‘Windward Coast’ were carried across the seas, an enduring source of hope and humanity.
Hip hop is not descended directly from rock, but both were forged in the red soil of Africa, fermented in the cotton fields of the American South, and matured in the globalised and corporate cellars of contemporary music.
While its origins are perhaps self-evident (at least to those with a trained ear), the genre is also reflective of another tradition: the unbridled dynamism of America’s business culture.
In 2014, NWA founding member Dr Dre sold his headphone company to Apple for $3 billion. As the brains behind some of rap’s biggest names (think Eminem, Snoop Dogg and 50 Cent), the ‘doctor’ has become a true titan of the entertainment industry, responsible for almost single-handedly exporting rap into the global mainstream (with some help from his former rivals, New York moguls Jay-Z and Puff Daddy).
With its inherent protest of the War on Drugs and “fuck the police” mantra, in some ways gangsta rap stood as the antithesis of the crime-conscious conservatism of its time. And yet, in one of the many great ironies of America, rap has also been an undeniable – if unexpected – beneficiary of Reaganomics.
From humble (and sometimes impoverished) beginnings, raised on gospel and blues in the brownstones of Brooklyn and cul-de-sacs of Compton, the kids who became rap’s megastars defied their circumstances, claiming success with nothing but their own ingenuity and talent, crafting turntables into musical instruments, beats and rhymes into careers. They turned down the trappings of the welfare state, instead harnessing free enterprise and spearheading an industry of their very own.
Where else on Earth can the musical sub-culture of a disadvantaged people become a multi-billion-dollar global business within a generation?
It is perhaps no coincidence that Eazy E, the late NWA frontman, was once a donor to George H W Bush’s presidential campaign and even a guest at the White House in an age well before Mr and Mrs Obama’s infamous soirees.
Sure, rap’s message has sometimes been violent and divisive, offensive and confronting. And yes, in recent years it has become a poor imitation of itself, synonymous with posers and popstars.
But it has also been one of the most interesting and pervasive cultural influences of our time and, in my contention, ultimately a force for good.
Hip hop has inspired millions of young Americans to believe that their story matters, that the pen is mightier than the gun and that their talent will be their ticket.
One of the lesser-known NWA members, MC Ren didn’t shy away from the limelight last night, also voicing a directive to the haters and naysayers:
“I want to say to Gene Simmons, hip hop is here forever.”
You’re goddamn right it is.
Published on 9 April 2016