Why Rap is Rock

Since it has happened a few times that when a new visitor comes to the site, they wonder why rap is included on rock lists.

Hopefully the explanation on this page will clear your perceptions and understanding of rock 'n' roll.

Last Updated: 2010-11-22

If rap isn't rock then rock is dead. Call the morgue, put the notice of the funeral in the papers and I'll show up wearing black and bearing flowers since I was friends with the old guy before he passed.

To tell the truth, you can almost understand how people honestly fail to see just how rap fits into the larger rock puzzle, mainly due to the fact they're basing their entire definition of rock on something else from the same time rap appeared rather than tracing rock's evolution in all directions through the years. You can even comprehend people trying to keep rap out for more nefarious reasons having to do with defending their own preferences from something that threatens to overtake those tastes in impact and popularity. But any way you look at it hip-hop is far more connected to the origins of rock 'n' roll than heavy metal or progressive or alternative ever were for instance, and thus demands to be included equally in the discussion. If you wanna get rid of 'em all in the rock family tree you'd have an easier time defending that decision than if you choose just any one of them individually to cast aside. But why discard any of them when they add so much texture to the ever growing fabric of rock 'n' roll in the first place?

Like any creative entity rock 'n' roll has evolved in ways that nobody could've foreseen when it began in 1948 and as a result it has grown very wide shoulders, which is precisely what has allowed it to remain the most culturally relevant music through the sixty-plus years it's been around. With each new stylistic shift and every new plateau attained along the way rock's hold on the public's imagination only deepened. In the process of this remarkable evolutionary growth rock has, at times, seemed to become too unwieldy for many people to grasp, and so, selfishly and capriciously, they've continually attempted to narrow its parameters in order to satisfy their own musical preferences and resist the tidal wave crashing into their cultural prejudices. The problem with this method of selective inclusion is that it EXcludes some of rock's most dynamic and vital creations which in turn weakens its very existence and if allowed to continue would eventually destroy the viability of the rock genre entirely.

How is this possible? Hasn't rock's lengthy history proven that it is almost indestructible? Sure, but only because it hasn't shunned its various creative differences as they've sprung up but rather fully embraced them and welcomed them into the fold, ensuring that successive generations will continue to identify with and want to be associated with the term rock music because rock has allowed itself to grow along with them. Naturally what began as a fairly uncluttered field in the late 40's began to grow exponentially over the course of just a few years so that as more and more artists emerged, borrowing from what immediately preceded them but then adding their own creative experiments, it soon came to resemble nothing like that which had been commonplace only a few short years before, yet was intrinsically tied to it nevertheless. Multiply that trend by dozens of new emerging styles for each short musical life span that take place every few years, then multiply that growth over six decades of evolution and you wind up with what you have today, where rock 'n' roll has branched out so far stylistically that the various offshoots seem utterly alien to one another. Yet in truth they all stem directly from the same root source and all have the same basic goal in mind, to be a cultural prism for the current musical generation, and as a result, from punk to funk, doo wop to hip hop, they are all part of the ever-growing rock 'n' roll family.
But consider the consequences if at any point of its evolution any one of these styles, or dozens of others that came along, were not accepted into rock's criterion. If in the mid-50's Bill Haley and Elvis Presley were kept out because of their skin pigmentation, since prior to their arrival rock 'n' roll had been exclusively the domain of black artists and had appealed to a predominantly black audience. Suddenly the music's ability to reach across cultural lines would've been cut just as it was poised to cross over and bring black culture into white America, breaking down longstanding barriers and slowly chipping away at the resistance to integration, musically as well as socially. Or if the growing prominence of the lead electric guitar heralded by Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Mickey Baker, Scotty Moore and others was said to be alien to rock's original sound that had been dominated by piano and tenor saxophones and therefore music that heavily featured guitars didn't belong in the rock songbook. What if in the early 60's the British Invasion was lost at sea simply because rock had always been an American product and to allow the perceptions of another country from another continent a half a world away would violate the American sovereignty of rock 'n' roll? Would combining folk music with rock 'n' roll been allowable under this isolationist mindset? Or psychedelia? And just who thought it was acceptable to let pretentious art students bring classical influences and science fiction themes to the table under the heading of progressive rock? How is ANY of that rock 'n' roll when rock 'n' roll's primary attributes when it first emerged in the late 40's, the very thing that made it rock to begin with, were its strong backbeat and a cultural relevance to the black community from which it sprang?

Had that original definition remained stagnant, which is a perfectly common knee-jerk reaction against all forms of progress, then virtually all the music currently thought of as rock 'n' roll over the past fifty years would categorically be denied the right to that term. Not just hip-hop, which probably seemed the most radical form of rock to come along to those who listened to classic rock radio playing guitar laden 70's stoner rock, but that guitar laden 70's stoner rock would have been excised as well, as it didn't conform to the saxophone/piano driven rock 'n' roll that started the entire movement decades earlier. Songs with no backbeat such as John Lennon's "Imagine", Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road" and David Bowie's "Space Oddity" would be shown the exit from rock's home, as would songs swaddled with string sections, those employing middle eastern melodies or instruments, right along with aimless jams and synthesized dance tracks. All gone for failure to comply to the strict original definition of the genre. What would be left other than a line or two in dusty history books declaring without much conviction that rock 'n' roll momentarily seemed as if it could take over popular culture before it abruptly disappeared from view because it wasn't allowed to alter its approach.

But in reality rock music never remained unchanging for very long, for it always needed to fulfill its artists creative ambitions, which resulted in constant experimentation with new sounds and ideas that broadened the definition of what qualified under the term, and at the same time it had to continually appeal to each successive generation of listeners and satisfy their current perspective, ensuring that the previous standards and boundaries rock held would never be enough. Each of those new innovations took rock further away from its source but never allowed to be cut away entirely from it, and as disparate as many of the ensuing styles appeared to be, and even as those styles cultivated entirely different audiences from one another that sometimes rarely co-mingled anymore, they were all still tangibly connected because rock 'n' roll was never just about what instruments were used to perform, or what rigid social classification its artists fit, but rather rock was always more about representing its overriding attributes of liberation and its demand for self-expression for whatever generation was coming of age at the time.
Granted for many rap seemed to be the most musically challenging evolutionary step to come along, but for all the hand wringing over its differences to certain competing rock styles, people are conveniently ignoring its similarities. It is crucial to note that rap had no outside influences other than previous rock forms. It stemmed directly from the funk of the 70's which came from the doorstep of James Brown a decade earlier, who emerged from soul of the 50's and right from the taproot of the source itself, Roy Brown, who wrote the first widely accepted rock hit, "Good Rockin' Tonight" in 1947. Cut the root and you kill the tree. Unfortunately a lot of people want to deforest the landscape while selectively trying to spare one or two trees they personally like to provide shelter for their biases. Rap is not a separate genre because it comes entirely from the same genre that Led Zeppelin and Marvin Gaye and Nirvana emerged from, it just took from different areas OF rock and emphasized those attributes to build from. But then, Zeppelin, Gaye and Nirvana each drew from different sources of rock that preceded them as well, making each of them as different from one another as they are from Public Enemy and Tupac Shakur, all of whom undertook the same journey while choosing alternate routes to get their destination.

Ironically, for as tied to the past as rock has always been, this evolutionary process ensures growing divisions among fans, both generationally and stylistically, for as each new style moved into the forefront they displaced a lot of what came before them, sometimes even helping to make modernly irrelevant the very inspirations the newer artists themselves claimed, and those new styles were competing with other new styles for a greater share of the interest heaped on it by audiences, record companies and radio. Sometimes this has resulted in openly hostile exchanges between camps, yet more often than not at its best it's also resulted in cross-cultural sharing of ideas. Consequently, in the passage from one era to another and between one style to another, rock as a whole actually becomes stronger because it becomes more diverse yet again. This manner of reacting to, rethinking, recycling and ultimately rejecting and then reclaiming the music of yesterday is what keeps it so vital and rock music will continue to strengthen and grow as long as people aren't allowed to arbitrarily choose which of those evolutionary steps are included AS rock and which aren't.

Therefore it's best to take personal taste and erroneous preconceptions out of the equation and look at it objectively and accept certain inarguable facts. Rock 'n' Roll is a major Genre of music and like all other major Genres (Blues, Jazz, Pop, Folk, Classical, Country, etc.) there are many different subgenres that help to comprise the overall Genre's scope, texture and identity. Perhaps more than any of the other Genres of music, in rock's case these are constantly shifting, new variations are tried and discarded, then tried again. Some catch on and become short-lived trends before the next generation of listeners tire of it and move onto something else, while others become so large and omnipresent that they sometimes take on characteristics of major genres themselves, all while remaining part of the Genre of Rock 'n' Roll.

These subgenres need not have much if any tangible connection to other individual subgenres, as evidenced by the disparity in style of Bob Dylan and Metallica, each of whom is a rock artist, but each of whom belongs to their own separate subgenre within rock.
Clyde McPhatter, The Ventures, Aretha Franklin, The Who, Bob Marley, Prince, The Wu-Tang Clan and Green Day all have distinct subgenres they fit in, and would be out of place if you moved them into one another's specific style, yet they're all classified as rock music because that's where their primary musical DNA lies. The major genre spawns different subgenres with their own unique traits, independent of each other, but all remain intrinsically tied to the major genre from which they came.

So for those out there who want to foolishly try and give credence to their own view of rock 'n' roll by eliminating any and all artists and styles they find unworthy of their personal praise, be aware that in your attempts to strengthen that narrow definition of rock you're actually diminishing the overall importance of rock in the process. What's worse is that you are doing so by taking a position which is entirely inaccurate and unable to stand up to any intense scrutiny.

The simplest way to put it, because it has the strongest argument in its favor, is you can either define rock simply by what it was when it had that term popularly applied and then confine it strictly to that, which may be both historically and musically defensible, but is not welcome by most people because that term summarily rejects anything that came after the mid-50's unless it is a direct imitation of those earlier sounds. OR you can accept that rock evolves and look to trace how and where that evolution led and accept it ALL as rock, no matter how far it stretched from the source and no matter how disparate it is from other stylistic evolutions that went in other directions at the same time and no matter how much you personally may dislike or feel alienated from some of those styles when they emerge. Because most people will want to embrace this evolutionary theory so they can include under the rock banner whatever artist they admire most that came along somewhere after its earliest days, be it Led Zeppelin or Queen or Michael Jackson or Pearl Jam, then this is the view they must accept unconditionally. Yet under this option when you trace those evolutionary steps point by point you inevitably will wind up smack dab in the middle of hip-hop's neighborhood. Either all of the evolutionary steps to stem from that original source are rock or none of them are and if that's the case then rock is indeed dead.

But it's not dead. Not by a long shot. Rap is simply one of the many boisterous offspring of rock's founding fathers, keeping alive the family's longstanding penchant for controversy and excitement, creativity and commercialism, insight and insanity, egotism and attitude. As much as any of the latest generation of rock's family tree it respects its elders, sampling their forefather's work to bring it to a new audience, while at the same time demanding to be given their due for their own innovations. Like so many of its older brothers and sisters in rock's household, from Presley to punk, it has been criticized and ostracized, yet, as with them, it held firm in its belief that the music belonged and demands respect and that it remains a valid example of rock 'n' roll's overriding theme of personal expression.

So embrace it. Enjoy it. Take pride in the fact that rock music, the music that you love, the music that has been omnipresent in your life probably since the day you were born, will exist in one form or another to define your attitude, to stoke your imagination, to rattle your eardrums, to aggravate your neighbors and annoy your parents until you leave this earth. But the only way it can do this is if it is allowed to also challenge your perception of what "Rock" actually is along the way. You may not understand or appreciate all of rock's many forms over the years, but they're crucial in ensuring rock's ongoing relevance to a diverse worldwide audience. For as has been shown, if at any point there comes enough opposition to accepting a certain evolutionary step and a member of the family gets cast out of the discussion altogether as a result, then the lineage rock 'n' roll needs in order to connect it to its past and continue on into the future will have been severed once and for all. A house divided against itself can not stand. Therefore it's far better to invite each and every last one of them into the rock family reunion and let them all jam together.

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