Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Passing Fads: Introduction and Rap Rock

As I listened to hour after hour of mind-numbing top forty radio - it's all we had - on a recent mission trip, I contented myself with the fact that, as bad as it got, at least it wasn't rap-rock. Three-minute versions of Nicholas Sparks novels, various permutations of "Poker Face" performed either by Lady Gaga or someone who isn't Lady Gaga, a seemingly thousand Taylor Swift songs that sound exactly the same; I can breathe easy because they're not being performed by a skinhead in a red Yankees cap.

The more I thought about the glorified trailer trash that dominated mainstream radio in the mid to late 90's, the more I wondered: how did we ever enjoy this crap? Was American pop culture really so starved, so debased, that it would tolerate lyrics like, "So where the fuck you at, punk?/Shut the fuck up/And back the fuck up/Before we fuck this track up"? Did every band on rock radio really need a fucking turntablist? Was it all a bad dream?

Rap rock seems like a particularly bad case, but the American zeitgeist has gone through countless such abortions of good taste. Sometimes, just the right combination of truly awful ingredients exist in the cultural atmosphere to produce the perfect shit-storm. And for a mercifully short (or agonizingly long) time, we're all obsessed with something we'll be ashamed of within a few years. I wish we could see past these passing fads. But hindsight is 20/20. And some people like crap.

In this column, I'll be tackling these misguided cultural fixations one week at a time. Rap rock seems like a natural starting point, since it's what spawned this whole enterprise in the first place. Because of the thoroughly bandwagon-y nature of the major labels, I'll start out with shitty music, but I may move on to shitty TV and shitty movies (I'm looking at you, moralizing teen horror movies).

I'll not only chronicle their rise and fall, but I'll try to tackle a more fundamental question: what made these trends, which seem apparently God-awful today, so popular at the time? And is there anything artistically redeeming about these movements in general? After all, I like to think that I can find something redeeming in even the crappiest cultural artifact.

So, without further ado, I give you the first iteration of "Passing Fads," the hot new column from that equally hot and equally new culture blog, Charge-Shot...

Rise to Power: Like most miscarriages of sound (I'll see how many more pregnancy metaphors I can use), rap rock began with noble intentions. Run-DMC's collaboration with Aerosmith on a remake of the latter's "Walk This Way" is probably what introduced most listeners to the concept that people could have chocolate with their peanut butter. And, as the founding document of the genre, "Walk this Way" is actually pretty excellent. Joe Perry's ubiquitous syncopated guitar riff is a perfect match for Jam Master Jay's tinny sampled drum pattern. And though I would've preferred fresh verses from Run and DMC, Steven Tyler's jumble of speak-sung vocals work pretty well with the singing half exorcised. The track unfortunately didn't set the tone for the genre as a whole, which degenerated rather quickly.

Even the better examples of other early rap rock sound clumsy and awkward by comparison. They've inspired fanatic devotion in countless living fratboy stereotypes, but Red Hot Chili Peppers have put out some painfully lame white-boy rap. I'll concede that the high water marks in the Peppers' catalog ("Scar Tissue," "Give it Away," their cover of "Higher Ground") aren't half bad, but the best of their stuff succeeds in spite of Anthony Kiedis' caveman-level "raps" ("What I got I got to give it to your mama/What I got I got to give it to your papa"). Faith No More's "Epic" evinces a similarly uncomfortable juxtaposition of a killer hook and Hulk-smash rhymes.

'Course the Beastie Boys demonstrated that rap rock worked best when it was tongue-in-cheek. License to Ill doesn't top post-modern masterpiece Paul's Boutique, but it certainly soundtracks an ironic-minded house party just fine.

Top of the Pops: Despite lumbering, Neanderthal-like, around the musical landscape since the mid-80's, rap rock didn't manage to really get its sweaty meathooks around the top of the Billboard charts until the late 90s.

Limp Bizkit, the secret middle school shame of anyone who today considers themselves a music snob (read: me), epitomize the sound of rap rock before the new millennium: big, dumb, uncomfortably violent, and trying so hard to sound black that it's about to pop. Songs like "Rollin' (Air Raid Vehicle)"1 and "My Way" (which features, shamefully enough, an Eric B. and Rakim sample) throw together bone-simple guitar riffs, lyrics that can charitably be called idiotic, and incongruous DJ scratches to spectacularly uncomfortable effect. I don't know how many more synonyms for "awkward" I can come up with.

Then there's Detroit's own Rob Ritchie a.k.a. Kid Rock a.k.a. the guy who rhymed "rolled down my glass" with "this dick fits right in your ass." Kid pushed the white trash homeboy thing to its breaking point, slinging lyrics about being an "early morning stoned pimp" over Allman Brothers samples. That he's still a marketable commodity is sort of remarkable, considering.

Papa Roach and KoЯn (yeah, I did it) downplayed the hood-ass-white-guy angle but maintained the sound and bloody "imagery" (again, I'm being charitable here). If Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit shot for frat boys and sorority girls, Papa Roach and KoЯn wanted the goth kids and future strippers. You were supposed to scream songs like "Freak on a Leash" and "Last Resort" at your parents through your bedroom door, not bump them at Big 10 keggers.

And then, of course, there's Linkin Park, who tried (valiantly?) to inject a bit of artsy-fartsiness into the genre. Though all the rotoscoped music videos and bullshit paeans to graffiti culture can't make up for how boring, boring, boring most of their songs were.

Fall from Grace: Eventually, people just got fed up with how crappy these white people were at rapping. Limp Bizkit lost the one person with a modicum of talent (guitarist Wes Borland, the one with all the stupid makeup), Linkin Park jettisoned the rap side of their sound almost entirely2, and Kid Rock became a country star.

WHY, GOD, WHY:3 As much as people hate to admit it, sometimes rap and rock work as perfectly together as malt liquor and pro wrestling. Great rappers have used rock samples for years to tremendous effect. Jay-Z has gravitated more and more towards hard rock over the years, and usually done it pretty damn well ("Run this Town," "99 Problems"). We just won't talk about that collabo he did with Linkin Park.

When it's done well, rap rock can create a fierce, energizing groove. You've probably been wondering why I haven't mentioned Rage Against the Machine before; I was saving them for the good part. Even if Zack de La Rocha has never been a particularly adept rapper, Rage manages to marry his Noam Chomsky diatribes to Tom Morello's inimitable guitar sound incredibly effectively. Songs like "Wake Up," "Bullet in the Head," "Bulls on Parade," and "Ashes in the Fall" show why thugs from the Florida panhandle don't have a corner on the market.

The irritating popularity of mash-ups also attests to the fact that white kids continue to enjoy rap if its being overshadowed by something that isn't rap.

And, oh yeah, "Sabotage."4

Back to the Future5: Rap rock has a herpes-like affinity for seemingly disappearing before flaring up and making all your friends refuse to share drinks with you. And just as it died for a few years in the early 90s before roaring back before aughts, rap rock is undergoing something of a revival as we speak. It's gotten so bad, in fact, that even the dads at the New York Times have noticed it. This nu-nu-metal is almost uniformly awful (Hollywood Undead, ugh), but the worst development may be the unholy combination of screamo and rap (dubbed "crunkcore") that's slimed its way out of the bowels of hell in the past few years. I'll link those of you looking for a good reason to off yourselves to a video by New Mexico Rhodes Scholars Brokencyde, but be forewarned: even if you weren't thinking about killing yourself, this may just be too much.

1. Yes, there is another version of "Rollin'", produced by Swizz Beatz and featuring DMX, Redman, and Method Man. Everyone involved in this project deserves to be killed except for Method Man, who gets a lifetime pass for being on "The Wire." Not even the Wu exonerates him of his repeated involvements with the Dursty one.

2. Watching the guy from Fort Minor adjust his mic in the video for "What I've Done" and then not rap/sing a single line is such a treat.

3. I.e., why people like this crap.

4. Full disclosure: I used to loooooooooooooove rap rock when the only draft I was aware of was a booster draft. Get me drunk enough, and I'll probably admit that I really like "Falling Away from Me," think Limp Bizkit's cover of "Faith" is just stupid enough to be kind of brilliant, and dig out my old 311 CDs with embarrassing regularity.

5. I.e, the future of rap rock.