Rock music's influence on the live performances and lifestyles of rap is absolute
From Run-DMC to Lil Wayne’s ‘Rebirth’ to Rae Sremmurd, rap continues to revolutionize the role of the rock star.
As the most popular genre in music today, rap has become as homogenous as its ever been, with artists and fans from all walks of life becoming part of the cultural fabric. In contrast to past years, when hip-hop was considered a members-only club, 2018 has seen a continued trend in different musical styles, sounds, and looks being championed and embraced, proof that the community has become as inclusive as ever. As the borders of hip-hop are challenged and rules are being rewritten, what is viewed as credible and being in-tune with the culture has also evolved, but one aspect of rap that remains tried-and-true is its affinity and fascination with the lifestyle of the rock star.
When looking back on the genesis of hip-hop and rap, one of the first bridges between various demographics outside of the black and Latino community was punk rock, with many of its participants taking a liking to the gritty aesthetic and rebellious attitude that came to define the culture during the 80s. As hip-hop migrated from the Bronx and Harlem to downtown Manhattan, where punk rock reigned supreme, the two worlds would merge, with each becoming familiar with the other. The culture clash would also play a subtle part in influencing the imagery and wardrobe of early rap crews like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, who often performed in tight leather outfits and other attire that was akin to that of glam rock acts like Kiss and David Bowie.
As the 80s progressed, rap became more about staying true to the vibe and style of the inner-city than emulating the look of rock-and-roll stars. Legendary rap group Run-D.M.C., who came to prominence in 1983 with their debut single “It’s Like That/Sucker MCs,” would help lead the charge in this transition, exchanging tight leather pants and knee-high boots for Lee jeans and Adidas sneakers, which would become the signature look in hip-hop fashion by the time their debut album hit in Spring 1984. However, while Run-D.M.C. cultivated a style that was more toned-down than that of their predecessors and mirrored what was being worn on the streets of New York City, their music played a big part in solidifying rap’s relationship with rock, musically and culturally.
In 1984, Run-D.M.C. released “Rock Box,” the third single from their debut album and a song that was pivotal in merging rock music and rap. The song, which included rock guitar riffs and solos courtesy of musician Eddie Martinez, would be the first from Run-D.M.C. to be accompanied by a music video, which was filmed in legendary NYC punk rock club Danceteria. The success of “Rock Box” would kickstart the group’s run as rap’s first rock stars, a title which would be solidified in 1985 with the release of their sophomore album, ambitiously titled King of Rock. Powered by tracks like “Rock the House,” “Can You Rock It Like This” and its title track, King of Rock‘s production leaned heavily on guitar riffs, which were incorporated into several of the album cuts, but Run-D.M.C. would reach their zenith as rockers in 1986, with the release of Raising Hell.
At the time, rap had yet to fully crossover into the mainstream, but the arrival of Raising Hell in 1986 forever altered the landscape of hip-hop and its influence on pop culture. In addition to becoming one of the first rap acts to capitalize off of product placement with the song “My Adidas,” Run-D.M.C. made history with the follow-up single “Walk This Way,” a cover of rock band Aerosmith’s 1975 hit and their most notable hit today. Featuring Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, “Walk This Way” was symbolic of the mutual respect between the hip-hop and rock-and-roll communities, with a music video that helped introduce rap music to MTV and make Run-D.M.C. rap’s first bonafide superstars. Peaking at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100—making it rap’s first Top-5 hit in history—and pushing Raising Hell to No. 6 on the Billboard 200, “Walk This Way” is remembered as a song that sparked a cultural revolution and one of the most pivotal songs of the past century.
By the beginning of the 90s, Run-D.M.C. were on the back-end of their run as rap’s hottest rap group, and a new crop of artists and producers opting for funk and soul samples had emerged, causing the stronghold that rock had had on rap production to dwindle as a result. While artists like P. Diddy dabbled in the world of rock with “Come With Me,” his 1998 contribution to the Godzilla soundtrack, for the most part, the culture would move on, with acts like Kid Rock, Limp Bizkit, Rage Against The Machine and Korn all infusing rap into their sound throughout the 90s and early aughts. However, the turn of the century marked a new era for rap, with vanguards like Pharrell Williams, who helped redefine what it means to be viewed as credible in hip-hop, becoming a cultural torchbearer and helping music lovers from all sides find common ground with his band N.E.R.D. One of the most influential acts in all of music this millennium, N.E.R.D. helped open the door back for hip-hop and rock-and-roll to coexist, but it would be rapper Lil Wayne that would forever knock it off the hinges.
Coming into his own after putting Cash Money Records on his back following the departure of label-mates Juvenile, Turk and B.G., Lil Wayne not only incorporated rock into his music or his style, but he actually adopted the lifestyle like few other rappers before him. From the tattoos and the harem of groupies, to the excessive drug use and proficiency in the eye of the storm, Lil Wayne became the modern day rock star to a new generation of rap fans, eclipsing any and all rock stars on the planet in popularity, a trait that had yet to be pulled off prior to that point in history. Delivering energetic, high-octane live performances and even going as far as learning how to play the guitar and releasing a rock album (Rebirth in 2010), Lil Wayne redefined who and what a rock star can be. As a result, there has been an influx of young rappers who proclaim themselves as rock stars and promote the carefree lifestyle that comes with the territory of being young rich and famous.
Artists like Young Thug, Lil Uzi Vert, Travis Scott and Rae Sremmurd are among the popular acts in music that have built reputations for their epic live performances—which include stage-diving and raging with fans in the middle of a mosh-pit—as well as their fashion sensibilities and cult followings. They have also voiced their respect and admiration for rock stars of the past, with names like Kurt Cobain, Marilyn Manson and others consistently listed as influences on the rappers’ artistry, a stark contrast to previous generations who may have pilfered from the music, but whose sound and style was more informed by rap and r&b artists. Likewise, a number of rock artists have also come out in support of the new crop of rap stars, with names like Jack White, Tom Morello and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam all singing their praises, bringing rock and rap’s relationship, which is stronger than it’s ever been, full circle.
The lifestyle of a rock star, which was predicated on extravagance, wild live performances, sexuality, fame and decadence, remains enticing and hypnotic to all that get to witness it, but has been adopted by the rap community and given an added layer of cool. Usurping rock as the dominant genre of today, rap reigns supreme and its flavor and bravado may have revolutionized the role of the rock star, but rock-and-roll’s influence on the live performance aspect of rap, from the music to the fashion and everything in between, cannot be denied.
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