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Hip-Hop 101: Rap Rock

Hip-Hop 101: Rap Rock

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If mainstream America mostly ignored hip-hop in the first half of the 1980s, or dismissed it as a Breakin' style fad, then the second half of that decade forced us to realize that it was a flourishing and rapidly growing youth movement.

Run-D.M.C.'s triple-platinum Raising Hell kicked us awake. The Hollis, Queens, trio had landed a platinum disc with 1985's King of Rock strictly based on their popularity with urban and suburban kids, and with no help from radio and scant airplay on MTV. (However, they landed a slot on the 1985 Live Aid broadcast.) They finally caught the pop market's attention with "Walk This Way," a duet with Aerosmith's Joe Perry and Steven Tyler. The track was essentially a cover of the 1976 Aerosmith hit, with vocal interplay between Tyler and Run-D.M.C., and a fresh guitar solo from Perry. "Walk This Way" wasn't as sophisticated as Run-D.M.C.'s earlier hard-rock experiments like "King of Rock," where they memorably trumpeted, "There are three of us but we're not the Beatles!" over Eddie Martinez's crushing riffs and Larry Smith's beats, but it soared to No. 5 on the charts.

As Run-D.M.C. hit the TV talk show circuit, they proved to be articulate and well spoken, a virtual requirement for black celebrities during the Cosby Show years. The same couldn't be said for their protégés.

Since abandoning hardcore punk for rap with the novelty track "Cooky Puss," the Beastie Boys honed their sound over several 12-inch singles with increasing sophistication and help from Rick Rubin, another former punk rocker turned hip-hop acolyte. Rubin also produced Raising Hell, but that was a typical "reduction" as he stripped down its sound to hard drums, maybe a loop or a guitar chord scratched out by Jam Master Jay, and booming def beats. Licensed to Ill was a full-on melding of hard rock chestnuts and loutish rhymes, from the sample of Led Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks" on "Rhymin' and Stealin'" to "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party)," with its Kerry King (of Slayer) guitar solo. Licensed to Ill moved over 10 million copies.

Back then, hip-hop kids had a much healthier sense of irony. Licensed to Ill was an album by whites that outsold Raising Hell and implicitly mocked rap clichés, but it was just as popular among rap fans as their frat-boy counterparts. The Beastie Boys' comedy mostly came at the expense of the Moral Majority that didn't "get" the joke, as well as women, gays and lesbians, and others that didn't conform to their macho fantasyland. (The trio would later apologize for their behavior during that era.) Given our current social media-heightened sensitivity and persistent hashtag protests, the Beastie Boys' most notorious stunts would be demonized now.

The 1980s was the final decade in which white audiences interpreted popular music through the prism of good ol' rock 'n' roll. Many music critics argued that rap was a new evolution of rock, instead of a rising black culture. In turn, rock artists tried their hand at rap, too. The results ranged from Red Hot Chili Peppers' enthusiastic funk-rock experiments like "Fight Like a Brave" and snarky in-jokes like Ciccone Youth's (aka Sonic Youth) "Tuff Titty Rap," to sub-racist parodies like Dee Dee King's (aka Dee Dee Ramone of the Ramones) "Funky Man."

The rap-rock renaissance sparked a dialogue about how hip-hop lays bare our notions and fears of race, class and gender. Whether it's the ongoing debate over white rappers overtaking black artists on the pop charts, or how the genre continues to be stereotyped as full of real-life thugs and gangsters, that conversation echoes today.

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