How rap conquered the world

There's no doubt about it: rap music is the new rock'n'roll. Andy Gill charts the rise and rise of hip hop and explains why Eminem is the new Elvis
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The Independent Culture

With Eminem picking up three Grammies and prompting a picket of Wednesday night's awards ceremony by members of Glad (the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), it's clear to even the unhippest observer that hip hop now dominates rock music more strongly than at any time in its history, commanding the sort of tabloid coverage that most rock and pop acts only dream of.

With Eminem picking up three Grammies and prompting a picket of Wednesday night's awards ceremony by members of Glad (the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), it's clear to even the unhippest observer that hip hop now dominates rock music more strongly than at any time in its history, commanding the sort of tabloid coverage that most rock and pop acts only dream of.

Not that anyone's bothered to tell the BPI, whose nominations for next Monday's Brit awards do their level best to ignore rap, with just the one grudging acknowledgement of The Marshall Mathers LP. You'd never guess that last year, Eminem had two UK chart-topping singles and the biggest-selling album in the world, nor that albums by rappers such as DMX, Mystikal and Nelly routinely shoot to the top of the US album charts. Clearly, this isn't happening just through the interest of hip hop's core, black audience; in recent years, rap music has developed a mass appeal that, for all its parochial concerns, transcends old barriers of race and class.

It's been heading that way for some time. The better part of a decade ago, guesting on an Oprah Winfrey "in-depth" inquiry into hip hop, Ice-T was asked to comment on rap's growing popularity among white kids. Ice simply turned his baseball cap round on his head, so the peak pointed down his back, and explained that this sartorial reversal, popular among rappers, signified a rebellious mindset, an opposition to the status quo that could be recognised by white and black youth alike, just as previous generations had signalled their outsider status with leather jackets, long hair, Afros or bondage trousers. Whenever he saw a white rock fan imitating the style, he knew that there was a fellow spirit, primed for Ice's own, insidious form of "Home Invasion".

After 10 years of steady infiltration, rap has become a ubiquitous presence in pop and has virtually taken over the rock mainstream. One need look only as far as the biggest band in the world today, Limp Bizkit, whose most recognisable symbol is the singer Fred Durst's backwards red baseball cap, which rarely leaves his head. It's official, then: hip hop is the new rock'n'roll. And however you feel about it, you have to admit that it's a relief that the title should again be held by a musical form, after a decade in which everything from comedy to football has laid claim to the mantle.

Not, of course, that everyone would regard rap as a musical form. Detractors invariably recycle the old chestnut about "the silent 'c' in 'rap' ", disparaging what to the unsympathetic is little more than talking. Why, there was dear old Des Lynam on Room 101 the other night, saying as much, then disproving his own point with one of those leaden, autocue-style raps to which rhythmically challenged white folk are prone. "It's not aimed at you, though, is it?" observed Paul Merton, drolly.

Dishy Des was, in any case, hopelessly mistaken, as a cursory comparison of the styles of, say, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, 2Pac and Eminem would attest. True, it may not require the ability to hold a tune, but a good 80 per cent of rap's impact is down to delivery, be it the spitting resentment of Ice Cube, the laconic cool of Snoop Dogg or the sociopathic rage of Eminem. The emotional range may be limited - though in truth, no more so than pop's focus on lurrrve - but rap's undertow of anger serves to cement its association with rock'n'roll, both forms rooted in a blend of rebellion and celebration, from Elvis right on through to Eminem.

A lot of people - mostly older people - don't like rap. It's too violent, they say, and too tied up with the gangsta culture of the American ghettos, conveniently forgetting that almost every popular musical form has had comparable gang associations: rock'n'roll had its Teddy boys and bikers, Sixties soul its mods, reggae its rude boys and yardies, funk its superfly pimps, rave its crusties, and so on. Transgression is, after all, a near-essential component of any musical subculture, a sign of its roguish vitality; and latter-day outlaw figures such as Ol' Dirty Bastard, whose determination to keep getting himself arrested borders on the pathological, are simply the modern equivalent of Jerry Lee Lewis marrying his 13-year-old cousin, or the Stones pissing against a garage wall. So what if Eminem doesn't seem to be a particularly nice bloke? Nor, by all accounts, was Bob Dylan when he was revolutionising rock's language back in 1965.

That doesn't mean they're equal talents, of course, though both Dylan and Eminem offer sharp commentary on their lives and times. Indeed, rap in general performs exactly the same urban-bush-telegraph function that rock handled in earlier decades: airing grievances, proclaiming allegiances and illuminating social mores. In fact, no other cultural form has dealt as tellingly as hip hop with death and capitalism, still the most important matters facing the contemporary artist.

The rise of rap could, of course, be viewed as an inevitable reaction against the capitalist machine that would have us all be quiescent consumers. Since the birth of rock'n'roll in the Fifties, pop culture has become so pervasive that it is in effect the global common culture; but the entertainment industry has become so much more skilled in moulding teenage desires, that it is all the harder for modern youth to carve themselves a little authentic personal space. It's hardly surprising that disenfranchised kids of all backgrounds, faced with a parade of prefabricated microcelebrities every bit as spontaneous and inspirational as any state-approved Maoist entertainment, should seek more accurate expression of their situation in the swearing, sexuality and criminal glamour of hip hop.

Rap's ascendancy was assured the moment that Tipper Gore and her censorious PMRC accomplices forced the American music industry to plaster "Parental Advisory" stickers on any records that might be deemed obscene by people such as Tipper. Overnight, the sticker came to represent almost a government-approved guarantee of objectionability, a sort of kitemark of scatological quality.

In Britain, we never really got with the PMRC project, though our gallant Obscene Publications Squad did make itself look more than usually ridiculous when it impounded a batch of Efil4zaggin, the second album by the gangsta rappers NWA. Geoffrey Robertson QC, famed for his defence in the Oz trial two decades earlier, successfully defended the album as "street journalism". "The stories are told in street language which is ironic, bitter, sarcastic, rude and crude, not in vacuous moon-and-June rhymes like Perry Como and Elvis Presley," he explained. "The album arouses fear and concern, distaste but not lust; no one in their right mind, or indeed in their wrong mind, could be sexually aroused by this record."

Ice-T's rebellious brotherhood wasn't long in coming. In the late Nineties, hip hop's nihilistic horror show chimed perfectly with the nihilism of grunge, and a generation of white kids with an excess of self-pity and a conviction that someone else was to blame became eager prey to rap's outlaw lure - a confluence of attitudes that ultimately led to the noisome caterwauling of sportz-metal bands such as Limp Bizkit. But it's the unstoppable rise of Eminem, rap's Elvis, that has really set the seal on hip hop's takeover of rock'n'roll. Like Presley, he represents a threat to established values: just as Elvis's pelvic gyrations couldn't be shown on network television, so "radio won't even play my jam", as Eminem notes in "The Way I Am". The ostensible threat is different in substance, but ultimately of little consequence; what both men really represent is the championing of a black art form over their "native" white European heritage, which is as shocking to the establishment today as it was when Picasso tried it nearly a century ago.

Ultimately, the entire thorny issue of rap boils down to the perennial problem of youthful energy and renegade creativity. But what kind of Stepford parent would prefer to have their teenagers listen to Five or Westlife than Eminem? To have them mechanically primed to purchase, rather than challenged by the scabrous wit and rude charm of Eminem's cautionary cartoons? In the long run, it may be more than just rock'n'roll that is saved by hip hop.