From Rappers to Rock Stars, and Vice Versa

If you were asked to conjure a mental image of a rock star, what would you imagine? Would you see a skinny, shaggy-haired man in a tank top shredding a solo on an electric guitar? Perhaps you’d see someone in tight pants and bombastic clothing belting their falsetto in front of a sold-out arena crowd. Maybe they’re smoking a cigarette, shattering a beer bottle against the ground, or trashing a hotel room. Or would you think of someone specific? Would you see Ozzy Osbourne biting the head off of a small bird, Jimi Hendrix setting his Fender Stratocaster aflame, or another household name?

All of these images are valid and timeworn responses to the inciting query. The twentieth century, and particularly the 1960s onward, cemented the idea of the handsome, virtuosic, and reckless rock musician in the popular imagination. The idea of the rock star and his accompanying lifestyle was forged from the contributions of various young hotheads we still know by name today. Like most things perceived as brash and that are uniformly disapproved of by parents, teenagers, and young adults were especially enamored of the rock star image in its heyday. As a result, several of its principal signifiers, such as the ability to play guitar, messy hair, leather jackets, a devil-may-care attitude, and drug and alcohol use became surefire tools an average Joe could use to evolve into the coolest kid on the block. The disillusioned, narcotic-using, music-blaring youth became an international symbol of young angst and apathy that endures into the present.

But if you were to ask a young millennial or member of Generation Z to think of a rock star, while they may still think of many of the same qualities, the images and names they’d come up would likely be very different from anything previously mentioned. While hard rock, punk, and metal music are still going strong as ever, the mid-1980s and 1990s saw a new format enter the playing field that went on to become just as influential as the last century’s rock musicians.

A Rap Renaissance

Rap music, which traces its origins back to the early 1970s, began to take a new shape two decades later that showcased some of the rock star’s sensibilities—or lack thereof. The era marked the birth of hardcore hip hop and gangsta rap, which rocketed aggressive artists and groups like N.W.A., Wu-Tang Clan, and 2Pac to the forefront of the genre, and earned them their place among more established forms of popular music. This is not to say that rap owes its present-day popularity to its more abrasive subgenres, as these were by no means the only influential rap artists at the time. But they were certainly the artists in which the rock star influence could be seen most clearly.

The aggression, energy, volume, and explicit lyrics of these subgenres marked a significant departure from the genre’s tamer foundations in acts like The Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. These more irreverent rap artists demonstrated the same reckless self-indulgence that their rock music forebears did but didn’t compromise rap music’s original mission of spreading social awareness in the process. Gangsta rap and hardcore artists exposed the gritty realities of the underprivileged, and, especially in the former, gang-affiliated life in an equally gritty manner. While their detractors dismissed their music as sounding like anger and meaningless noise, the artists themselves explained that their music simply sounded like their lives.

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s 1982 hit “The Message,” which is perhaps the greatest example of a social commentary record that rap music has to offer, was a direct influence on its more aggressive successors despite sounding nothing like them. It should also be noted that the two subgenres in question’s coupling of social commentary with explicit lyrics and themes not only significantly predates them but dates all the way back to the origin of the genre itself. In 1973, Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, a founding member of the massively influential group The Last Poets, recorded what can be considered the first-ever rap album, Hustlers Convention. On the half-hour-long project, fictitious pimps, players, and hustlers set the scene for a sprawling story of theft, deception, and murder not unlike the contributions of rappers decades down the line.

Rock Stars with a Twist
Playboi Carti diving into a crowd on the cover of Die Lit (2018).

While the artistic themes of 1990s rappers weren’t necessarily novel for the genre, some of them sported reckless, carefree, rockstar-like personalities that certainly were. They carried several signifiers of the rockstar lifestyle with them into the young art form, but with a culturally relevant twist. The rockstar’s cigarette became a blunt or a joint, the twelve-ounce beer bottle became a forty-ounce, and piercings and tattoos became diamond earrings and chains. Many successful artists outside of the gangsta and hardcore subgenres, such as Jay-Z, became known for living similarly indulgent and libertine lifestyles.

As rap entered the twenty-first century, that indulgence had officially become just as characteristic of rap notoriety as it was of rock

notoriety. Sex, drugs, and materialism–while still often appearing alongside social commentary–dominated the market, and the artists most beholden to them paved the way for the rapper-rock stars of today. Lil Uzi Vert, Playboi Carti, and Chief Keef are now more likely to come to a teenager’s mind when asked to think of a rock star, and all three have rightfully referred to themselves as such. The dreadlocked, blunt-smoking, stage-diving rapper of today is just as much of a rock star as the figures that thrust the term into common parlance, and his influence is just as far-reaching.

Major Distribution

Today, gangsta rap and hardcore hip hop have mostly been replaced by trap music and the numerous city-specific forms of drill music. The influence of these subgenres has traveled far beyond their points of inception. The hard-hitting 808s and lyrics of trap music have not only found themselves in the catalogs of rappers like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole–who can by no means be considered trap artists–but also in South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. Many international trap and drill artists twist their naturally straight hair into dreadlocks to further imitate their African American influences, and the influence of twenty-first-century rap on popular Korean music has been widely observed and commented on.

It’s no secret that the influence of African American musical forms has everything to do with the history of popular American music itself, including rock, or that rap and pop music are more stylistically intertwined today than ever before. Rappers are the new rockstars—it’s hardly a question of what each individual believes to be the case. Globalization and the never-ending impact of black artistic innovation have exalted rap to a triple-platinum pedestal previously unseen in the genre. Rap and rappers’ ascendance in the popular imagination prove, like so many things do, that African American culture is and has always been American culture, whether you like it or not. Suffice to say, the grills and chains are here to stay.

That’s a bar.

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