Rap-rock has been a thriving music scene since the end of the 20th century, but how did it come into being? To understand rap-rock and better appreciate the genre’s essential songs, we first need to look back at the early days of hip-hop to chart its rise in popularity and eventual acceptance by the rock community.
Rap-Rock's Origins: Hip-Hop Is Born (Early 1980s)
When hip-hop blossomed in the early 1980s, it couldn’t have been more diametrically opposed to rock music. By that time, mainstream rock had long since matured beyond its early counterculture roots in the 1960s into a hugely respected moneymaking industry. By comparison, the first rappers were just kids from New York City having fun at parties by rhyming over records. Though rock ‘n’ roll’s origins can be traced back to African-American innovators, such as Chuck Berry, the most successful rock bands consisted of white performers. But as hip-hop gained in stature during the ‘80s, the genre’s biggest acts remained black artists, representing an alternative to rock music that wasn’t just stylistic but also racial as well.
"Walk This Way" Sets the Stage for Rap-Rock (Mid 1980s)
As often happens when a new, exciting musical subgenre emerges, there were as many who embraced this new sound as there were those who tried to dismiss it as a fad or, worse, a marginal art form that only appealed to inner-city blacks.
But as rap continued to establish a commercial beachhead, such biases started to melt away. One of the first bellwethers of a societal change was in 1986, when Run-D.M.C., one of the era's most respected rap groups, teamed with ‘70s rock band Aerosmith for a remake of the band’s hit song “Walk This Way.” Tellingly, the video showed Aerosmith and Run-D.M.C. in separate recording studios performing their own brands of music, but once Run-D.M.C. start rapping the lyrics to “Walk This Way,” Aerosmith’s lead singer smashes through the adjoining wall to whale the chorus, signaling both a literal and metaphoric merging of hard rock and rap. The song introduced Run-D.M.C. to the larger white audience and, interestingly enough, also revitalized Aerosmith's then-floundering career. But just as importantly, the single foretold the formation of a vital new musical subgenre: rap-rock.
The Beastie Boys and Public Enemy Bring the Noise (Late 1980s)
In the following years, rap and rock continued a tentative courtship. Specifically, rap groups found a kinship with the anti-establishment vibe and sonic intensity of metal. The same year as Run-D.M.C.’s “Walk This Way” hit the charts, a white Brooklyn hip-hop trio called Beastie Boys released Licensed to Ill, a head-banging party album that enjoyed multi-platinum sales. Later, hip-hop’s greatest band of the late ‘80s, Public Enemy, sampled Slayer on a track off their landmark 1988 album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Further cementing their affinity for metal, Public Enemy would team with Anthrax in 1991 for a remake of PE's single "Bring the Noise."
Rap-Rock Goes Mainstream (Early 1990s)
The dawn of the ‘90s saw two interesting metal-rap hybrids reach sizable audiences. Art-metal band Faith No More featured a lyricist, Mike Patton, who mixed traditional singing with rapping, most notably on their 1990 hit, “Epic.” And acclaimed Los Angeles rapper Ice-T earned notoriety with his hard-rock band Body Count, whose 1992 self-titled album included the controversial song “Cop Killer,” which inspired protests across the country.
As rap music became the nation’s predominant popular music during the early ‘90s, rock groups continued integrating hip-hop conventions into their sound. Rage Against the Machine, led by outspoken singer Zack de la Rocha, were inspired by the political hip-hop of groups like Public Enemy, retaining the militant rhetoric while adding incendiary solos from guitarist Tom Morello.
At the same time, the Beastie Boys were looking to distance themselves from the raunchy frat-boy antics of Licensed to Ill and decided to return to their first love: live instruments. Starting out as a hardcore band, the group incorporated punk’s do-it-yourself aesthetic on 1992’s Check Your Head, resulting in a groundbreaking record that captured suburban skateboard culture with a goofy melding of rap, rock, funk and thrash.
Between Rage’s angry protest rock and the Beastie Boys’ laidback intertwining of rock and hip-hop sensibilities, the time was right for a full-fledged movement. Rap-rock was ready for the spotlight.
Rap-Rock's Golden Age (Late 1990s)
If rap-rock’s breakthrough can be pinpointed to one specific moment, it would probably be the release of Limp Bizkit’s Significant Other in the summer of 1999. The Florida band’s second album, featuring the smash single “Nookie,” sold over 7 million copies by drawing from Rage’s metallic aggression and the Beastie Boys’ skateboard-slacker attitude. Sporting a cameo from Method Man, a member of the hardcore underground hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan, Significant Other signaled the commercial viability of rap-rock.
After Significant Other’s success, rap-rock bands had an easier time storming mainstream radio. First, California rock band Papa Roach hit the scene in 2000 with their single “Last Resort.” A few months later, Linkin Park, another band from California, released Hybrid Theory. Though Limp Bizkit had trouble matching Significant Other’s success on subsequent albums and Papa Roach began focusing primarily on rock songs, Linkin Park has remained the most visible rap-rock group of the 21st century, even collaborating with rapper Jay-Z on the 2004 album Collision Course.
The State of Rap-Rock Today
But now that rap-rock has become a prominent subgenre, it is currently experiencing a lack of new talents to keep the scene thriving. Part of this may be to blame on hip-hop’s recent dip in popularity. After being the dominant musical style for 15 years, rap has lost market share in comparison to pop and country, consequently making rap-rock feel less exciting of a musical alternative. Much like hip-hop helped restore the vitality of rock ‘n’ roll in the early 1980s, it will be interesting to see if a new style will emerge to reanimate both rock and rap.