Rap rock has flourished in the music scene since the late 20th century, but how did it get started? To understand rap rock and better appreciate the genre’s mainstream songs, we first need to go back to the early days of hip hop to trace its rise to popularity and eventual acceptance by the rock community.
The Origins of Rap Rock: The Birth of Hip Hop (Early 1980s)
When hip-hop flourished in the early 1980s, it couldn’t be more diametrically opposed to rock music. By then, mainstream rock had long since outgrown its 1960s countercultural roots and become a huge, respected, money-making industry.
By comparison, the first rappers were just kids from New York who had fun at parties, rhyming records. Although the origins of rock and roll can be traced back to African-American innovators such as Chuck Berry, the most successful rock bands have been white performers.
But as hip-hop gained popularity in the 80s, black artists remained the biggest exponents of the genre, presenting an alternative to rock music that was not only stylistic but also racial.
“Walk This Way” sets the stage for rap rock (mid-1980s).
As is often the case when a new, exciting musical subgenre emerges, there were as many who embraced the new sound as there were those who tried to dismiss it as a fad or, worse, a fringe art form only appealing to urban blacks.
But as hip-hop/rap continued to gain commercial footholds, those prejudices began to fade. One of the first signs of change in society came in 1986 when Run-D.M.C., one of the most respected rap groups of the era, teamed up with 70s rock band Aerosmith for a remake of the band’s hit song “Walk This Way”.
Rap rock goes mainstream (early 1990s)
At the dawn of the 90s, two interesting hybrids of metal and rap reached significant audiences. The art metal band Faith No More featured lyricist Mike Patton who mixed traditional singing with rap, most notably in the 1990 hit “Epic”. Acclaimed LA rapper Ice-T rose to prominence with his hard rock band Body Count, whose self-titled 1992 album included the controversial song “Cop Killer” that inspired protests across the country.
While rap became the dominant popular music in the country in the early 90s, rock bands continued to integrate hip hop into their sound. Led by outspoken vocalist Zach de la Rocha, Rage Against the Machine was inspired by the political hip-hop of bands like Public Enemy and retained its militant rhetoric while adding incendiary solos from guitarist Tom Morello.
At the same time, the Beastie Boys sought to distance themselves from the outrageous brother-fighting antics of “Licensed to Ill” and decided to return to their first love – live instruments.
Starting as a hardcore band, the band embodied the DIY punk aesthetic with 1992’s Check Your Head, resulting in a groundbreaking album that captured suburban skateboard culture with a quirky mix of rap, rock, funk and thrash.
Between Rage’s angry protest rock and the Beastie Boys’ laid-back interweaving of rock and hip-hop, it’s time for a full-fledged movement. Rap rock was ready for the spotlights.
Golden Age of Rap Rock (late 1990s)
If rap rock’s breakthrough can be attributed to any one moment, then it is most likely the release of Limp Bizkit’s “Significant Other” album in the summer of 1999. The Florida band’s second album, featuring the acclaimed single “Nookie”, has sold over 7 million copies thanks to Rage’s metal aggression and the Beastie Boys’ skateboard-slucker style. The song “Significant Other”, featuring Method Man, a member of the hardcore underground hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan, signaled the commercial viability of rap rock.
After the success of Significant Other, it was easier for rap rock bands to take mainstream radio by storm. Californian rock band Papa Roach first hit the scene in 2000 with their single “Last Resort”. A few months later, Linkin Park, another California band, released the album Hybrid Theory.
Although Limp Bizkit had a hard time finding the success of “Significant Other” on subsequent albums, and Papa Roach began to focus mainly on rock songs, Linkin Park remained the most notable rap-rock band of the 21st century, even collaborating with rapper Jay-Z on 2004’s album. Collision Course.
The state of rap rock today
But now that rap rock has become a prominent subgenre, it lacks new talent to keep the scene thriving. Some of this can be blamed on the recent decline in hip-hop popularity.
After being the dominant music style for 15 years, rap lost market share compared to pop and country, leaving rap rock as a less interesting musical alternative. Just as hip-hop helped restore the vitality of rock and roll in the early 1980s, it will be interesting to see if a new style emerges that revives both rock and rap.