Music education always & always looking forward.

In defense of hip-hop; alt. Gene Simmons is straight up wrong

It seems that you're not really a rock star (or a politician, I suppose) until you've had a Twitter spat with someone.  Famed tongue-sticking-out Kiss frontman Gene Simmons seems to be working on this very thing, hurling veiled insults at the rap collective NWA, which on Friday, April 8th, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Simmons is apparently very upset about this and does not believe that NWA or similar groups belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Simmons believes that the members of NWA (and Grandmaster Flash, for that matter) only "sample and they talk" on their records, thus not making them comparable to what he believes are real rock bands -- imaginably, groups with the same instrumentation as Kiss, including guitars, bass guitar, drums, and sung vocals.  (In that vein, I would love to hear a vocal teacher's expert analysis of Simmons's singing voice.)

Of course this has lit up a huge debate as to what constitutes rock music.  Additionally, it goes without saying that Simmons and his group have been hugely influential.  What I find strange is that most successful rockers, of whatever sort, are also huge music fans, and yet Simmons seems to come to his comments with a lack of fundamental understanding about what rock music is.  Maybe this is one to leave to the musicologists out there, but in my opinion, Simmons is patently wrong in his understanding that rap has no place in Rock and Roll history. 

This school quarter, I have turned my classroom into the SCHOOL OF ROCK for my kids, culminating with a School of Rock-themed spring concert.  (Of note: themed concerts, especially for middle school, are ALWAYS a good idea.)  Of course, as I was introducing the unit and some stylistic tenants of rock, I talked about the very issue of hip-hop's place in rock and roll.  I asked them if they were familiar with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (or "The Hall", as I'll refer to it here) and then asked them if they were familiar with a group called NWA.   (NOTE: I mentioned NWA with the disclosure that I could never play their music in class for my kids, as I don't think there are any NWA tracks that are school appropriate.)  I informed them that the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a few days prior.  I got a few blank looks upon mentioning NWA, but after I mentioned the film Straight Outta Compton from last summer, I got a few more nodding heads.  I mentioned that there was some controversy over NWA being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as some people do not believe that rap has a place in said Hall of Fame.  I also told my students, before I read about Mr. Simmons's particular twitter fit, that we would be working with a broader definition of what "rock" can possibly mean in our School of Rock unit, which includes hip-hop and much of what is considered pop, and I think we're better off that way.  After opening up that line of thought, I did show this video to my kids, which happens to introduce my first point here:

1. Hip-hop and rock'n'roll (whatever that is now) have influenced each other massively and are inextricably linked.

It's a given that combining two good things is not always going to work out for the better.  I explained to my students that combining pickles and chocolate chip cookies might not be terribly tasty.  However, I personally love the combination of a Wendy's Frosty and fries.  This 31 year old Run DMC & Aerosmith collaboration (yes, it happened 31 years ago), to me, is like the Frosty & Fries of popular music.  The seamless melding of a legendary rock band (and their subsequent return to the public eye in a positive light) and a soon-to-be-iconic rap group just works.  Upon seeing it, most of them for the first time, all of my kids responded to this in a huge way and I was glad for it. 

Let us not forget (though some of us want to) the instance where Grandmaster Flash collaborated with Duran Duran on a new version of one of the rap group's biggest hits.  

CN: the following song contains frank discussion of drug use, albeit with the repeated line "don't do it!"

So the question to Simmons is -- can we not allow any rapping at all in what is often referred to as rock music?  Many current popular groups would disagree, including major teenage touchstone Twenty-One Pilots, as would Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Blondie.  

2. Where do you draw the line between a rap group and a rock band, or between bands and their sub-genres?

In 2018 (eek!), The Roots will be eligible for consideration into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  The group is widely considered to be a hip-hop group (if you're looking for their records in a record store, you won't find them categorized as alternative rock), but they're a band, with a core of brilliant instrumentalists and MC Black Thought (Tariq Trotter) mostly serving as the voice of the band.  They also make use of samples, as do a number of more rock-oriented groups and artists (Beck comes to mind immediately, and I am sure he'll be up for consideration for The Hall as soon as he's eligible -- in three years).

The Roots are also, bar none, the best live band I've ever seen.  They are mind-blowing.  Considering their formation, the fact that ?uestlove (Ahmir Thompson) is one of the best drummers in music, full stop, and the fact that they have ascended to the coveted spot as the house band for The Tonight Show (while still frequently touring), I absolutely think they should be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility.  Will they be?  I don't know.  I sort of doubt it.

(Interesting side note: apparently ?uestlove is a huge KISS fan?  Who would have guessed?)

The question at hand, however, is where do you draw the line among genres?  Do we only induct people who play instruments?  It sure doesn't seem that way.  If rap music only can be compared to rock when it involves live instruments, then where do we place A Tribe Called Quest, who had legendary jazz bassist Ron Carter sit in on their recording of  "Verses from the Abstract"?  Plenty of performers have been inducted into The Hall with no mention of their backing bands (a controversy that was partially rectified in 2012), so why would there be a problem with inducting a solo rapper or a band, with full "rock" instrumentation and then some, that also includes a rapper?  (Of note: NWA, Grandmaster Flash, the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, and Run DMC are the only rap acts to have been inducted into the hall; no solo rappers have as of yet been inducted.)  

Furthermore, would you have wanted to be the guy who stood up and protested past voting, blocking Parliament-Funkadelic (inducted in 1997) because they were a funk band or Earth, Wind, and Fire (inducted in 2000) because they could also be loosely considered disco?

3. Plenty of rocking non-guitarists are in The Hall.  What's your point?

In Simmons's defense of his point of view, he makes many references to guitar driven rock music.  While the typical rock instrumentation dominates Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, as do white males, guitar gods are not the only musicians in The Hall.  Does Mr. Simmons have a problem with Billy Joel -- who can play some guitar, but who is obviously known as the "Piano Man" -- being amongst members of The Hall?

Also, a clear oversight on The Hall's induction process: Ravi Shankar.  He was not only influential in his native India and one of the great virtuosos on his instrument, the sitar, but he had massive influence on rock music, starting with The Beatles and especially his collaborations with George Harrison.  However, both Paul Simon & David Byrne have both been inducted into The Hall, Simon twice, and are often credited with exposing "world music" (a term Byrne reportedly detests) to the broader rock world.  Hmm.

 

More so than just Mr. Simmons's criticism of the induction of rap groups, there is a great deal of valid criticism against the Hall of Fame itself and its voting bloc.  Simmons's band, KISS, was not inducted into The Hall until 2014 (the same year that both Nirvana and Hall & Oates, two much younger acts, were inducted; Nirvana was inducted in their first year of eligibility).  For huge KISS fans, that might have seemed like too long of a wait.  For many others, KISS represents superficiality in rock music rather than artistry.  To The Hall's credit, in my opinion, Kiss's induction was three years after the induction of Neil Diamond, Dr. John, Darlene Love, and Tom Waits -- good call on the 2011 voting bloc.  I would argue that all of these artists are more influential, musically speaking, than KISS, and deserved induction prior to Simmons's band.  

And yet Sister Rosetta Tharpe, electric guitar pioneer who is widely considered the godmother of Rock and Roll, still waits outside The Hall.

Maybe the better question to ask, rather than why rap groups have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, is why KISS, who were influential more for their personal style rather than their musical innovations, is among The Hall's membership and this pioneer among pioneers is not.  

If you want some more of Sister Rosetta Tharpe to make you feel both good and mildly irritated that she's not more widely known, here's some more.  Do you ever find that you enjoy music so much that it makes you angry?  This song is so good that it makes me a little angry on its own merits.

In the end, The Hall should be living up to its mission, which does not explicitly exclude any particular instruments or any manner of expressing lyrics.  As per The Hall's website, the induction process is one carefully thought over (though still deeply flawed):

Leaders in the music industry joined together in 1983 to establish the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation. One of the Foundation’s many functions is to recognize the contributions of those who have had a significant impact on the evolution, development and perpetuation of rock and roll by inducting them into the Hall of Fame. -
— http://www.rockhall.com/inductees/induction-process/#sthash.e0uxPPzT.dpuf

What Mr. Simmons fails to consider is the relationship between hip-hop and what is known as rock and how the two are influenced by each other.  In this sense, although hip-hop definitively has its own stylistic traits, it is more of an offshoot of rock music rather than its own separate, vacuum-developed genre.  

If we only consider Rock and Roll in its purest form, then we limit Rock and Roll to entirely black artists, including Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Ike Turner.  I don't think that's what Mr. Simmons wants, either.  It seems that Mr. Simmons and his ilk want to define rock as a genre as it had evolved in the 1970s and not recognize any of its evolutions beyond that.  

My orchestra director in college, someone who was obviously deeply invested in orchestral repertoire, always said to us: "Do not put drawers in your brain."  I think Mr. Simmons and like-minded individuals would do well to follow this advice.

Minor Second interval in Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely?"

The Path Forward for NAfME