What is Rock 'n' Roll?
“Are we rock & roll? You goddamn right, we’re rock & roll!”
On April 8, 2016, Ice Cube, one of the most influential and important voices in hip-hop history, spoke those words from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction stage. His iconic group, N.W.A, who all but single-handedly kicked off the West Coast gangsta rap revolution in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, were being inducted into the Hall of Fame amidst a slight controversy, fueled by a faction of narrow-minded genre purists. Could these men, who undeniably innovated an entire movement, be considered “rock & roll”?
From the stage, with Dr. Dre, DJ Yella, MC Ren and the family of the late Eazy-E standing behind him, Ice Cube took the time to address the issue head on. “Rock & roll is not an instrument, rock & roll is not even a style of music. Rock & roll is a spirit,” he said defiantly, as the crowd applauded in agreement. And with those words, Cube articulated a core tenet of the idea of rock & roll itself—more than just guitar, bass and drums, it’s a mindset for anyone who understands expression, oppression, attitude, and rebellion.
When N.W.A released their classic 1988 debut album Straight Outta Compton, the infamously bloody L.A. riots were still four years away, but the city’s crumbling race relations were already near breaking point. With incendiary tracks like “Gangsta Gangsta” and “Fuck Tha Police”, N.W.A had positioned themselves as the pied pipers of a community who needed their anger, resolve and focus to push back against the stifling status quo. What could be more rock & roll than that? If the Sex Pistols can shout “God Save the Queen” during Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee, surely releasing “Fuck Tha Police” under a veritable regime of racial profiling and police brutality is just as punk.
While Ice Cube was rightfully vocal about securing his group’s stature as Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees, N.W.A are far from the only artists who have made it into the Hall without specifically performing “rock” music. Inductees run the spectrum of popular music, from blues, to R&B, soul, funk, folk, country, disco and pop. For example, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone, living or dead, who embodied the spirit of rock & roll more fully that the Man in Black himself, Johnny Cash, who was inducted back in 1992. A life lived completely devoted to his craft, Johnny Cash expertly walked the line between larger-than-life star, withered everyman, and wayward outlaw. One of the most pivotal moments in his career was 1968’s At Folsom Prison, a live album that that only he could have pulled off—two live sets in front of a crowd of convicted felons. Oh, he also pissed off the entire country music community by taking out a full page ad in Billboard against the city of Nashville, complete with a photo of himself flipping the bird. If you needed any convincing of Johnny Cash’s rock & roll status, look no further.
Another artist whose (tragically short) life’s work secured him a place in the Hall of Fame is Tupac Shakur, who was inducted in 2017, his first year of eligibility. So much of what Tupac accomplished in his career contributed to the evolution of hip-hop, the sort of canonical innovation that makes his inclusion into the Hall of Fame a no-brainer. He was able to take the rage of N.W.A’s gangsta rap, and infused it with emotion, heartache, suffering and redemption, giving his rhymes a dimension previously unseen in rap music. It’s what Dylan did to folk, what Miles Davis did to jazz: they kicked it to the next level.
Rock & roll can also be about attitude, ethos, or philosophy, rather than even music itself. This may be a controversial claim to the more traditionalist rock fans, but it applies to more artists than you'd think. For example, Madonna: inducted in 2008, the proclaimed Queen of Pop may not be the first thing that springs to mind when considering icons of the rock & roll genre. But let's take into account her illustrious career—at every turn, she has bucked expectations and committed to making the music she wanted to make, whatever the cost. She's always been vehemently anti-censorship, from the infamous night in Toronto on the Blonde Ambition tour where she was almost arrested for public indecency, to notoriously dropping no less than 14 f-bombs on an iconic interview on The Late Show with David Letterman. In terms of her public persona, Madonna has given her most raucous male counterparts a real run for their money, and has more than earned her place in the pantheon of rock beside them.
There’s also the fun, hedonistic, carefree aspects of rock, the parts that routinely fill arenas with legions of screaming, dancing fans. Take disco, for example: decried as a fad in the late ‘70s by, let’s face it, a bunch of killjoys, artists like Donna Summer, the Bee Gees, and Nile Rodgers of Chic earned their places in the Hall of Fame by making some of the most recognizable dance music of all time. Particularly Rodgers, whose fingerprints can be found all over the modern music landscape. You like “Rapper’s Delight”? Nile Rodgers.
“Upside Down”? Nile Rodgers.
“Let’s Dance”? Nile Rodgers.
“Get Lucky”? You guessed it, Nile Rodgers had a hand in that too.
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame use the following criteria when considering performers for induction: “Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock & roll." The list of inductees who personify that sentiment who aren’t your typical guitar gods is too long and illustrious to name them all, from Nina Simone’s otherworldly jazz to Madonna’s pop superstardom. But the most interesting word in that above statement might be evolution—the idea that rock is almost transforming, new artists coming along and adding to this all-encompassing style. Introducing N.W.A to the stage, back in 2016, was Kendrick Lamar, who in the short time since has gone from hip-hop darling to perhaps the most important rapper in a generation. His exhilarating records about race, wealth, politics and American culture are sure to inspire fans across all demographics for decades to come. If you look at him standing silently behind Ice Cube, and you ask yourself: “Is he rock & roll?”, there can only be one answer.
You goddamn right, he’s rock & roll.