Still Rock And Roll To Me is a new column where various writers and editors on staff at TIDAL will defend examples of what they believe exemplifies music at its most real, touching on all styles, genres, mediums and more. The views presented in each piece will reflect the opinions of the specific author, but the greater series will serve as a growing definition of what we’ll call the elusive and alluring spirit of rock and roll.
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“Rock ‘n’ roll is not an instrument. It’s not even a style of music. It’s a spirit that’s been going on since the blues, jazz, bebop, soul, rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, heavy metal, punk rock, and yes, hip-hop.”
— Ice Cube
Last month, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame held its 31st annual induction ceremony at the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn, NY. Primarily honoring five legacy acts – Cheap Trick, Chicago, Deep Purple, Steve Miller and N.W.A. – what could have been a relatively predictable event proved to be, for a moment, an unexpectedly philosophical affair concerning the latter-named group and the Rock and Roll Hall’s very namesake.
Indirectly responding to comments made by KISS co-founder Gene Simmons, who later incited a brief spar on Twitter, N.W.A. member Ice Cube eloquently stated: “Rock ‘n’ roll is not an instrument. It’s not even a style of music. It’s a spirit that’s been going on since the blues, jazz, bebop, soul, rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, heavy metal, punk rock, and yes, hip-hop.”
It is, in a way, ironic that against the four other 2016 inductees, each cleanly categorized as “rock” acts, the beating heart of rock and roll should be so perfectly described by a hip-hop hero. But Ice Cube is entirely correct in defining rock and roll by a common soul or attitude rather than a specific style or genre. And in truth N.W.A. embodied this spirit to a far greater degree than their fellow honorees.
As only the fifth ever hip-hop act to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (after Public Enemy, 2013; Beastie Boys, 2012; RUN-D.M.C., 2009; Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, 2007) N.W.A. were irreplaceable pioneers in progressing and popularizing gangsta rap and West Coast hip-hop.
Formed in Compton, California in 1986, the five-piece crew of DJ Yella, Ice Cube, MC Ren, Eazy-E and Dr. Dre held their middle fingers up to the status quo, aggressively challenging social norms and addressing issues of inequality, racial profiling and police brutality by way of iconic protest songs like “Fuck Tha Police.” The group’s lyrics and stances were so controversial in their time that they were banned from mainstream radio while still racking up multi-platinum album sales. If that’s not rock and roll, what is?
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For her own induction to the Hall one year earlier, hard rock heroine Joan Jett gave her definition of rock and roll: “I come from a place where rock and roll means something,” she explained. “It means more than music, more than fashion, more than a good pose. It’s a language of subculture, of rebellion, integrity, frustration, alienation and the glue that set several generations free of unnatural societal and self-suppression.”
Complimenting Ice Cube’s speech, Jett’s words go further to nail down the true spirit of rock and roll, shedding two-dimensional aesthetic approximations to expose its true purpose. Boiled down to its most basic essence, rock and roll is a empowering language that unites the rebels, the freaks and the disenfranchised under a common flag, giving them voice, identity and community.
In the recent season finale of the HBO series Vinyl, main character and rock and roll evangelist Richie Finestra defends the importance of this unifying spirit, saying: “Every generation is full of lost, fucked-up kids who need to hear they’re not alone. And they hear it. They hear it through the records we make.” Rock and roll is an enduring language of subculture because it continues to empower the disenfranchised, affording them a sense of belonging through music, even as the music itself is ever-changing to address the evolving needs and tastes of its audience.
In this round-holed world, real rock and roll aligns with the personal truth of the square pegged individual, affirming his or her sanity, validity and sense of belonging. To echo Mr. Finestra, true rock and roll lets you know you’re not alone. It speaks to and for those individuals and subcultures on the fringe. It unifies the likes of Robert Johnson, Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Kraftwerk, David Bowie, Sex Pistols, Prince, N.W.A., Nirvana, Daft Punk, Courtney Barnett and Kendrick Lamar.
Moreover, rock and roll elicits something physical and involuntary inside of us, a twinge in the heart, the tapping of one’s foot. To this effect, Elvis Presley once said: “Rock and roll music, if you like it, if you feel it, you can’t help but move to it. That’s what happens to me. I can’t help it.” Call it an uncontrollable urge, one that may leave you looking silly. But that’s just it. Rock and roll isn’t about looking or being cool by someone else’s definition so much as it is about feeling cool for truthfully expressing yourself.
In fact, with its root aims inherently separate from and unconcerned with the desire for popular approval, rock and roll often proves uncool to begin with. Lady Gaga was brutally teased in high school for her love of singing, theatrical makeup and eccentric outfits. De La Soul were initially mocked for their eclectic and inclusive mentality on 3 Feet High and Rising, the hip-hop trio’s tremendously influential and celebrated DayGlo debut built around the expressive concept of the “D.A.I.S.Y. Age” (“da inner sound, y’all”). Real rock and roll earns its cool without compromising its integrity. It moves us because it is the sonic embodiment of truth.
In this ongoing column, we hope to chase down this greater truth and celebrate its many and multiplying manifestations. Rock and roll is out there, and though its sound is always changing, its spirit will never die.
It’s the next phase, new wave, dance craze, anyways
It’s still rock and roll to me.
Everybody’s talkin’ ’bout the new sound
Funny, but it’s still rock and roll to me.
— Billy Joel, “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me”