Don’t get me wrong. Rock is my favorite genre of music. But I might be partial to dead things: I also study Latin, the rotting language of the ancient Romans. Like Latin, rock and roll is still very much alive in the hearts and minds of those who love it, but it’s been replaced as the forefront of progress and innovation. And rock’s usurper is hip hop.
During its heyday in the nineteen-fifties through seventies, rock and punk music served as the voice of counterculture and rebellion. This music kept up a running political and social commentary as an outlet for frustrations and an opportunity to vocalize dissent. Songs like “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones, “God Save the Queen” by the Sex Pistols, and “Another Brick in the Wall” by Pink Floyd spoke about social unrest, protested the Vietnam War and the government, and opposed harsh schooling. Hippies rallied around the radical messages of peace in music, and protest songs unified social movements during the sixties.
Rock music was also an electrifying anti-establishment force of youth. The explosion of Elvis in the fifties created a new youth culture and made teenagers a separate market with tastes distinct from their parents. The King’s gyrating hips and “black” sound were condemned by many adults but embraced by the adolescents of the time, setting rock music on a path of controversy and rebelliousness, such as when The Doors refused to censor a lyric about getting “higher” on the Ed Sullivan Show. Adults even got rock music banned from radio stations. Rock culture was wild, careless, and thrilling: for better or worse, the era of sex, drugs, and rock and roll was born.
Later, in the seventies, eighties, and nineties, the DIY punk scene found its own foothold as a progressive movement. Punk combined an independent, do-it-yourself ethic with anti-consumerism and a democratizing lack of emphasis on technical skill. Riot grrrl bands like Bikini Kill used the tools of the punk scene to build a feminist platform around this movement. Since its genesis, rock and punk had been the voice of progress, rebellion, and modernity. But, beginning in the eighties, a new genre of music had begun to take root.
Since the nineties, hip hop has been taking the place of rock music at the boundaries of the mainstream. Today’s issues of racism and violence have been called out in rap songs like “Fuck Tha Police” by N.W.A., “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar and “We the People” by A Tribe Called Quest. “Alright” is used as Black Lives Matter protest song, and “We the People” is a response to the election of Donald Trump; in fact, Trump was mentioned in 32 hip hop songs in 2015 and 27 songs in 2016.
Just like rock music, hip hop is the voice of youth, rebellion, and controversy. At the beginning of hip hop’s rise in the nineties, the east coast/west coast rivalry brought about legendary, shocking feuds. Its greatest demographics are teenagers and young adults; the music is often misunderstood and feared by older generations. Rap and hip hop are seen as forces of immorality, conflict, and misdemeanor. For example, Fox News has criticized Kendrick Lamar’s music for inciting inner-city violence. Meanwhile, the genre’s popularity and ubiquity have created a new, distinctly young culture. Hip hop names and sensibilities have shaped teenage vernacular and fashion, from Drake’s popularization of the term “YOLO” to Kanye West’s coveted Yeezy apparel brand. The excess and debauchery of rappers echo the Dionysian wildness of rock stars back in the day. Sex, drugs, and hip hop.
Hip hop’s DIY scene is not fully mainstream but is rich and varied. The roots of the genre began in an inherently DIY way with D.J.s record-scratching at parties. Since, many popular artists have gotten their breaks from making their own mixtapes, and the indie music website Soundcloud is home to countless aspiring rappers. Hip hop artists display a fondness for purposefully DIY and slapdash album artwork, such as the sloppily photoshopped cover of Three Six Mafi’s Chapter 1: The End and Drake’s messy If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late.
It’s important not to overlook the fact that the rock and roll sound was originally appropriated from black musicians by white men. Although black artists eventually broke back into the scene, rock has skewed white ever since. Hip hop has remained a largely black demographic, perhaps enabling its continued commentary on racism. However, like early rock music, hip hop is unfortunately home to misogyny and homophobia. Although a new generation of queer female hip hop artists, such as Temper, have begun to push these boundaries, hip hop has yet to have its riot grrrl moment. But who’s to say that the trajectory of hip hop will follow that of rock and punk? Although the two genres have many similarities, they are vastly different in sound and in many philosophies, reflecting the changing times and tastes. One thing that never changes is our need for music to express the voice of progress, unite movements, and push the boundaries of what is acceptable. The vessel used to be rock; now it’s hip hop. Tomorrow a new generation of music will take its place.