Last week, to mark the first anniversary of Adam “MCA” Yauch’s untimely passing from cancer, a park in Brooklyn that he frequented as a kid was renamed in the late Beastie Boy’s honour. The bucolic setting is a fitting tribute—Yauch embodied the Beastie Boys’ burgeoning spiritual conscience, spearheading the trio’s transformation from the panty-raiding pranksters immortalized in the “You Gotta Fight For Your Right (to Party)” video to the Dalai Lama–approved advocates for a free Tibet. More than his bandmates, Yauch seemed especially embarrassed by his youthful boorish behaviour. But there’s one aspect of the early Beastie Boys legacy he need not have disowned: For a time, they made the idea of combining rap and hard rock seem totally awesome.
On paper, rap and hard rock may seem divided along both racial (black vs. white) and technological (guitars vs. turntables) lines, but in the ’80s, they enjoyed parallel ascendancies, sharing histories as outsider, underclass-rooted forms of music that would later dominate the decade. The Beasties’ fellow New Yorkers Run-DMC were the first to make the connection with 1984’s “Rock Box,” a block-toppling track that set the stage for their 1986 Aerosmith cover/collaboration, “Walk This Way,” the song arguably most responsible for introducing rap to the American mainstream (and, alas, for the continued existence of Aerosmith). Factor in the Beasties’ chart-busting, Zeppelin-swiping Licensed to Ill, and rap felt less like rock’s antithesis than its saviour, a paragon of rawness amid increasingly slick ’80s pop.
The relationship proved mutually beneficial. While rappers from LL Cool J to Tone Loc rode their classic-rock samples onto middle-American airwaves, bands from Anthrax to Sonic Youth to R.E.M. would enlist MC cameos from the likes of Chuck D. and KRS-One for extra cred. The early ’90s marked the genre’s golden age: Rage Against the Machine’s dynamite debut, the Beastie Boys’ riotous “Sabotage,” the Judgment Night soundtrack (rap-rock’s Saturday Night Fever moment). But the decade’s second half was overrun by a parade of mooks—Limp Bizkit, Insane Clown Posse—who lacked their forebears’ streetwise cool and swagger and channelled the music’s aggression into camera-mugging machismo. After this most odious strain reached its acme with the Fred Durst–commandeered Woodstock ’99 (a.k.a. Rapestock), “rap-rock” became two words you didn’t want to ever hear together, like “child porn” or “Ann Coulter.”
That chill still exists. Today, when you hear of rock and hip-hop artists collaborating—whether it’s Big Boi teaming up with Wavves, The Black Lips backing up GZA, or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs calling in Kool Keith—nobody’s first reaction is, “Hey, that sounds like a great idea!” Same goes for big-name MCs who opt to explore their interest in rock over the course of a full album: Lil Wayne’s 2010 release, Rebirth—on which the rapper tried his hand at nü-metalloid power ballads—was greeted with a more hostile reception than his recent rhyme about Emmett Till. Even artists with a track record of boundary-blurring eclecticism have an uphill battle. Last month, at the Danforth Music Hall, Toronto’s k-os faced the consequence of releasing a double album, BLack on BLonde, split down genre lines: A crowd that eagerly received b-boy-abetted jams like “Superstarr Pt. 0” cooled when the MC tore into noisy, Strokes-inspired rave-ups from the BLonde half of the record.
While the internet has supposedly ushered in a new culture of genre-agnostic musical appreciation, the rap-rock divide remains a minefield, where age-old debates over tokenism, appropriation, and authenticity can so easily erupt. Perhaps the dysfunctional relationship between the two genres is a natural byproduct of the fact that, over the past 30 years, hip-hop has developed a musical language that’s far more sophisticated than dropping rhymes atop a Billy Squier drum loop, while rock has splintered into infinite subgenres. The traditional points of intersection between rap and rock—the booming beats, the electric-guitar shocks, the hoots and hollers—no longer exist. What was once the ultimate soundtrack of adolescence now feels more like an estranged marriage—two parties who’ve matured in different ways, trying to remember what they saw in one another in the first place.