From Blondie to Yachty, we trace back the evolution of this everloving junction
The relationship between hip-hop and rock in 2023 is a knotty and tangled tree where fuzzy guitars and snap-neck beats live symbiotically alongside one another as if they always were meant to gel together.
Just recently, in fact, legendary UK prog act Gentle Giant took to Facebook in order to thank Travis Scott for sampling them on the track “HYAENA” off the rapper’s brand new album UTOPIA.
“We are honored by the inclusion of our 1974 song ‘Proclamation’ in the intro track [“Hyaena”] to Travis Scott’s new album,” they wrote. “We are always amazed how Gentle Giant’s music continues to inspire and evolve across diverse genres and generations, particularly within the Hip-Hop community.”
Indeed, the utilization of rock music into hip-hop is as old as the culture itself, going back to the earliest days when The Shadows’ “Apache” (via The Incredible Bongo Band) was regularly dropped into the mix during block parties in the ’70s. And the expansion of the duality between the two genres only got deeper and more intricate as we entered the ’80s and sampling became more prevalent. It would eventually give way to actual rock bands getting together to make hip-hop music in the 90s with groups like Basehead, Urban Dance Squad and Rage Against The Machine, and then in the ’00s with the rise of such genre-bending producers as DJ Shadow, Madlib and Edan incorporating psychedelic rock into their beats.
From my perspective, the evolution of the rock-rap connection can be followed in these eight distinct moves that illustrate the evolution of this vibrant and creative affair between the two genres.
Blondie release “Rapture” (1980)
The last single off their fifth album Autoamerican, Blondie introduced the wider world to hip-hop beyond New York City, giving New Wave fans a taste of the sound their favorite artists are grooving to in the clubs. Debbie Harry’s extended rap expressed appreciation to her friend and early hip-hop impresario Fab 5 Freddy for helping her step into his world.
“I could immediately hear that what she was saying in the rap, though, were little snippets of stuff I used to tell her, like when I would explain the hip-hop scene,” Freddy said in the documentary The Hip-Hop Years Vol. 1. “I’d be like, well you know, they got these fly guys, and fly girls, those are the equivalent to punk rockers and the hardcore fans. And then you have this DJ, known as Flash, he’s the fastest.”
VIDEO: Blondie “Rapture”
Run DMC hire Eddie Martinez for “Rock Box” (1984)
Inspired by hearing the sounds of NYC metal outfit Riot recording in the studio they were waiting for, Run DMC sought interest in adding rock guitar to their music. So producer Larry Smith called in a fellow Hollis, Queens native, session guitarist Eddie Martinez, to lay down some heat on what would become “Rock Box,” ushering in a successful trajectory of rock-rooted rap hits for Rev Run, Darryl Mack and the late, great Jam Master Jay.
VIDEO: Run DMC “Rock Box”
Beastie Boys mashes up Sabbath and Zep (1986)
Who would have thought the riff to Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf” and the opening drum break on “When The Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin would go together like Olde E and Rice-A-Roni? Rick Rubin did when he combined the two into an AOR atom bomb that opened up the Beasties’ auspicious debut Licensed to Ill, an album that also features Kerry King of Slayer on guitar.
AUDIO: Beastie Boys “Rhymin’ & Stealin'”
Faith No More’s “Epic” (1989)
In the annals of this fusion of rap and rock, few tracks have achieved the feat of transcending genre boundaries like Faith No More’s “Epic.”
Amidst Mike Patton’s captivating vocals and Jim Martin’s searing guitar riffs, “Epic” found its sweet spot by intertwining rock’s rebellious ethos with hip-hop’s urban pulse thanks to the incredible rhythm section of keyboardist Roddy Bottum, bassist Billy Gould and drummer Mike Bordin. The unmistakable rhythm, inspired by Public Enemy, fused seamlessly with the song’s streetwise lyrics, showcasing an innovative hybrid of styles that were, until then, considered mutually exclusive.
“Epic” wasn’t just a song; it was a cultural junction. It challenged preconceived notions, sparking conversations about the interplay between genres. Its influence radiated across the ’90s and beyond, fostering a new era of experimentation between hard rock and hip-hop that arguably surpasses earlier fusions like Anthrax’s “I’m The Man” and even FNM’s own “We Care A Lot.” The track’s legacy endures as a testament to the power of musical synergy, proving that when disparate elements harmonize, something truly extraordinary emerges.
VIDEO: Faith No More “Epic”
KRS-One guests on R.E.M.’s “Radio Song” (1991)
“Radio Song” by R.E.M. is a pulsating testament to the band’s eclectic sound. Released in 1991 as part of their Out of Time album, the track’s fusion of jangling guitars, playful rap verses and a chorus that soars, defies easy categorization. Michael Stipe’s distinctive vocals carry introspective verses that dissolve into KRS-One’s confident rap interludes, offering a dynamic contrast. With its intricate blend of genres, “Radio Song” stands as affirmation to R.E.M.’s willingness to experiment, pushing boundaries while still maintaining their melodic core. The track remains a vibrant snapshot of early ’90s alternative rock, capturing the era’s cross-genre explorations and the band’s continued evolution.
VIDEO: R.E.M. feat. KRS-One “Radio Song”
The Judgment Night soundtrack (1993)
The Judgment Night soundtrack is a seismic moment in the fusion of rock and hip-hop. Released in 1993, it boldly unites two seemingly disparate genres, creating an explosive sonic collision that paved the way for future genre-blurring collaborations. The album pairs alternative rock bands like Sonic Youth, Helmet, Teenage Fanclub and Slayer with rap acts like Cypress Hill, House of Pain, De La Soul and Ice-T, resulting in an audacious cross-pollination of styles. This groundbreaking effort showcased the potential for musical innovation when boundaries are shattered. The soundtrack transcends mere nostalgia; it represents a landmark where artistic experimentation overshadows convention. Judgment Night is an enduring reminder that innovation doesn’t reside in the comfort zone—it thrives at the intersection of creativity. It continues to resonate, inspiring artists to step outside their comfort zones and push the boundaries of musical expression.
The Roots record with Elvis Costello (2013)
Elvis Costello’s collaboration with The Roots on Wise Up Ghost is a genre-blurring triumph that bridges the gap between punk fervor and hip-hop groove. Released in 2013, the album marries Costello’s razor-sharp lyrical prowess with The Roots’ impeccable instrumental foundation, resulting in a dense, socially charged sonic tapestry. The marriage of Costello’s acerbic storytelling and the band’s tight, jazz-infused arrangements creates an atmosphere of urgency and reflection. Tracks like “Walk Us Uptown” and “Cinco Minutos Con Vos” showcase the seamless fusion of their distinct sounds, while lyrics dissect politics, love, and the human experience. Wise Up Ghost is a testament to the power of collaboration, to Costello’s enduring artistry and The Roots’ boundless musical dexterity, proving that even in the midst of reinvention, both acts remain unapologetically themselves.
Lil Yachty drops Let’s Start Here (2023)
At only 25, Miles Parks McCollum has come a long, long way since rhyming nonsense over beats cribbed from Super Mario Bros, Rugrats and the Nintendo GameCube. On his mind-blowing fifth LP Let’s Start Here, Yachty sets the controls for the heart of the sun by exploring the heaviest, headiest depths of trap and garnishes them with such sonic embellishments as Eddie Hazel fuzz guitar flourishes, otherworldly keyboards and vocals straight off The Dark Side of the Moon. Let’s Start Here is the album you wish Travis Scott’s UTOPIA was more like.
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