A while back, perhaps almost a year ago now, I had a very interesting twitter-based conversation with fellow Tampa-based blogger Clark Brooks and legendary hip-hop artist Chuck D, frontman for the great Public Enemy.
The conversation started on a response I made to Chuck D’s tweet comparing Run-DMC to The Beatles.
According to Chuck D, Run-DMC’s music and performances set public excitement to levels not seen since The Beatles. Run-DMC, like The Beatles, were new, exciting, and harbingers of a new mainstream music scene. As the rock of The Beatles was derived from earlier influences such as Elvis and Chuck Berry, and later Muddy Waters, the hip-hop of Run-DMC was derived from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the Sugar Hill Gang, and several other hip-hop trailblazing legends. Chuck D also tweeted to me about the attention and national spotlight given to these two groups and that there was a buzz surrounding both of them. He said Run-DMC was no doubt The Beatles of their day.
Although I didn’t really have a leg to stand on in regards to the first-hand knowledge Chuck D of Run-DMC, I told Chuck and Clark that I would lean more towards comparing The Beatles to well-known historical hip-hop act NWA, although instead of cultural excitement, I would base my comparison on musical influence and impact.
Looking at NWA and The Beatles, I like to think of Ice Cube as John Lennon. Although some might initially think Easy-E, as it was Easy who put the group together and both Easy and Lennon died at an early age, I think Ice Cube is the better comparison. Cube was the songwriter for most NWA’s earlier albums just as Lennon was one of the main song writers for The Beatles. Like Lennon, upon going solo, Ice Cube got much more political, although instead of “giving peace a chance”, Cube became one of Amerikkka’s Most Wanted.
With Ice Cube filling the Lennon role, I think it makes sense to compare Dr. Dre to Paul McCartney. Both achieved extraordinary success outside of their original groups, with McCartney in Wings and Dre in his solo ventures and with Snoop Dogg and Eminem.
Of the remaining Beatles and NWA members, I would compare Ringo Starr to MC Ren and then finally George Harrison to Easy-E. Although each of the four here had respectable careers, none could quite capture the acclaim they had when they were part of a group.
During my twitter conversation with Clark Brooks and Chuck D, I asked Chuck what classic rock group he would compare to NWA. His answer surprised me at first, but I think is definitely worth exploration. He said he would compare NWA to The Yardbirds, which I think is another great comparison, although my personal opinion is that it falls a little short.
For those who might not remember, The Yardbirds were an early to mid 1960s rock group that featured, at one point or another, three of the greatest guitar players of all time: Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck. They also at one point contained another future Led Zeppelin member in bassist John Paul Jones. Right away, we can associate MC Ren and DJ Yella of NWA with Keith Relf, Chris Dreja, and Jim McCarty of The Yardbirds – members who although they recorded outside of their most well known act, failed to make any more mainstream waves.
So that leaves Clapton, Page, and Beck and Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Easy-E. I think that’s the perfect order as well.
Ice Cube as Eric Clapton: Clapton left The Yardbirds in 1965 because he claimed they were losing their blues roots. Ice Cube left NWA because he claimed they weren’t paying him enough. Clapton went on to join the John Mayall Band, Cream, and Derek and the Dominoes before going solo. Ice Cube went solo, but worked with the production team from Public Enemy before putting together Da Lynch Mob and being part of the Westside Connection with Mack-10 and WC. Both Cube and Clapton were able to toe two lines in their respective genres: Cube went from black militant rap to West Coast gangsta rap and back while Clapton meandered from blues to rock and back to blues. Probably the biggest difference here is that Clapton hasn’t ventured into movies and other media as Ice Cube has, but that might be a sign of the times.
Dr. Dre as Jimmy Page: Whereas Page took the Yardbirds into a different direction by bringing aboard Robert Plant and John Bohnam and calling the group “Led Zeppelin”, Dre left NWA but like Page, started a whole other “band” in Death Row Records. Both Dr. Dre and Jimmy Page both took the torch lit by their first groups and ran further with it thanks to their new colleagues than any of their former counterparts. Page and Dr. Dre found relative unknowns in Page and Snoop Dogg, respectively, and turned them into mega-stars. Both have also been astute on the business side of their music as well, as it was Page who re-released a lot of the Led Zeppelin live concerts over the years, repackaging and remastering using the most modern technology and of course Dr. Dre has used the power of promotions from commercials to using holograms to get his music heard and seen.
Easy-E as Jeff Beck: Of the three MCs in NWA to make it as solo artists, Easy-E attained far less acclaim then his two ex-mates. The same could be said for Jeff Beck, although Beck is still with us, unlike Easy-E. Even in death, however, Easy-E is overshadowed by other deceased hip-hop legends. Although Ice Cube and Dr. Dre left NWA and Jeff Beck was fired from the Yardbirds, both artists held long-term grudges against their former group members, with Beck saying “fuck them” at the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame and Easy-E recording Dr. Dre diss songs on his 187um album. While Beck has had the chance to play with former Yardbirds Clapton and Page on numerous occasions, Easy-E was never able to perform on stage with Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, although he did meet with them on his deathbed.
(Here is the weakness in Chuck D’s argument. Easy-E and Jeff Beck are not a good comparison. Jeff Beck is a Rock’N'Roll Hall of Famer and no one will ever mistake Easy-E for a great rapper. Easy-E did however discover the multi-platinum Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony. While Easy-E stayed primarily solo in his post-NWA career, Jeff Beck was in close to a dozen more groups after leaving The Yardbirds.)
While I can definitely see Chuck D’s point that NWA does have some similarities with The Yardbirds, I still think the West Coast rap legends make a more apt comparison to The Beatles.
Along the same lines, there are other hip-hop to classic rock comparisons I think are fitting:
Rakim to Jimi Hendrix: This is the old high school analogy. What Jimi is to guitar, Rakim is to hip-hop lyrics. There were guitarists before Jimi, but none blew the ears off listeners like Hendrix, none experimented with as many sounds and effects as Hendrix, and few put on a show and had a sense of timing like Hendrix. For early hip-hop fans, Rakim is the same on the lyrical tip, with a sense of timing, dexterity, and flow that few had heard before. Rakim also brought a depth and intellect to rhyming and lyricism that was unheard of in the days of party hip-hop. Today, both Hendrix and Rakim are still considered among, if not the best to ever do what they did.
Lil Wayne to Motley Crue: I like to think of Southern Rap as the Hair Metal of hip-hop. It’s flashy, cheesy, and utterly materialistic, lacking the depth and relevance of its predecessors. Since the Cash Money Clique first broke through in the late 1990s, southern hip-hop has been one of the most formulaic genres in music. For a while in the 1980s, hair metal was the same to rock’n’roll. Hair metal had the makeup, the hair spray, the spandex, and the power ballad. No band was bigger nor more hair metal than Motley Crue. Southern rap had the pimp cup, the souped-up Cadillac, the crunk juice, and the song about being in the club. And no one has epitomized Southern rap more than Lil Wayne.
Tupac Shakur to Jim Morrison: This one is almost too easy. Both Morrison and Tupac Shakur died before their time, both were poets as well as lyricists, and both had tragic wild sides. Both Tupac and Jim Morrison were misunderstood stereotypes miscast in their particular time. While Jim Morrison was on the surface a poster child for the wild bacchanalia of the 1960s, he was in spirit a well-read intellectual who studied Greek mythology and was deep into Native American culture as evident by his poetry. Tupac was also miscast into the role of thug during an era when mainstream hip-hop drifted towards West Coast gangstra rap. As many would attest, and how he himself would say, he was an artist and also well-read in the classic literature of William Shakespeare. Unfortunately for both, it was the temptations of their hedonistic ways that would lead to their early demise.
Here are a few others that I think make worthy comparisons:
Jay-Z and Bruce Springsteen
LL Cool J and Aerosmith
Wu-Tang Clan and Black Sabbath
Bob Dylan and Nas
Finally, what about Run-DMC, the hip-hop group Chuck D first discussed?
With their genre-crossing, groundbreaking, and trailblazing ways, Run-DMC, the self-proclaimed “Kings of Rock” are most like “The King” himself, Elvis Presley. Elvis took the blues and country and mashed it up with a little rock and took over the world. Run-DMC took rock and the new thing called hip-hop, mashed it up, and took the country by storm.
Rock and hip-hop are the premier music genres in America now and probably will be for generations to come. As such, there are a lot of comparisons that can be made between the artists of each, just as we can look at blues singers and jazz players and punk rock singers and metal screamers. In all types of music, there will be members of an explosive initial burst, personnel who are part of the scene when the music is either commercially accepted or rejected, and those who hold on when the music fizzles out of the public eye. So far in America, rock’n’roll and rock singers have had the longest lifespan. Although hip-hop and its MCs and DJs might never catch rock, it won’t be long until it surpasses the longevity of jazz and the blues and its artists find a secure place in the great American song book.