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No Country for Old (Rap) Men: Why Can’t Rappers Rock?

Robbie takes a look at some of the less successful musical crossovers in rap history

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There’s an old adage about how everyone wants to be something that they’re not – or as the Mash Out Posse so succinctly put it, “actors wanna be rappers, rappers wanna be trappers!” For many people who have already achieved a certain measure of success in their chosen field, be they the aforementioned actors, athletes, rock stars or rapper dudes, there remains a certain level of appeal to pursue a side-gig or ‘hobby’, as it were.

Why does someone who is already at the top of their profession feel the need to conquer another area? Is it simply pure ego that drives these vanity projects, or simply a need to let off steam away from ‘work’? A case could be made for both, unfortunately the results are rarely particularly rewarding for those of us forced to endure these vanity projects.

Having previously witnessed the likes of Mick Jagger, Madonna, and Sting attempting to act in films during the ’70s and ’80s, the ’90s introduced the tragic reversal of this trend as Hollywood attempted to get its own back and inflicted rock bands led by the likes of Russell Crowe, Keanu Reeves, and Jared Leto unto the world. Rappers have had more success incorporating acting into their resume, although a lot of the time this doesn’t extend too far beyond ‘sidekick’, ‘weed head’, ‘street dude’ or, in Common’s case, ‘sensitive bald dude with a sweet goatee’.

Meanwhile, several members of the NBA decided that they may as well use their ever-expanding salaries to pay their favourite member of the Wu-Tang Clan to make a rap song with them, which is why we have several Shaquille O’Neil albums in existence and a compilation that paired rap royalty Grand Puba and D.I.T.C. with Dana Barros and Gary Paton. So being a world famous basketball star wasn’t good enough to impress the gals at TGI Fridays? Really?

But perhaps even more unfortunate is the tendency of rap artists to go through an ‘artistic phase’ where they abandon samplers and drum machines for a shot at true muso cred. While I initially took this as being a cheap marketing ploy on behalf of their respective record labels, the opposite is often true. Despite the most valiant of efforts, many of the more experimental rock projects from otherwise established rappers have either been shelved or released to minimal fanfare.

One of the earliest examples of this was when Q-Tip, riding high on solo success with ‘Vivrant Thing’ and ‘Breathe and Stop’ from his Amplified LP after eight years heading Tribe Called Quest, decided to abandon his new sound to record an experimental jazz/funk/rock project titled Kamaal/The Abstract, which got to the point of having review copies sent out to the press before Arista pulled the plug at the last minute. It wasn’t until a year after Tip’s excellent third solo LP, 2008’s The Renaissance, that another label granted Kamaal an official release.

Elsewhere, we’ve had Lil Jon’s Crunk Rock (which bombed miserably), Lil’ Wayne’s Rebirth (which somehow went gold), and Kid Cudi’s WZRD (which did okay despite being allegedly sabotaged as a ‘tax right off’ by Universal). Mos Def, being the progressive fuck that he is, managed to assemble a rock band in between acting, briefly marrying a Canadian stripper and firing shots at ‘Tall Israelis’. Named Black Jack Johnson, it featured an all-star cast of musicians from Bad Brains, Living Color, and Parliament/Funkadelic for extra ‘cred’ points. Their scheduled 2001 Rawkus album, Black Bastard, never happened but they did tour and some of the material wound-up being used on The New Danger.

Perhaps the only true success stories have been those of white rappers who turned to rock because no one was particularly interested in hearing them rhyme anymore. Not that they stopped rapping altogether, mind you. Kid Rock went from being a foul mouthed white kid with a giant flat top in 1990 to a global rock rap superstar by 1997 on account of developing a loyal local fan base and…listening to Run-DMC a lot? Since then, Kid Rock has featured on The Simpsons, married Pamela Anderson Lee Rock and expanded into the genres of southern rock revivalism, Heartland rock and finally straight country. Everlast also provided to be remarkably adaptable during his music career, starting out as the ‘pretty boy’ white weed carrier for Ice-T’s Rhyme Syndicate crew in the late ’80s before transforming into the Irish-American hooligan who led House of Pain and eventually to Grammy award winning acoustic guitar dude who did a duet with guitar legend Santana. The message in all of this? Don’t bother trying to rock out if you’re a black rapper – rock fans stay racist as fuck.

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