At its inception, Rock and Roll was black music. It was a fast paced derivative of Rhythm and Blues, which was played exclusively on black radio stations broadcasting out of Memphis and a few other cities. By 1954, Rock had been around possibly longer, but for at least five years dating back to future blues legend B.B. King's debut single, "She's Dynamite". At that time, a young record producer in Memphis named Sam Phillips had a theory that if he could just get someone white to record the very same music he was making with black artists, it would be a huge success rather than a fringe hit as a "race record" (Note: "Race records" were popular with a young white audience via the radio, but that was not reflected in the sales figures for those songs as most young whites listened to the music in secret, against their parent's wishes, and couldn't actually buy the records). Fate stepped in just shortly after Sam began looking for the right artist, and a young white man walked into Sam's Sun Studios looking to make a record as a birthday present for his mother. The young man's name was Elvis Presley.
Most people either without knowing or without caring about the facts, consider the moment Elvis set foot in Sun Studios to be the birth of Rock and Roll. Rolling Stone magazine did a big story about fifty years of Rock and Roll last year using that moment as the starting point. More accurately, Elvis' foray into rock music marked the beginning of the end of black rock and roll.
Several black artists, like Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Fats Domino were successful in the coming years as Rock and Roll acts, but within a decade, the music became predominantly white. For some reason, black artists who thrived in Pop, R&B, Soul (Ever hear of Motown?), Funk, Disco, Jazz, Reggae, Blues and pretty much any form of music you could think of save Country, were for the most part, not part of the Rock music scene. Jimi Hendrix is the obvious exception, but even he played with an all white band until about a year before his death. Rock became so completely white that in the late 80's when Living Colour, an all black rock band showed up on the scene, many considered them a novelty act!
In 1979 a new form of music, which much like rock had actually been around for a few years by that point, began to gain mainstream acceptance. The music which came from the streets of New York City was called both Rap and Hip-Hop; if there ever was an official difference between the two terms, it's become so convoluted over the years that they are now synonymous.
The stars of this new genre fell into two categories, MCs, who as vocalists were more in line with spoken word or jazz acts than they were with more traditional singers, and DJs who were truly unlike anything that came before them in music. Hip-Hop DJs differed from Rock and Roll DJs like Alan Freed or Murray the K in a fundamental way. Rock DJs played music for fans, Rap DJs actually created the music by mixing multiple records together, only playing small sections of songs in a loop and of course scratching the records, which while it hasn't been a part of rap music for decades is still an integral part of every middle-aged white guy's imitation of the music, along with the long- abandoned "human beat-box" style of creating a rap beat.
Like Rock and Roll, Rap music was labeled a fad almost before it's pioneers like The Sugar Hill Gang or Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five even had records out. Like Rock and Roll, Rap music was hated by parents who ironically, just as their parents, claimed Rock wasn't music, claimed rap was not music. And just like Rock and Roll, Rap music was around for about five years before white people started to become a part of it.
Def Jam Records, which is Rap's equivalent of Sun Records as far as having the most impressive roster of early stars in a genre, was doing quite well in the mid-80's with acts like L.L. Cool J, and Run-DMC, a member of which was the brother of Def Jam owner, Russell Simmons. In 1985 however, they signed a new rap group, who for the previous four years had actually been a punk rock band. The group, which was made up of three white men, were called The Beastie Boys, and when Def Jam in association with Columbia Records released their debut album, Licensed to Ill, in 1986 it became the fastest selling debut album in the history of Columbia Records, by selling 750,000 copies in just six weeks.
Even though rap legends like Public Enemy, N.W.A., Ice-T, KRS-One and countless others released albums over the next four years, Licensed to Ill, a rap album made by three white guys, became and remains to this day the biggest selling rap album of the 1980's. While Def Jam label-mates Public Enemy were singing the infamous line "Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me!", The Beastie Boys were clearly following in Presley's footsteps by outselling black acts in an entirely black genre of music.
Now for the twist. Unlike Rock and Roll, white rappers did not take over the genre once the Beasties got their foot in the door. In fact, there was a tremendous backlash against The Beastie Boys and in turn, white Hip-Hop. The Beastie Boys' follow up album, 1987's Paul's Boutique, while recognized as a masterpiece today and considered by many to be their best work, didn't produce a single that charted higher than #36, and was considered by all involved to be a disaster. After Licensed to Ill, even though rap music was exploding in popularity, there wouldn't be another successful rap album by a white artist for almost five years.
An interesting footnote: Following Paul's Boutique, The Beastie Boys became more popular than ever in the nineties. However by that point they had stopped making straight ahead rap albums. Their albums regularly contained songs that were punk, jazz, and even Tibetan chant as well as a bunch of instrumental tracks where they broke the stereotype that rappers can't play instruments. Their concerts have more often than not been alongside Rock acts including Rage Against the Machine, Green Day, Rancid, Bad Religion and Primus, but they have also toured with rap acts like A Tribe Called Quest.
The next white rap star came along in late 1990. In about a one-year time frame, Vanilla Ice arrived, achieved more commercial success than The Beastie Boys had even dreamt about, and fell out of the mainstream spotlight, never to return. On the strength of the single "Ice Ice Baby" and its follow up, a rap reworking of "Play That Funky Music" (white boy), Vanilla's debut album, To The Extreme sold over seven million copies and was the number one album in the country for sixteen weeks!
Less than a year later, Vanilla Ice's movie, Cool As Ice was released. It was a critical and commercial flop. The Ice-filled soundtrack album spent less time on the charts than his debut album spent at the number one spot. After several more failed albums, drug problems and a confrontation with Rap mogul/alleged gangster Suge Knight (where Ice was reportedly hung off a hotel balcony by his ankles), Vanilla who now prefers to be known by his real name, Rob Van Winkle said "I wouldn't wish my life on anybody." For the next eight years following To The Extreme, there would be only one successful white rap act, House of Pain. In the summer of 1992, a song from their self titled debut called "Jump Around" was the number three single in the country. Then in 1994, their follow-up album Same As It Ever Was debuted at #12 and received surprisingly strong reviews. The album went gold, but without a successful single, it quickly dropped off the charts. That was essentially the end of House of Pain's success. Their next album, 1996's Truth Crushed to Earth Shall Rise Again, tanked whole-heartedly.
In 1998, Everlast, one of House of Pain's two MCs had a top ten, platinum selling solo album called Whitey Ford Sings the Blues. The album featured the top 40 single "What It's Like" which was interesting for, if nothing else, the way that it sought to fuse rap music with blues music for the first time. Everlast has released two more blues/rap albums to date, and although both received good reviews, neither has produced a hit single.
So by 1999, Hip-Hop had been around for over twenty years, and had only produced three successful white acts, none of whom were able to maintain success as a rap act for a long period of time (as I explained, The Beastie Boys had failed as rappers, but regained their popularity by creating a whole new multi-genre sound ). Conversely, in the first twenty years of Rock and Roll, using 1949 as it's beginning, we saw the debut of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Grateful Dead, The Doors, The Allman Brothers Band, Buddy Holly, and of course Elvis along with countless others. It seemed that Rap was destined to stay a predominantly black art form.
Enter Eminem. The white rapper from Detroit first exploded onto the scene in 1999 with his album, The Slim Shady LP. The album was a massive hit on the strength of its first two singles, "My Name Is" and "Guilty Conscience". The latter was a duet with rap legend Dr. Dre, who also produced the album. The Slim Shady LP sold three million copies. History tells us that at this point, Eminem should have released a follow up album which was significantly less successful than it's predecessor. Instead, in the summer of 2000, Eminem released The Marshall Mathers LP, which sold two million copies the week it was released and became the fastest selling rap album of all time. That was just the beginning of Em's massive success.
In spite of vast protests over his lyrics and offstage antics, Eminem's popularity continued to grow. He has won Grammy awards every year for the past four years and was nominated this year as well. He also won an Oscar for the soundtrack to his movie 8-Mile, and in 2003, became the first artist since the Beatles, over thirty years prior, to have the country's number one movie, album and single all at the same time! His latest album, Encore, reached sales of 700,000 copies in just three days, which as I mentioned, was a Rap record for The Beastie Boys in 1986 when they reached it over the course of a six week span.
Eminem, has been not just the top white rap act, but the top rap act period for six years and counting. That's longer than Vanilla Ice, Everlast and The Beastie Boys, combined. He's released five multi-platinum albums in a row. His predecessors don't have five multi-platinum albums between them. Eminem is truly the first white artist to achieve real success in the rap world, and yet a flood of new white rappers is just as nonexistent as it was twenty years ago when The Beastie Boys first broke through.
It seems like America can only stomach one white rapper at a time. We've never had two that were successful at once. So one has to wonder, with underground sensation Sage Francis starting to gain some mainstream press, and London-based rapper The Streets achieving number one status in his own country along with a ton of critical praise in the US, are Eminem's days numbered, or is the era of rap albums filling the role of post-segregation "race records" coming to an end?
For full reviews of the latest albums by Eminem, Sage Francis and The Streets, check out our album reviews page.