Gene Simmons, the KISS bassist, has become the champion of a particular version of what “rock and roll” means. “A few people decide what’s in and what’s not, and the masses just scratch their heads,” he said in a 2014 interview with Radio.com. “You’ve got Grandmaster Flash in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Run-D.M.C. in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? You’re killing me. That doesn’t mean those aren’t good artists. But they don’t play guitar. They sample and they talk. Not even sing.”
The members of N.W.A., on the occasion of their induction into the hall of fame, have given a much broader definition of rock. “Rock ‘n’ roll is not an instrument, and it’s not singing,” Ice Cube told The New York Times. “Rock ‘n’ roll is a spirit. N.W.A. is probably more rock ‘n’ roll than a lot of the people that [Simmons] thinks belong there over hip-hop. We had the same spirit as punk rock, the same as the blues.” Taking the stage at the induction ceremony in Brooklyn on Friday, MC Ren said, “I want to say to Mr. Gene Simmons that hip-hop is here forever. We’re supposed to be here.”
Here is one of the most unkillable debates in pop-culture history. Simmons is correct that some uncountable portion of “the masses” agrees with him that rap does not fall under rock’s umbrella; according to the comments sections on any general-audience publication’s coverage of Kanye West, in fact, some folks don’t think of rap as music at all. N.W.A., meanwhile, can claim to have the actual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on its side, as well as critics and listeners who construe rock as a mentality or social force rather than a particular sound. Declaring who’s “right” here would be like declaring who’s right among believers in different religions: Rock and roll is not a scientifically defined concept, and it has certainly never been a stable cultural designation. But in the divide between the two camps, you can see disagreements that seem familiar in the context of broader national conversations in 2016.