Make Rock and Roll Great Again?

The disagreement between Gene Simmons and N.W.A. has a few parallels with some of the larger debates of our time.

Eduardo Munoz / Reuters

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 “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.

“Respectfully—let me know when Jimi Hendrix gets into the hip-hop hall of fame,” Simmons tweeted at Ice Cube after Friday’s induction ceremony. “Then you’ll have a point.” There’s no hip-hop hall of fame right now, and if Simmons is in favor of the creation of one it’s likely not because he wants a celebration of hip-hop but rather because he wants a partition from it. “Separate but equal” is a tempting bomb of a phrase to throw into the discussion, but Simmons’s comments typically do not indicate that he sees hip-hop as equal. Regardless, what’s at issue here theoretically isn’t worthiness but walls. Guitar music belongs in one place; rap in another.

Some of the implications to such an insistence on boundaries are obvious. Fully embracing Simmons’s definition of rock would in all likelihood lead to a whiter and more male hall of fame than the one that exists now—which is saying something.

But perhaps the more fundamental feature of the Simmons worldview is that it professes to serve rock and roll by making it smaller. In fact, Simmons has drawn the genre’s borders so small as to remove it from existence. “As far as I’m concerned, rock is dead,” he has said. “There ain’t no new bands. Foo Fighters, I love ‘em, but they’re a 20-year-old band. These are long-in-the-tooth bands: Nirvana, Pearl Jam. They’re old bands.” According to this line of thought,  an ideal hall of fame is one that posits rock and roll as totally decrepit.

This belief obviously not only excludes hip-hop; it excludes younger guitar bands. “My question is where’s the new Beatles, and where’s the new Elvis?” Simmons has said. “What’s the answer? Tame Impala? I don’t think so.” This crisis in guitar rock seems, he seems to think, should be blamed less on today’s rockers than on their competition. Another Rolling Stone quote from Simmons: “I am looking forward to the death of rap ... I’m looking forward to music coming back to lyrics and melody, instead of just talking.” For his genre to rise again, the intruders from hip-hop must fall. Music is a zero-sum culture clash.

The opposing way of looking at the entire situation sees rock as an inclusive and growing nation rather than an isolated and dying one. In The Times, remember, Ice Cube referred to rock and roll as a “spirit,” one shared by hip-hop and blues and punk. He didn’t explicitly define what that spirit is, but you can venture some guesses. In a blistering piece at The Guardian this year, the writer Dave Bry argued that it all comes down to iconoclasm—rebellion, defiance, overthrowing the past, making something new. It’s a definition that should ensure rock exists forever, placing it at the forefront of cultural change.

There is some irony to the Hall of Fame being the cause of a debate like this, given that few people at any end of any ideological spectrum seem happy with what the institution represents. Bry’s column about iconoclasm was actually an argument to torch the hall; the new inductee Steve Miller spent his time at the induction ceremony criticizing the the hall’s business practices and treatment of women. But when you think about the many competing lines of thought on what its mission should be, it’s worth noting that the Hall of Fame does seem to take a side, as compromised as it may often seem. By allowing for an expansive definition of rock and roll, it allows for greatness in the past, present, and future. People like Simmons, meanwhile, write off the present, arguing that only through exclusion can rock and roll be made great again.