With Eminem picking up three Grammies and prompting a picket of Wednesday night's awards ceremony by members of Glad (the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), it's clear to even the unhippest observer that hip hop now dominates rock music more strongly than at any time in its history, commanding the sort of tabloid coverage that most rock and pop acts only dream of.
Not that anyone's bothered to tell the BPI, whose nominations for next Monday's Brit awards do their level best to ignore rap, with just the one grudging acknowledgement of The Marshall Mathers LP. You'd never guess that last year, Eminem had two UK chart-topping singles and the biggest-selling album in the world, nor that albums by rappers such as DMX, Mystikal and Nelly routinely shoot to the top of the US album charts. Clearly, this isn't happening just through the interest of hip hop's core, black audience; in recent years, rap music has developed a mass appeal that, for all its parochial concerns, transcends old barriers of race and class.
It's been heading that way for some time. The better part of a decade ago, guesting on an Oprah Winfrey "in-depth" inquiry into hip hop, Ice- T was asked to comment on rap's growing popularity among white kids. Ice simply turned his baseball cap round on his head, so the peak pointed down his back, and explained that this sartorial reversal, popular among rappers, signified a rebellious mindset, an opposition to the status quo that could be recognised by white and black youth alike, just as previous generations had signalled their outsider status with leather jackets, long hair, Afros or bondage trousers. Whenever he saw a white rock fan imitating the style, he knew that there was a fellow spirit, primed for Ice's own, insidious form of "Home Invasion".
After 10 years of steady infiltration, rap has become a ubiquitous presence in pop and has virtually taken over the rock mainstream. One need look only as far as the biggest band in the world today, Limp Bizkit, whose most recognisable symbol is the singer Fred Durst's backwards red baseball cap, which rarely leaves his head. It's official, then: hip hop is the new rock'n'roll. And however you feel about it, you have to admit that it's a relief that the title should again be held by a musical form, after a decade in which everything from comedy to football has laid claim to the mantle.
Not, of course, that everyone would regard rap as a musical form. Detractors invariably recycle the old chestnut about "the silent `c' in `rap' ", disparaging what to the unsympathetic is little more than talking. Why, there was dear old Des Lynam on Room 101 the other night, saying as much, then disproving his own point with one of those leaden, autocue-style raps to which rhythmically challenged white folk are prone. "It's not aimed at you, though, is it?" observed Paul Merton, drolly.
Dishy Des was, in any case, hopelessly mistaken, as a cursory comparison of the styles of, say, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, 2Pac and Eminem would attest. True, it may not require the ability to hold a tune, but a good 80 per cent of rap's impact is down to delivery, be it the spitting resentment of Ice Cube, the laconic cool of Snoop Dogg or the sociopathic rage of Eminem. The emotional range may be limited - though in truth, no more so than pop's focus on lurrrve - but rap's undertow of anger serves to cement its association with rock'n'roll, both forms rooted in a blend of rebellion and celebration, from Elvis right on through to Eminem.
A lot of people - mostly older people - don't like rap. It's too violent, they say, and too tied up with the gangsta culture of the American ghettos, conveniently forgetting that almost every popular musical form has had comparable gang associations: rock'n'roll had its Teddy boys and bikers, Sixties soul its mods, reggae its rude boys and yardies, funk its superfly pimps, rave its crusties, and so on. …