Despite the seeming ubiquity of celebrity beefs in and among the Twitterverse, I don’t know if I can recall a more noteworthy instance of great artists shitting on other great artists (and, in this particular case, genres) in the last decade than this:
“What rap did that was impressive was to show there are so many tone-deaf people out there. All they need is a drum beat and somebody yelling over it and they’re happy. There’s an enormous market for people who can’t tell one note from another… Millions are in love with Metallica and Black Sabbath. I just thought they were great jokes.”
– Keith Richards
Keith Richards -– a man for whom tact, as proven by his entertaining-yet-occasionally-repulsive autobiography, comes as a secondary consideration at best –– has in a single breath dismissed two whole genres and at least three generations of culturally relevant music. He also managed to sneak in a few digs at his ostensible heyday-rivals, the Beatles, and longtime colleague, Mick Jagger. Say what you will about old Keef, but the man smack-talks with a real economy of words.
In reading the excerpts from his interview, I couldn’t help but see this moment as one of those rare double-binds that truly challenge one’s allegiances of taste. What you choose to listen to on a day-to-day basis -– which varies according to factors of mood, setting, present company, etc. -– matters little compared to what you would choose at the direct and permanent cost of something else: it’s like the “Desert Island Five” game with a “Save or Kill” twist added as a sadist measure.
Now, I won’t waste too much time on the old Beatles vs. Stones argument. It’s been done to death and I’m far too biased even to pretend at objectivity here: Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s, and Abbey Road are all masterpieces, but I’d sooner take Sticky Fingers and Exile to my proverbial island than I would anything by the Fab Four.
The issue of heavy metal and rap vis a vis their artistic merits, however, warrants more thorough deliberation, especially in the context of Richards’s comments and in contrast to the Rolling Stones’ music. Even as a lifelong lover of both genres, I fully acknowledge that rap and metal -– not to mention rap-metal, which worked for RATM but, thanks to Limp Bizkit, quickly grew into an abomination of Lovecraftian proportions -– these genres polarize listeners perhaps more so than any other besides country (and yes, Johnny Cash is unimpeachable, but bands like Rascal Flatts would give even Limp Bizkit a run for their money). I don’t expect or even want everyone to share my love of Black Sabbath and Metallica, but I do hope that most people (i.e., the reasonable ones) will recognize both artists as the successive pioneers of a stylistically unique and technically demanding stratum of popular music that has since garnered immense critical and commercial success. Sabbath’s Paranoid (1970) and Metallica’s Master of Puppets (1986) have both appeared on “All-Time Greatest” lists in every publication from Rolling Stone to Pitchfork; Metallica’s self-titled “Black Album” was certified 16x platinum by the RIAA and still ranks as one of the highest-selling albums of all time, a designation which not even the Rolling Stones (depressingly enough) have ever achieved.
Statistical dick-measurements aside, I would include both Sabbath’s and Metallica’s first five albums on my own personal “All-Time Greatest Albums” list. Even if curtailed to a Rob Gordon-style “Top 5,” the list would probably still have Paranoid and Puppets nestled somewhere between Led Zeppelin’s debut and Darkness on the Edge of Town (the fifth slot requires some further thought). The reason that these “great jokes,” to quote Keith Richards, edge out the Rolling Stones has to do with not only the level of musicianship on display but also the thematic scope of the lyrics. How could Richards -– the guitarist responsible for “Brown Sugar,” “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” and “Rocks Off,” to name only a few of his best -– disregard the fact that Tony Iommi packed not one but four iconic riffs into “War Pigs,” providing an anthemic backdrop to the macabre tale of bloodthirsty bureaucrats paying for the atrocities they’ve committed? Or that Metallica often ran the gamut from hardcore punk to neoclassical in a single song (see the epic, multi-suite title track from Puppets for proof) while also delving into similarly sociopolitical subjects, like capital punishment and the hypocrisies of organized religion? Can anyone safely dismiss such ambitious and sophisticated material as “a dull thud?”
This last question also relates directly to rap, which Richards characterizes as music for “tone-deaf people” with little more than “a drum beat and somebody yelling over it.” I can only hope that he’s talking about the Lil’ John sketch from Chappelle Show and has never actually listened to, say, A Tribe Called Quest. If he had, then he might have taken note of the lengths to which true artists like Q-Tip and Phife Dawg (R.I.P.) will go in order to realize their sonic visions: on The Low End Theory, Tribe not only sampled every jazz artist from Miles Davis to Weather Report but also hired Miles’ own bassist, the legendary Ron Carter, to sit in on a track. Just this year, Kendrick Lamar took a similar approach with the Isley Brothers, George Clinton, Kamasi Washington and Thundercat on his genre-defying opus, To Pimp a Butterfly. I humbly challenge Richards to sit down and listen -– I mean really lend an attentive ear -– to a song like “The Blacker the Berry” before lobbing any further criticisms at the genre:
“I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015 / Once I finish this, witnesses will convey just what I mean / Been feeling this way since I was 16, came to my senses / You never liked us anyway, fuck your friendship, I meant it.”
– Kendrick Lamar
Would Keefy hear a line like that and still make his trite little quip, “So many words, so little said?”
And, if so, should I consider putting something besides Sticky Fingers in the fifth slot of my “Desert Island Five” ?