The Flobots Make Modern Rock Radio Safe For Rappin’ Whitey Again

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Since many people find it hard to tell the great from the godawful when it comes to 21st-century mainstream rock, welcome to “Corporate Rock Still Sells,” where Al “GovernmentNames” Shipley examines what’s good, bad, and ugly in the world of Billboard‘s rock charts. This time around, he’s surprised to find a track by a hip-hop group making the modern rock radio rounds.

Unfamiliar names bubble up on the Billboard singles charts all the time. But usually those names are first encountered in the charts’ lower reaches–not way up in the top 10, especially on a chart as slow-moving as Hot Modern Rock Tracks, and especially for a song that strays from the modern rock format. Which is part of why it was so intriguing to find “Handlebars” by the Flobots at No. 7 in only its third week on the chart. To give you an idea of how fast that rise is, the Raconteurs’ “Salute Your Solution” reached the same spot in the same amount of time on the chart just a week before it. And that song had the benefit of being by an established band with a previous chart-topper, as well as an insta-release gimmick for its latest album that probably encouraged radio programmers to add the single quickly. Oh yeah, and the Raconteurs are a rock band through and through, tailor-made for the format, while the Flobots are a rap group.

Being that they’re on the Modern Rock chart and nowhere to be seen on the hip-hop/R&B charts, the Flobots are pretty obviously not peers of, say, Rick Ross. They’re not a crew of MCs, but rather a hip-hop band in The Roots mold–two rappers backed by live musicians–and they’re from Denver. And “Handlebars” sounds, well… about like you’d probably expect a white (mostly white?) hip-hop band from Denver to sound like. The verses feature a stiff but slightly impressive double-time flow, and the song builds to an intense crescendo, as the lyric’s seemingly innocent theme becomes gradually more sinister and, in a vague, wishy washy way, politically conscious. It’s not hard to see why the ‘twist’ of the song has hooked radio listeners so quickly, even if it sounds like a really toothless cover of an unreleased Rage Against The Machine song to these ears. “Handlebars” first appeared on an independent EP in 2005, and was re-released on the band’s major-label debut Fight With Tools over six months ago, which makes the song’s very recent, very rapid ascendance even more surprising.

The meteoric rise of the Flobots gives me a good opportunity to talk about alt-rock radio’s strange, unpredictable relationship with hip-hop, and the queasy race issues that go along with it. If alternative rock is at all still counter-culture enough to be considered an “alternative” to anything, it’s hip-hop and its influence in pop and R&B, which has become increasingly pervasive over the past two decades. And outside of the “everything but rap and country” demographic that may or may not be comprised mainly of strawmen, odds are most of the people listening to rock radio like at least some hip-hop. So it becomes more of a question of what kind of rap they want to hear alongside their guitar-toting favorites, and how much of it they’ll tolerate.

Modern rock radio has frequently shown love to songs that feature rapping, and to artists of color, but rarely at the same time. The notable exception to that rule is the aforementioned Rage ATM, whose ’90s hits to this day remain a format staple, reliably dispensing fist-pumping anger like a cash machine every afternoon. But they were a racially diverse band that played hard rock with hip-hop elements. More traditional hip-hop acts have had a much spottier history. Outkast’s “Hey Ya!” hit No. 16 on Modern Rock at the peak of its word-conquering ubiquity, but that was, of course, a guitar-driven pop song that just happened to be by one half of a veteran rap group. Cypress Hill, the Latino rap group beloved by every white pot smoker I knew in high school, who headlined Lollapalooza and whose “Insane In The Brain” got as much play on Alternative Nation as on Yo! MTV Raps, only hit the Modern Rock chart with later singles that deliberately catered to the format: “(Rock) Superstar” and the Clash-sampling “What’s Your Number?” Few hip-hop acts were ever as popular with white rock fans as Public Enemy, but Chuck D only achieved rock airplay with his comically vapid guest appearance on Sonic Youth’s “Kool Thing.” And there were a number of more recent rap hits that I’d heard on rock stations here and there, and was surprised to find no Modern Rock history for whatsoever: Jay-Z’s “99 Problems,” The Roots’ “The Seed 2.0,” even the Gym Class Heroes’ “Cupid’s Chokehold.”

Otherwise, the history of rapping on rock radio is lily white. The Beastie Boys became mainstays of alternative radio in the early ’90s, just as they were becoming irrelevant to hip hop audiences. Eminem scraped the lower reaches of the Modern Rock top 20 with three of his biggest hits. Funky honkies like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, 311, Cake, and Beck have all had long careers full of popular singles with and without rapping, while one-hit wonders like Crazy Town, the post-House of Pain Everlast, and the N.W.A.-covering Dynamite Hack have dropped rhymes on rock airwaves from time to time. The Barenaked Ladies and the Butthole Surfers both scored their only Modern Rock No. 1’s (“One Week” and “Pepper,” respectively) with songs that featured rapped verses.

Active rock stations have always allowed much less hip-hop influence to seep in, save for the most aggressive rap-rock hybrids like Limp Bizkit, most of whom went out of fashion years ago. And as I mentioned in my last column, even rap-metal survivors like Kid Rock and Linkin Park have stripped the staccato rhymes out of most of their recent hits, while Anthony Kiedis has aged, horrifyingly, into a balladeer. In general, alt-rock radio is more reliant on guitar rock now than at any point since the mid-’90s, right before ska-punk, “electronica,” the swing revival, and McG videos came along and made things garishly bright, bouncy, and self-consciously eclectic. You might still hear “Paul Revere” or Sublime every hour on the hour on most alt-rock stations, but new hits from breaking artists generally tend to fall somewhere along the grunge/emo/nu-metal axis.

Without getting into a Sasha Frere-Jones-style debate about whether rock radio was better when it was a melting pot of racial diversity (or, at least, mostly white folks with diverse influences), there definitely appears to have been a tidal shift. And I’d previously assumed that there wouldn’t be any significant rap crossover to Modern Rock happening in the foreseeable future, especially with the face of underground hip-hop increasingly turning toward hipster-friendly party rap along the lines of Spank Rock rather than the conscious rap that has historically connected more with white rock fans. In a way, the earnest, vaguely jam band-ish Flobots feel like a throwback to a strain of indie rap that’s been on the wane since the beginning of the decade. Time will tell whether “Handlebars” sticks on the chart and yields follow-up hits, though. They may end up as just a brief, unusual blip on the Modern Rock landscape like Matisyahu, the Hasidic reggae MC whose “King Without A Crown” peaked two years ago at No. 7–the same spot currently occupied by “Handlebars.”