Long Live Rock 'N' Rap

The blazing Albuquerque sun has finally set over the New Mexico State Fairground, and Limp Bizkit is making a point: this is not your older brother's Pearl Jam. True, there's a hyperactive lead singer backed by two guitarists and an assaultive drummer. But front man Fred Durst, 28, raps more than he sings, striding from one side of the stage to the other with a hip-hop strut. The band's equally frenetic secret weapon, D. J. Lethal, scratches frantically on his two turntables. As the band fuses metal and rap, the crowd of 16,000--many of them teenage boys in baggy jeans and I KILLED KENNY T shirts--mosh and bodysurf, rapping along with Durst's sendup of white wanna-be hip-hoppers: "Hate what God gave ya, fakin' all the flava... You're sick of yourself/Well I'm sick of you too--fake!" The jab may be lost on the resoundingly white crowd, but one thing is crystal clear. Rock 'n' roll is dead. Long live rock 'n' rap.

Two generations after Elvis Presley tamed Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog," the King's heirs are making their move on rap. Part geeky homage, part artful collage, the new hybrid is exploding onto the charts. Limp Bizkit's sophomore album, "Significant Other," sold 971,000 copies in just two weeks. Kindred acts like Kid Rock, Everlast and the gleefully pathological white rapper Eminem have all topped the million mark. While veteran rock bands like Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins and R.E.M. have slumped, alienated white kids across the country have latched onto the themes in rap music that resonate with them. And like the current retro-fetish for all things Rat Pack, rock 'n' rap offers anxious white males a chance to act out their top-dog fantasies without having to take full responsibility for them. The women seem to play along. As skateboarder Jerimiah Odom, 28, who caught Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock in Dallas last week, described the experience, "It's a mecca for girlies. The ones that come here take their shirts off." Sure does beat going to Lilith Fair.

In the back of Limp Bizkit's tidy tour bus, Durst lounges in an Adidas sweat suit. He has a reputation for being willing to do anything for a hit--the band paid a radio station in Portland, Ore., to play its music--but in conversation he is endearingly sincere. There were times, he admits, when he was this close to being one of the copycat hip-hop fans he raps about. "I [was] really self-conscious about being a white guy who's so addicted to rapping and DJing." Growing up middle-class in Gastonia, N.C., he attended a predominantly black high school, where some students with New York relatives turned him on to break-dancing and rap. Durst's black friends accepted his b-boy look ("They were like, 'Dude, you're the coolest white guy'"). His white classmates, though, taunted him with racial slurs. "But when the Beastie Boys came out, then it was cool. They didn't get [hip-hop] but they were singing 'Brass Monkey'."

In Del Mar, Calif., Marshall Mathers, better known as Eminem, waits to go onstage. The four white boys (ages 9 to 11) lucky enough to score backstage passes are too busy staring at their new hero to notice the busty blonde peeling off her skintight white halter top to get the star's attention. With his angelic features, Eminem, 24, could be the sixth Backstreet Boy--except for that shirt that says drugfree on the front and liar on the back. Then he hits the stage and spits out a flurry of hilariously depraved and affecting rhymes about being raised by a single mother on welfare in Detroit, being beaten up repeatedly in school and trying to numb his emotional pain with liquor and drugs. In one song, he raps nonchalantly about taking a drive with his daughter, his girlfriend's dead body in the trunk. "I never expected to be anything more than an underground artist," he explains. "That's why my s--- was so graphic."

Released two months before the school shootings in Littleton, Colo., Eminem's album, "The Slim Shady LP," articulates the rage of Generation Why?, playing his excessively violent raps for both pathos and black comedy. "I've wanted to kill kids that used to bully me in school," he says. "I know what it's like to come home crying and slamming the door and screaming and breaking s--- in my room." Tyrone Hughes, 19, one of the few African-Americans at a recent Limp Bizkit show, says this shared anguish is what bonds rock 'n' rappers with their fans. "A lot of the members of these groups are outcasts, and a lot of us got picked on in school, too. That's why it's so good."

Kid Rock, who grew up on the other side of the tracks from Eminem in suburban Detroit, earned a reputation as "that creepy white kid" who DJed at parties in the Mt. Clemens housing projects. By the age of 18, having toured with Ice Cube and released an album on Jive Records, Rock (ne Bob Ritchie) felt like he was poised for success. Then Vanilla Ice came along with "Ice Ice Baby" and, as he puts it, "just killed my whole career." So Rock went underground, perfecting what he dubs "hick-hop": Stax-era soul, Southern guitar rock and old-school rap music. In place of the 'hood, he set his videos in trailer parks. "I ain't straight outta Compton," he raps, "I'm straight out the trailer." He isn't, of course, but he invokes white-trash imagery to connect "white kids to their whiteness." By explicitly fashioning a white ethnic identity in this black-dominated medium, Rock hopes to teach his fans that "it's OK to be really white... and like hip-hop."

At a recent show in Amsterdam, Erik Schrody, a.k.a. Everlast, takes a more sober look at white plight. Spinning tales of corporate downsizing, unwed mothers and his own mortality--the 29-year-old suffered a heart attack during the last day of recording for "Whitey Ford Sings the Blues"--he weds acoustic guitars to hip-hop beats, channeling Bruce Springsteen via Public Enemy. As he strums away with his five-piece band, the White Folx, someone in the crowd calls out something about Kurt Cobain. Everlast pulls up his shirt, bares his heart-surgery scar and says, "Death ain't cool, man. I know about death. Kurt Cobain's a p---y." The former leader of the Irish-American hard-core rap group House of Pain, he's now worried about all the imitators that will surely follow his surprise success. "I bet you almost every label has an artist trying to make a record like this right now."

Will rock 'n' rap help lower the barriers between black and white kids? Some think it can. "If white kids use hip-hop as a way to defy their racial destiny, that's a good thing," says Danny Hoch, the chameleon-like Jewish performance artist whose upcoming film "Whiteboys" satirizes a group of white kids who are so obsessed with gangsta rap that they form a gang and dream of moving to inner-city Chicago. But he warns that curiosity doesn't necessarily translate into cultural understanding. "You can love what black people represent without loving black people."

Meanwhile, the new rock 'n' rappers are forging ahead with their strange brew. Eminem will next appear on Dr. Dre's "The Chronic 2001." Kid Rock plans to collaborate with raunch rapper Lil' Kim ("Me and her tossin' up sex rhymes over hip-hop beats with a couple of guitars"). Durst, the most nakedly ambitious of the lot, has just been made senior VP for A&R at Interscope Records. "I want to be like Puffy," he says. When rock stars opt for mogulhood over tortured artistry, you know the triumph of hip-hop is complete.