[This piece oriringally ran on October 18, 2016—Chuck Berry’s 90th birthday.]
Chuck Berry isn’t generally seen as a founder of hip-hop. He’s one of the great figures of early rock ‘n’ roll. In fact, Chuck Klosterman recently argued in the New York Times that Berry would be the one rock practitioner who would sum up the form for future historians. Berry, Klosterman argued, epitomizes the rock ethos. He “made simple, direct music.” He influenced white people. He was, according to Klosterman, a “sex addict,” and rock music is about sex. Berry was simple, primal, atavistic. Ergo, in Klosterman’s unintentionally insulting formulation, Berry is rock 'n’ roll.
The thing is, Berry’s greatness didn’t really have anything to do with his simplicity, and it certainly wasn’t a function of his sex life. What’s wonderful about his music is its sophistication, inventiveness and intelligence. It’s smart—and extremely funny. I giggle through his albums, much as I giggle when I listen to De La Soul or the Avalanches.
When Bob Dylan was just a little Zimmerman, Chuck Berry was gleefully twisting his tongue around lyrics of joyful, goofy hipness.
Bob Dylan is often credited with bringing depth and poetry to rock. But back when Bob was just a little Zimmerman, Chuck Berry was gleefully twisting his tongue around lyrics of joyful, goofy hipness. Whether pronouncing “T-bone steak a la carte” so it rhymes with “smarty” on “Promised Land,” or tossing about multisyllabic slang like “coolerator” and “motorvatin’,” Berry was in love with the sound of words and with turning those sounds from nonsense to sense and back again. In “Too Much Monkey Business”“ the words tumble out so fast they barely have a tune; "Been to Yokohama, been fightin’ in the war / Army bunk, army chow, army clothes, army car, aaah!” the expulsion of so many syllables ending in a meaningless, meaningful snort of exasperation and exhilaration.
Though he loved the crooning of Charles Brown, Berry’s own performance style, as in “Monkey Business,” was as much talking as it was singing. Like a rapper, his performance is more about rhythm than melody. On “Go Bobby Soxer,” he delivers the line, “It’s a Bobby Soxer beat and you can work it any way you wish” almost deadpan, then fairly shouts “Work out, Bobby Soxer!” so he can slip in the punchline “you can wiggle like a whimsical fish.”
On “Nadine” he opens by hitting each word with equal rapid-fire intensity till he sees Nadine and hollers to the bus driver “you must…slow down” the mid-line pause a winking joke and a breath before another rush of wordplay. “I was pushing through the crowd trying to get to where she’s at / Campaign shoutin’ like a Southern diplomat. Nadine!” From dangled preposition to political metaphor to expostulation; the mix of sounds and rhymes and narrative oomph echoes on up to Busta Rhymes’ “Rawr, rawr, like a dungeon dragon” or even Beyoncé’s “I twirl on them haters, albino alligators.” Nor was Berry unfamiliar with hip-hop’s filthier impulses: “You must be playing with your own ding-a-ling” is tame by current radio standards, but in 1972 it was an early lusty signal of things to come.
Berry’s music too foreshadowed hip-hop, particularly in its omnivorousness. His signature guitar sound and rolling beat are so familiar that it’s easy for some—like Klosterman—to see them as received roots music, raw and primal. But in fact Berry put his sound together from multiple genres and influences. His guitar playing is most directly taken from the sanctified gospel of Rosetta Tharpe, not from secular blues. He was also strongly influenced by country music; “Maybelline” lifts—or samples, if you prefer—the melody from the country fiddle tune “Ida Red.”
Berry famously changed the lyrics in “Johnny B. Goode” from “colored boy” to “country boy” in a (successful) bid for crossover airplay. But the alteration is also an acknowledgement of the breadth of his influences, and his hip-hop magpie willingness to cram different elements together in his songs. “Johnny B. Goode” itself is built on Jimmy Johnson’s New Orleans piano roll and Berry’s revved up hot guitar picking, which is as much bluegrass as blues.
Over the decades, critics and fans have grown used to seeing rock music as white music. The great innovators in the genre are supposedly people like the Beatles and Dylan, Bowie and Cobain. Meanwhile, performers like Berry and Bo Diddley and Little Richard are relegated to the role of influencers. Berry is turned into the authentic blueprint from which the real innovators created their masterpieces. In this context, thinking about Berry’s connection to hip-hop is a way to see him with new eyes, in a different tradition—a tradition in which black performers haven’t been reduced to origin myths for white guys. Roll over John Lennon, tell Mick Jagger the news.
But seeing Berry as hip-hop doesn’t just force the Beatles to roll over. It also makes hip-hop itself seem less like a rupture than a continuation of twentieth-century popular music. If rock is the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin and Nirvana, the move to Kanye and Kendrick comes as a leap, or at least as an outgrowth of a separate R&B tradition. But listening to Chuck Berry, the past doesn’t seem so far away, and tomorrow doesn’t seem so different. “I’ll build a spaceship with a heavy payload / We’ll go bip-bip-bip out in the wide open blue,” Berry declares in “Our Little Rendezvous,” a vision of a domestic idyll which takes a left turn halfway through into a sci-fi flight of fancy. Whether you want to call it the future rock, rap or something else entirely, Chuck Berry still sounds like he’s got it packed away in his moon-shot picnic basket.