Toward an expanded canon of dad rock

Dad rock usually means music for straight, white, American dads, even though there are so many other kinds. Let’s change that.

Toward an expanded canon of dad rock

Dad rock usually means music for straight, white, American dads, even though there are so many other kinds. Let’s change that.

There is no agreed standard for what makes a dad rock band. It’s the old idea of “classic rock,” limited to dudes — a label affixed to bands like Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, the Grateful Dead. Different dad rock bands are ascribed to different moods. Some dad rock bands, like Zeppelin or Thin Lizzy, evoke an image of dad standing in the garage, shirt off, beer in hand, speakers blasting as he works on his car. Other dad rock bands, like the Doobie Brothers or Steely Dan, conjure dad in an armchair, sipping a tumbler of Scotch whiskey.

There are even modern dad rock bands like The National and Bon Iver, the favorites of dads with tattoos who drink craft beer and don’t mind pushing the kids around in the stroller. My first encounter with the term was in a Pitchfork review of Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky, in which the writer Rob Mitchum noted the “passive” and “domestic” traits of the album marking this their most dad-rock effort yet. You might say dad rock means any rock n’ roll enjoyed by dads aged Boomer to Gen X, with millennials on their way — sprawling parameters encompassing most of mainstream rock music, from the Allman Brothers to Zappa.

Regardless of who fits the criteria, there is one across-the-board commonality: dad rock is typically assumed to be music for straight, white, American dads, despite the observable truth that not all dads are straight, white, or American. Think about it: What would you call dad rock for black fathers? Latino fathers? Chinese fathers? Indian fathers? Fathers born in Europe? In Africa? In Asia? Gay fathers? Can you give an answer off the top of your head, or even after thinking about it? I’m betting no. When we talk about dad rock, we talk about just one kind of dad. And reader, there are so many kinds of dads in the world.

There are a few evergreen commonalities found in dad rock, yes; the Doobies and the Beatles are enjoyed by fathers of all stripes. But there are surely enough cultural differences to merit a rethinking of the idea — to place someone like, say, Jay-Z into the dad rock tradition, as some critics have begun to do. (That’s not even getting into a debate about using “rock” as the generic signifier of music here, as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame does despite now inducting rappers… but that’s a different conversation for another day.) It’s an opportunity to open our ears, broaden our horizons, and reconsider musicians for their emergent paternal qualities. We can build an alternate canon in real time, by decoupling from the long-held assumptions about how a dad looks, and thus how a dad rock band sounds. To dig into the concept, we asked some writers to talk about what dad rock means to them. — Jeremy Gordon

Jean Grae and Quelle Chris.

Jean Grae and Quelle Chris.

I’m typing this between bites of raw kale, seasoned with garlic salt and extra virgin olive oil. There’s a half-finished glass of beet juice to the right of my laptop. To the left, a recently reissued jazz album that I’ll play in a few. Ten years ago, I’d be eating grease — likely two slices of pepperoni from Italian Pizza Kitchen on U Street in Northwest Washington, D.C. Not so much these days: the older I get, the more I think of my own mortality. Forget the all-night parties, I’m more concerned with my uric acid and blood pressure levels.

I’m a 37-year-old black man who works in a stressful, deadline-driven industry. I’m also happily married. The first rule when you tie the knot: stay alive as long as you can. I’ve seen black men not much older than me succumb to health ailments that adults twice our age usually die from. Three years ago, 43-year-old rapper Sean Price died in his sleep in his Brooklyn, New York apartment. In late December 2017, hip-hop podcaster Combat Jack died from complications of colon cancer at the age of 53. In mid-March of this year, rapper Craig Mack died of heart failure at the age of 46. Couple that with the existential threat of trigger-happy law enforcement, and sometimes it’s a struggle to merely exist in modern-day America.

So for me, an unabashed music nerd with an affinity for all sorts of genres, I often need the art to escape. I listen to grown-up hip-hop — lyricists like Phonte, Oddisee, yU and Quelle Chris, who rap openly about topics to which I can relate. They’ve rhymed about being slept on, about somehow making a way when circumstances seemed dire. They’re open about their insecurities while offering tips on how to move beyond those doldrums. Perhaps most importantly, they’ve eschewed a long-standing notion in rap — the myth of “no sleep,” that the only way to earn notoriety is to work at every waking moment. “Dad rock” be damned; cats like Tigallo and Odd say more to me than a dude in Wrangler jeans and blue and white walking shoes ever could.

In the case of Phonte, whose new album No News Is Good News addressed the fear of getting older, a song like “Expensive Genes” really drives the point home. Here, the North Carolina rapper speaks directly to his people, who are more likely than other races to suffer from diabetes and hypertension, and encourages those near his age to eat healthier. “Our biggest fears were shots and armed robbery,” he rhymes. “Now the biggest fears are clots and oncology.” The rapper yU once made an album called the EARN that, in part, centered on his endeavor to find gameful employment. yU is a working class MC who uses intricate wordplay to reflect on his family; as one-third of the vaunted Diamond District trio with Oddisee and Uptown XO, the rapper spoke about exercise and buying clothes from Sears. That flies in the face of mainstream hip-hop in the best way possible; yU is cool with being regular, and there’s nothing wrong with that. He cares about the right things, and is more interested in building a great legacy for his kids to follow.

Rapper/producer Quelle Chris just released an exceptional album with his fiancée — fellow rapper/producer Jean Grae — that renounced the idea of being “different.” It’s a label-less collection of lo-fi funk, hip-hop and alternative soul that ridicules the widespread apathy of D--ald T--mp’s America. It’s also unapologetically black without disparaging the notion of “the other,” ripping apart the divisions that separate us into neat little boxes. Everything’s Fine dispels the idea that black people are monolithic. “I ain’t got to be nothing for you but me,” Grae asserts on album track “Gold Purple Orange.” “Spaceships, they ain’t never out of reach.” This all speaks directly to my existence: I now think of my health more than ever; I adore my people, family and friends; and no, I’m not what you probably expect.

With each passing year, I think more and more about my father figures, and have come to appreciate the principles they instilled in me at a young age. Singers like Al Green and Teddy Pendergrass soundtracked the era, while — thanks to my older cousins — nascent rappers like KRS-ONE, Ice Cube, and Big Daddy Kane soundtracked my coming of age. Though the names are far different, the music I listen to today draws a direct line to 1980s and early ‘90s Landover, Maryland. Those life lessons instilled by my grandfather slowly come into focus, the image crystallized several years after his passing. Like the aforementioned MCs, Pop taught me strength and hard work, that the right amount of focus and rest will take me further than sleepless nights and bad eating habits. That’s the only “dad rock” I recognize. — Marcus J. Moore

My father and I didn’t agree on a lot through much of my youth. A second generation Puerto Rican from the Bronx, he was raised with an iron fist. When it came to his own children, he was certainly more compassionate than his father, but his rule was nonetheless totalitarian — so of course I, his oldest son, would hate being told what to do.

My father made sense of the chaos of existence through meticulous planning, a methodology forged in the fires of his lived experience. Like many parents, he tried to save me from some of the pain he experienced with advice that felt more edicts, so we butted heads when my curiosity was at odds with his counsel, which was often. Musically, we had pretty much parted ways by the time I hit 11 years old, the moment my cousin Michael slipped his copy of Enter The Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers out from behind the Pearl Jam sleeve he’d been hiding it in, and played it softly in his room so our parents wouldn’t hear. But before that fateful day, I shared lots of music with my father on cassettes in car rides, and on the hi-fi system my dad had set up in the living room. The speakers took up the top shelves of each of the two wooden bookshelves flanking the brick fireplace and mantle. Big, boomy, and perched aloft, they mimicked a PA for the fireplace brick ledge that had served as a stage for the lip sync performances Michael and I would put on when he’d visit.

One afternoon, in a rare moment of giddy creativity, my dad and I decided to take it a step further, and dub our voices onto our favorite songs. He plugged a mic into the receiver with a cable long enough to move around. With a fresh blank cassette loaded in the cassette deck, he mixed the signals from both the CD player and the mic into the deck’s input.

In hindsight, there are plenty of reasons to NOT record karaoke sessions; memory is almost always more flattering than the tape, and karaoke’s true beauty is more ephemeral and of-the-moment. But once we decided to do it, there was never really any question about what record we were going to cut.

Michael Jackson’s Dangerous doesn’t get remembered as fondly as his disco debut (Off The Wall) or pop masterpiece (Thriller), but it’s by far the most musically interesting. More rock-oriented than any other album he’d record, it also featured the next step in the evolution of Teddy Riley’s New Jack Swing. Warped drum machines battled screeching guitar riffs, and his sweet falsetto often gave way to a more forceful, defiant tone. It sounded like rock music from the future at the moment it was released, and over the months that followed its release at the end of 1991, I wore my dad’s tape out until he bought it again on CD.

That afternoon we spent singing poorly over Michael Jackson songs was a rare moment of vulnerability from a man who was fiercely guarded emotionally for much of my youth. Of course, because I was an inconsiderate brat, I stomped on that vulnerability immediately, giggling uncontrollably through much of his rendition of “Give In To Me.” I’m not even sure what happened to the tape we made; it may have been dubbed over, tossed when my childhood home was sold, or maybe even slowly disintegrating in the attic of their new house. But even once our music tastes diverged irreconcilably — hip-hop terrified him, and I was hooked from those first bars of 36 ChambersDangerous has stayed with me. It was one of the few times I’d ever connected with my father over music we genuinely loved, and that dorky, ill-advised karaoke session was the product of pure, uninhibited love for the art. We just wanted to get closer to the music. Getting closer to each other was just a happy accident.

As we each got older, we both mellowed, and don’t need as much assistance in being vulnerable around each other. I’m often terrified by the prospect of being on the other side, feeling totally disconnected with my future child’s taste in music. But then I remember Dangerous, and how it helped connect a strict Puerto Rican patriarch and his rebellious brat, and I have hope. — Matthew Ismael Ruiz

It was in Cheonan, South Korea, that my father discovered Neil Diamond. He was a high school senior in 1966, just before Diamond’s first album came out, and the local radio stations were playing nothing but foreign pop songs. “U.S. songs were 60 to 70 percent of that, then French chansons and Italian canzone,” he tells me in Korean. (My dad, ever the romantic, remembers music in digits.) To teenagers at the time, only musical imports felt cool and modern — Korean bbongjjak synthpop was for fogies — and AM/FM was the only way to hear any of it.

“We didn’t have records or anything,” he recently said over the phone. “We had no money. We had no record player.” What he did have was a beloved transistor radio (“6 inches by 4 inches by 1.5 inches”), a gift from a rich uncle. To power the device, Dad scrounged battery packs left behind by the U.S. military and strapped them on with a rubber band.

In the late 1970s, after Dad emigrated here, he saved up for his dream machine: the Sansui 9090, a hulking stereo receiver he still uses with pride. As a kid in University Place, Washington, I remember hearing “Play Me,” “Cracklin’ Rosie,” and “Sweet Caroline” blare over the living-room speakers. My dad wasn’t much of a talker, and it didn’t help that one of us was usually speaking in a second language — English for him, Korean for me. But we could hum in unison to Neil Diamond, the Beatles, Joan Baez, and Simon & Garfunkel.

Diamond’s lyrics were complex; a bit of a mystery to us both. “I didn’t get the meaning 100 percent, but maybe 50 percent,” Dad said. It was just as well, for in Diamond’s tunes, denotation often gives way to sibilance and meter, and emotion above all. His voice is royal, even liturgical. And the instrumentation — horns and guitar, chorus and percussion — feels pitched upward, whether the tune is poppy and weird (“Porcupine Pie,” “Gitchy Goomy”) or objectively grim (“Solitary Man,” “Be,” “Song Song Blue”).

Dad heard something “philosophical” (others might say “depressing” or “lonely”) in Diamond’s songs. The Jewish Elvis is, famously, a loner off stage: a serial monogamist who’s always preferred to stay home and write. “I have no friends, and it’s just impossible to have relationships... I make this journey, for the most part, alone,” he told a reporter in 2008. To me, this seems perfectly normal, because it’s how my dad is, too, at least in America. He has no friends; his entire social world is my mom, my brother, and me.

I thought immediately of my father when, in January, Diamond unpacked his proverbial suitcase. “It is with great reluctance and disappointment that I announce my retirement from concert touring,” he said in a statement. Diamond was sick enough to cancel the Australia/New Zealand leg of a 50th anniversary tour. When I learned it was Parkinson’s disease, my first thought — set to the tune of “Shilo,” his song about a lonely child (Shilo, when I was young...) — was how remarkably long his career has been.

My second thought was somewhat incompatible with the first: that he was too young to succumb to an old man’s disease. Diamond, after all, isn’t much older than my dad, who, in my mind’s eye, floats agelessly in a late-1990s miasma. “I'm lost between two shores... ‘I am,’ I said / to no one there / and no one heard at all,” Diamond sings in “I Am, I Said.” He’s talking about coastal dislocation — being a New Yorker in Los Angeles — but it’s just as much an aging immigrant’s tune. — E. Tammy Kim

In my nuclear household, we’re not big on genres like we’re not big on straitjackets or other institutional limitations. We put our faith in less constricted exchanges of information, be they creative, emotional or otherwise, believing that a rigid label impedes a nuanced, meaningful back-and-forth — once you shorthand something into excessive familiarity, much of its mystery, the very quality that often makes a thing special, dissipates. Especially if that shorthand is actually a media rebrand, based on dated notions of aging, on classicist irony, and on the type of nostalgia often arrived at through the lens of American privilege and found residing next door to #MAGA. All that is to say, dad rock neither lives in my house nor is welcome there.

This may seem an overly harsh, judgmental take on an Internet 2.0-era frivolity invented by algorithm feeders and content farms. Dad rock is the genre version of the McRib or the cronut, I can almost hear some of you say, harmless nomenclatural tomfoolery whose effects a strong and malleable culture should be able to withstand. But evidence that commodification infects even the coolest organism, and that seemingly impenetrable empires (of taste, ethics, reason) slide off slippery slopes, is all around us. And if there is one true bond that I have no desire to senselessly test, it’s my daughter’s relationship to music, its importance to her, and the shared love it fosters and informs.

The notion of how I’d treat this relationship — were she to develop one — came to me long before actual parenthood. It first happened at a free concert I produced in the summer of 2009 by the late punk singer, Jay Reatard, where I ran into a father and his toddler son in matching Clash t-shirts. It didn’t take long for a smile — “the cute punk rock mini-me” — to curdle into something more questioning. I can’t unequivocally say the kid didn’t ask to wear Paul Simonon’s mug, but the inference was of aesthetic inheritance and parental demands projected onto a person not yet capable of making personal choices. This is the image that dad rock brings to mind: not stereotypes or safety, but society guiding the inevitability in selecting a path.

The positive counter-points are less dad rock than Family Disco Hour, best exemplified by places like The Loft, the long-running, (now) Sunday-evening community dance party that is also the foundational text of New York’s club scene. It’s free to members’ kids, a few of who accompany their BYOB-splendored parents, with all the messy kinship that entails. The party’s early stages often include a gaggle of pre-teens goofing on the dance-floor to the soulful oldies, before bowing their heads down to mobile media, and ignoring the elders’ decades-old dance rituals. By today’s digitally paced standards, The Loft is an ancient civilization, and the kids’ presence here parentally mandated, but they exist in this church on personal terms, fashioning their own experiences. Back home they’re more likely to click on a stream of today’s pop or hip-hop hits than reach for a 12” of some Larry Levan mix of Paradise Garage classic — but their consciousness encompasses both. It’s a broad-mindedness I find the world of dad rock has trouble handling.

My seven year-old daughter has not yet made it to The Loft, but she is a product of its environment: expertly karaoke-ing Katy Perry and Robyn, head nodding to Rihanna and house music, asking follow-up questions when mom and dad grieve over Bowie and Prince, and then requesting their songs at bedtime. She wears her musical tastes freely and loosely — and at times intuitively, making backseat connections between Bieber’s “Sorry” and the reggae that might randomly pop-up on shuffle. To her, dad rock is sound disentangled from expectation, until she asks for further clarification or an anecdote of familial attachment to the music. She makes her own playlists. — Piotr Orlov

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the Wilco review designated as “dad rock” by Pitchfork.

Jeremy Gordon is Culture Editor at The Outline.

Marcus J. Moore is a senior editor at Bandcamp and author of a forthcoming biography on rapper Kendrick Lamar.

Born and based in New York City, Matthew Ismael Ruiz has spent the last decade working as a journalist and critic for magazines, newspapers, websites, cable networks, and radio programs in pursuit of compelling sounds, beautiful images, and interesting stories. FLAC or GTFO.

E. Tammy Kim is a reporter and essayist.

Piotr Orlov is a Russian immigrant, a Gooner, and a disco dad surviving Brooklyn. His culture writing has appeared in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Esquire, NPR, and many other fine editorial outlets. Listen to his The Morning After Show on every fourth Tuesday of the month.