They Mad? Rap and the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame
By Stereo Williams
It was announced this week that Hip-Hop legends LL COOL J and Jay-Z will be joining the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame as part of it's 2021 class of inductees. The honor was met with congrats and praise for the two icons (along with Tina Turner, Gil Scott-Heron, Foo Fighters, and the other illustrious inductees), but it was also met with somewhat predictable handwringing from rock "purists." The criticism was the same that it's been ever since Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five were inducted back in 2007:
"Why is rap being inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame?"
It's interesting that there is still some resistance to the idea of Hip-Hop in the Rock Hall even after almost 15 years of Hip-Hop artists being inducted, and after decades of Hip-Hop being celebrate in exhibits within the Hall itself. But it speaks to what we've been conditioned to think of as "rock" music and how the centering of that music in our culture for decades has shaped a sense of hierarchy. The Rock Hall has never been as rigidly "rock" as the rockists may believe.
There have been a litany of R&B, blues, and even jazz, country and folk artists inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. Classic rock's core audience of Baby Boomers were likely raised with just as much Motown as British Invasion, with just as much James Brown as Elvis Presley, and with as much Sly Stone as Jefferson Airplane. AM radio of the late 50s through late 60s played many of these artists together; as a result, that generation of rock fan and artist has always been familiar with more than just long-haired white guys with guitars. And it's evidenced by the Rock Hall inductees: if you look at the Hall's first several years, you'll see a wide swath of R&B, blues and funk performers.
But as FM radio facilitated the emergence of the classic rock format in the mid-1970s (then known as AOR or "Album Oriented Rock" radio), those "long haired white guys with guitars" became the go-to image and sound for "rock" music and "rock" platforms. The emergence of disco, heavy metal, Philly soul and punk pushed a wedge between what the general public considered Black music and white music--effectively re-segregating the airwaves and our collective perspective on the genres. By the early 1980s, a Cars fan didn't really know much about Luther Vandross and a Rick James fan maybe didn't know much about Tom Petty.
One of the reasons Michael Jackson released the Paul McCartney duet "The Girl Is Mine" as the first single from his blockbuster 1982 album Thriller was to use the song as a sort of "trojan horse" to get his album played on white rock radio stations who dominated mainstream airplay and heavily controlled Top 40 chart success. Prior to Thriller, artists like The Gap Band and the aforementioned Rick James were barely played on Top 40 radio and on the burgeoning video platform MTV.
To rock platforms, "rock" meant white. And that is how we got here.
Hip-Hop has been as influential on rock of the past 35 years as blues and soul and funk were on rock's previous 35 years.
Talking Heads and Blondie and The Clash all flirted with Hip-Hop stylings influenced by the likes of Melle Mel and The Treacherous Three; Run-D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys delivered some of the most iconic rock riffs of the 1980s; their producer Rick Rubin would also become the go-to producer for bands like Slayer, Metallica and the Red Hot Chili Peppers; rap-metal became a force in the 1990s following the success of bands like Rage Against the Machine and Korn; sample-heavy productions that were invented by the Bomb Squad became trendy in the late 90s when utilized by acts like Beck and Stereolab; and contemporary rock bands borrow heavily from elements of trap production.
Do heavy metal fans have a legit gripe with the Rock Hall? Yes, they do. The fact that bands like Iron Maiden, Slayer and especially Judas Priest are still on the outside is a travesty. But don't look at Hip-Hop to be the scapegoat for your headbanger frustrations. Hip-Hop's place in the Hall is more than a nod, it's invaluable if the Hall is supposed to represent the canon of post-rock popular music. Rock and Roll isn't the epicenter of popular music anymore and it hasn't been for a long time. Hip-Hop deserves it's own major Hall Of Fame, no doubt, and it's coming. But the Rock Hall can't shun Hip-Hop and real music lovers shouldn't expect it to. Celebrating "rock" has always been about more than just long-haired white guys with guitars.