The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has a woman and LL Cool J problem
From its lack of female artists and snub of the pioneering MC, the music institution has some explaining to do
Ever since the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame began inducting artists on Jan. 23, 1986, the museum has been at the center of a polarizing debate of what exactly fits into the confines of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
With that said, let’s be clear: The Notorious B.I.G. deserves a seat at the table. The rotund spitter opened lanes for a diverse range of MCs from Lil Kim and Jay-Z to 50 Cent and even Drake. Despite a less than robust catalog, Wallace stands as one of hip-hop’s most revered lyricists and storytellers.
The real question isn’t whether the late Notorious B.I.G. belongs in the same room as past inductees Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Little Richard, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones. Or whether the Brooklyn, New York, rapper measures up to Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Queen, the Clash, Guns N’ Roses, Nirvana, The Cure, Rush, Bon Jovi and Stevie Nicks.
It’s whether The Notorious B.I.G. or the equally deserving Tupac Shakur (who was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2017) should have gotten in before other pioneering hip-hop greats such as LL Cool J. The answer is no if we are going by early influence and chronology.
Not only is the rapper-turned-actor the first franchise artist of Def Jam Records, arguably the most important hip-hop label of all time, he remains the template for the modern solo rapper.
With such million-selling-plus works as Radio (1985), Bigger and Deffer (1987), Mama Said Knock You Out (1990) and Mr. Smith (1995) and Phenomenon (1997), Ladies Love Cool James single-handedly led the way for hip-hop’s longevity. There isn’t a successful MC alive who hasn’t borrowed from his lengthy notebook of two-fisted rhymes (“Radio,” “Rock The Bells,” “I’m Bad,” “Jack The Ripper,” “Jingling Baby,” “I Shot Ya”) and ladies-aimed radio joints (“I Need Love,” “Around the Way Girl,” “Doin’ It,” “Hey Lover,” “Luv U Better”).
LL Cool J wrote the hilarious gem “Can You Rock It Like This” for Run-D.M.C., was the headliner on legendary arena tours with Public Enemy and at times outsold the Beastie Boys, all peers of the 52-year-old who are members of the hall.
When an establishment such as The Kennedy Center Honors, which has welcomed cultural giants such as Fred Astaire, Marian Anderson, Lucille Ball, Sammy Davis Jr., James Brown, Steven Spielberg, and Earth, Wind & Fire since 1978, had the good sense to induct LL Cool J in 2017 before the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, something is off.
It’s a long road to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Artists in the “performer category” are eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first record. They are then chosen with a combination of support from the 1,000 or so hall voters, which include artists, industry executives, music writers and online fan participation.
The hall has made it a point to expand its roster beyond rock as Muddy Waters, Ray Charles, James Brown, Ruth Brown, Big Mama Thornton, Smokey Robinson, the Temptations, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and Al Green have all been celebrated. The list of members also includes Stevie Wonder, Sly & The Family Stone, Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5, Prince, Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, Run-D.M.C., Public Enemy, Janet Jackson, and even jazz trumpeter Miles Davis.
The issue isn’t genre-mixing. It’s that the hall has a woman problem and an obvious blind spot when it comes to acts that go beyond the baby boomer trappings.
NPR touched on the Hall’s lackluster number of female artists, an issue that has long been too conspicuous to ignore. According to the report, women make up 8% of its inductees.
For Rock & Roll Hall of Fame voter Amy Linden, it’s a problem that needs to be rectified. “Chaka Khan has been on the ballot solo and as Chaka Khan and Rufus. There is no Whitney without Chaka. I’m at a loss,” said the veteran music and cultural critic and co-host of the podcast ImmaLetYouFinish.
It gets even more disheartening. Tina Turner, celebrated universally as the queen of rock ’n’ roll, has yet to be inducted into the hall as a solo artist. She was, however, inducted in 1991 as one half of Ike & Tina Turner. The same Ike Turner whose physical abuse of the performer was detailed in her Oscar-nominated 1993 biopic What’s Love Got to Do with It. Tina Turner would go on to sell more than 200 million records worldwide and fill up stadiums across the globe.
From Dionne Warwick, Carole King, and solo Diana Ross to the aforementioned Khan and Pat Benatar, Sade, and hip-hop change agents Salt-N-Pepa, who ranks as one of the highest selling female rap acts of all time with 15 million albums sold, women continue to be shut out of the hall in large numbers. The undervaluing of female artistry makes some of the criticism of Houston more alarming.
“Wow, well you cannot get any heavier rock than songs like “I Will Always Love You” or “How Will I Know.” They always appear in my rock “compilations” with the likes of Sabbath, Priest, the Crue, Van Halen, Zeppelin etc,” a fan posted on Twitter of his tongue-in-cheek bewilderment over Houston being included.
Yes, it could be argued that the towering vocalist spent much of her prime being promoted by music industry honcho Clive Davis as America’s favorite pop sweetheart. There was nothing particularly edgy about Houston’s music. But Houston’s voice was peerless during a record-breaking run in which she racked up more than 170 million albums and singles sales.
So she will finally take her place next to hall of fame members Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Donna Summers, and Mavis Staples. And if pop provocateur Madonna and guilty pleasure ABBA are in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, it’s impossible to deny Houston.
As I said in 2016, the detractors are still living in a largely white, male and dated idea of what constitutes as rock ’n’ roll. The roots of the dwindling genre have always been born out of the black experience that gave birth to both revered Delta bluesman Robert Johnson and soaring gospel visionary Mahalia Jackson.
“The question is are we rock ’n’ roll. And I say — you goddamn right we rock ’n’ roll. Rock ’n’ roll is not an instrument. It’s not even a style of music. It’s a spirit that’s been going on since the blues, jazz, bebop, soul, rock ’n’ roll, R&B, heavy metal, punk rock, and yes, hip-hop,” Ice Cube proclaimed during N.W.A.’s controversial 2016 induction at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.
But as long as the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame continues to obsess over the usual suspects it will always be viewed as tired and antiquated. Genre-blurring rock fans will gripe over the untapped pool of cooler, interesting acts that continue to be left out in the cold such as Motorhead, Judas Priest, Kraftwerk, Kate Bush, Devo, Bad Brains, Duran Duran, Soundgarden and Rage Against The Machine.
Followers of rhythm and blues, soul and funk will cringe at the thought of an institution that struggles to go beyond Motown and Stax. Roberta Flack, The Meters, Labelle, The Pointer Sisters, the Ohio Players and ’80s standouts Luther Vandross, Zapp, and New Edition? Let ’em in.
And hip-hop heads will finally take the hall seriously once it dispenses with the Rap For Dummies approach and includes a cross-section of rhyme acts that includes Ice-T, Eric B. & Rakim, MC Lyte, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Nas, OutKast, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Missy Elliott, and the Wu-Tang Clan.
Make it happen.