N.W.A enters Rock and Roll Hall of Fame amid controversy

N.W.A's (from left) MC Ren, Dr Dre, Ice Cube and DJ Yella at last Friday's Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
N.W.A's (from left) MC Ren, Dr Dre, Ice Cube and DJ Yella at last Friday's Hall of Fame induction ceremony.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK • After 31 years, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still debating what exactly counts as rock 'n' roll.

At Barclays Center in Brooklyn last Friday night, the Hall of Fame inducted five acts: Cheap Trick, Chicago, Deep Purple and Steve Miller - all staples of classic rock, with a centre of gravity in the 1970s - and N.W.A, the foundational gangsta-rap group, begun in 1986 in Los Angeles, whose story of fame and controversy was told in the recent biopic Straight Outta Compton.

The induction of N.W.A, only the fifth hip-hop act in the pantheon, reignited a longstanding disagreement among fans and critics about rap's place in the Hall of Fame, a point that Ice Cube, the group's most outspoken member, addressed in his acceptance speech.

"Rock 'n' roll is not an instrument. Rock 'n' roll is not even a style of music," Ice Cube said, flanked by Dr Dre, DJ Yella and MC Ren, the other surviving members of the group, all of them dressed in black. (Eazy-E, the fifth member, died in 1995.)

"Rock 'n' roll is a spirit," Ice Cube added, connecting hip-hop to a century-long musical lineage of blues, jazz, R&B and punk rock.

"Rock 'n' roll is not conforming to the people who came before you," he said, "but creating your own path in music and in life. That is rock 'n' roll and that is us."

N.W.A was introduced by young rap star Kendrick Lamar, who portrayed the group as "black superheroes" with far-reaching cultural influence.

Ice Cube's comments were the night's most forceful statement of purpose - and the most eloquent definition of rock - from the group that had the least amount of stage time and the only one that did not perform.

In an interview before the ceremony, Ice Cube suggested that there had been a disagreement between N.W.A and the event's organisers. A spokesman for the Rock Hall declined to comment.

Some of the Rock Hall's traditions - passionate introductory speeches by fellow stars, no-shows by feuding band members - have stayed firmly intact over the years.

Peter Cetera, the former Chicago singer who left the group in 1985, did not appear. Neither did Ritchie Blackmore, the Deep Purple guitarist who has been in a long-running dispute with other band members.

Nevertheless, his virtuosity was celebrated again and again by fellow band members as well as by Lars Ulrich, Metallica's drummer. Introducing the band, Ulrich equated Deep Purple's influence on heavy metal with that of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, and praised Blackmore's "peculiar mix of showmanship, control and aloofness" on the guitar.

Miller, who became one of the kings of smooth-rock radio hits in the 1970s with The Joker and Fly Like An Eagle, recounted a flawless rock 'n' roll resume that included being introduced to the guitar as a child by Les Paul - his godfather.

His speech was also an occasion for one of the Rock Hall's other enduring traditions: the public settling of scores.

Onstage, he politely nudged the Rock Hall "to be more inclusive of women and to be more transparent in your dealings with the public". The inductees are overwhelmingly male and this year's class included no women.

Backstage, he was harsher, criticising the Rock Hall's financial and contractual dealings with the musicians it honours.

"This is how close this whole show came to not happening because of the way the artists are being treated," Miller said, holding two fingers very close together.

"Rock 'n' roll can ignite many opinions," the hall responded in a statement. "It's what makes it so great."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 11, 2016, with the headline 'N.W.A enters Rock and Roll Hall of Fame amid controversy'. Print Edition | Subscribe