Sam Cooke. The Platters. Hank Ballard. Ray Charles. Etta James. Charlie Christian. Al Green. Solomon Burke. The Impressions. Dinah Washington. The Staple Singers. Clyde McPhatter. The Drifters. Sam and Dave. Gladys Knight and the Pips. T-Bone Walker. Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. Laverne Baker. Earth Wind and Fire. Big Joe Turner. Louis Jordan. Bo Diddley. The Supremes. Bessie Smith. The Ink Spots. The Soul Stirrers. Ma Rainey. Ike and Tina Turner. John Lee Hooker. The Isley Brothers. The Orioles. Ruth Brown. Bobby “Blue” Bland. Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. Willie Dixon.
What do all of these legendary Black artists all have in common? They’re all in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. All of the aforementioned artists from jazz, rock and roll, R&B, blues, soul and funk were inducted into the Rock Hall during its first decade of existence.
On Dec. 20th, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced its 2017 class of inductees, and the collective of honorees looked very different.
In 2007, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five became the first hip-hop act to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Potential inductees are only eligible for nomination 25 years after their first commercial releases, so with their first releases having been in 1979-1980, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five didn’t have to wait long for nomination and induction. Nor did Run-D.M.C., who became the second hip-hop act inducted in 2009. Nor did Public Enemy (2011) or the Beastie Boys (2012) or N.W.A. (2016).
And 2Pac, who released his first single and album in late 1991, is entering the Rock Hall in his first year of eligibility. It’s understandable that Tupac Shakur would be inducted so quickly; he has become hip-hop’s most celebrated martyr and one of the most iconic artists in the world, his legend bolstered by a strong five-album run while he was alive, several posthumous releases and countless documentaries, books and other works dedicated to his life, death and legacy. And with five other hip-hop artists having already broken the cultural barrier, it stands to reason that 2Pac’s nomination and induction would be at least marginally less controversial than his predecessors.
But while the Rock Hall’s embrace of hip-hop has been controversial, what warrants far more scrutiny is the Hall’s abandonment of R&B in the past decade. As the timeline for eligible artists has moved forward into the post-disco, urban contemporary and New Jack Swing eras of R&B, nominations for those genre’s greatest artists have been non-existent. The direct descendants of the Motown and Stax legends that the rock generation champions have been discarded for hip-hop acts that have largely been embraced by the same demographic that made superstars of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath decades ago: young white males.
A generation of rock fans that came of age in the 1960s heard British Invasion and Motown artists regularly played alongside each other on AM rotations. As a result, they grew up with an awareness of soul artists as contemporaries of rock artists and vice versa. But as the FM format came to the fore in the early 1970s, playing deep album cuts by psychedelic rock bands and laying the groundwork for what would come to be known as the “classic rock” format in later years, Black artists were once again marginalized by the mainstream. Now, the O’Jays were far less likely to be heard on station playlists alongside Pink Floyd. Even funk bands that were making music that was more or less identical to what hard rock bands were doing at the time were typically not included in rock rotations. Over time, this resulted in a sharp divide between mainstream rock and soul/funk music; this schism was amplified by the rise of disco and the subsequent backlash against it. That divide set in motion the split that lead to R&B in the ’80s and ’90s being virtually ignored by rock radio and now, rock institutions.
Sade. Luther Vandross. New Edition. The S.O.S. Band. Zapp. Whitney Houston. The Gap Band. Barry White. Mariah Carey. The Manhattans. Grace Jones. Anita Baker. Guy. Patti Labelle. The Commodores. The Spinners. Teddy Pendergrass. Chic.
None of them are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and most have never been nominated.
In the mainstream canonization of popular music, R&B has all too often been valued solely by its proximity to rock (from the 1950s to the 1970s) and hip-hop (from the late 1980s to now.) While rock and hip-hop have their respective histories, scenes and subgenres analyzed by the most visible platforms, there hasn’t been the same kind of devotion to documenting R&B as its own force. Especially not for R&B in the years since disco.
One of Netflix’s popular new documentaries is Hip-Hop: Evolution, a look at the rich history of hip-hop broken up into several episodes examining different eras. The docuseries is engrossing, and it comes just about a month after the stellar PBS documentary series Soundbreaking, a look at the art of recorded music. That particular doc devoted an entire episode to hip-hop’s contributions to how popular music is made, but while certain luminaries of Black music like Sly Stone were certainly recognized; there wasn’t the same level of investment in making sure the audience knew names like Norman Whitfield and Maurice White in the same way that Brian Wilson and Brian Eno were recognized. And geniuses of production like Roger Troutman or Rick James are hardly ever celebrated on the same level for their record-making as Daniel Lanois or Mutt Lange.
In order for that to change, institutions like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame have to do something they’ve never seemed comfortable with doing: de-centering white guys as their chosen audience. As long as the Hall thinks there’s more value in continuing to stroke aging Baby Boomer tastes, it will continue to be inconsequential. If you want to die on the Journey hill, Rock Hall—have at it.
But contemporary R&B is a lot cooler—and a lot more interesting.
As to be expected, Black platforms have done a much better job of acknowledging the richness of contemporary R&B history. Acts like DeBarge and Full Force have been recognized and had their stories told on TV One’s popular Unsung series, which salutes under-celebrated artists in Black music. Programs like BET Honors and the Soul Train Awards emphasize the greatness of the artists who defined Black music—many of whom were at the forefront for a generation that came of age in the ’80s and ’90s. And TLC, Aaliyah and less mainstream R&B singers like Michel’le and Miki Howard have also had their stories told via television biopics.
But as we move further and further away from the era when rock and rockist biases defined the critique and commentary surrounding popular music, as “Disco Sucks” rallies of yesteryear look more and more like the racist, homophobic musical effigy burnings they were, and as the critical dismissals of artists like Vandross and Baker as “lounge act” R&B sound more like the wrong side of history as opposed to unquestionable gospel, institutions like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are going to have to come to grips with the fact that no one cares about what they used to represent anymore. And the more they insist on scraping the bottom of the ’70s classic rock barrel (we’re this close to a Supertramp induction, folks) as opposed to boldly stepping into the era of quiet storm, New Jack Swing and hip-hop soul, the more they will languish in irrelevance.
Inducting 2Pac is nice, but there are more viewers interested in seeing a Janet Jackson induction and tribute. That’s no slight to Pac, but Janet’s resurgence over the past two years has reignited recognition for the pop diva as one of the definitive artists of a generation. And unlike 2Pac, Janet could at least make an appearance. Her influence connects with a number of contemporary artists and fans in a way that Electric Light Orchestra never will. So it’s the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s loss. Another year of getting it wrong means another year of irrelevance.
The Rock Hall needs R&B far more than R&B needs the Rock Hall.