N.W.A. is used to controversy.
After all, the hip-hop innovators — Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, MC Ren and DJ Yella — rocketed straight outta Compton, California, to superstardom in 1988, building the gangsta rap genre around protest anthems like “Express Yourself” and “[Expletive] tha Police,” which outlined the same use of excessive force against minorities that is being challenged today.
So it’s no surprise that N.W.A.’s inclusion in the 2016 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame class, set to be inducted in a ceremony at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Friday, April 8, is causing a ruckus.
After the inductees were announced, Kiss’ Gene Simmons, a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer himself, snarkily tweeted, “I’m all for NWA in ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME. . . . Hey, when is LED ZEP induction in HIP HOP HALL OF FAME???” It’s a continuation of comments that Simmons unveiled in 2014, saying, “You’ve got Grandmaster Flash in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Run-D.M.C. in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? You’re killing me. That doesn’t mean those aren’t good artists. But they don’t play guitar. They sample and they talk. Not even sing.”
It’s weird, though. You’d think Simmons, of all people, would see the connection between those claiming Elvis Presley’s hips and The Beatles’ moptops and Kiss’ outrageous stage antics were destroying America and those making similar claims about N.W.A.’s music.
That’s the way the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame sees it. “In some ways, it’s surprising that this generated so much controversy in the first place,” says Jason Hanley, vice president of education and visitor engagement at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. “It’s not just rhythm and blues meets country in Memphis and rock and roll is born. . . . We have early influences from jazz, from gospel, from bluegrass and blues and all of those things. Just the way that we look at those many styles coming into the birth of rock and roll, we also look at the many ways that that moment broadens out into so many different musical styles that are under the umbrella of rock and roll. There’s already funk and soul and psychedelic rock and, in many ways, hip-hop is part of that story.”
Hanley, a native of Holbrook, says that the Rock Hall has inducted hip-hop acts that have told that genre’s growth well. “You started with Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and that’s about as close as you’re going to get to the beginning,” he says. “Then you inducted some of the incredible second-generation hip-hop artists from the Beastie Boys to Run-DMC to Public Enemy. And now with N.W.A., you’re seeing the next important part of that story — the part of hip-hop that seems the most connected to the path of rock and roll. N.W.A. is a rebellious band. They’re a band that was filled with controversy when they came out. They were a group that blew away a lot of people’s preconceptions about what hip-hop was or could be. . . . It made it feel dangerous again in many ways.”
For its part, N.W.A. isn’t really focused on controversy anymore. Ice Cube is known more as an actor these days, even though he still raps. Dr. Dre is as much the tech tycoon behind Beats headphones as he is the in-demand producer who launched Eminem. MC Ren has more or less retired, according to his collaborator Paris, though he has worked with Paris and Public Enemy in recent years. And DJ Yella, after a stint as a porn director, is back to DJing full time again. Eazy-E died from complications related to AIDS in 1995.
Ice Cube says N.W.A. plans to reunite at Barclays Center, marking the first time the surviving members will perform together in 26 years. (Could Kendrick Lamar, who will induct the group into the Rock Hall, fill in for Eazy-E? Maybe Snoop Dogg?) And it’s possible the group may also perform together at Coachella.
And Cube says he is honored by the induction into the Rock Hall and isn’t questioning whether N.W.A. belongs at all.
“Rap is a piece of rock & roll, but there’s also a piece of soul, a piece of R&B, a piece of blues — all of that music that comes before it,” he told Rolling Stone. “I think rap captures the spirit of rock and roll just like rappers and guys who do rock and roll capture the same spirit. They might go in different directions with it, but it’s the same spirit.”