Pick the one that doesn’t belong: Chicago, Deep Purple, Cheap Trick, Steve Miller Band, N.W.A.
Save for Steve Miller and Eazy-E’s shared affinity for midnight toking, it’s obvious that the Compton gangsta-rap pioneers are outliers in this year’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame class. Just contrast them with their “peers” to see why it’s a big deal. The greatest outlaws in hip-hop history are being enshrined on the same stage as Homer Simpson’s favorite bands (minus Grand Funk Railroad).
It’s a victory for Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, MC Ren, Yella and the sacred poltergeist of Eazy-E, but also for West Coast hip-hop. Until now, the disproportionately old, white voter base has shunned rap from outside of New York City. It’s fitting that the first non-NYC inductees would be N.W.A, the independent vigilantes that shoved an AK in the face of the Eastern establishment, forcing it to pay begrudging attention.
N.W.A enters a Hall of Fame whose few hip-hop representatives feel purely tokenistic. You have the pioneers (Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five), the favorite rap group of people over 45 (Run-D.M.C.), the political group (Public Enemy), the white rappers (Beastie Boys).
The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Green Day have plaques in Cleveland. Wu-Tang and Outkast do not. This is a national embarrassment on par with Donald Trump.
It’s obvious why the Hall of Fame finally selected the World’s Most Dangerous Group. The critical acclaim and $160 million domestic gross of the film Straight Outta Compton speak volumes about N.W.A’s permanent relevance. A song like “Fuck tha Police” still feels important at a time when officers involved in the Sandra Bland case and the cold-blooded killing of Chicago teenager Laquan McDonald remain unindicted.
A quarter-century later, it’s clear that N.W.A both defined their time and were very much ahead of it. They were the first rappers to truly grasp the importance of inflating controversy to spark sales, turning an FBI warning into a marketing windfall. If Ice-T originated West Coast gangsta rap, N.W.A perfected it. They were its first true antiheroes, the villains you loved to hate.
Their lineage directly spawned some of the biggest superstars in rap history: Snoop Dogg, Eminem, 50 Cent, Kendrick Lamar, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and The Black Eyed Peas. The first G-funk hit was N.W.A’s “Alwayz Into Somethin’,” whose sound inspired everyone from 2Pac to Master P, E-40 to YG.
There’s something heartwarming and hilarious about their induction, too. Eazy-E’s early death will always make it bittersweet, but we can take solace in imagining him there, smirking like a gargoyle in the rafters, thinking about how funny it is that the group that made “Just Don’t Bite It” and “Don’t Drink That Wine” will be celebrated in the most venerable institution in rock.
The choice of N.W.A doesn’t recuse the Hall of Fame from its evangelical rockism, problematic taste and reluctance to fully appreciate or understand the most important genre of the last 40 years. Just this year alone, selectors picked Chicago over The Smiths and Janet Jackson. It’s clear that their problems go much deeper than merely pretending only five rap groups exist.
But the inclusion of N.W.A is a welcome start. It finally opens up the hall to an entire subgenre, sound and region that had been glaringly ignored. For anyone raised on N.W.A or their later solo efforts, there will be something surreal and wonderful in watching them perform “Straight Outta Compton” before an audience of James Taylor fans.
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So offer these men a toast of 8-ball, pour out a little liquor for Eric Wright — and if anyone doesn’t like it, fuck ’em.
An L.A. native, Jeff Weiss edits Passion of the Weiss and hosts the Shots Fired podcast. Find him online at passionweiss.com.