N.W.A. Will Be Inducted Into The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, & Here's What It Says About The Industry
More than 20 years after the original group disbanded, N.W.A. has returned to the center of the pop culture conversation. The Compton, California-based rap group and the making of their iconic debut Straight Outta Compton were the subject of this summer's hit biopic of the same name. And on Thursday, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame announced next year's inductees would include N.W.A., making Dr. Dre and company just the fifth rap group to receive the accolade. N.W.A. joins Deep Purple, Cheap Trick, Steve Miller, and Chicago in the upcoming crop of inductees — an assortment of classic rock groups among which N.W.A., a rap group, stands out.
N.W.A.'s rap-inductee forebears include Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, Beastie Boys, Run-D.M.C., and Public Enemy, according to Rolling Stone. Though N.W.A. went defunct more than two decades ago, they've reunited in part over the past 25 years, briefly touring, performing, and consulting on the Straight Outta Compton film. The group was nominated to the Hall of Fame last year, though it lost out to the likes of Ringo Starr, Green Day, Lou Reed, and Joan Jett, among others. Yet few rap groups have had such a lasting influence on the genre, and even across genre boundaries. We don't speak about even the Beastie Boys with the same hushed reverence as we do N.W.A. — so what changed this year?
To be in contention for placement the Rock & Role Hall of Fame, a group must have released their first album at least 25 years prior. It's a notoriously obscure process, much like the Academy's questionable methods for selecting Oscar nominees. (Just the day before the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees were revealed, it was also announced that the Academy had overlooked Ryuichi Sakamoto's groundbreaking Revenant score, featuring Bryce Dessner of The National, for the Best Original Score prize.) Some nominees arrive by way of a popular vote; others are selected for consideration by individuals affiliated with the Hall of Fame.
N.W.A. was nominated — and lost — last year, as did even more seemingly "suitable" groups like the Smiths, acts whose music falls more conclusively into classic rock branding. (Even musicians like Madonna have been criticized for not being rock and roll enough for the Hall of Fame, which helps explain how, more than 30 years on, the institution has still only recognized five rap groups.)
As for what else has changed between this year and last: Journalist Dee Barnes wrote an essay for Gawker detailing her 1991 alleged assault at the hands of Dr. Dre, a charge to which Dre eventually pleaded no contest. The case was settled out of court later that year, Gawker reported earlier this year. Barnes also alleges Dr. Dre abused his girlfriend and collaborator Michel'le and labelmate Tairrie B. Barnes' piece went viral, bringing his history of violence against women back to the fore once again. N.W.A.'s music has also been interpreted as glamorizing violence against women, however, these accusations were left out of the Straight Outta Compton narrative.
This isn't a charge endemic to vintage rap — rock and roll, punk, and hardcore genres have all traditionally alienated women. Former Pitchfork senior editor Jessica Hopper solicited stories via Twitter of occasions when "gals/other marginalized folks" had been confronted with the idea that they "didn't 'count'" in music, with predictably bleak results. Last year, NPR reported that of the 726 artists inducted into the Hall of Fame, a mere 65 have been women. So maybe N.W.A.'s recognition in the Hall of Fame says as much about the groups and performers who weren't selected as it does about those who have been. It has eschewed genres and groups predominantly populated by marginalized voices — namely, women and minorities — in favor of those who have already long had a platform for visibility. Janet Jackson was nominated for the first time since she became eligible in 2007, and though widely viewed as a front runner, did not end up being honored. Chaka Khan, the only other female solo act nominated this year, was also passed up in favor of other bids.
Though knowledge of Barnes' alleged assault has circulated since the incident in 1991, only recently has the discussion been brought back to the fore. It took a film to clean up, and tacitly accept, N.W.A.'s allegedly checkered past, the same film that sparked renewed interest in the group and likely contributed to their acceptance into the Hall of Fame. This all comes at the expense of an important narrative about violence against women in music and at the cost of representing those same women among music legends. N.W.A. didn't replace, for example, Janet Jackson, in this year's class of inductees. But the rappers' placement is not as forward-thinking as it might initially appear. It is complicit with the dominant structures, the ones that select Chicago over Janet Jackson, that dictated that N.W.A., too, didn't deserve a place prior to this year's high-profile boost.
N.W.A. does deserve lasting recognition in the annals of music history. The west-coast rap group broke ground for mainstream appreciation of gangsta rap, and Kendrick Lamar himself acknowledged the influence the group has had in an interview with Billboard: "If N.W.A had done it softer, it wouldn’t have gotten the attention. It wouldn’t have worked." And "Rock & Roll Hall of Fame" itself is probably a misnomer. It's shortsighted to relegate different genres to the margins of a music honor, highlighting difference and alienating certain voices that have resonated across the divide. Bob Dylan couldn't have written the music he did without the blues singers that preceded him, and N.W.A. hasn't only left a mark on rap. It's high time the powers that be embraced rap, but not without awareness of at what cost that music was made. It's not all the patina of Straight Outta Compton.