Marc S Canter/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Axl Rose and Slash sharing the stage in 1985. Will they do it again this spring?
Axl Rose and Slash sharing the stage in 1985. Will they do it again this spring? Marc S Canter/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
It's going to be an interesting year for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame acceptance speeches.
Guns N' Roses getting the nod puts one of the most powerful hard rock bands in the history of the genre — and all their attendant scandal and interpersonal tensions — up on the dais in Cleveland this spring. Will the visionary eccentric W. Axl Rose make nice with the stubborn master of lyrical shredding, Slash? (The pair's feud has made a G'n'R reunion unlikely ... until now.) Will they let gentleman Duff McKagan have a word on the microphone? Will Steven Adler surrender his trophy to KISS (he thinks Gene and company should have gotten in first)?
Behind the obvious drama surrounding the Sunset Strip's bad boys lurks another matter for the Rock Hall this year. Slash, whose mother was African-American and father is British, is the only African-American to be inducted within the Performer category this year.
The blues guitarist Freddie King, a major influence on Slash's major influence Eric Clapton, received posthumous admission in the Early Influence category. Funk pioneers Rufus and Chaka Khan, rap standard-bearers Eric B & Rakim, disco goddess Donna Summer, Latin-influenced rockers War and soul hitmakers The Spinners were all nominated and denied. *For only the third time in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's history, no artist of color working within an African-American dominated music scene gained admission.
This can be seen as merely an occasional historic blip. Its implications are also countered by the induction of the all-Jewish Beastie Boys, one of hip-hop's best-known crews which has been influential across genres. The rhyming trio has employed a series of DJs of color, including Doctor Dre (not to be confused with Dr. Dre of N.W.A., whose eligibility next year should prove interesting), Hurricane and Mixmaster Mike.
Yet I wonder: does this odd occurrence signal something about who has come of age among Rock Hall voters? My generation, the one that gave the world mainstream hip-hop and alternative rock, is now clearly playing a huge role.
The history of rock and roll is one of informal, fraught racial integration. One narrative is that of white artists being influenced by African-Americans and taking their sounds to the top of the mainstream charts. Another, though, is of collaboration. The Rolling Stones shared tours with Ike and Tina Turner and the Ronettes. Producer Nile Rodgers — still, so wrongly, snubbed by the Rock Hall — made groundbreaking albums with both his own band, Chic, and Madonna.
In the late 1980s, however — the era now coming into its own as part of the Rock Hall's history-making process — two clear streams emerged. Hip-hop emerged as what Public Enemy leader Chuck D (also eligible next year) called "CNN for black people," and with the rare exceptions of the Beastie Boys and Eminem, continued to be defined by artists of color. Indie rock transformed into alternative and grunge, and as those rockers pushed off the influence of the baby boom, they also stepped away from the blues and R&B legacies of classic rock, creating scenes known for being mostly white.
It's interesting that the inducted band repping for alternative rock this year is the Red Hot Chili Peppers — one of the few from that world that's always clearly shown its debt to funk. I wouldn't be surprised if bassist Flea gives a shout out to Chaka and War from the podium.
What will likely happen for the next few years is that hip-hop artists will be admitted in tandem with indie/alternative ones, creating a kind of symmetry to represent an era in which two major legacies grew up mostly separate but equal. Those of us who came of age in the '90s will be reminded that it was a strangely divided time.
In the meantime, we do have Guns N' Roses: a band that's both punk and blues, and more representative of rock and roll's mainstream than anyone suspected when Appetite For Destruction burned down the charts in 1987. I'm celebrating its inclusion, and hoping its members will kiss and make up and play a killer version of "Paradise City" at the induction ceremony. (Still mad about Heart not getting in, though.)
*UPDATE, 1:00 p.m. 12/8/2011: After this piece was published, I received a message from an employee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, who pointed out that, in fact, this wasn't the first time the Performer category has lacked significant African-American membership, as I had written. In 2003, AC/DC, the Clash, Elvis Costello, the Police and the Righteous Brothers were inducted alongside Motown session drummer Benny Benjamin in the Sideman category. In 2008, Leonard Cohen, the Dave Clark Five, Madonna, John Mellencamp and the Ventures were voted in, while three African-Americans were inducted in other categories: Little Walter as a Sideman and songwriters Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff as non-performers.
It seems the historical shift began a few years ago. The post's text has been altered to reflect this correction.