This year, though, the Hall of Fame chatter was dominated by a single topic: the admission of Whitney Houston and the Notorious B.I.G. Although some posters seemed to grudgingly accept that Houston deserved the honor (“but she’s still not as good as Pat Benatar!!”), the outrage over Biggie’s inclusion was unrelenting. There were numerous, angry variations on the theme of Rap Isn’t Rock and Roll, plus the occasional side assertion that Rap Isn’t Even Music, often followed by the promise never to buy an issue of Rolling Stone again. One Facebooker in my feed called for burning down the Hall of Fame, as if only literal flames could assuage his anger. SMH, as they say.
Even after accounting for the expected Get off my lawn! reflex of aging rock fans, the rage was unsettling for a couple reasons, particularly its racial undercurrent. Although the rest of the RRHoF ballot contained diversity — Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy was multiracial, as were the lineups of Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan and the Dave Matthews Band — Whitney and Biggie were the only nominated artists whose work represented contemporary black music, and that seemed to be a problem for some people. It was as if they thought that, somewhere between the time Elvis went into the Army and Chuck Berry was arrested under the Mann Act, the black component of rock and roll had branched off completely from the original root.
Bollocks. However much these folks may argue that rappers should go into a Hip-Hop Hall of Fame, or R&B artists into a soul sanctuary, the fact remains that, in life, both Whitney and Biggie were treated just like the rock and roll stars they’ve allegedly shouldered aside. Both were regularly covered in the rock press, from Rolling Stone to SPIN to the music pages of Entertainment Weekly; both appeared regularly on MTV. It wouldn’t be hard to argue that both were more mainstream than fellow Class of 2020 members Nine Inch Nails and the Doobie Brothers.
But music isn’t botany, and pop in particular is full of confluences and crossbreeding. Thanks to the utter promiscuity with which musicians and listeners absorb influences, the last four decades are rife with examples of how “pop,” “rock,” “hip-hop” and “soul” have been deeply and irrevocably intertwined. Biggie’s posthumous signature track, “Notorious B.I.G.,” is built around a sample of the song “Notorious” by Duran Duran, and even though the bulk of his recordings drew more heavily from R&B, smooth jazz, reggae and disco, he also utilized pieces of Prince, the Steve Miller Band, Edgar Winter and even Iron Butterfly.
I’m also tempted to point out that few invoked purity of genre when Limp Bizkit or Linkin Park incorporated rapping and scratching, much less when singers from Mick Jagger to Boz Scaggs to Sam Smith integrated soul mannerisms into their sound. But white artists taking from African-American culture has been a through line in popular music. Everybody knows this, and that makes it particularly galling to read arguments advocating for the exclusion of African-American artists from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame because they’re “not rock and roll.” Do you really believe that the music has to be distilled through the ears of white culture to qualify?
Don’t get me wrong — the voters of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame are hardly infallible. I’ve been one for decades, and can tell you that I’ve voted for more people who didn’t get in than for those who have. Truth be told, though I voted for Whitney, I didn’t for Biggie (he was eighth on my list of five), and I would be more than happy to argue that he shouldn’t have gotten in ahead of LL Cool J or Ice-T or the Wu-Tang Clan. That is a reasonable Rock & Roll Hall of Fame argument. Suggesting that rap or R&B don’t belong is not.