CLEVELAND - The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame celebrates a uniquely American genre, one that's taken many forms over the decades — in Chuck Berry's soul, Bob Marley's reggae protest songs, Prince's flamboyant pop, and as the Rock Hall acknowledged Tuesday, Tupac's rhymes.
And the rapper, who earned a nomination for the Rock Hall Tuesday, is a uniquely American figure. Raised in poverty by two former Black Panthers, Pac pioneered hip hop’s celebration of rags-to-riches success, its poetic lyricism and its political undercurrents, selling over seventy-five million albums in the process.
His influence is nearly as great in death as it was in life, releasing hundreds of posthumous recordings and shaping the generation of rappers who came after him, after the tragic death drive-by shooting twenty years ago.
The rapper is joined by an accomplished group of other nominees, many of whom deserve their place in the Rock Hall like Pearl Jam, the group responsible for grunge’s post-Nirvana longevity, or hardcore legends Bad Brains, who gave punk a more diverse face. For many of the nominees, their inclusion feels historically accurate, granting due diligence to the genres they’ve helped shape. For Tupac, a Rock Hall nomination feels essential.
Tupac isn’t the first rapper to be nominated for the Rock Hall, but his name on the list feels like a first. Rock Hall inductees Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys and NWA were among rap’s founding fathers, with Dr. Dre’s Death Row Records giving rise to Pac’s revolutionary career.
Tupac is the first member of a new generation of rappers to get a Rock Hall nod, the first to become famous in the ‘90s, the key figure in the decade’s East Coast/West Coast rivalry. He belongs to a more modern era of hip hop, a time marked by excess and contradictions in which young artists rose from nothing to become superstars, making music with stunning lyricism and political undercurrents while embracing all the cash, furs and trappings of fame American capitalism offered them. (Couldn’t that describe any number of eras of rock ‘n’ roll?)
If social media grumblings are any indication, some rock listeners are confused how Tupac fits into the genre's narrative. Which it’s why it’s even more revolutionary for the Rock Hall to induct the rapper — and irresponsible not to.
Critics can point to many aspects of Pac’s career as evidence he doesn’t deserve Rock Hall recognition; the drug use, the sex and violence in his lyrics that occasionally found their way into his real-life dealings. But Tupac, as is the case with most hip hop pioneers, didn’t always subscribe to white America’s preferred standards of decency.
To turn Pac away from the Rock Hall because he’s a man of contradictions ignores his enormous influence on contemporary hip hop. And the Hall is already full of drug addicts and suspected domestic abusers, whose names have been inducted into music's history books despite their misdeeds.
Then, there's the Gene Simmons school of thought. The KISS frontman protested NWA’s inclusion on the ballot last year, telling Radio.com that if "you don’t play guitar and you don’t write your own songs, you don’t belong there, and that he'd approve of rappers in the Rock Hall when Led Zeppelin gets into the (fictional) "Rap Hall of Fame."
Whether it’s his rock-star privilege or selective memory, Simmons doesn't just ignore the Rock Hall's long history of inducting a wide range of music greats, but also rock’s origins in soul, funk and jazz music. After all, the Rock Hall’s inaugural class in 1986 included rock’s true founding fathers — Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and Fats Domino — whose music is about as different than Simmons’ hair-metal licks as any Tupac song.
There’s a reason why we pay attention to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A nomination is an acknowledgement of mainstream success, an indication that an artist’s name is important enough for rock’s history books. And when Gene Simmons and other critics try to turn away rappers at the door for not sounding "rock" enough, they’re taking part in rock’s long history of white artists appropriating black culture, erasing its creators while profiting off their sound.
Tupac’s name deserves to be in the Rock Hall, and it deserves to happen this cycle, in a year where the Black Lives Matter movement is marching against the police brutality he often rhymed about, as presidential candidates paint a dystopian picture of the “inner cities" that he illustrated in humanizing color in his music. The rapper’s nomination suggests what his fans have known for decades — Pac is a prophet, a uniquely American kind of poet laureate, and if nothing else, a rock star.