Ask Grandmaster Flash about hip-hop stars deserving of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and he’s quick with a list of rap icons.
“Afrika Bambaataa. Run-DMC. KRS-One,” he says, barely pausing for a breath. “Big Daddy Kane. LL Cool J. Eric B and Rakim. Tribe Called Quest. The list goes on and on.”
Flash left himself out, with good reason: The DJ and partners the Furious Five enter the Hall on March 12 as its initial rap inductees. The Bronx hip-hop pioneers are part of an otherwise traditional class: R.E.M., Van Halen and a pair of fellow New York City performers, Patti Smith and the Ronettes.
As the first citizens of hip-hop nation in the Rock Hall, the arrival of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five signals a new age at the Cleveland attraction: Smith likely marks the end of the ’70s punk inductees, and the time of hip-hop is upon us.
“This announces the beginning of the rap era for the Hall,” said Bill Adler, a hip-hop historian — currently editing the “Eyejammie Encyclopedia of Hip-Hop” — and member of the Hall’s nominating committee. “Flash and the Furious Five are going to open the floodgates.”
Adler, a publicist for the hugely influential Def Jam Records in the mid-1980s, offered his own list of rappers destined for induction: “The Beastie Boys, very quickly. Run-DMC and LL Cool J will get in pretty quickly. Slick Rick.”
‘The Message’ was heard
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five enter 25 years after their groundbreaking single, “The Message,” about hard times in their native borough during the Reagan Administration. It was the first popular rap song with a social theme — “It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from going under,” went the hypnotic chorus.
“One of the pivotal points in hip-hop history,” said Furious Five rapper Melle Mel, who acknowledged his group initially wanted to pass on the song.
The group, which also featured Kid Creole, Cowboy, Mr. Ness and Raheim before an acrimonious 1983 split between Flash and Mel, had missed induction on two previous occasions. So when word arrived of the honor this year, Flash said he was initially skeptical.
Melle Mel recalled lying in bed — “I usually sleep with the TV on” — when he heard the news that R.E.M. and Van Halen were in. Before he could roll over, the announcer added the name of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.
“The fact that we’re in the Hall of Fame speaks volumes,” said Melle Mel. “People try to separate hip-hop music like it stands alone, but it really doesn’t. We’re in with all the great groups in the history of music. It further legitimizes hip-hop.”
The Hall gets with it
Admitting a hip-hop group to the home of rockers from Chuck Berry through U2 is a bigger step for the Hall of Fame than it is for many rap aficionados, said Erik Parker, director of content at the hip-hop web site SOHH.com.
“The average hip-hop fan long ago learned to live without validation,” said Parker. “They realized it was already accepted as part of the mainstream culture.” (VH1 started honoring rap’s pioneers three years ago in a Rock Hall-like ceremony, and two years ago honored Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five).
The Hall is undeniably an equal opportunity inductor: its first class included James Brown and the Everly Brothers, while last year’s group featured Miles Davis and the Sex Pistols.
But its requirement that candidates can’t get inducted until 25 years after their first release kept many of rap’s founding fathers from a shot at stepping inside the Hall until recent years. Unlike rock, which dates back more than a half-century, rap is a relatively young genre — about 30 years old.
Parker said the timing for Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s induction was impeccable.
“This is what’s really key: their ‘Message’ is still relevant today, 25 years later,” he said. “The words in that song couldn’t ring truer.”