Why Public Enemy got into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and N.W.A. didn't

Photo by Piero F. Giunti
As hip hop grows ever longer in the tooth, the overall picture of what it meant in its infancy -- and still means -- becomes more clear. Some of it, like the rock, punk, funk and country before it, managed to transcend genre and enter into the cultural zeitgeist of America. The voting for the 2013 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees was announced yesterday and on the ballot were two pioneering rap groups who managed to do those things, both of whom still carry weight today: N.W.A. and Public Enemy.

Given the voter makeup (the chosen panel is shrouded in secrecy, but it's not a stretch to say it's made up of mostly old guard musicians and record execs) only one -- Public Enemy -- will be inducted come next April, but when the dust has settled afterward and everyone finally stops the second-guessing, it should be clear the right choice was made.

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Both groups have made worthy, lasting contributions to music and both, in their own way, reshaped the genre they were operating within and influenced musicians outside of it. (Among a slew of others, Kurt Cobain cited both PE and N.W.A. as influences during his short career.) Both were deemed innovative and fresh, both fairly scared the living shit out of middle-class America in 1988 (N.W.A. with Straight Outta Compton; Public Enemy with It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back) in radically different, yet much the same ways, but it's the happenings since the release of these albums -- N.W.A.'s proper debut; PE's sophomore effort -- that the paths diverge.

The first few seconds of Straight Outta Compton are still enough to make many hit the panic switch. The n-word gets dropped and Ice Cube proclaims himself to be a "crazy motherfucker." From there the album is awash in guns, drugs, street violence, misogyny and a constant stream of profanity. You can hear the echoes of everything that came after it in every beat, rhyme and sample. They had inadvertently (or maybe not so) birthed an entirely new subgenre: gangsta rap. It gets complicated for N.W.A. after this, however, in a plethora of ways.

The surviving members -- Eazy-E passed away in 1995 at age 31 due to complications from AIDS -- have all but admitted that much of it was bluster and exaggeration. None of them were choirboys and nearly all had past run-ins with law enforcement, but they weren't the gun-toting street thugs they portrayed themselves to be on record, either. That didn't stop the FBI from issuing them a warning letter in regard to "Fuck Tha Police," however, and they were banned from performing live at a multitude of venues around the country.

But it was just a role they played to sell records, in the end; like Bowie, like Alice Cooper, like, hell, everyone who came before them. These roles, though, were a bit more frightening -- and believable -- than a spider from Mars. They were businessmen with an idea that worked better than any of the ones they had previously -- not gang-bangers or drug dealers or anything of the sort. (For proof, just look at Dr. Dre's prior band, World Class Wreckin' Cru, in which the members are dressed like Halloween versions of pimps.) They were a rap crew with better skills than most, a crew that created ideas instead of following them, and afterward could write their own tickets to anywhere they wanted to go, which, unfortunately, eventually further took the sting out of their initial bite.

Following the group's breakup amid a firestorm of controversy, contract disputes, allegations of real (or at least threatened) violence and in-fighting about money, music rights and the usual laundry list of contentious items that are part and parcel of the dissolution of a successful band, three of them (Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy-E) went on to record solo work that far outshined N.W.A.'s two offerings. Though 1991's acidic, egotistical Niggaz4Life further pushed both buttons and the envelope, Ice Cube's AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, released in 1988 and Dr. Dre's The Chronic, released in 1992 have both become hip hop classics on their own, both usually placing higher on all-time lists than either of N.W.A.'s albums.

And since, it's been slow slide away from the gangster image for both Cube and Dre, the two most visible members of the band these days. Dr. Dre has become somewhat of a mogul, starting Aftermath Entertainment and in 1997 discovering one Marshall Bruce Mathers III, better known as Eminem, who then both proceeded to essentially begin printing money. He's also been a shill for Dr. Pepper and a handful of other decidedly non-gangster products.

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