N.W.A fits neatly in with the early precedents for inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the 31st induction ceremony for which is being held at Cleveland’s Barclay Center on April 8. To wit, N.W.A’s arrival reshaped the genre; its discography, no matter how compact, contains landmark works; its impact and influence could be felt 10, 20 years after its debut; and the hits have aged well. The group is not that different from the Velvet Underground, Talking Heads or the Clash.
Few acts that fit that criteria remain on eligibility lists, and as the Hall adjusts its voting membership to gain new perspectives — artists, executives and critics eager to celebrate and validate music that impressed them in their teenage years the way the Angels, Percy Sledge and Gene Pitney did for the hall’s original voters — it produces classes such as this year’s. All are veteran rock acts, long eligible for inclusion, but disregarded for a lack of a perennial cool factor. Their hall credibility rests in each group’s genesis when their artistry burned brightest.
In the case of Chicago, which duked it out with the Eagles to be the No. 1 American band in the mid-’70s, its worthiness can be found in the first five studio albums. Those records, “CTA” through “Chicago VI,” connected with the classical avant garde, those who reveled in the intersection of rock and jazz, Beatles-inspired pop, country-rock and psychedelia. The band members wrote suites, featured pianist Robert Lamm and the late guitarist Terry Kath on extensive, at-times dissonant improvisations, and landed music on AM and FM when the two radio bands appealed to wholly separate audiences.
Cheap Trick, one of many bands tagged “the American Beatles,” defined Midwestern working-class rock of the mid-’70s with its first three studio albums. The band’s popularity in Japan led to its breakthrough “Live at Budokan,” a 3 million-seller that brought the members international stardom, alerting American audiences about what they had been missing. From that point, “Dream Police” onward, the results were sporadic as they amped up glam and metal elements and toyed with experimentation with the help of big-name producers like George Martin and Todd Rundgren.
Many celebrate Deep Purple as heavy-metal pioneers, but the truth is its legacy is often boiled down to hard rock’s most hummable seven-note progression, “Smoke on the Water.” Getting inducted requires ignoring its 1960s work, which includes the catchy hit “Hush,” and focusing on a string of albums —“In Rock,” “Fireball,” “Machine Head” and “Who Do We Think We Are” — that ran third behind Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin in defining heavy metal in the first half of the 1970s.
Steve Miller, curiously inducted with no mention of his Band, married San Francisco psychedelia with the blues to create well-received albums “Children of the Future, “Sailor,” Brave New World” and “Your Saving Grace” before hitting a commercial jackpot with “The Joker,” “Fly Like an Eagle” and “Book of Dreams.”
Bert Berns, producer of the Isley Bros.’ “Twist and Shout” and Erma Franklin’s “Piece of My Heart” who oversaw the first hits of Neil Diamond, Van Morrison and Solomon Burke, has had his story told in recent years in a biography, a tuner and a documentary that premiered this month at SXSW. Overlooked by the Hall for years, Berns, through his labels Bang and Shout and his early ’60s production work for Atlantic Records, has been a largely unsung forefather of R&B. He died in 1967 at the age of 38.
All the rock acts will receive induction speeches from well-known fans who also happen to be in celebrated rock groups, including Lars Ulrich of Metallica, Rob Thomas and the Black Keys.
The N.W.A speech, though, from Kendrick Lamar, should exhibit a connection rarely seen on the dais. Here is a child of “Straight Outta Compton,” a neighborhood kid shaking up his genre as his forefathers did: A young, hip, viable force in music honoring the history makers of a previous generation. That lineage, that sense of rising up, is what makes these rap acts solid rock ’n’ rollers.