Wednesday morning, the Songwriters Hall of Fame announced that it would induct Jay Z as the first rapper in its esteemed ranks. “I remember when rap was said to be a fad,” Jay Z tweeted in response to the announcement. “We are now alongside some of the greatest writers in history.”
Of course, rappers have been writing the greatest songs in the history of commercial music for much longer than the Songwriters Hall of Fame has acknowledged. Music industry bigwigs Johnny Mercer, Abe Olman, and Howie Richmond founded the organization in 1969 “to shine the spotlight on the accomplishments of songwriters who have provided us with the words and music that form the soundtrack of our lives.” If “Knuck If You Buck” doesn’t meet that distinction, I don’t know what could.
Personally, the soundtrack of my life has been “On Our Own” by Bobby Brown, cowritten by Babyface, who will be inducted this year along with Jay Z. So I couldn’t be happier.
Still, the Songwriters Hall of Fame is amazingly late to honor a 40-year-old genre that has reshaped so many corners of popular culture. And even now, the sole nominee is Jay Z. Surely, the Hall of Fame can do better (and bigger, and deffer) than this. In fact, I am prepared to beg on behalf of the following rappers for consideration next year.
Public Enemy’s back catalog is the source text for understanding why hip-hop is great and irrepressibly important in the first place. “Fight the Power” encapsulates a unique, revolutionary urgency that no other musical genre has ever produced. Chuck D deserves a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Inducting him into the Songwriters Hall of Fame is the least we could do.
LL Cool J
We don’t talk enough about how LL Cool J, the first legit rap star, sold 14 million albums on the strength of a couple dozen hit records — “Loungin,” “Around the Way Girl,” “I Need Love,” etc. — which is more than any other rapper who peaked in the early 1990s could say. We certainly don’t talk enough about how he recorded some of the weirdest, most captivating song concepts of his generation, and in his genre’s history so far. “Pink Cookies in a Plastic Bag Getting Crushed by Buildings” is the most surreal sex metaphor that a musician will ever nail. “Milky Cereal,” a song about dating in which all characters are described as popular cereal brands and other foodstuffs, is evidence that LL Cool J was really into Pink Floyd at some point. Surely, the Songwriters Hall of Fame could appreciate Mama Said Knock You Out as hip-hop’s equivalent of Dark Side of the Moon.
While the ceremony isn’t televised, the Songwriters Hall of Fame does indeed host a tasteful shindig to honor each year’s inductees. It looks pretty boring, though. And modestly budgeted. And poorly dressed. And (forgive me) geriatric. The philosopher Curtis Hudson once wrote, “Music make you lose control.” The Songwriters Hall of Fame needs to loosen up a bit.
Lifetime achievement merits invite us to turn our focus from an accomplished artist’s contemporary, post-peak output to broader appreciation of a musician’s whole catalog. It’s a helpful way to think about legacy artists: I may resent 93 percent of the music that Jay Z has released or so much as appeared on since 2009 — remember “Ghetto Techno”? — but then I step back, review Jigga’s career in retrospect, and fully appreciate his run. Likewise, I may resent that digital music criticism has spent much of the 2010s transforming Cam’ron into a meme above all else, but when I go back and listen to “On Fire Tonight,” a lost Canterbury Tales rant about STDs and misogyny, none of that matters. Cam’ron is very important.
The best music of a generation should provoke uninitiated listeners of all ages and stripes of genre bias to stand back and, with equal parts fascination and contempt, wonder aloud: “What the fuck is this?” I am 100 percent convinced that 99 percent of the voting members have no idea who the late Pimp C is and would balk at any verse of his you might play for them in hopes of making a great impression — even his “Big Pimpin’” verse, which is nearly too good for the song. Pimp C is rude and impossible to stream in mixed company. He’s also incredibly wise. Generally, great musicians are complicated people. Surely, the Songwriters Hall of Fame would understand this much. And there’s no doubt its members would appreciate “Top Notch Hoes,” which is basically an old-school blues record.
I mean, you can’t really talk about hip-hop songwriting without talking about Quentin Miller, who wrote “10 Bands.” Great song!