Some will cheer the diversity, in every sense of the word, of the new class of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, one that includes Willie Nelson, Missy Elliott, Rage Against the Machine and The Spinners. Others will see that it as a sign that the Hall has lost its way and its focus.
John Sykes, who has been chairman of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation since Jan. 1, 2020, has an answer to the naysayers: “I really didn’t change the rules. I went back and followed them.”
It all comes down to the meaning of the term rock and roll. Sykes contends that that term represents the amalgam of rhythm & blues, country and gospel that transformed popular music in the 1950s. He says that many confuse that term with the narrower “rock,” which he sees as just one element, albeit an important one, in “rock and roll.”
So, while some will say the Rock Hall should mostly be reserved for the likes of The White Stripes, Soundgarden, Warren Zevon and Iron Maiden, all of whom came up short in this year’s balloting, and will see this year’s class as a hodgepodge, Sykes sees it as an exciting return to the true meaning of rock and roll. The news announcement for this year’s Rock Hall inductees includes this definition of rock and roll which you can bet Sykes helped draft – “rock & roll is a spirit that is inclusive and ever-changing.”
Sykes addresses this topic with the deep knowledge of a musicologist and the fervor of a man on a mission. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
When you became the chairman did you look at it and say, ‘This has to evolve or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is going to become a relic’?
When I came in, I was seeing that some people were mistaking rock and roll for rock. Rock is a part of rock and roll, but rock and roll was never one sound. It was an amalgam of R&B, gospel and country. So, I saw an opportunity to really look back to the original genesis of rock and roll and trace it to the present, which is where hip-hop and R&B and the music that’s moving culture today all came from. I really didn’t change the rules. I went back and followed them.
Six of the first 10 [performer] inductees [in 1986] were Black, and the following year Hank Williams was inducted and then Johnny Cash  and then Brenda Lee . Really, all roads lead back to 1955 and the creation and explosion of rock and roll. All I did was go back to the original definition and then trace it today – finding the artists that are moving culture and moving young America.
If you look at rock and roll, it’s not one sound, it’s a spirit that moved teenagers in ’55. It basically drove adults crazy, drove the government crazy, drove the church crazy and that’s exactly what hopefully the music that’s moving culture today is doing [chuckles].
Some will say that the Rock Hall is struggling to find its new identity and purpose.
It’s kind of a mixed bag. This class of inductees is a perfect case for really the diverse sounds that make up rock and roll. I wouldn’t say we’re struggling. I would say we’re diversifying. We’re seeing that all these sounds can live together. It’s not like rock is no longer getting in. Foo Fighters got in two years ago. This year, Rage Against the Machine is right next to the first female hip-hop artist who has ever been inducted, Missy Elliott. I’m excited and proud of this diverse collection of artists.
Summarize the voting process.
What happens is the nominating committee’s list of nominees goes out to the general voting body of 1,200 people, which is made up of past inductees. We are constantly updating every year to make sure we evolve with the music because we need voters in their 30s and 40s who were 15 years old when hip-hop began to really explode in the early ‘90s in America.
Do you know who the seven performer inductees will be before you settle on the honorees in the other three categories [musical influence award, musical excellence award and Ahmet Ertegun Award]?
We do it side-to-side. We monitor the performers vote and we do watch to see if there’s anything we need to balance.
Chaka Khan had been on the ballot in the performer category seven times – counting four times as the lead singer of Rufus and Chaka Khan – without being voted in. This year she gets in through the musical excellence award.
Sometimes, not often, an artist just doesn’t connect with the general voting body for whatever reason. That was the case with Chaka, and before that with LL Cool J and Judas Priest. So, the musical excellence award gives us a chance to [rectify that]. It’s the same sized plaque on the wall. To us as a Hall, each has contributed to the growth and relevance of rock and roll.
How many people are on those committees in the other categories?
Seven. I’m the tie-breaker, but I’ve never had to break a tie. 80%-90% of the time it’s unanimous. This year, it was unanimous.
When I took over the job four years ago, I built the committee with the sole purpose of having a diverse group of voters who are aware not only of where music has been but where music is going. The key factor is to make sure we’ve got the right people who understand the music and artists that are up for induction.
[Since artists become eligible 25 years after their first recording], this year if your first record was in 1998, you’re eligible. That’s not 1967 or 1955. 1998 feels like yesterday. We have to have a committee that understands not only the artists of the past – because we’ll never turn our backs on the artist of the past – but also the artists who are eligible today.
Willie Nelson has been eligible since at least 1987, but this was his first time on the ballot and he got in.
He had one of the highest vote totals in the history of the Hall of Fame. He scored a huge number. It reflects too how the voting understands that rock and roll is not a single sound. It’s an attitude and if anyone has attitude, it’s Willie Nelson.
Even before you took over four years ago, just as a member of the nominating committee for 28 years, had you been thinking that the Rock Hall really has to evolve?
Yes, I definitely thought that way and I think others on the nominating committee did too, especially Jon Landau, who ran the committee for 30 years. Before I even started, he began looking at hip-hop and the importance of that genre as being one of the corner posts of rock and roll. I can’t take all the credit myself.
Rock and roll started out being very diverse and I think what happened in the ’70s and ’80s, it somehow became a little bit more focused on rock, which is an integral part of rock and roll, but not the only one. We’ve expanded in the last eight years on the nominating committee.
When I came in, I really focused on that and also focused on women, who have had such an impact. Prior to 2019, about 14%-15% of the inductees were women. In the last five years, it has been almost 25%. We’re not there yet, but we’re seeing the inductees class evolve not only in sound but genre.
That’s the spirit of rock and roll: Rock and roll is constantly changing and evolving. For me, one of the greatest moments of my time at the Hall of Fame is [two years ago] when Jay-Z, one of the greatest hip-hop artists of all time, held up his award and said, ‘Now that’s rock and roll.’ He understands that rock and roll was dangerous and rebellious in 1955 and that’s exactly what hip-hop has been and is today. It’s breaking the rules. It upsets parents. It upsets the establishment. Those are all reasons why hip-hop is a welcome member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
I take this job seriously and I’m doing my best to keep it evolving so we can keep it relevant.
What kind of reaction do you think this year’s inductees will get?
We always get a lot of different feedback because these decisions are very subjective. There will be people who say that was great or that was horrible. [That feedback] goes with the job. I think we’re doing the right thing. Every single one of those artists on that list deserves to be in the Hall and that’s all that matters to me.