Since he died more than 20 years ago, Tupac Shakur has become an icon, an influence, and, as his pal Snoop Dogg reminded at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony Friday night, a hologram.
Too often overlooked, Snoop noted, was something more elemental.
“Many of you remember the thugged-out superhero,” the West Coast hip-hop artist told the Barclays Center audience. “The one thought that [keeps] coming back to me is Tupac the human being — strong and vulnerable, courageous and afraid.”
Love for California rap was only one hallmark of an eventful night. Though lacking the hoped-for musical reunion among members of inductee Journey, the ceremony provided plenty of twisting roads through political terrain. Inductees Joan Baez and Pearl Jam, two of music’s more socially conscious acts, took advantage of the moment to go activist.
"In the new political and cultural reality, there's much work to be done,” Baez, 76, said. “When sharing has been usurped by greed and a thirst for power … I want my granddaughter to know I fought against an evil tide and had the masses on my side.” The statement earned a spirited reaction.
The Rock Hall invites a handful of artists every year to enshrine in its Cleveland museum, polling several hundred experts to make the final selections.It commemorates the occasion with a marathon ceremony (nearly five hours this year) of speeches and songs. The 2017 event — in Brooklyn for the third straight year before an alternating Ohio-New York schedule begins in 2018 — saw six acts inducted. (HBO will air an edited version of the ceremony on April 29.)
Also among the inductees were the Jeff Lynne-led ELO (Electric Light Orchestra) and prog-rock staples Yes. Super-producer Nile Rodgers was presented by the Hall with a special award for “musical excellence,” a kind of prize for under-the-radar work that in the past went to the likes of The E Street Band.
The award was both an honor and, to some eyes, a rebuff after Rodgers’ disco band Chic failed to get in to the Hall despite 11 nominations as performers. The musician had questioned that decision in an interview leading up to the show, saying he was “perplexed” by the Chic snub.
But Rodgers was gracious on the stage Friday, noting that the role of the producer was to remain behind the scenes. He reminisced about producing Madonna’s 1984 smash album “Like A Virgin,” which contained some of the singer’s biggest hits, including the title song, “Material Girl” and “Angel.”
“I remember saying to Madonna, ‘When we finish this record, it's going to say “Madonna” [in big letters] and “produced by Nile Rodgers” [in small letters],’” said Rodgers, who also led the disco band Chic. “My name is going to be this big,” he said, making a small gesture with his hands.
It was a night when artists loomed large, perhaps none bigger than Shakur. Snoop alternately displayed humor and gravitas in describing the poet-activist and Death Row labelmates who were so close they once lived near each other in Wilshire Boulevard penthouses during a halcyon time before Shakur was killed in a drive-by shooting at a Las Vegas intersection in September 1996.
"We had no peers besides one another," the rapper said. "Just two black boys struggling to become men."
Snoop then led a musical tribute to the late artist, only the sixth hip-hop act to be invited to the Rock Hall. Framed by shots of Shakur’s face in various poses of contemplation and defiance, Alicia Keys played piano and sang on numbers such as “Changes” and “I Ain’t Mad at Cha” while rappers joined Snoop on stage to perform pieces of Shakur’s best-known tracks. There was YG (“2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted”), Treach (“Hail Mary”) and T.I. (“Keep Ya Head Up”).
“He made history, he is hip-hop history, he is American history,” Snoop told the audience.
Other West Coast acts feted in this East Coast metropolis included San Francisco’s Journey (inducted by fellow Bay Area native Pat Monahan of Train) and Seattle’s Pearl Jam. They joined musicians from much farther away — the British ELO and Yes, who flashed their country’s deadpan wit.
"When I was growing up, my father said ‘don't go to sleazy strip clubs,’” recounted former Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman. “You’ll see things you don't want to see. So of course I went.” Pause. “And I saw my dad.”
The ceremony lacked — overtly, at least — the kvetching that marked last year, when rocker Steve Miller of the Steve Miller Band took issue with how the hall inducts new members.
Politics, however, crept in often. When George Harrison’s son, Dhani Harrison, in inducting ELO, recalled the performance of the otherworldly-oriented rockers at the Hollywood Bowl just after the election in November, he noted, "Trust me when I say everyone in L.A. was staring at the spaceship, saying 'Take me with you.'"
The return to 1960s activism was most apparent with Baez. The folk singer was inducted by Jackson Browne, who described a childhood filled with revolution in the precincts of his conservative Fullerton.
“To paraphrase Langston Hughes, ‘America has never been and yet must be,’” Browne said, as he drew a connection between the sit-in culture of his early days and the present moment. “Injustices we opposed then,” he said, “we must still oppose.”
Performing with the Indigo Girls, Baez sang a cover of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” As she sang the lyrics of redemption — about being carried home by angels — she interpolated “even Donald.”
The protest singer said relevance for her these days comes in unusual ways. “I'm aware that I'm speaking to many young people, who without this induction would have no clue who I am,” said the folk singer. “My granddaughter had no clue who I was until I took her backstage at a Taylor Swift concert. She got a selfie, an autograph, a T-shirt and a newfound respect for her grandmother.”
The Rock Hall induction ceremony is one-part industry toast and one-part arena spectacle — a distinction made visual this year by the catered-dinner tables on the floor, where some of the business’ most powerful names mingled, and the deafening fans in the arena’s bowled seating area.
That contingent cheered loudest for Pearl Jam, the de facto headliner. Earlier in the week, the group’s scheduled inductor Neil Young withdrew due to illness, prompting longtime Eddie Vedder fan and booster David Letterman to step in. After a quippy introduction by the retired late-night TV talk show host, who looked downright rabbinic in a long white beard, the grunge icons took the stage.
“Here we are with our modern technology, advanced technology age and we've got a lot of evolving to do. It's evolution, baby," Vedder said, citing a hit off the band’s 1998 album “Yield.” “Climate change is real. That is not fake news. And we cannot be the generation the history of the world will look back on and wonder why they didn't do anything humanly possible to solve the biggest crisis in our time.”
But Vedder quickly moved to the personal, offering his brand of poetic intensity to various people in his life, including wife Jill.
“It's so important when that kite gets way higher in the air, you really have to trust the person holding the line,” he said. “And that person has to be loyal and believe in you and have to have the strength to reel you back.”
Vedder also gave a shout-out to, of all people, Chance the Rapper, noting that his 13-year-old daughter, Olivia, is a big fan.
The gravelly-voiced singer concluded with a note of humility
“I feel like we're maybe halfway there to deserving an accolade of this stature,” he said. “But this is very encouraging.” Then he and the band followed it with a mini-set of staples such as “Alive,” “Better Man” and “Given to Fly,” which he dedicated to Michael J. Fox, who was in the house.
A pair of late musical innovators were also memorialized. ELO began the evening with a Chuck Berry medley that included a cover of "Johnny B. Goode,” while Lenny Kravitz took the stage to pay tribute to Prince in a mini-set that included a funkified "When Doves Cry" backed by a gospel choir.
Musically, though, the biggest hope for the evening went unrealized. There had been considerable buzz that former Journey vocalist Steve Perry, who performed on the group’s biggest hits, would not only attend the ceremony but sing with his old group. Perry, who has gone 26 years without performing with Journey, was even reported by TMZ on Friday to be picking up the mic. It would have been a major rapprochement after years of public sniping.
Perry did accept the honor with his former group and spoke briefly. As the set began a moment later, many in the arena held their breath on whether Perry would sing. The band built the tension as they launched into the instrumental windup of its breakup anthem "Separate Ways" (Worlds Apart),” only to have Arnel Pineda, the YouTube discovery who has fronted Journey for the last decade, bound on stage instead.
Veteran Journey guitarist Neal Schon did dedicate the evening to Perry in between songs. It was a return-the-favor gesture after Perry had, in his acceptance speech, run down the names of his ex-bandmates. "Are you … kidding me?” he said. “Any singer would give his … for that."
If Perry was notable by his stage absence, it was an artist who wasn’t in the building at all who that cast the greatest shadow. During the tribute to Shakur, clips of the late artist flashed on a large screen behind the stage. In words that seemed eerily timed for a Rock Hall occasion, the rapper could be observed offering a mix of the boastful and rueful.
“The only thing that could kill me is death,” he said. “And even then, my music can go forever.”