John Sykes on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Broader Focus: ‘We Honor the Artists Who Created the Sound of Youth Culture’

On the eve of the announcement of this year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, John Sykes, chairman of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, hopped on the phone with Billboard to discuss this year’s class of honorees and the organization’s broadened focus.


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The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

This will be the second induction class under your watch, right?

Yes, but this is really my first year where I was able to make changes on the committees and work closely with the staff to really look forward to the future of the Hall – not only where we are right now but where we’re going.


What do you mean by that phrase – ‘where we’re going’?

I have told the board and all our committees that we have an ongoing commitment to honor the artists who really created the sound of youth culture. That means rock and roll as well as hip-hop, R&B and rap. In order to be relevant, the Rock Hall has to evolve with the music that is impacting youth culture. That was the platform that the Hall was built on in the first place.

Just like any artist must evolve in their career, so should the Hall of Fame. Rock and roll was the music for so many years that moved youth culture. It still is part of it, but now you have hip-hop and rap that really is part of that.

The Hall has already inducted artists beyond just the rock and roll genre and this year we continue that with not only with Jay-Z, but also the special committee awards honoring LL Cool J [award for musical excellence] and Gil Scott-Heron [early influence award]. What we’re seeing now is the emergence of rap and hip-hop being recognized not only in the performer category but also in the special committee categories.


It was jarring at first to see Gil Scott-Heron and Kraftwerk inducted as ‘early influences.’ They both released their first albums in 1970. Is that considered ‘early’ now?

Fifty-one years is a long time. That’s twice as long as someone would need to be eligible to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. If you put out a record in 1996 – this is when I was running VH1 – you’re eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. If you put a record out 25 years ago, it could have been a rock record or a hip-hop record. We were seeing a major cultural shift at that time in the music that connected with young people in America.

The music world is constantly evolving. The Hall of Fame in order to remain relevant has to evolve with it and honor those artists that were releasing the music that began to change culture more than 25 years ago.


What’s your take on this year’s class of inductees?

What I’m really impressed with proud of is that this year’s class is amazingly diverse. Three out of six performers – The Go-Go’s, Carole King and Tina Turner – are women. You’ve got a first-ballot hip-hop artist, Jay-Z, going in. You’ve got a first-ballot rock band, Foo Fighters, going in. It shows how diverse the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has become. Our mandate, which started out as purely rock and roll, [has become] to honor the artists that have moved and changed the sound of young America.

Have you conveyed your view that the Hall has to evolve to the voting members, perhaps in a cover letter sent out with the general ballot?

No. But Jon Landau, who has been our leader of the performer nominating committee, had expressed that [view] to the approximately 30 members of the committee, to remind them that music has changed and evolved and that we need to be aware of that. He has done an excellent job of making sure we have a diverse nominating committee. Otherwise, you wouldn’t see those artists being nominated and inducted.

The general ballot goes out to almost 1,200 people. We just tell them ‘This is one of the highest honors an artist could ever receive, so place be serious in your consideration.’

We are constantly refreshing the general ballot [voting body] with younger voters who will be more aware of the music of the artists who are now being inducted. We are achieving the same goal that way. If you don’t vote for two years, you’re no longer eligible [to vote]. We take that opportunity to refresh the general ballot with younger voters who do have a knowledge. We like the fact that there are two different bodies – a smaller nominating committee and then general ballot voters made of current inductees as well as historians and music executives. It’s almost like a balance of power.


Did you make any changes in the nominating process this year?

We established a seven-member committee for each of the three special categories [early influence award, award for musical excellence, Ahmet Ertegun award]. We have artists, executives and publishers, so you can get really a diverse group of opinions which is why you’ve got such a balanced mix in these categories. It’s the first time we’ve had real committees who come prepared to discuss, debate and vote on who gets these awards.

Clarence Avant is the Ahmet Ertegun award winner. We thought that it was overdue that he should be recognized, so the committee decided he should be the only one this year.

I assume the special category recipients are selected after you know who the performer inductees are.

For the most part it’s an independent decision but in the case of certain artists, like Kraftwerk and LL Cool J, where we see their incredible contributions as performers – and they’ve been nominated multiple times [as performers], we decided they should be recognized for their musical influence.


Is it fair to say that if LL had been voted in as a performer – he was nominated again this year – he wouldn’t be receiving the award for musical excellence?

LL has been nominated [as a performer] six times. That [award for musical excellence] special committee includes Darryl McDaniels, who is part of Run-D.M.C., which is in the Hall of Fame [class of 2009]. He felt strongly it was time to recognize the incredible contributions of LL Cool J. Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine is also on that committee. It was unanimous that LL should be inducted.

It feels a little like a consolation prize, like when Ringo received the same award [in 2015] after never making it in as a performer.

Not at all. We have a matrix of committees just to make sure we don’t miss someone who’s important. It’s not just Ringo, it’s not just LL. Billy Preston is receiving the same award this year. He had a solo career besides playing with a lot of other artists. He had some big hit records as a solo artist too [two No. 1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100]. Leon Russell received that award [in 2011]. So did Nile Rodgers [in 2017.]

There are different ways to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It’s the same plaque on the wall. The fan walks into Cleveland and looks at that wall – it’s the same exact honor. It’s the same exact statue that the performer gets. Every single one of these inductees has been vetted and discussed and unanimously supported to go into the Hall of Fame.

LL had such an impact. I was at MTV when he was changing the game. I would hate for anyone to think this was a consolation prize.

What’s exciting now is that we’re seeing new forms of music emerging to be eligible. That’s what I’m so excited about, taking over for Jann [Wenner] who did an amazing job the first 35 years, to help navigate where the Hall is going to go in the next decade. I’m excited to see the next great era of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the artists that we’re going to honor.


You mentioned rap, hip-hop, R&B and rock, but you didn’t mention country. Where does country fit into the new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Garth Brooks, Kenny Chesney and Keith Urban play arenas with the energy and theatricality of a rock and roll show. Can you see somebody like Garth being inducted?

Absolutely, in the same way Johnny Cash was inducted [in 1992] because of his impact on youth culture.

No country artists were nominated this year. It doesn’t seem to be as top-of-mind with your nominating committee as other genres.

I agree with you 100% that country is a vibrant [scene] and has never before been so young as it is today. We’re absolutely looking at young artists that have made country records, and you just named three of them that clearly could be considered. There’s no rule about any genre. A few years ago, it was clear that rock and roll was not only a genre, but a state of mind and an attitude, and that’s exactly where we want it to go. All artists are welcome to be considered and nominated and I’m sure some will be inducted. All genres are welcome.


Have you toyed with the idea of changing the name to reflect the Hall’s new broader outlook or is the name too well established?

I think because the Hall has naturally evolved because of the nominating committee and the emergence of new forms of music that it kind of evolves into that. There’s no reason to flip a light switch and change the name. Our behavior will define the name. The artists we induct will define the name.