It was a few minutes past midnight when Missy Elliott stepped up to the podium at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center and cemented her place in history as the first female hip-hop artist to enter the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She’d spent the past four hours witnessing speeches and performances from acts across the vast spectrum of rock, including Willie Nelson, Sheryl Crow, Elton John, Stevie Nicks, and Olivia Rodrigo. Near the end of her speech, tears started to flow as the gravity of the moment hit her seemingly all at once.
“This is the 50th anniversary of hip-hop,” she said, looking out at Ice-T, Flavor Flav, Queen Latifah, Sandra “Pepa” Denton, DJ Kool Herc, and other rap pioneers. “This is deeper than just me being up here. You feel like it’s so far to reach when you’re in the hip-hop world. To be standing here means so much to me … All the inductees, you’re so amazing. I’m honored to be even in the room with you all.”
It was the emotional high point of an evening that threw a lot of obstacles at organizers due to a large number of inductees that are no longer alive (George Michael, Link Wray, Don Cornelius, most of the Spinners), but also the decision of Kate Bush and 75 percent of Rage Against the Machine to not show up. In years past, this would have led to a somewhat lifeless ceremony. But the Hall of Fame has become quite adept at bringing in surprise A-list guests to guarantee a killer show regardless of which members of the new class decide to show up.
The show, which streamed live on Disney Plus and will air on ABC in edited form on New Year’s Day, kicked off with Sheryl Crow, a longtime Hall of Fame special guest who was finally getting in herself. She brought out Olivia Rodrigo for a joyous “If It Makes You Happy”; Stevie Nicks for a tender, acoustic “Strong Enough”; and Peter Frampton for a guitar-driven “Everyday Is a Winding Road.” (Frampton was a good sport to show up considering he has yet to be inducted despite decades of eligibility.)
Crow was inducted by actress Laura Dern. “I have the privilege to pay tribute to a legendary artist, poet, activist, friend, mother, daughter, and all-around badass/goddess/rock star,” Dern said. “From teacher to backup singer, this hardest-working woman I know continued to evolve into the profound artist, multi-instrumentalist, and producer we love.”
“This is a little bit like getting an Oscar for a screenplay you haven’t finished writing yet,” Crow said during her acceptance speech. “But for me, it’s just a huge thrill. And it’s a huge honor to be inducted alongside one of the people I admire most on the planet, and that’s Willie Nelson … I could not have dreamed my life when I was growing up.”
LL Cool J, who entered the Hall of Fame back in 2021, came out next to induct DJ Kool Herc. He may not have been one of the most famous inductees this year, but he’s inarguably one of the most important due to his role as one of hip-hop’s true originators. “He’s been justly called the father of hip-hop,” LL said. “He had his hand in every aspect of hip-hop that would eventually take over the globe.”
Herc was helped onstage by his sister, Cindy Campbell. She threw the legendary Bronx party back in 1973 that is seen today as the Big Bang of rap. Herc is a little frail these days, so LL and Campbell held him up as he delivered his speech to a thunderous ovation. “There are tears in my eyes,” he said. “I’m sorry.” It took him a bit to compose himself, but he wound up praising James Brown, Marcus Garvey, Harry Belafonte, and his other heroes. Few Hall of Fame inductees have ever seemed quite so overwhelmed with gratitude during their big moment.
Chaka Khan held her composure after accepting the Musical Excellence award from Jazmine Sullivan, but she must have been quite relieved to finally have this night after watching voters reject her time and again over much of the past decade. In a move of deep generosity, she devoted nearly all of her speech to praising Sullivan, and honoring her former Rufus bandmates.
She even brought out Rufus guitarist Tony Maiden to personally thank him for the role he played in her career. “We wrote great songs together,” she said. “Without him and the band Rufus, I would not be where I am today.” (Prior to her speech, she performed a mega medley of hits that included “I Feel for You” with Common, “Ain’t Nobody,” “Sweet Thing” with H.E.R., and “I’m Every Woman” with Sia.)
It’s hard to believe that George Michael is only now entering the Hall of Fame after nearly 15 years of eligibility. His Wham! partner Andrew Ridgeley was in the house to deliver a speech, and accept the award on his behalf. “George was one of the greatest singers of his time,” he said. “His voice was sublime. It expressed both strength and vulnerability, qualities that resonate throughout his outstanding songwriting. It was the expression of his soul. It had the power to send one soaring with its joy, and to make one weep with its pain.”
Michael is a very difficult artist to cover since his vocal delivery was so powerful and distinct, but Miguel delivered a stunning cover of “Careless Whisper” with help from E Street Band sax player Jake Clemons. Adam Levine followed it up by tackling “Faith,” before Carrie Underwood wrapped things up by finding the country song hidden in Michael’s 1988 hit “One More Try.”
The current touring incarnation of the Spinners doesn’t feature a single member that joined prior to 2009, so the Hall of Fame made the wise choice to bring in New Edition to perform “I’ll Be Around,” “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love,” and “The Rubberband Man.” All six members of the group seemed thrilled to have the opportunity to honor their heroes. And surviving O.G. Spinners Henry Fambrough and John Edwards delivered brief remarks via video.
Near the end of New Edition’s performance, the stage morphed into the Soul Train set, and dancers in Seventies costumes emerged from the wings. It was the beginning of the Don Cornelius segment. A video package explained the immense impact that Soul Train had on the culture with testimonials from Questlove, Lionel Richie, Snoop Dogg, and Chaka Khan.
Up until a few hours before doors opened at the Barclays Center, Kate Bush fans were still hoping she’d make a surprise appearance, and possibly even perform. Then she released a letter saying that wasn’t going to happen. “Music is at the core of who I am and, like all musicians, being on the journey of trying to create something musically interesting is rife with feelings of doubt and insecurity,” she wrote. “I’m only five foot three, but today I feel a little taller.”
Longtime Kate Bush super-fan Big Boi delivered her induction speech. “I fell in love with Kate Bush when I was in middle school,” he said. “My uncle turned me on to her and l listened to ‘Running Up That Hill’ every morning as I rode to school on my bike. I was that kid from Stranger Things.” That Netflix show gave Bush an entirely new audience and sent “Running Up That Hill” flying up the charts. St. Vincent accepted the virtually impossible job of covering the song, and somehow pulled it off.
Al Kooper’s induction was handled by a brief video montage of his career highlights, including the formation of Blood, Sweat, and Tears and his discovery of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and a virtual speech where he thanked Mike Bloomfield and Bob Dylan producer Tom Wilson for the key roles they played in his early career. “I’m honored and amazed and thankful that this has happened to me in my lifetime,” he said. “It’s staggering to be in any Hall of Fame.”
Willie Nelson was likely deemed “too country” by past Hall of Fame nominating committees, but his induction felt like just a matter of time after Dolly Parton was welcomed in last year. His segment opened with Dave Matthews playing his 1961 classic “Funny How Time Slips Away” on acoustic guitar, and a speech where the singer fondly remembered getting incredibly stoned with him on his touring bus. On a more serious note, Matthews thanked Nelson for his tireless work as a member of the Farm Aid board.
During his brief speech, Nelson looked back on his work with his country supergroup the Highwaymen, and urged the Hall of Fame to accept them all. “Now that Johnny [Cash] and I have been inducted,” he said, “I want to give a plug for Waylon [Jennings], who played with Buddy Holly, and Kris [Kristofferson], who sang so many hits, to be inducted too.” He then sang “Whiskey River” with Chris Stapleton, “Crazy” with Sheryl Crow, and “On the Road Again” with both of them along with Dave Matthews.
The biggest surprise of the night came when the Link Wray tribute video ended, the lights turned back on, and Jimmy Page appeared out of nowhere on the stage, guitar in hand. This wasn’t even rumored in the buildup to the show, and the Led Zeppelin guitarist has only played in public a handful of times over the past decade. But he wanted to pay his respects to his earliest guitar hero by playing his 1958 instrumental classic “Rumble.”
Even Elton John seemed a little stunned to see Page on the stage, and he blew him a kiss when he walked on to induct Bernie Taupin, his songwriting partner of the past six decades. “We climbed mountains we thought were never possible to climb,” John said. “And we scaled heights we never thought were possible to scale. Throughout that time, we never, ever really had an argument. He was disgusted with my behavior, yes, but that’s a given.”
He then dropped some genuine news: “We just finished an album in Los Angeles about three days ago,” John said, “which is going to surprise the shit out of you. It’s absolutely wonderful, and it’s full of youth and full of vitality. It’s a wonderful place to be after we’ve been together for 56 years to have that incredible bond.”
In his acceptance speech, Taupin was the only artist of the night to reference Jann Wenner’s comments about women and Black artists to the New York Times in September that caused the Hall of Fame to remove him from the board a day after the article hit. “I’m honored to be in the class of 2023, alongside such a group of profoundly articulate women,” he said, “and outstanding articulate Black artists.” When he was done, John sat at the piano and performed a solo rendition of “Tiny Dancer” that had the entire arena singing along.
The annual in-memoriam montage featured a large number of Hall of Fame inductees, including Tina Turner, David Crosby, Jeff Beck, Gary Rossington, Seymour Stein, and Robbie Robertson. At the conclusion, Elton John, Sheryl Crow, Chris Stapleton, and Brittany Howard joined forces to play a moving version of the Band’s “The Weight” in tribute to Robertson.
The biggest mystery of the night involved Rage Against the Machine. Guitarist Tom Morello sits on the Nominating Committee, and was very public with his hopes that Rage would enter this year. But nobody knew if frontman Zack de la Rocha, bassist Tim Commerford, or drummer Brad Wilk would show up, let alone perform. Hopes were raised slightly the other week when de la Rocha guested with Run the Jewels at a Los Angeles show. But when Ice-T finished his induction speech, Morello walked onstage by himself.
“Like most bands, we have differing perspectives on many things,” he said, “including about being inducted into the Rock Hall. My perspective is that tonight is a great opportunity to celebrate the music and mission of the band, to celebrate the fifth member of the band, which is Rage Against the Machine’s incredible fans.” [Translation: The other three guys had no interest in showing up to this thing.] There was no attempt by Morello or anyone else to play a Rage song even though Prophets of Rage co-frontman Chuck D was in the house. As Rage proved on their brief 2022 reunion tour, nobody plays Rage like Rage. Let’s hope they finish that tour at some point.
They saved Missy Elliott for the very end. Her longtime friend Queen Latifah gave the speech. “She is a true visionary,” she said. “Entire generations of artists owe a debt to Missy. She’s never been afraid to speak out about the misconceptions, the stereotypes, and the straight up misogyny that has been placed, and the obstacles that have been placed, in the way of women. She has been a leader in blowing those obstacles away.”
Prior to her acceptance speech, Elliott staged a bombastic medley of “Get Ur Freak On,” “The Rain,” “Work It,” “Pass That Dutch,” and “Lose Control” with an army of dancers dressed in gold. There’s never been anything quite like it in the history of the Hall of Fame, and it sets the bar very high for all future hip-hop artists that enter the Rock Hall. (Let’s hope that Salt-N-Pepa are given a chance next year.)
The night traditionally wraps up with an all-star jam, and Jimmy Page could have brought most everyone back out for a Led Zeppelin song or two, but that didn’t happen. That means we’ll never get to see New Edition, Willie Nelson, Elton John, and Missy Elliott performing “Whole Lotta Love” or “Stairway to Heaven.” But could anything really have topped “Get Ur Freak On?” Probably not. The night belonged to Missy. It’s only fair she was allowed to close it out.