DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince In Chicago
DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince are interviewed at Hotel 21 East in Chicago, Illinois in October 1989.
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Music Sermon: Hip-Hop Vs. The Grammys: 30 Years of Fighting The Power

Rap’s relationship with the Grammys started with a boycott when the Best Rap Song category was introduced 30 years ago, and it’s been rocky ever since.

Hip-hop and the Grammys have beef. The genre has always been marginalized by the Recording Academy, even as it grew into a superpower. This year, Kendrick Lamar, Drake, and Childish Gambino have reportedly refused to perform, and there are questions whether other luminaries will even attend - the show is no longer a can’t miss. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this has been an ongoing issue for three decades. Rap’s relationship with the Grammys started with a boycott the very first year the Best Rap Song category was introduced 30 years ago, and it’s been rocky ever since.

The year of 1988 was seminal for hip-hop. To those paying attention, the genre was proving its commercial viability through platinum albums and successful tours (even though the tours would soon face a moratorium due to increased violence). It was the year of multiple foundational releases for the young genre, including N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton, Run-DMC’s Tougher Than Leather, Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Eric B. & Rakim’s Follow the Leader, and Slick Rick’s The Adventures of Slick Rick. It was also the year hip-hop reached beyond the streets and into living rooms across the country with the premiere of Yo! MTV Raps. At the end of such a formative year, it felt appropriate – and triumphant – when National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) announced a new category for the 1989 Grammy Awards: Best Rap Song. Nominated acts DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince (“Parents Just Don’t Understand”), Salt-N-Pepa (“Push It”), LL Cool J (“Goin’ Back to Cali”), J.J. Fad (“Supersonic”) and Kool Moe Dee (“Wild Wild West”) celebrated along with hip-hop at large. It was a signal that the music business was finally recognizing rap as a real genre, not just rabble-rousers playing with beats.

Then, at the top of ’89, the academy pulled the rug out from under them and revealed that the Rap award would be part of the evening’s earlier, non-televised ceremony (the majority of the Grammys current 84 awards are handed out then; only 12 awards are usually presented in the telecast). Most of the acts were furious. DJ Jazzy Jeff still remembers his reaction. “(We were told) they aren’t going to televise the category. What do you mean you’re not going to televise it?” Jeff said in a recent interview with VIBE. “That sh*t don’t make sense. How you not going to televise it?”

Def Jam was always in the forefront of the fight for hip-hop’s proper positioning and recognition in the early years, with Bill Adler, head of Rush Management and Def Jam’s publicity departments, as strategist and voice. For example, in a note to The Today Show pitching future bookings of their artists after Will and Jeff appeared on the show, Adler argued, “However exotic they might seem to the rest of us, acts like Run-DMC, LL Cool J, Eric B. and Rakim, Public Enemy, and EMPD are the Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, James Brown, Bob Dylan, and Joe Tex of the day… They are ‘the sound of young America.’”

LL, Will, and Jeff were Def Jam and Rush artists, so Adler and Russell Simmons planned to go on the offensive. If the Grammys weren’t going give rap the look it deserved, the Grammys could kiss rap’s ass.

In February, Def Jam and Rush announced a collective Grammys boycott. Salt-N-Pepa agreed to join with LL, Will and Jeff. "It's not just a threat," Adler said in his press release. "If they're not going to put us on, we're not going to attend. We think rap is important to contemporary music and rock 'n' roll, and obviously, they disagree with us." At the time, Grammys producer Pierre Cossette responded, citing “arithmetic” as the issue. “When you have 76 Grammy categories and you only have time to put 12 on air, you’ve got 64 unhappy groups of people.” He pointed at an offer for Will and Jeff to do a performance or presentation as their solution to include rap. “It’s not like we don’t want them on the show.”

J.J. Fad and Kool Moe Dee opted to attend, and Moe also accepted the presenting slot that Will and Jeff declined. J.J. Fad member Juanita Burns-Sperling has said the group didn’t want to skip what might have been their only chance to attend the Grammys. (She was right: J.J. Fad was the only act of all the groups to not have future nominations and wins.) But if she could make the choice again, she’d have done differently. “If I had known then what I know now, I definitely would have agreed to the boycott. We were so young. We didn’t know about politics or making a statement.”

Meanwhile, Moe did almost as much press as Will and Jeff. He was older in the game, and engaged in one of rap’s earliest and most storied beefs with LL. During his presenting slot, Moe spit some unifying few bars on behalf of his fellow nominees and hip-hop:

On behalf of all emcees
My co-workers and fellow nominees
Jazzy Jeff, J.J. Fad
Salt-n-Pepa and the boy who’s bad
We personify power and a drug free mind
And we express ourselves through rhythm and rhyme
So I think the time that the whole world knows
Rap is here to say – drummer, let’s go!

But in interviews and backstage at the awards, he separated himself from his peers, expressed his clear disapproval, and used the opportunity to take shots at Rush and LL. “One management company started (the boycott) and went to the papers and figured all the rappers would follow,” Moe said to the LA Times after the awards. “It was wrong, they were trying to turn it into a race thing.” Race was never a point in the boycott messaging. “I felt it was a negative move not to come to the Grammys. Like crying over spilled milk.” In a 2014 blog post about the boycott, Adler recounts Moe telling the Los Angeles Herald, “This wasn’t a real boycott. It was just one management company I’m not going to mention. The boycotting rappers didn’t even know what their statement was supposed to be. I asked LL Cool J and he didn’t even know what he was supposed to say. People can get turned off by little stuff like that, but it turned out ok for me.” Again, Moe and LL basically loathed each other at this point, and LL told Adler they never spoke. Adler quoted additional interviews where Moe blamed the decision not to air the award in part on hip-hop itself. “We don’t all wear gold and sneakers and I don’t like the image that’s been created. Like when LL Cool J grabbed himself at the American Music Awards when he was giving an award to Al B. Sure. That’s the kind of negative image all rappers have and I want to change that.” Respectability politics much, Moe?

Despite Kool Moe Dee’s stance (and possible hate), it was a real boycott, and it was more than just not showing up at the show. On the day of the awards – possibly at the same time as the early ceremony – Will, Jeff, Russell, Lyor Cohen and Adler were joined by Salt-N-Pepa, Kid ‘n Play, and Def Jam artists including Slick Rick, Chuck D and Flava Flav for a live press conference in L.A. Will compared the on-air snub to not being allowed to walk at your graduation.

Many outlets picked up the story after the awards, but the strongest support and solidarity in the moment came from MTV. Specifically, Yo! MTV Raps. “It’s not like there were fifty camera crews who came to see what we were talking about,” Adler expressed in VH1’s Yo! documentary. “But Yo! MTV Raps was there.”

MTV partnered with Rush to throw the biggest Grammy after party – or alterna-party - of the night, using footage for a special episode of the show. The event was flooded not only with everyone in hip-hop, but unexpected supporters like Little Richard (who is always on board in a fight for proper acknowledgment) and Malcolm Forbes. Yes, that Forbes. Oh, and Moe came, of course.

In 2016, Moe still maintained that attending would have been a better play. “The irony was, we were boycotting at a time that they were finally acknowledging us,” he said. “A much better strategy — and a much bigger hip-hop move — would have been for everybody to go to the Grammys and make our case in that space where the world was watching.” The flaw in this argument is, of course, that the world wasn’t watching. Because it wasn’t televised. Which is why they were boycotting in the first place. But Moe is an elder, elder statesmen so we’ll let him rock.

Jeff says there was no strategy; it was a decision based on pride. “It wasn’t like we were on some Malcolm X sh*t…We were fighting for legitimacy,” he told VIBE. Mainstream music and journalism were still not convinced hip-hop had staying power, and relegated the genre to the sidelines even as it was proving massively successful. “We didn’t even think about the impact of (the boycott). It was kind of like okay, you’re not doing it, Salt-N-Pepa’s not doing it, Kid 'n Play is not doing it. Oh my god, they want to interview us. We say we don’t think it’s fair…it goes all over the media…then the next year (the Recording Academy is) like hip-hop is too big for us to ignore. I am not going to sit here and act like that was the plan. It was right is right, wrong is wrong. That was wrong and we wasn’t down with that.”


The Grammys did air the Best Rap Song category the following year, but hip-hop’s issues with both the awards and the show’s production haven’t gone away.

Some of rap’s most important artists have never won a Grammy: Nas, Snoop, BIG, N.W.A, A Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy, 2Pac, Ice Cube...none. A Best Rap Album category wasn’t added until 1996 – the argument up to that point was that it was a singles-based genre. And the Grammys have continued to shaft hip-hop in the four big General categories.

In 30 years, a rap album has only won the coveted Album of the Year award twice: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in 1999 (and that album is characterized as R&B by the Grammys so it only half-counts), and Outkast’s Speakerboxx/The Love Below in 2004.

No rap song has taken home Song of the Year or Record of the Year, and only four rap acts have won Best New Artist: Arrested Development in 1993, Lauryn Hill in 1999 (and again, the academy doesn’t consider her rap), Macklemore & Ryan Lewis in 2014 (which was a mess, but we’ll get to that), and Chance the Rapper in 2017.

Rap has become the most dominant genre in music – which, by definition, means it’s pop – yet Grammy voters can’t quite get a grasp on it. Music critic Jon Caramanica wrote in 2017 (a year that two of hip-hop’s most nominated artists, Kanye West and Jay-Z, opted out of the awards), “The hip-hop and R&B categories tend to misread the genres they aim to celebrate, favoring the established over the insurgent, the legible over the provocative (and also, when possible, white artists over black).”

Some notable snubs, to Caramonica’s point, include Kanye losing Album of the Year to Herbie Hancock - whom we love and respect, but in 2008? Come on, fam. Eminem lost AOTY to Steely Dan in 2001. Again, Steely Dan are legends, but in the new millennium? The Fugees lost to Celine Dion in 1997 (I’m not quite so mad at that one). 50 Cent lost Best New Artist to Evanescence in 2004, and promptly crashed their acceptance speech in low-key protest.

In 2014 all hell broke loose when Macklemore and Ryan Lewis won three out of four Rap categories over Kendrick Lamar. The backlash was so bad, in 2015 the Grammys left rap out of the televised awards for the first time since including it in ’90, possibly in fear of Iggy Azalea sweeping as well. Macklemore was even compelled to text Kendrick after the show to apologize.

Then there’s the tendency for the academy to vote on the safest and/or most pop-leaning choice. Arrested Development swept the rap categories against contenders including The Chronic in 1993, and Young MC’s “Bust A Move” beat out “Fight the Power” and “Me Myself and I” in 1990.

The awards have not been able to adapt to the increasingly rapid evolution of the music business overall, nor have they adapted to the expansion of hip-hop as a genre. Pop, Rock and R&B have all had categories added over the years to recognize a wider range in the genres - Best Traditional Pop Album (added after Tony Bennett’s MTV Unplugged album took home AOTY in 1995 and everyone collectively asked WTF), Best Metal Performance in Rock, and Best Urban Contemporary Album in R&B. Conversely, the Rap categories have shrunk from five to four –Best Performance by Duo or Group was retired in 2012.

NARAS has made efforts to modernize. In 2016, eligibility rules were updated to allow songs and albums that have only been released via paid streaming services. Changes to the voting process allowing online voting in 2017 increased engagement and participation with younger members, and perhaps as a result, there were no white men in last year’s Album of the Year category for the first time since 1999. But even with Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino nominated, the award went to Bruno Mars. This year, nominees in the big four categories are expanded from five acts to eight. More representation in nominations is great, but when it continuously fails to translate into wins, it’s still insulting. Maybe more so.

Now the telecast faces the challenge of major artists opting once again to just not show up since they don’t feel valued, which leaves the performances lacking in star power and diversity, which leads to declining ratings. Over the years, Jay has been a repeat no-show, Drake has scheduled tour dates during the awards, Kanye at one point said he wasn’t coming back until they fixed the voting (he’s been back). This year, Drake and Kendrick, both nominated for AOTY and SOTY, declined performance offers. So did Childish Gambino, who’s nominated for ROTY and SOTY. Now, the question is whether they’ll show up at all.

“The fact of the matter is, we continue to have a problem with hip-hop,” longtime producer Ken Ehrlich told the New York Times this week. “When they don’t take home the big prize, the regard of the academy, and what the Grammys represent, continues to be less meaningful to the hip-hop community, which is sad.”

Unfortunately, Will and Jeff’s sentiments from their press conference on Grammy day in 1989 still represent hip-hop’s relationship with the Grammys, now just in a different way. “We sell plenty of albums, we’re making an impact, and we think we’re being denied what is rightfully ours.”

#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the '90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.

additional reporting by Stacy-Ann Ellis

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Music Sermon: The Divinity Of Luther Vandross

“There are voices in this world and once they sing, it’s a stamp on everybody.” Bravo producer and personality Andy Cohen was asking Patti Labelle about her dear friend Luther Vandross on talk show Watch What Happens Live. “Luther’s done that.”

Luther Ronzoni Vandross, Jr. was the preeminent urban pop singer; the essence of ‘80s quiet storm R&B. He was called “the velvet voice” and “the Black Pavarotti,” but there’s not really a male predecessor he compares to because he didn’t pattern himself after the soul men like Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, or Teddy Pendergrass. He studied the divas. Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and Patti Labelle were the voices that fascinated and inspired a young Luther. Seeing Dionne Warwick live at the Brooklyn Fox Theater made him realize he wanted to sing. “She came on stage and just killed me; the music was more serious, the song value was more serious. 'Anyone Who Has a Heart' was a masterpiece,” he told The Washington Post. “I decided at that point that I wanted to do something in music."

The difference informs the distinction between him and most other men of R&B. Luther sang from a softer space, topically and tonally. He usually sang from a gentle, easy place. Not urgent. Not aggressive. Never suggestive. His first greatest hits compilation was titled The Best of Luther, The Best of Love because his entire catalog was love. Romantic and devoted love, not sex or lust. Adoration. And while his voice is appreciated–he’s featured on every greatest vocalist list of note–the full range and depth of Luther’s vocal craftsmanship are not. He was a writer, producer, and one of the greatest vocal manipulators in the game, as well-known and sought-after from early in his career for his vocal arrangements as his singing. The New York Times once described Luther as having an “obsession with the human voice, bordering on clinical.” Some people’s gifts are leagues beyond the old talent-plus-preparation-equals-opportunity equation. Some are truly called, anointed even. Luther was divinely appointed.

The world was officially introduced to Luther in 1981, but he was already an established singer’s singer on the professional circuit. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, teenaged Luther was part of youth performing arts group sponsored by the Apollo Theater called Listen My Brother. Their music was largely social commentary, and they performed in and around New York, including on the very first episode of Sesame Street.

In 1974, Luther accidentally landed a gig as a background singer and arranger for David Bowie. He visiting a friend in Bowie’s band at the studio, and talking about an idea to improve the hook for “Young Americans,” unaware that the singer was standing within earshot. Bowie loved the idea, hired Luther, and quickly became a champion for the young singer’s budding career. Luther handled vocal arrangements for the entire Young Americans album, and additionally wrote the album cut “Infatuation.” He also performed a 45-minute opening set of his own material each night on tour, at Bowie’s insistence.

Luther’s singing here on the far left.

Bowie then introduced the crooner to Bette Midler, who took him on tour, and Luther’s career as an in-demand background singer and arranger was underway. His study of great female vocalists helped him develop an ear that set him apart. “One of the contexts you have to understand was that the background singing has always been a female-dominated area,” Luther explained in an early interview. “I was bringing stuff on my own to the sessions that was kind of unique in terms of how to do background vocals. And later I learned never to give away anything you can sell, so I started charging for this extra bit of approach, which was fine, because by this time everyone wanted it so bad that they were willing to pay for it.”

Over the years, Luther sang with Carley Simon, Chic (“Everybody Dance”), Average White Band, Chaka Khan, and Roberta Flack, who chided him for getting too comfortable as a background singer and encouraged him to finally put a demo together. Due to his own intimate relationship with excellence in backing vocals, Luther was famously known to always use the top talent in the business for his albums. A read through the personnel of his catalogue will reveal names including Cissy Houston, James Ingram, Darlene Love, Tawatha Agee (lead singer of Mtume), premiere professional backing vocalists like Fonzi Thornton, and Lisa Fischer, who Luther pushed to get out of her comfort zone and record as Flack did with him.

During a recording session for Quincy Jones, Luther was introduced to a commercial producer, who then helped him break into the jingle-writing business. He’s always been credited with his ability to write an infectious hook–that talent was honed with jingles.

Before Luther took the solo leap, he tried the group route. He briefly had a deal as part of a group called, appropriately, Luther. They recorded two albums, but neither made any noise. Then, he joined disco group Change as their frontman and had two hits, including one of my favorite mood-boosting, make everything right anthems.

Luther had a little money in his pocket from commercials and background singing, and from writing and producing a song for the Broadway musical-turned-major motion picture The Wiz.

Oh, you didn’t know Luther wrote “A Brand New Day (Everybody Rejoice)”?

He had the means to record and produce his demo himself, and assembled what became his career dream team. While in the group Listen My Brother, Luther met pianist Nat Adderly, Jr., son of jazz trumpeter Nat Adderley and nephew of saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley. As a session singer, he met bassist Marcus Miller and recommended him to Gladys Knight, and the two bonded while on tour. He recruited them both to put together the songs that eventually became Never Too Much, and they were key contributing architects to Luther’s signature sound.

Miller is responsible for those slappin’ basslines that were prevalent in Luther’s early work, and for most of Luther’s uptempo cuts. “I never had any official responsibilities with Luther because we used to just work,“ Marcus shared in an interview, “but I felt like one of my (unspoken) responsibilities was to make sure Luther had tracks on his album that could be played on the radio during the day time.”

Adderley’s genius came through in Luther’s trademark covers. In Luther’s case, “remake” is a more apt description than “cover,” because he and Nat would take the original songs apart, stretch them out, invert them, slow parts down, add sections, reverse some sh*t… it was a whole different composition when they were done. The lush string and woodwind arrangements in Luther ballads are Nat’s handiwork. Incredible piano flourishes and solos, also Nat.

When both Miller and Adderley worked on the track, magic ensued, starting with Luther’s forever-a-bop solo debut “Never Too Much.” Coming out of the funk band driven ‘70s landscape, labels were doubtful of Luther’s smooth solo style. Epic finally took a chance, and it hit just as popular urban music went through its next evolution, which happened to be right in Luther’s sonic pocket.

“Luther, Marcus Miller and I had a real musical connection,” Nat has said. “We saw stuff the same way. We thought of things in the same way. When we came together, we really learned about each other and fed off of each other.”

Luther knew who he was as a singer and an artist. He wrote and produced the majority of his early material, and continued to co-write and co-produce through most of his career. He was clear on what worked for him both vocally and formulaically. Marcus Miller shared, “One of the things I used to hear him say was ‘I don’t need to compete with any other singers. Other singers sing hard, high, and with a lot of riffs. That’s not me. That’s not my thing. I’m just going to style these people to death.’” And he styled us to death, honey. Luther was the king of melisma and dramatic effect, but without oversinging. Where most vocalists would build towards a climax in the song, Luther’s structure was often reversed. He’d start easy, build during the middle, and come back to a soft, light, but emotional close.

This careful, deliberate singing was part of his genius. There’s a reason Black folks yell “Take your time,” to soloists when they’re in their bag–mastery isn’t rushed.

As I mentioned before, Luther was also a transformative cover artist. Would straight Deebo your song – that was his song, now. And artists didn’t even mind, because he elevated it so incredibly. Some of Luther’s biggest hits are covers: “Superstar/Until You Come Back to Me” (The Carpenters and Aretha Franklin), “Anyone Who Had a Heart” (Dionne Warwick), “Since I Lost My Baby” (The Temptations), “Bad Boy/Having a Party” (an interpolation of Sam Cooke’s “Having a Party”), “If Only for One Night” (Brenda Russell), “Creepin’” (Stevie Wonder). He was a repeat offender with Dionne Warwick’s material from Burt Bacharach and Hal David, jacking not just “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” the song that blew him away at a young age, but also “A House is Not a Home”–on the same album. And she didn’t even care, look at her.

Luther’s capabilities as Mr. Steal-Your-Song also translated to his strength as a duet partner. He knew how to blend voices so perfectly, he was outstanding when paired with another strong vocalist. Luther produced Cheryl Lynn’s 1982 album Instant Love, and took the opportunity to use a Tammi and Marvin classic to showcase the singer’s strength beyond uptempo dance hits.

One of my favorite Luther duets and covers is an album cut with the tragically uncelebrated Martha Wash. Their version of the torch song standard “I Who Have Nothing,” is a little heavy on production in some places, especially the early ‘90s R&B sax, but their voices are perfect together. And the breakdown at the end? Whew. All the feels. All of them.

But Luther could also do very sweet and simple arrangements, like his duet with Gregory Hines. This song always makes me wish Gregory had done more professional singing after he left musical theater.

Don’t get it twisted, though, Luther specialized in controlled vocals, but he could act a fool when he wanted to. Especially when playing off the energy of another singer, like his dear friend and my favorite Auntie, queen of extra just because she can, Patti Labelle.

Jenifer Holliday and Luther messed around and pushed poor Paul Simon out of his own damn song.

Luther was a balladeer of elite caliber, but he’ll also get an uptempo jumpin’, literally. When Aretha’s career was in a lengthy lull and facing the challenges of a new musical era, Clive Davis called Luther to write and produce for her. Luther, who once called himself an "Arethacologist," was thrilled to work with one of his biggest idols and inspirations. But Luther was a very exacting producer; he would tell vocalists specifically what and how to sing. Auntie Re wasn’t playing that at first, and even stormed out of the studio at one point, but the end result was her biggest hit in seven years.

Luther himself has several cookout and red cup party classics. Tunes that me, you, your mama and your cousin can dance to. That’s part of the beauty in Luther’s music; there’s no content too mature–or too immature–for anyone. While recalling Luther, Marcus Miller remarked, “There is no greater feeling in the world than walking down the street in New York City and hearing a Luther song blasting in the street.” I can personally confirm, as someone who’s heard Luther blasting while in these New York City streets.

What I don’t believe is acknowledged enough is Luther’s longevity. A 20-year career is a rare feat for any artist, but especially for a core R&B singer who started in the ‘80s. Luther did have pop hits–“Here and Now” was one of the biggest wedding songs of the ‘90s–but he was always a core R&B artist, and always stayed on brand and on topic. He was somewhat inactive in the latter ‘90s after ending his contract with Epic Records; he released one album with Virgin records in 1996, but it’s not usually included in his definitive material. Whispers and speculation about his health began, as he’d spent much of the ‘90s going up and down dramatically with his weight. But he made a fierce return in the early aughts. His final two albums, with Clive Davis’ J. Records, were two of the biggest in his career, with material that was relevant and contemporary without sounding contrived.

This song makes me want to put on some white linen and go on somebody’s boat ride.

As secure as Luther had always been in his artistry, he still felt overlooked as a writer and producer and longed for critical recognition beyond R&B. Out of 33 career Grammy nominations with eight wins, only two were in the Pop category. It wasn’t until his final album, 2003’s Dance With my Father, that Luther earned the elusive Song of the Year nomination and subsequent win he’d been longing for, for the album’s title track. But he also suffered a debilitating stroke in April 2003, before the project’s release. Since he was unable to shoot a video, artists who loved him stepped in with their children or parents as a tribute. Warning: this video may cause severe allergy flareups.

I have no doubt that barring health issues, Luther would at minimum still be touring. He was one of the most thorough live performers I’ve ever seen, with production simple enough to keep the vocals as the centerpiece, but extra enough so you were visually entertained as well (lots of sequins). Luther was touring in 2003 until his stroke (do yourself a favor and listen to his Live at Radio City Music Hall album, his last live appearance), and was scheduled to perform at Essence Festival that year. Can you imagine Luther at Essence Fest?

When news of Luther’s death broke, my mother and I–both huge fans–were driving to a family reunion, and we played and sang along to his music for about four states. I still play Luther when I need a boost, or when I want to burrow deep down into my feelings. When I want to go into chill mode, or when I want to dance around the house. Luther is all-purpose. He is all-emotion. He is everything. He was a gift.


#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the '90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.

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Issa Vibe: The Best Songs To Fit Your Different 4/20 Sessions

April 20th isn’t a national holiday, but it might as well be.

Although recreational marijuana use is only legal in 10 states, the U.S. is home to approximately 35 million regular users of cannabis, according to a survey done by Yahoo News and Marist University. That's 10.6 percent of the American population and while that may seem minuscule, the numbers are growing daily and it's understandable.

Weed has now become a staple of American culture; it's become a legitimate business in the states where it's legal, it's now part of the way people socialize, and better yet it's a theme in some of the hottest music out today. "Kush" has been included in some of the hardest verses that millennials and generation-z kids have heard in their lifetime.

Wiz Khalifa and Snoop Dogg, amazing emcees in their own right, are also widely known for their love of the green plant. Wiz's biggest album, Rolling Papers is clearly influenced by weed and along with the Snoop Dogg-assisted "Young, Wild & Free" is all about that green positivity.

There's an endless list of hits about rolling up a joint, hitting it and passing it, but what about moods? Whether it's a bowl, a blunt or an edible weed, can leave people feeling a variety of ways and that all can be traced to a certain strand of weed someone's inhaling, or the mood they're already.

Regardless, it's important to be prepared and have music ready to match whatever feelings marijuana concocts; and that's why VIBE compiled an adequate list of songs for each of the main pot moods.

So on this 4/20, sit back, relax, smoke and find the songs that suit the vibe.


The "Let Me Chill Out" Mood 

Sometimes the best way to come down from an over the top high is to play some tunes with a soft beat and a light voice. The best artists in the game right now, like Jhené Aiko for instance, have created that sound that's perfect for when relaxation is needed, so of course, she made the list.  These are the top four songs that can help anyone kick back and relax if a pull from a joint just isn't hitting the right way.

"Blue Dream" by Jhené Aiko "Muse" by Afro Nostalgia "Summer Games" by Drake "LOVE." by Kendrick Lamar (feat. Zacari) The Bad B*tch Hours or "Top Two and I'm Not Two" Mood 

You look around the room and realize: you're top two and you're not two in it. All it took was one or a couple of puffs and then a pass to make you feel pretty good about yourself. One of the main upsides to smoking that's constantly mentioned in the media is that it can help alleviate chronic pain, well, another positive to it is that it can leave you feeling sexy, sensual and everything in between.

This is that high that can make you feel that you're significant other is lucky to have you, and subsequently makes you hit them up, that tells you: you're single and ready to mingle. It's a smoking session that lets you know: if you shoot your shot now, you'll score and it's a session that you want music playing that only affirms how sultry and seductive you feel. If this is how 4/20 leaves you feeling, putting on some RiRi or even Young Thug can effectively get you 'in your bag.'

"Same Ol' Mistakes" by Rihanna "Tyrant" by Kali Uchis (feat. Jorja Smith) "Worth It" by Young Thug "Smoke Break" by Chance the Rapper (feat. Future) The "Head in the Clouds" Mood 

More often than not, edibles have the power of leaving people spaced out and speaking slowly, after consuming them. Sometimes smoking weed, or hotboxing with friends is a silent event. Either everyone's consumed by their phones, or every other person has been looking at a nonexistent spot on the wall for the past 15 minutes.

Regardless this isn't the high where people want to hear "Act Up" by City Girls, no matter how much they love them. No, this is the high where people need music that takes them on a journey. Songs where the production is out of this world and it seems like the artist specifically made the song for a smoke session like no other. Travis Scott's ASTROWORLD is full of tracks with that vibe, and Lil' Wayne, a weed connoisseur of his own, has songs that fulfill that need too. Smoke a bit and let the weed do its thing.

"ASTROTHUNDER" by Travis Scott "I Feel Like Dying" by Lil' Wayne "Hyyer" by Kid Cudi "St. Tropez" by J. Cole The "Got the Giggles" Mood 

This is when the blunt hits perfectly and there's nothing wrong in the world or when the bowl did its' job and leaves everyone feeling silly. A "feel good high" is the best way to describe and the best way to live through that kind of smoke session is to listen to some "feel good music." These are the songs that can have people swaying unknowingly to its' beat, or the tracks that leave people smiling from ear to ear. This is the session that lets people know that "this is it chief," and here are the best songs to go along with it.

"Pass the Vibes" by Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment "Dreamcatcher" by Metro Boomin' (feat. Swae Lee & Travis Scott) "It's a Vibe" by 2 Chainz (feat. Ty Dolla $ign, Trey Songz & Jhené Aiko) "Binz" by Solange
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4/20: A VIBE-Era Timeline Of Hip-Hop's Relationship With Cigars And Rolling Papers

Hip-hop's relationship with Mary Jane has always been a beloved one. From song from artists like Styles P, Curren$y and Snoop Dogg, laying back and enjoying nature's herbs is a coveted pastime in the game.

But we wouldn't be able to enjoy it all without the inclusion of cigars and rolling papers. Sure, we have vapes and other creative ways to reach aerial heights, but the OG accessories bring a different element to the table. The herb holiday might be a perfect time for enthusiasts to light one in the air, but VIBE was inspired to pay homage to hip-hop's love for the preroll.

Only keeping the VIBE-era in mind (starting from 1992), we analyzed companies like Swisher Sweets, Phillies and more, along with its ambassadors throughout the game like Snoop Dogg, Cypress Hill and Wiz Khalifa.

Enjoy the brief timeline of Hip-Hop's relationship with cigars and rolling papers below.

Made with Visme Infographic Maker

___ 1. Zig Zag


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A post shared by Zig-Zag World (@zigzagworld) on Apr 15, 2019 at 1:06pm PDT

Established Since 1855

Peak Years of Popularity (In Hip Hop): 1992-1996 / 2009-2013

Most Popular in California

Top Ambassadors: Snoop Dogg, Wiz Khalifa, Curren$y, Juicy J

In 1988, N.W.A. founder Eazy-E established Zig Zag as the official rolling paper for west-coasters after referencing the brand on a song from his solo debut, Eazy-Duz-It. In subsequent years, Zig Zag would appear on songs from legends like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, 2Pac, and B-Real, resulting in the brand becoming synonymous with the west coast.

The decline in west coast rap's popularity during the latter half of the '90s would result in a decreased amount of nods to Zig Zag within hip-hop, as other brands continued to dominate the conversation. In 2009, Zig Zag's standing among rap fans would receive a jolt when Wiz Khalifa and Curren$y teamed up for their collaborative mixtape How Fly, which included numerous references to the brand. However, as other brands of rolling papers began to dominate the market, Zig Zag's approval rating faltered slightly, but continues to transcend generations and will forever be remembered as the O.G. smokers utensil.

2. E-Z Wider

Established Since 1972

Peak Years of Popularity (In Hip Hop): 1992-1996 / 2008-2011

Most Popular in New York

Top Ambassadors: Wiz Khalifa, Chris Webby

The east coast's affinity for blunts is well-documented, but for a brief period during the '90s, EZ-Wider became the alternative for a select group of rappers out of New York City. Introduced into to hip-hop lexicon by A Tribe Called Quest member Phife Dawg on "Scenario (Demo 2)," EZ-Wider enjoyed a short run among smokers in the hip-hop community before losing its luster by the mid-'90s.

After more than a decade of sporadic mentions in rap songs, EZ-Wider made a comeback. This was largely on the strength of rappers like Wiz Khalifa, who brought the brand back to prominence in the late aughts during his transition from rolling cigars to smoking using paper. Over the past decade, EZ-Wider's popularity has been eclipsed by competing brands in the market, but its place within hip-hop history is secure.

3. Phillies Cigars (Known as Phillie Blunts)


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A post shared by Phillies Cigars & Tobacco Fans (@philliescigars) on Oct 7, 2018 at 1:19pm PDT

Established Since 1910

Peak Years of Popularity (In Hip Hop): 1992-1999

Most Popular in New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Atlanta

Top Ambassadors: Nas, The Notorious B.I.G., Redman, Big Pun, Big Boi, N.O.R.E., Big L

The first cigar to truly reign supreme in hip-hop is the Phillie blunt with a history that runs deep. Referenced as early as 1989, the Phillie came to prominence during the early '90s, with rappers like Redman, Nas, and The Notorious B.I.G. becoming unofficial ambassadors of the brand.

Found in some of the most memorable rap songs of all-time, the Phillie blunt was the cigar of choice on the east coast but began to spread to regions like the south and midwest, with artists like Big Boi of Outkast, and Twista singing its praises. By the end of the '90s, the popularity of the Phillie blunt began to wane, and while it still receives the occasional mention for nostalgic purposes, has never regained its stature as the go-to cigar in hip-hop.

4. Swisher Sweets

Established Since 1959

Peak Years of Popularity (In Hip Hop): 1993-Present

Most Popular in California, Texas, Tennessee, Illinois, Louisiana

Top Ambassadors: Three 6 Mafia, UGK, 8Ball & MJG, Scarface, Kid Ink, Lil Wayne, Freddie Gibbs, Gucci Mane, Wiz Khalifa, The Game, Lil Durk, Fat Trel, Ab-Soul, YG, Danny Brown, Fredo Santana, Machine Gun Kelly, Wale, Mac Miller, G-Eazy, G Herbo, Kevin Gates, Jeezy, 21 Savage

During the early '90s, Swisher Sweets emerged as the cigar brand of choice among marijuana enthusiasts in the south and western regions of the country. Since as early as 1993, when rap group Souls of Mischief helped put the brand on the map, Swisher Sweets cigars have become a staple in hip-hop, maintaining their popularity for the better part of a quarter century.

Over the years, Swisher Sweets has been name-dropped in songs by rappers from all corners of the country, but rap legends UGK and Three 6 Mafia were among the brand's most fervent supporters. Today, artists like Gucci Mane and Lil Yachty continue to keep Swisher Sweet in the public consciousness and recognized as one of the legacy smoking utensils in hip-hop culture

5. White Owl Cigarillos


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A post shared by Gotham Cigars (@gothamcigars) on Sep 9, 2014 at 8:29am PDT

Established Since 1887

Peak Years of Popularity (In Hip Hop): 1993-1997

Most Popular in New York

Top Ambassadors: Wu-Tang Clan

One cigar that caught traction among marijuana aficionados during the early-mid '90s was the White Owl, which became one of the leading brands on the east coast at its peak. Initially popping up on the rap radar via a mention by Gang Starr member Guru in 1992, White Owl would be championed by a number of rap artists out of New York. One act that helped solidify White Owl's standing within hip-hop culture was the Wu-Tang Clan, as numerous members of the Staten Island-based collective paid homage to the brand until its sudden decrease in popularity during the latter half of the decade.

6. Optimo


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A post shared by | Cigars (@optimocigars) on Feb 24, 2019 at 5:02pm PST

Established Since 1898

Peak Years of Popularity (In Hip Hop): 1997-2001

Most Popular in Texas, Louisiana, Tennessee

Top Ambassador: Juicy J

The Notorious B.I.G. may have immortalized the brand after referencing their cigars on his hit single "Big Poppa," but Optimo's lineage in hip-hop can be actually traced back to the southern region of the country. As rap acts out of the south began to reach a national audience during the latter half of the '90s, Optimo's approval rating skyrocketed as well, quickly becoming the cigar of choice for many of the region's star talent.

This particularly proved true in states like Texas, Louisiana, and Tennessee, where Optimo was considered king among blunt smokers and mentioned at a seemingly constant clip. Optimo cigars are not as prominent in rap lyrics as they once were, but remain a legacy brand in the south and have earned their rightful place in the annals of hip-hop history.

7. Garcia Y Vega


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A post shared by Garcia Y Vega 1882 Cigars (@1882_backwoods) on Jun 22, 2015 at 10:57am PDT

Established Since 1882

Peak Years of Popularity (In Hip Hop):1995-2001

Most Popular in New York, California

Top Ambassador: JT tha Bigga Figga

One cigar brand that had a brief, but noteworthy run within hip-hop was Garcia Y Vega, which was touted by various rap artists on the east coast in beyond. Finding its way into a rap song as early as 1994, the popularity of the Garcia Y Vega cigar was largely relegated to the east coast during its peak years in the latter half of the '90s.

The brand's popularity reached all the way to California, where rappers like JT the Bigga Figga helped give Garcia Y Vega its cultural clout. Today, a Garcia Y Vega cigar is largely considered a relic, but its recognition within the hip-hop community as one of the defining brands for blunt-gut spillers is well-deserved.

8. Dutch Masters Cigars


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A post shared by Russian Cream (@dutchmasterscigars) on Apr 15, 2019 at 5:31pm PDT

Established Since 1911

Peak Years of Popularity (In Hip Hop): 1996-2008

Most Popular in New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia

Top Ambassadors: Wu-Tang Clan, Mobb Deep, The Lox

In terms of sheer dominance of the market, Dutch Masters was once at the top of the list of cigars among marijuana smokers. Introduced by members of the Wu-Tang Clan during the group's rise to power, Dutch Masters would quickly catch on with fellow New Yorkers, including like-minded rap acts Mobb Deep and The LOX.

By the time the smoke from the cigar wars of the '90s cleared, Dutch Masters was the clear victor, as the brand extended its dominance into the next decade. While Dutch Masters' stronghold on the lungs of rap artists and fans alike began to dissipate by the end of the aughts, the brand still receives nods til this day and remains the go-to cigar within the hip-hop community.

9. Backwoods Smokes


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Rate these 1-10 and why? #exoticbackwoods

A post shared by Backwoods Cigars (@backwoods_cigars) on Mar 26, 2019 at 3:41pm PDT

Established Since 1973

Peak Years of Popularity (In Hip Hop): 1998-2005, 2013-Present

Most Popular in New York, Philadelphia, California, Texas, Atlanta

Top Ambassadors: Beanie Sigel, Freeway, Mac Dre, Travis Scott, Lil Yachty,

One cigar that has transcended regions and managed to sustain its standing among marijuana smokers is the Backwood, which has a history that is as rich as any brand in hip-hop. Referenced in a rap lyric as far back as 1994, by the turn of the century, Backwoods saw a spike in popularity, with rappers from the east coast and west coasts singing its praises.

After finding equal footing with the competing cigar brands at the time, Backwoods' visibility within rap dipped during the latter half of the aughts, before returning to prominence the next decade. This was due in large part to the influx of a new generation of rap stars gravitating to the brand, resulting in it regaining its reputation as the unofficial cigar of hip-hop as of 2019 and moving forward.

10. RAW Rolling Papers


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A few cones a day.. : @ganjawitness #rawlife #natural #rollingpapers #alcoyspain #rawpapersovereverything

A post shared by RAW Rolling Papers (@rawlife247) on Feb 10, 2019 at 5:10pm PST

Established Since 2005

Peak Years of Popularity (In Hip Hop): 2012-Present

Most Popular in North America

Top Ambassadors: Wiz Khalifa, Curren$y, 2 Chainz, Mick Jenkins, Chris Webby, Z-Ro, Futuristic

As the new kid on the block, RAW Rolling Papers may lack the rich history of other brands in the market, however, its place as the current smoking utensil of choice in hip-hop cannot be denied.

Establishing itself right in time for the cultural gravitation to rolling papers during the late aughts, RAW Rolling Papers capitalized on early cosigns from marijuana mavens like Wiz Khalifa and Curren$y to infiltrate the culture. With about a decade since its first mention in a rap song, RAW Papers have become a cultural institution in their own right, partnering with various rap artists and connecting the dots between hip-hop, culture, and marijuana.

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