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