From Fresh Prince To Outkast: How Hip-Hop Took Over The Grammys

Rappers land 6 of 10 nominations for Album, Record of the Year.

The story line of this year’s Grammy Awards became evident the minute the nominees’ names were announced by Pharrell, Moby, Evanescence’s Amy Lee and the other celebrities in attendance: Hip-hop has invaded the Grammys.

In the five years since Lauryn Hill took home the Album of the Year honor for her folksy solo effort, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, hip-hop has steadily increased its presence at the annual music celebration. But this year’s developments are especially head-turning: Six of the 10 total nominations for Album and Record of the Year are by hip-hop artists, the most ever (see “Jay-Z, Beyonce, Outkast, Pharrell Nab Most Grammy Nominations” ). For the 46th annual Grammy Awards, hip-hop didn’t just come knockin’, it bum-rushed the door, kicked up its feet and called the place home.

It hasn’t always been like this, of course. Rap music wasn’t recognized as its own category until the 1989 ceremony (honoring music released in 1988), even though the genre already had its mainstream success stories — Run-DMC, Beastie Boys and LL Cool J, to name a few. The rap category back then was limited to only one award — Best Performance — that didn’t differentiate between solo artist or group, male or female. (Click for photos. )

In addition, even as hip-hop was quickly establishing itself as a burgeoning pop-culture phenomenon, the bestowment of its award wasn’t televised, instead relegated to the pre-show portion of the ceremony. Will Smith, a.k.a. the Fresh Prince, and his partner, DJ Jazzy Jeff, won Best Rap Performance that first year, but they boycotted the event because of the perceived slight. “We got straight A’s, we’re selling plenty of albums and we’re making an impact,” Smith told MTV that year. “We think we’re being denied what is rightfully ours.”

Young MC would accept the award the following year — on camera — before rap disappeared from prime time again for a couple of years. A second rap category was introduced in 1991, Best Rap Solo Performance. The winner? MC Hammer for “U Can’t Touch This.” Indeed, even as rap’s stature was beginning to increase in the eyes of the Grammy committee, the nominations early on tended to acknowledge hip-pop over hip-hop — DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, Young MC, Sir Mix-A-Lot and Salt-N-Pepa were nominees over groups now considered hip-hop legends. “A Tribe Called Quest should have got a Grammy because it was groundbreaking,” Pharrell Williams recently said. “[Nas'] Illmatic deserves to be recognized. [Jay-Z's] Reasonable Doubt deserves to be recognized. Wu-Tang Clan’s first album deserves to be recognized.”

Through the mid and late 1990s, that situation started to improve with at least a handful of hip-hop artists championed by the streets earning recognition in the rap awards. In 1996, Method Man’s duet with Mary J. Blige, “I’ll Be There for You/ You’re All I Need to Get By,” was a radio hit, a club banger — and a Grammy winner. That same year, even though Naughty by Nature won the Best Rap Album of the Year award (the first year the award was given), Tupac and rambunctious rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard were nominated as well. ODB — Grammy nominee! Of course, in 1998 and 1999, Will Smith would win Best Rap Solo Performance for his sugary pop hits “Men in Black” and “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It.”

The true measure of hip-hop’s success could only happen once it penetrated the general music categories of Album and Record of the Year. That didn’t occur until 1996, when Coolio was nominated for Record of the Year for his song “Gangsta’s Paradise.” Three years later, it would be Hill’s victory for Album of the Year that would announce hip-hop’s arrival at the adult table. Even though she was portrayed by the Grammys more as an R&B singer than a hip-hop artist, hers was a victory for the rap genre with which she still identified. “This is crazy ’cause this is hip-hop music, you know what I mean?” she said, almost disbelievingly, when accepting her Album of the Year prize.

Her victory signaled the convergence between hip-hop and the mainstream, and the Grammys would never be the same again. Eminem’s arrival would earn him a Best Album nomination in 2001 and 2003, and he won Best Rap Album for each of his three LPs in 2000, 2001 and 2003 (while his duet with Elton John at the Grammys in 2001 would prove to be a historic moment for the ceremony). Outkast would follow suit with nominations in 2002 for both Album and Record of the Year, for their breakout album, Stankonia, and its hit single, “Ms. Jackson.”

All of which culminates in this year’s spate of awards, where Missy Elliott and Outkast battle with Evanescence, Justin Timberlake and the White Stripes for Album of the Year; and Outkast, Eminem, the Black Eyed Peas and Beyoncé with Jay-Z look to take home the trophy for Record of the Year (with Coldplay as the lone rock entry).

“This is a reflection of culture in America today,” said Neil Portnow, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences. “Hip-hop is not just something on the outside, it’s in the mainstream. You know when Madison Avenue embraces any genre for advertising purposes and when the style and clothing are available everywhere that you really hit the mainstream. So hip-hop belongs where it is.”

Still, things aren’t pitch perfect. “50 [Cent] ain’t got nominated for Album of the Year? Are y’all serious?!” an indignant Kanye West asked recently when told who this year’s nominees were. Indeed, 50 Cent is up for five nominations this year, including Best New Artist and Best Rap Album. But his major-label debut, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, sold the most copies of any album released in 2003, and he was left off the shortlist of Best Album nominees. 50′s lead single, “In Da Club,” was recently acknowledged as the most ubiquitous radio single of the year and it was left off the list of potential Records of the Year. This while still earning the ovation of critics, as well.

Overlooking 50 Cent may have as much to do with the way Grammy voters perceive him as anything else. Perhaps they are less inclined to bestow honors on artists who find their success so quickly and suddenly, and who express the violent, brazenly sexual themes that 50 does. After all, even though Eminem swept the rap categories, he wasn’t considered for the major Album and Record of the Year awards until his second straight multiplatinum LP — when the phenomenon of Eminem was too strong to deny him recognition. All of which shows that no matter how forcefully hip-hop took its place in the Grammys’ house this year, it can still find room to get more comfortable.

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