"Jeff and I, we won the first ever Grammy given to a rap artist [in 1989]," Will Smith said while accepting the award for Best Rap Solo Performance for "Men in Black" almost ten years later, in 1998. "But the Grammys, they weren't televising the rap portion, you know, so we boycotted."
And they weren't the only ones.
All of the rap nominees from that inaugural year banded together and decided not to attend the show -- instead, they filmed an episode of "Yo! MTV Raps" -- in hopes of earning the respect and recognition they felt that they and the genre deserved. And it worked, as the next year, the show aired the award for Best Rap Performance (Young MC won for "Bust A Move").
At the 57th annual ceremony, for the first time since 1990, the year after that boycott, there was no televised rap category. That's 25 years. A quarter century. Damn near my entire lifetime.
But why the shaft?
That's the essential question here -- and not one that's necessarily easy to answer.
Of the four rap categories -- there were five until four years ago, when Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group got dropped -- Eminem and Kendrick Lamar each won two, and neither was at the show. I don't know how or when what's televised gets decided, nor when RSVPs are due (or even if they are), nor if those two things relate to each other, given who may be favored in a particular category -- but, hey, who knows, maybe that had something to do with it.
But maybe not. Back in 2012, when Jay Z and Kanye West won in the televised category of Best Rap Performance for "Otis," neither was there to accept the award -- while all the other nominees were in attendance.
Then, there's the actual structure of the show. Last's night's telecast played less like a show about awards than it did a major label artist showcase or some sort of concert telethon, minus the 800 number at the bottom of your screen. That isn't to say that having a ton of music's biggest names hit the stage is an intrinsically bad thing by any means -- more that when there are 23 performances and only nine awards, on a night where there are three times that many awards total, plenty won't get televised.
It seems pretty clear that if rap wants to again be taken seriously at the Grammys, something needs to be done. Maybe it's already been started by Kendrick Lamar and TDE, in fact. But maybe that acceptance is not something something that's as important for rappers and fans as it once was.
In combing through acceptance speech footage from the last 25 years for this story, I was struck that it's been since 2009 or so -- when Lil Wayne won for Tha Carter III -- that a winning rapper has stepped in front of the mic and seemed genuinely excited for the award. That may very well be because, in the time since, most trophies have been taken home by Jay Z, while Em won one, too. And they've been here before, time and again.
But even Lil Wayne, in his first win, acted excited, but not overly so. He was already established -- way beyond that actually. More like one of the biggest artists on earth at that moment.
Last year's uproar following Macklemore & Ryan Lewis taking home so many awards and K. Dot getting shut out of seven categories may have clouded this, but hip-hop's relationship with the Grammys has changed over time. Where, in the days of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, hip-hop was looking for validation from the mainstream, it now has something far beyond that. It is the mainstream -- at least culturally, if not always sales-wise.
But the Grammys didn't recognize that last night. And that was a problem.
If rap decides that it wants to regain respect at the Grammys, given what happened Sunday night -- though deciding the annual event is out of touch and doesn't matter is another valid option -- it may be time to again do what Will, Jeff and the rest did in '89.