When the Grammy Awards return to Los Angeles from New York on Feb. 10, the ceremony will signal a momentous occasion: the 30th anniversary of the first Grammy for best rap performance, won by DJ Jazzy Jeff and Will “The Fresh Prince” Smith for “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”
From the beginning, the Grammys have struggled with giving hip-hop its proper due: Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff boycotted the show when they learned their award presentation wouldn’t be televised. To address such criticisms, The Recording Academy has taken steps that include last year’s addition of a rap nomination review committee. The 2017 nominees and winners came closer to reflecting rap’s established and emerging players, but it’s now approaching 15 years since a rap release -- OutKast’s 2003 double LP, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below -- won album of the year.
Just before nominations for the 61st Grammy Awards were announced on Dec. 7, Billboard sat down with four industry executives offering their takes on repairing rap’s relationship with the Grammys, the evolution from trend to genre and their favorite moments in hip-hop: iHeartRadio syndicated morning personality Kurt “Big Boy” Alexander; Spotify head of urban music Carl Chery; Sony/ATV Music Publishing senior director Jennifer Drake; and Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada senior A&R executive Erica Grayson.
What did rap’s first Grammy Award represent, commercially and culturally?
Jennifer Drake: It put rap culture on the mainstream map. But it was the lighthearted version of rap. You also had N.W.A [which was not nominated] talking about taboo subjects like oppression and police brutality. This highlighted Grammy’s true relationship with rap and hip-hop culture: to not air [more] categories and really support rap. Will Smith was the zeitgeist, but he was just one part.
Erica Grayson: Exactly. People felt that “real” hip-hop, so to speak, wasn’t being recognized -- which is actually a knock to Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince. They were more commercial, and commercial hip-hop at that time wasn’t necessarily respected in the same way.
Big Boy: Being probably the oldest one sitting here, I remember that Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince were the shit in 1989. It wasn’t like, “Oh, they’re corny” or “Fuck that shit.” It wasn’t [like] when N.W.A later came to the forefront. [Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince] were hip-hop; we [radio DJs] were playing that. And hip-hop was being recognized. If you pull up the category’s [nominees] then, it was different parts of hip-hop, like J.J. Fad and Kool Moe Dee. But it wasn’t [like], “Man, we’re not being represented.” Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince took the stance that, “They’re not giving out the award [on TV], so we’re not going.” We weren’t saying, “Why them?” They were saying, “Why not us?” That was the difference.
Carl Chery: It was important because it cracked the door open. And I specifically use the word “crack” because it wasn’t like, “It’s on.” From that point on, the evolution of rap started to be included. But there have always been challenges, like the category not being televised or the right artist [not] being acknowledged. If you look at history, albums revered as the best in the genre have never been nominated, like Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle and Nas’ Illmatic. Nas and Snoop Dogg, people that we cherish in the culture, have never won a Grammy. Forget the general categories -- not even in the rap categories.
Drake: You make a great point. The Chronic was talking about the ’hood and what was happening to people in the everyday life of institutionalized racism in this country. And the Grammys was like, “We don’t want to highlight that. We’re going to allow you the fun side. The rest is not OK.”
How would you describe the current relationship between the rap industry and the Grammys/Recording Academy?
Grayson: The Recording Academy’s relationship with hip-hop and the culture has really been a problem from the beginning. To be fair, Jeriel Johnson [the academy’s former senior project manager for R&B, rap and reggae] has played a big part in why it has gotten better. He was great at identifying people in the culture that needed to be in the room for [Grammy] conversations. But how come, 30 years later, we’re still sitting here trying to figure out who gets what and what fits in what category? I’m a member of The Recording Academy. Around Grammy time, I get 52 jillion emails about how to get tickets. There’s still a disconnect about education and outreach between what the academy does and [how to get] nominated for a Grammy. I wish the [academy] would do as amazing a job of getting information out to the people that need it as they do with branding themselves. If we’re still deciding that this is the premier accolade -- which I might argue differently -- but if we’re saying that’s the case, then how do we get there? If you want to opt in to the culture by having us attend the show, perform or be there for other reasons that people watch, then you need to make sure that same group walks away winning. Or at least walks away with an option to win because you have given them all the proper information to actually compete.
Chery: Last year was a hell of a pump fake. All of us got excited: “Grammys so black.” Then we lost in all the major categories. There’s this conversation now about hip-hop being pop culture, [but] we need to get to a point where the Grammys accurately reflect what’s happening in pop culture. Kanye West is the most critically acclaimed artist of the 21st century, period. [Across] all genres. Kendrick [Lamar] is probably the most critically acclaimed person in the 2010s. They’ve both been nominated in the general categories and have never won. There are only two rap acts that have won in general categories: Lauryn Hill and OutKast. We’re close, but not there yet.
Big Boy: The lane will become even more cluttered going [forward] because we’re seeing an introduction to more artists than I’ve ever seen in any genre. In the years to come, people are going to be even more upset, because they’ll feel like this person or that person should have won. It’s the same with radio. We know if there’s one slot and Drake brings a record out, Drake’s got the spot. So, you start to see those kind of things with these awards shows. The problem we brought up about revered albums not being recognized? We’re going to see that a lot more.
What is your take on the academy’s recent moves, like inviting 900 new voting members and expanding general-category nominees from five to eight?
Chery: We need to look at who gets to vote.
Grayson: That’s where the commercial thing comes in. Because if you’re voting in a category you don’t really know, you go, “Oh, I know Drake. I’ve never heard of Migos.”
Drake: That’s crazy, because with the evolution of rap, there are so many subcategories of it now. How do you even throw a Lil Yachty in with a Jay-Z? It just doesn’t work.
Big Boy: That’s probably a reason for the eight slots as well. [But] it’s going to start to look crazy.
Chery: It would be interesting to see the rap field split the way R&B is, with categories like urban contemporary and [traditional] R&B. God knows there are enough releases.
Drake: They need to start acknowledging the subcategories of rap if they want to continue to be of the culture -- and have the culture buy in. Rap isn’t the same as when Will Smith and Jazzy Jeff were nominated. Also, a lot of people don’t know that they can vote for a Grammy. I was having a conversation with a big artist, [and] he was asking why a person didn’t get nominated. I said, “You know, you have to vote.” He didn’t even know. That’s a problem, because there are so many people that don’t know how to take advantage of the opportunity. We saw that with [winner for best new artist] Alessia Cara this year. You also had [fellow nominees] SZA and Khalid. God bless Cara, she’s so talented and amazing. But at the end of the day, [it’s] capitalizing off of black culture. You’ve got Jay-Z front and center, and then you’re doing the same things, which is why Jay-Z was boycotting. [Jay-Z boycotted the Grammys ceremony from 1999 to 2003.]
Does a Grammy Award still matter to the hip-hop community?
Big Boy: People don’t show up for Soul Train or the BET Awards like [the Grammys]. I wish we had something else that was as prestigious and meant the same thing to us and others. But until then -- and maybe never -- it’s just the way it is. You win an American Music Award, that’s cool. But people want that Grammy. Even if they say they don’t.
Chery: It still matters. For the rest of your life, you’re either referred to as “Grammy-nominated” or “Grammy-winning.” [Almost] anyone who wants to publicly say, “Oh, I don’t mess with the Grammys no more,” would be ecstatic if they were nominated and won.
Given its commercial dominance, is rap now recognized by the industry as a full-fledged genre, or do they still see it as a trend?
Grayson: Hip-hop has been influential for far longer than 30 years. The difference now is that we have metrics by which we can actually see how much it influences. We see it in the new spring fashion lines [and] in the undertones of film and television storytelling. But it’s a double-edged sword: On one hand, it’s finally being acknowledged. But then you’re like, “Why the fuck is it just now being acknowledged?” No disrespect to this conversation, [but] why are we still doing articles about why is hip-hop important? When something is mainstream, we [usually] all accept that it is. We don’t talk about it. [Whereas the hip-hop industry is] constantly having to justify our place in culture.
Drake: It’s still looked at as a trend and not given value, even though numbers don’t lie: It’s consumed over 30 percent more than any other genre. But it’s still treated with kid gloves and looked at as a cultural taboo. “Bad and boujee” is now a term in the dictionary. Rap is being taught at Harvard and other institutions. So it can’t continue to be seen as a trend -- especially by the music business, which generates so much income off rap culture. It can’t continue to ignore [hip-hop’s] dominance and how it’s woven into the fabric of our country.
Chery: There’s an executive that I used to work with when streaming started exploding. In every meeting we sat in, he was like, “Oh, hip-hop is No. 1... for now.” But I don’t see this ending.
Big Boy: Hip-hop just celebrated 45 years. So how long does a “fad” last? This isn’t like the disco explosion, [which] took off, got corny, [then] everybody stopped messing with Studio 54. This is getting bigger and bigger -- so big that it’s also getting out of hand. We’re losing culture. Back in the day, everybody had lyrics. Now it’s like, getting in is so easy. Will.i.am recently said it’s low-hanging fruit and anybody feels like they can do it. [So] it’s not something that’s going to disappear, because now you don’t need to get signed by the Def Jams of the world. Hip-hop is everywhere.
What does hip-hop need to do to sustain growth and protect its culture?
Drake: [Young artists] have to invest in an attorney. [And] there’s a plethora of information online and in bookstores. I’d love to see young aspiring artists, songwriters and producers really understand the business side of the creative -- [it’s] important, especially from a publishing standpoint. We have all these incredible urban albums that dropped this year, a lot of them don’t get licensed -- or it takes a long time for them to get licensed -- because the business side on the front end hasn’t been done.
Grayson: That’s tough, because [hip-hop is] global. It’s ours, but it’s everyone’s now -- we should’ve known this when MTV did a story about white kids in Arkansas listening to Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre. And that was prior to the internet. So we need to continue to educate and acknowledge our history the same way we do in all parts of our culture. But I don’t know that I want it contained -- that feels anti-hip-hop to me. When OutKast started popping, they got booed at the Source Awards. Imagine then if we were like, “That’s not hip-hop.” We wouldn’t have had years of incredible music.
Chery: It’s on all of us to make sure that in our respective roles we reflect hip-hop in an authentic way. There’s a generational disconnect that has been happening for a while: The values we have from the era we come from aren’t necessarily being passed on to millennials. We may have negative feelings about certain artists inserting themselves into the culture, but all the kids that are relevant are making songs with them. My mind also goes to how other black genres are no longer black. We’ve seen it before with jazz, blues and rock, and that’s why we need to try and enforce it as much as possible. If we don’t, and [we leave] the door open... I feel like this is the last thing we have. That’s why we’re so passionate and protective of it.
What was your first indelible rap memory?
Big Boy: “Rapper’s Delight” [by Sugarhill Gang]. It was my introduction to hip-hop. I remember walking to the Boys’ Club with my homeboy Trevor, and we’d rap it all the way there. That’s why where [the genre] is now kind of hurts me: We don’t take care of it. Spotify has said there are, like, 8,000 [rappers named] “Lil” on there. No disrespect, but we’ve got [a lot of], “Oh, I’m a rapper now; just add water.” We’ve got a lot of fucking Chia Pets right now taking over [from] the shit that’s really grown from the soil. All these heads growing these fake green leaves. A lot of microwaving, but nothing in the oven. This isn’t coming from a bitter old man; I just know what it is and what it was. I consume it every day, and I feed it to others. Some of these younger cats in the game need to study [hip-hop history] as well. There’s no reason why hip-hop should be worth all this fucking money and DJ Kool Herc doesn’t get $1 million a year from it for creating hip-hop. This man has to damn near beg for money because he has cancer. It’s crazy how much we made, and we don’t give back to the community.
Chery: The first song that ever got stuck in my head was Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick’s “The Show.” I remember being in the back of the car with an older [relative] driving. When I got my own access in the ’90s, it was about A Tribe Called Quest. It was also about becoming a student of the game and listening to older stuff.
Grayson: Tribe’s “Bonita Applebum” is my one moment. I thought I was her and prayed that Q-Tip was talking to me. There were moments when you could really tell when hip-hop was changing, like when you heard The Chronic, OutKast’s “Player’s Ball” and Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die. You could just breathe different because something fantastic was happening. Before Chronic, rap was dirty samples and jazz. Then all of a sudden it was clean, musical and had this energy.
Drake: I’m from Oakland, Calif., and we used to spend our summers in a very white area of Philadelphia. We experienced a lot of racism when we would go. I remember hearing Tupac Shakur’s “Keep Ya Head Up” and feeling so empowered and beautiful. Like, “Wow, he’s speaking to me and sharing with the whole world how I should be proud and keep my head up.” It really resonated with me.
Big Boy: I have to ask my younger cats: Do you still get that same feeling? Do you really remember when you first heard 6ix9ine or Lil Pump? You’ve got to have those moments.
Nominations are about to come out. Which hip-hop artists are poised to do well at the Grammys?
Chery: Travis Scott should be heavily nominated in the general and rap categories [and] have the kind of year that we’ve seen Kendrick and Kanye have in the past. And Drake basically spent the whole year at No. 1. [Scott is nominated for three Grammys, all in rap categories. Drake is nominated for seven, across categories.]
Drake: And Cardi for album of the year. She had the third top album this year. [Cardi B is nominated for album of the year.]
Chery: And it would be a good snapshot of 2018 if a song such as Cardi’s “I Like It” with Bad Bunny and J Balvin was nominated, not just in rap, but in the general categories. It’s a massive record, a reflection of what’s happening right now with the black and brown worlds converging, with collaborations on both sides. [“I Like It” is nominated for record of the year.]
Big Boy: I wouldn’t be mad watching Cardi do an acceptance speech.