The long, storied history of the Grammy Awards includes many iconic moments and honors spread across its 58 previous editions, particularly among artists in its longest-running mainstream genres — pop, rock, R&B and country. But a fifth mainstream genre, rap, has had a contentious history with the Recording Academy’s annual honors over the years, with boycotts and backlashes mixed in with generation-defining performances and unforgettable events, coloring an up-and-down relationship.
Since first acknowledging the nascent art form in 1989 with the inaugural Best Rap Performance category (which went to DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince for “Parents Just Don’t Understand”), the genre has expanded to three additional categories: Best Rap Album, Best Rap/Sung Collaboration and Best Rap Song. (Gendered solo performances and duo/group awards have since been combined or discontinued).
But when it’s come to the four major categories — Album, Song and Record of the Year, as well as Best New Artist — hip-hop has often felt overlooked. Only two albums, Lauryn Hill‘s Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in 1999 (though that was technically categorized as R&B by the Recording Academy) and OutKast‘s Speakerboxx/The Love Below in 2004 have ever won Album of the Year; just three hip-hop artists — Arrested Development in 1993, Hill in 1999 and Macklemore and Ryan Lewis in 2014 — have won Best New Artist; and no rapper has ever won for Song or Record of the Year. (In February, prior to this year’s nominations, the Washington Post broke down how stark the disparity has been.)
And many of the genre’s heavyweights over the years have been shut out, for one reason or another; 2Pac, The Notorious B.I.G., Nas, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, A Tribe Called Quest, MC Lyte, N.W.A, Run-DMC and Public Enemy, among many others, are some of the hip-hop legends who have never tasted Grammy glory, while high-profile stars like Jay Z, Kanye West and 50 Cent have all spoken out against the awards at various times.
This year, hip-hop is well represented in the main categories. Chance the Rapper and Anderson .Paak are both nominated for Best New Artist, Swae Lee from Rae Sremmurd picked up a nod for Song of the Year for co-writing Beyoncé‘s “Formation” and Drake was nominated for Album of the Year for Views (and, thanks to a feature on Rihanna’s “Work,” also lands secondarily in the Record of the Year category). As the 59th annual awards prepare to get underway on Sunday (Feb. 12), Billboard looks back at the complicated relationship between the hip-hop community and the Grammy Awards.
1989: The Grammys Embrace Rap; Rap Boycotts the Grammys
As stated above, the 1989 Grammys marked the first time that rap claimed a category of its own, though the rappers themselves rejected it. Will Smith, who as the Fresh Prince won the first-ever Best Rap Performance alongside DJ Jazzy Jeff for “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” alongside fellow nominees Salt-N-Pepa and LL Cool J and others like Slick Rick and Public Enemy, participated in a boycott of the Grammys led by Def Jam’s Russell Simmons and Lyor Cohen after being informed that the award would not be televised. (The Grammys, for their part, blamed the snub on time restrictions.)
Kool Moe Dee, a nominee and presenter that evening, did show up, however, and shouted out his fellow MCs with a rhyme before presenting Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. The category would be televised the following year, and a rap category would make the main broadcast for each of the next 25 years until the streak was broken during the 2015 telecast. Boycotts would become a recurring theme.
1991: MC Hammer Scores First Big Noms, Public Enemy Sits Out
MC Hammer‘s breakout album Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em spawned a series of firsts for the genre, most notably for these purposes as the first rap album ever nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammys, with hit single “U Can’t Touch This” doubling up as the first rap song nominated for Record of the Year as well. Hammer lost both mainstream categories, though he did take home Best Rap Solo Performance for the single. But Public Enemy, nominated for Best Rap Performance by a Duo/Group for “Fear of a Black Planet,” would boycott the awards again, protesting that their category was not televised that year, with label boss Simmons calling the Grammys’ decision “the same old broken-record snub of inner-city contributions to the music industry.”
1993: Hip-Hop Breaks Through With Major Category Win
Off the strength of their critically lauded debut album, 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life Of…, Atlanta-based hip-hop group Arrested Development became the first hip-hop artist to win a major category, taking home Best New Artist and beating rap duo Kriss Kross for the honor (in 1990, Tone-Loc became the first rapper nominated in the category, losing to Milli Vanilli, who later vacated the award). Lauryn Hill (again, considered an R&B artist by the committee) and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis would be the only other hip-hop artists to ever take home that particular award, while stars that were nominated but missed out over the years include Puff Daddy (1998, to Paula Cole), 50 Cent (2004, to Evanescence), Kanye West (2005, to Maroon 5), Drake (2011, to Esperanza Spalding), J. Cole and Nicki Minaj (both 2012, to Bon Iver), and Kendrick Lamar (2014, to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis).
1999: Lauryn Hill Sweeps Five Awards
Two years prior, Hill took home Best Rap Album as part of the Fugees for their LP The Score, but her first solo venture — despite, as previously mentioned, being classified as R&B by the Grammys — would blow that honor out of the water. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill won the MC five awards, including Album of the Year (hip-hop’s first, according to most) and Best New Artist, setting a new record for female artists along the way. However, the same year Jay Z began boycotting the awards (he would continue through the next few years), saying he “didn’t think they gave the rightful respect to hip-hop,” ostensibly because DMX‘s album It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot wasn’t nominated — and despite the fact that Jay’s Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life won Best Rap Album anyway.
2001: Eminem Stands Up to Critics Alongside Elton John
By the time the 2001 Grammy Awards rolled around Eminem was on top of the rap world, and his sophomore album, The Marshall Mathers LP, had become just the third rap album (at least by the Recording Academy’s estimation) to be nominated for the prestigious Album of the Year award. But the Detroit MC was also beset by backlash over the content of his lyrics, with many condemning Em’s songs as homophobic and misogynistic as protesters gathered outside the door of the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Eminem’s response came through his performance on the Grammy stage alongside none other than Elton John, with the two duetting on Em’s “Stan” and sharing a hug afterward, in one of the biggest moments in the Awards show’s history. MMLP lost Album of the Year (to Steely Dan‘s Two Against Nature) but swept the rap categories, while he and Sir Elton became such close friends that Em credits the British icon for helping him recover from a serious drug addiction that plagued him through the 2000s.
2004: OutKast Reigns Supreme
If Lauryn Hill was technically R&B, then OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was finally, officially, the first rap full-length (and it was a double LP!) to take home Album of the Year (Big Boi told Billboard about that night in an interview three years ago). That was one of three honors the ATL duo picked up that night — Best Rap Album and Best Urban/R&B Performance for “Hey Ya!” being the others — and remains the only rap album to take home the Grammys’ highest honor.
But the night wasn’t without its hip-hop tensions; despite his debut Get Rich or Die Tryin’ becoming the top album of 2003 on Billboard‘s Year-End Charts, 50 Cent lost out to Evanescence for Best New Artist, and interrupted their acceptance by briefly walking on stage behind them as they stepped to the microphone. It wasn’t quite Ol’ Dirty Bastard‘s “Wu-Tang is for the children!” from 1998, but it was 50’s not-so-subtle way of letting his distaste be known.
2005: Kanye, Kanye, Kanye
It was all set up to be the coronation of Kanye West: 10 nominations (including Album and Song of the Year and Best New Artist), a high-powered performance slot, and the anticipation that came with his already-outsized personality — and the antics, for which he already had a bit of a reputation, that followed. His performance of “Jesus Walks,” which culminated in West emerging from a circle of gospel singers with angel wings on his back, was an easy highlight of the show, as was his triumphant, gleeful acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for his debut LP College Dropout. (He also won Best Rap Song for “Jesus Walks” and Best R&B Song as a writer on Alicia Keys‘ “You Don’t Know My Name.”)
But he was shut out of all three major categories — Ray Charles (Album), John Mayer (Song) and Maroon 5 (Best New Artist) all won over West — which stoked a festering resentment that has erupted several more times over the years. (In 2013: “So when the Grammys nominations come out, and Yeezus… only gets two nominations… What are they trying to say? Do they think that I wouldn’t notice? Do they think that, someway, that I don’t have the power to completely diminish all of their credibility at this moment?”) Incredibly, despite his 21 Grammys, West has never won in the big four categories — either as an artist or producer — going 0-11 overall.
2012: Amid Backlash, LL Cool J Hosts
After Arcade Fire‘s The Suburbs unexpectedly won album of the year (and the band performed twice) at the previous year’s awards, hip-hop mogul Steve Stoute dropped $40,000 on a full-page ad in the New York Times that called out the Grammys’ “series of hypocrisies and contradictions” in failing to honor the likes of Eminem, Kanye West and Drake in the major categories. Related or not, the Grammys extended an olive branch in 2012, ending seven years without a host by naming LL Cool J as the evening’s MC — 23 years after he was involved in the 1989 boycott alongside Will Smith and others (Queen Latifah had previously hosted in 2005).
Still, there were several flash points and issues; Nicki Minaj arrived on the red carpet with “The Pope” and exorcised some demons during her controversial performance; in the only other rap-related performance, Lil Wayne was head-scratchingly lumped in with Deadmau5, David Guetta and the Foo Fighters; Kanye West’s career-defining My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy wasn’t even nominated for Album of the Year (though he surely would have lost to Adele anyway); and J. Cole and Nicki Minaj lost to Bon Iver for Best New Artist.
2014: Macklemore Shuts Out Kendrick Lamar
Ah, the text message heard — and ridiculed — around the world. After Kendrick Lamar released one of the most critically lauded debut rap albums of all time in good kid, m.A.A.d city, many thought the rap categories — and even Best New Artist — belonged to the Compton MC. But Grammy voters clearly felt differently, and the pop-rap sensation of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ The Heist and its single “Thrift Shop” swept three of the four rap categories (Jay Z and Justin Timberlake‘s “Holy Grail” won Best Rap/Sung Collaboration) and delivered the duo Best New Artist, much to the chagrin of hip-hop heads and sparking a debate about race and appropriation within the rap world. (Lamar, despite seven nominations, was shut out completely.)
But what made it worse came just after the ceremony ended, when Macklemore took to Instagram to post a text message he had sent to Lamar apologizing for “robbing” him of the Best Rap Album honor, a move which almost everyone saw as pandering and bizarre, and sparked an avalanche of think pieces. Kendrick, for his part, was diplomatic about the entire situation.
2016: Kendrick Returns For the Crown
After receiving his first two Grammys in absentia the year before (which many saw as an apologetic gesture for the total snub of 2014), Lamar and his sophomore album To Pimp a Butterfly earned 11 nominations, the most ever for a rapper, and the second-most for any artist behind Michael Jackson‘s Thriller-fueled 1984. Lamar, despite not winning either of his two major nominations, swept all four rap categories on the evening — declaring his Best Rap Album victory “a win for hip-hop” — on his way to a 2016-high five wins, but it wasn’t his deserved honors that stole the headlines so much as his jaw-dropping performance.
Leading dancers on to the stage in chains and with his band performing in jail cells behind him, Lamar ripped into a careening “The Blacker the Berry” before shifting to a second stage for a fiery (literally) “Alright” and rounding things out with a previously-unheard freestyle that addressed Black Lives Matter and the high-profile protests against police brutality that were dominating headlines across the nation. In terms of using a platform to deliver a message, it was powerfully, and expertly, executed.