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Rapping the Grammys

By Jon Caramnica

MARCH 6, 2000:  Though it wasn't televised, Eminem's winning two rap Grammy awards certainly qualifies as some form of spectacle. Relatively fresh to the scene, Eminem probably did have the best year of any major-label rapper -- instant MTV acceptance, a multi-platinum album, heaps of underground respect for his earlier work, and all without getting arrested a single time (though he did pummel a heckler at a San Francisco show, and he loses points for getting sued by various family members). But none of those factoids truly captures the essence of his victory. Picture, for a moment, the NARAS (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences) voters -- old-school rock-and-roll types who know about as much about hip-hop as they do about polka. This is not a body known for its diversity -- musical, racial, or otherwise. So, when faced with the rap nominees, they look in the mirror and go with the familiar. The white boy rides again!

The shame of that, of course, is that among this year's nominees, Eminem may well have been the best choice based on talent alone. In the Best Rap Solo Performance category, "My Name Is" was up against a generic Busta Rhymes single, another postmortem track from 2Pac, Q-Tip's re-vivr-al, and the obligatory nod to Will Smith (who I can only imagine lost because of the above-and-beyond-the-call wackness of "Wild Wild West").

For Best Rap Album, Slim Shady fended off Busta Rhymes, Missy Elliott, Nas, and the Roots. It was an easy victory over the first three of that set because: 1) does anyone actually listen to Busta Rhymes albums anymore? 2) Missy's cool, but this set was such a slow build that it was all but forgotten before it was remembered; and 3) somehow, after selling out completely, both in his music and in his lifestyle, Nas still can't afford charisma -- he's become the world's largest, suckiest underground MC.

It's only the Roots who gave Eminem a run for his nookie, and they went home with a shocking victory in the third and final rap category, Best Performance by a Duo or Group. Apart from the third irrelevant Busta nomination, the Roots' divine collaboration with Erykah Badu, "You Got Me," faced formidable competition from Puff Daddy (now too thugged-out for Grammy voters), Dr. Dre with Snoop, and Eminem with Dr. Dre. The victory came as a profound surprise -- presenter Moby even made some crack about the Roots' "theoretically" being the winners as they bounded onto the stage to collect the Grammy, and I half expected Serena Altschul to pop up later that night on MTV to report that it had all been a big misunderstanding. It was nearly enough to make me re-evaluate my reservations about the whole Grammy process . . .

But not so fast. Historically, NARAS has displayed considerable ineptitude in its relationship with rap. And one good year isn't enough to erase all of that. Rap has been part of the Grammys for just over a decade -- the first award was issued in 1989. At that time, rap had already demonstrated its commercial viability, and had been fêted by Grammy's biggest rival, the American Music Awards. The nominees in '89 leaned more to the commercial side of the genre: DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince; L.L. Cool J; Kool Moe Dee; J.J. Fad; and Salt-N-Pepa. Even so, as a new and relatively obscure category, rap was deemed not integral to the telecast itself, and was slotted for the pre-ceremonies (as are most categories -- this year, only about 25 of the more than 90 awards aired on the actual broadcast).

Coming at the beginning of rap's political era, this insult sparked a furor in the hip-hop community. Bill Adler, then chief publicist for Def Jam's management arm, did the unthinkable, coordinating a boycott of the Grammys by the nominees (except Kool Moe Dee, who "represented" hip-hop on the broadcast to general ridicule in the rap world). Will Smith (yup, the Fresh Prince) even gave up his performance slot to express his distaste in militant fashion. As Adler recalled when I reached him by phone at his office the morning of this year's ceremonies, "It was very distressing to us. These were powerhouse years for hip-hop, and they weren't treating us properly."

The rap awards went untelevised until 1990, by which time it had become clear to everyone that hip-hop was a dominating commercial force that was here to stay. In true Grammy fashion, though, innovators such as A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Ice Cube, and Wu-Tang Clan generally have been ignored in favor of one-hit wonders like Coolio, Young MC, Sir Mix-A-Lot, and Arrested Development. More often than not, the Grammy is a one-way ticket to triviality. All this, naturally, makes me fear for the future of the Roots, and even Eminem, lest they become victims of the recording industry's highest honor. Kinda makes you want to root for Will Smith after all.

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