NEW YORK — Since its beginnings in the 1970s, rap music has transformed from an underground, street-based sound to a definitive part of pop culture, transcending race and becoming one of the strongest — and most prolific — voices of today's generation. But at the Grammy Awards, rap has had a long-lasting losing streak in the top categories.
The hip-hop sound — first recognized at the 1989 Grammys — has seen numerous prestigious nominations over the years, and rap acts have either led or tied for most Grammy nominations for 10 of the last 14 years. But rarely will a hip-hop act win one of the show’s top four honors — album, song and record of the year, along with best new artist.
Instead, rap acts tend to win rap awards.
50 Cent, who won his first and only Grammy two years ago, believes Grammy voters are out of touch and need a fresh outlook on contemporary music.
“I think that the board is a lot older and they're conservative, so some of the content in the music is offensive on some level,” said 50 Cent, who famously interrupted Evanescence's best new artist speech by walking onstage when he lost to the rock group in 2004. “There's a lot of people that don't accept that hip-hop culture is now pop culture.”
This year, hip-hop leads the Grammys in nominations again, with Kanye West earning seven; it's his third year as the show's top-nominated act. While his song All of the Lights is up for song of the year, his critically revered fifth album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, didn't score an album of the year nomination, a shock to many. Even Jimmy Jam — the chair emeritus of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences — was surprised by West's snub.
“I think he's one of the genius artists, and I'm saying this as a person who's worked with Michael Jackson and Prince, so I don't throw that word around lightly,” Jam said. “So, yes, I was surprised.”
West's album with Jay-Z, Watch the Throne, was also left out of the top album category; both CDs are nominated for best rap album.
Jay-Z, who once boycotted the Grammys because of the show's lack of love for hip-hop, says Grammy nominations are “cool,” but he doesn't use the accolades as a barometer of his success.
NO TECHNICAL POINTS
But Steve Stoute, the former record executive who accused the Grammys of being irrelevant last year in a full-page advertisement in The New York Times after Eminem and Justin Bieber lost top awards, says there is a bigger problem. Stoute believes The Recording Academy doesn't have board members who understand hip-hop as a true art form.
“If (The Recording Academy) understood that, then (rappers) would be scoring technical points,” he said. “They don't get the technical points.”
In Grammy history, 14 hip-hop albums have received nominations for album of the year. Lauryn Hill has the distinction of being the first hip-hop artist to win album of the year for The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in 1999, but the album, while featuring rap, was heavy on R&B. Hill also won best new artist that year, the second time a rap-based act had done so following Arrested Development's win in 1993. A rapper hasn't won the award since.
OutKast, the alternative, genre-bending hip-hop duo, followed in Hill's footsteps with an album of the year win in 2004 for the double disc Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. It, too, was not strictly hip-hop, as Andre 3000 blended rock and even jazz for his half of the project.
But while there have been high-profile wins, what stands out more are the losses. No rapper has ever won record or song of the year, and both Eminem and West, each nominated three times, have failed to win the album of the year trophy in years where they appeared to be critical favorites.
At last year's Grammys, three of the five songs nominated for record of the year were rap smashes. Lady Antebellum's crossover hit, Need You Now, ended up taking away the record and song of the year honors.
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, the leader and drummer of the Roots, says the hip-hop community shares some of the blame for its losing streak. “We're not active members of (The Recording Academy) and I promise to take a more active role in that,” said Questlove, who has won three Grammys.
ON THE NET
Photo: Ahmir Thompson