How The Grammy Nomination of a Diss Song May Be Their Greatest Hip-Hop Misstep, Yet
This week began with the 2016 Grammy Award nominations. For Hip-Hop fans, this year’s noms included 11 in the direction of Kendrick Lamar, thanks to his March, 2015 album To Pimp A Butterfly. Two years removed from controversial wins by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis in the 2014 “Best Rap Song,” “Best Rap Album,” and “Best Rap Performance” categories, these nearly Michael Jackson-tying 11 nominations may appear to the public as an act of atonement. While Mack’ and Ryan’s “Thrift Shop” was an indie-to-mainstream juggernaut, Hip-Hop purists cried foul, especially as Kendrick Lamar and good kid, m.A.A.d city went home in January, 2014 empty-handed. Even winner Macklemore conceded that K-Dot’s album deserved the trophy, making the affair symbolic of the chasm between Hip-Hop at the corporate level and in the crowd of cultural stakeholders.
Almost reactive to the ’14 social media fall-out, the Grammy’s handed Kendrick Lamar two statues in 2015, for his single “i” featuring Ron Isley. The record had barely cracked the Top 40 (#39), as it bested a Drake a la carte single, and album highlights from Eminem, Nicki Minaj, Kanye West, Wiz Khalifa, along with Childish Gambino and Lecrae across two categories. While the honors of distinction were undoubtedly appreciated, they also felt a day late and a dollar short for one of Hip-Hop’s loudest, and most artful voices of change.
In 2016, it seems that the Grammy Awards may be trying to catch up to the rest of the world in terms of taste and authority. That’s nothing new. For all to see, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences has unilaterally struggled with “judging” Hip-Hop. When the “Best Rap Performance” award was established in 1989, the voting committees sought out DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince talking about why “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” in lieu of messages about racial pride, unrest, or abstract art. A year later, Young MC’s dance-floor classic “Bust A Move” bested Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power,” presumably prompting the category to disappear until 2012. In response, “Who gives a fuck about a Goddamn Grammy?” may be one of Flavor Flav’s most poignant quotes.
Twenty six years later, Flav’s clock may still know the time. While the reported 13,000 voting members padded the ballots with lots of opportunities for Kendrick and T.P.A.B., they also went to a new place. In the “Best Rap Performance” category, the nominating parties included Drake’s “Back To Back.” Decades after the Grammy Awards have stressed presenting the greater music committee with tapered, sterilized, and arguably “handle-bars” versions of Hip-Hop, they now opt to include a diss track.
Drake’s “Back To Back” was the TKO punch that finished a battle Meek Mill started and promoted. For Hip-Hop, the two-week summer affair was fun to watch. In addition to one of the great power-plays of the 2010s, Drizzy took a reply-diss record and kited it onto the charts, into the clubs, and the mainstream consciousness. Perceptively, Meek Mill wanted a bout and he got knocked out of his weight class. In doing so, Drake made fun of himself, and how one of Rap’s symbols of street-certified ruggedness “got bodied by a singin’ nigga.”
However, this is a curious move, right now. Drake is not the first MC to make a combative record hot. LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” was a Top 20 bell-ringer, especially for audiences that knew the Def Jam titan was finishing off his feud with Kool Moe Dee. Six years later, Uncle L heated up another chart appearance, care of “4, 3, 2, 1,” which not only featured disses, but was a Top 75 single that jabbed at its own song guest in Canibus. Dr. Dre can claim bringing a fiery diss record to the Top 10, care of 1992’s “Fuck Wit Dre Day (And Everybody’s Celebratin’).” From the opening bars, Dre and Snoop Dogg attacked Eazy-E, Tim Dog, and 2 Live Crew’s Luke Skyywalker. And in the Chronic video? The vitriol was “lit.”
Other songs have dominated the Hip-Hop space the way that “Back To Back” has for 2015. Ice Cube’s “No Vaseline” is a where-were-you-when audio moment that continues to live on, despite Straight Outta Compton biopic armistice and the death of Eazy. Five years later, Tupac Shakur’s “Hit ‘Em Up” was a B-side on multi-platinum single, “How Do You Want It?,” arguably thanks to the ruthlessly malicious attack on The Notorious B.I.G., Puff Daddy, Junior M.A.F.I.A., and Mobb Deep. Five years removed from that, Jay Z and Nas launched a crosstown grudge-match against each other—with records from both becoming major talking points in platinum albums. Whereas controversial albums by 50 Cent, Jay Z, 2Pac, Eminem, T.I., Rick Ross, and The Notorious B.I.G. have all been nominated, if not won the “Best Rap Album” category, never before has the academy embraced this in a category focused on singles.
In reprising the “Best Rap Performance” category, the Grammy’s have tried to hone in on message. This is why songs like Nas’ “Daughters,” Lecrae’s “All I Need Is You,” and this year’s “Apparently,” by J. Cole, have been included. One could argue this is why K-Dot’s “i” stood so tall last year, in embracing a dire need for a Hip-Hop love movement, more than 15 years after A Tribe Called Quest’s own album nomination.
In the last few years, the Grammy’s have proven to be deeply out of touch with Hip-Hop, its culture, and resounding voice of the youth. In real-time, the academy is aiming to band-aid its mistakes. In a just-published interview with Complex, one Grammy executive, Bill Freimuth, Head of Awards, acknowledged a “push-back” from the Rap community since his 2004 arrival. He added that the academy has a special outreach program, with genres including Rap/Hip-Hop, prompting a 29% increase in 2016’s voting. Freimuth stated, “With approximately 13,000 voting members, I think we’re the only music awards that are voted on by peers. It’s the colleagues of the musicians themselves who were saying, hey, you’re the best. I think that’s appropriate.” In the same interview, the exec noted that Drake’s actual top-charting (#2) 2015 single, “Hotline Bling” was not the voter choice. “I think our members just didn’t foresee the incredible success that that song has had, and they focused instead on his other work.” While Drake’s label did not submit the July song to the academy, Freimuth claims it was perfectly eligible for voting.
Whereas the including of Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen” acknowledges the Grammy’s moving into the Soundcloud era, and “Apparently” is a thoughtful and deeply-relevant inclusion, one could argue that Drake’s diss record takes a spot that should be appropriated to Big Sean and E-40’s “I Don’t Fuck With You,” which scored higher on the charts, from a #1 artist. The same could be argued for ILoveMakonnen (and Drake’s) “Tuesday,” or even Grammy-beloved Macklemore’s “Downtown” single featuring lyrical pioneers Grandmaster Caz, Kool Moe Dee, and Grandmaster Melle Mel. All three of these examples charted higher than Drake’s Meek Mill punch-out, and don’t carry the baggage of taking sides in a war of words or re-igniting the kind of vitriol that has led to real violence in Hip-Hop in the past.
The Grammy Awards have mattered, because they carry through the ages. It’s a stage that blends genre and generation equally, showing other audiences, subcultures, and new ears what the best and brightest sounds like. Drake has been that, and carries the trophies for “Best Rap Performance” (“Over”) and “Best Rap Album” (Take Care). “Back To Back” accomplished much more than a lyrical triumph, or a diss gone mainstream. In 2016 however, as Hip-Hop has delivered stylish, evocative, and spirited songs for the times, why are we suddenly celebrating one man tearing down another man, on a stage traditionally reserved simply for art. As the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences claws for voice in a culture that has never sought out validation from others, perhaps they want now want spectacle, not substance.