Hip hop historian Bill Adler remembers the rap boycott of the 1989 Grammy Awards.
Just about anything can touch off one of Kanye West’s tantrums. Most times, it’s hard for me to figure out why any particular molehill gives the great man such mountainous fits. But the Grammy Awards have caused him to melt down repeatedly...and that I certainly understand.
The Grammys have been awarded annually for the last 57 years and they always piss off one artist or another. Let's climb into the Wayback Machine, shall we, and revisit the 31st Annual Grammy Awards, when the Grammys presented their first ever Rap award...and three of the category's five nominees decided to boycott the show.
It was late in 1988 when the nominees were announced. At the time, I was working as the director of publicity at the joint offices of Def Jam Recordings and Rush Artist Management. Two of the five nominees were our artists: LL Cool J (for “Goin’ Back to Cali”) and DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince (for “Parents Just Don’t Understand”). The others were Salt’N’Pepa (“Push It”), J.J. Fad (“Supersonic”), and Kool Moe Dee (“Wild Wild West”). Well, we were thrilled. The Grammys were the big time. What could be better?
You go to school for 12 years, they give you your diploma, and they deny you that walk down the aisle.
It probably wasn’t until early in the new year that we began to get an idea about how February’s Grammys telecast was shaping up. The producers told us they wanted Will Smith to perform a little rap about the Grammys and then to help present an award in another category. We also learned that the presentation of the rap award would not be part of the broadcast. This was our Kanye moment. We were flabbergasted and angry. How could they salute us in one breath and diss us the next? Will summed it up nicely: “You go to school for 12 years, they give you your diploma, and they deny you that walk down the aisle.”
It was all too familiar to me. I’d been fighting for recognition of our artists since 1984...and it always seemed to be an uphill battle. Rap was a wildly popular art form from the moment the Sugar Hill Gang scored an international smash with “Rappers Delight” in the fall of 1979. It was also warmly welcomed by the vast majority of the music press. But other elements of the so-called mainstream media just didn’t seem to get it.
I’d entered into a fairly bitter battle with CNN on this very subject in the spring of ‘88. They’d contacted our office in search of interviews with Russell Simmons and LL Cool J as part of a five-minute news feature they were producing. I cooperated with their field producer, but pretty quickly found myself very turned off by her attitude, which struck me as willfully ignorant. Concerned that her piece would do my artists more harm than good, I phoned her boss. I recalled this conversation in the letter I wrote him after the piece was aired: “‘Don’t worry,’ you said. ‘You’re gonna love it,’ you said. When I objected that five minutes seemed far too brief a period to do justice to so large a phenomenon, you told me that five minutes was a long time on television. And then you told me again not to worry, that I was gonna love it.”
Well, big surprise, I hated it, and I spelled out all the reasons in some detail. But what really ruined my mind was the condescending notion that America’s television viewers still needed an introduction to rap...and that five minutes was all it would take to do the job. Come the fuck on! In 1988!? “How do you explain the fact that ABC-TV’s 20/20 did a much longer (and much more intelligent) piece on rap in the summer of 1981, when there was far more justification for an introductory piece?” I wrote. “And what does it mean that the BBC has already produced one 90-minute special on us, and German television a special of 45 minutes in length? Likewise, Essence TV recently ran a two-part piece that ran about 15 minutes.”
Duly revved up, I added, “I must say I can think of dozens of rap-related stories worth at least five minutes of your precious time, including individual profiles on Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, Eric B & Rakim, LL Cool J, and Stetsasonic – all of whom are popular stars.” Then, switching gears, I proposed several stories about rap as a collective phenomenon: “There’s one on Rush Management, a black-owned artist management firm that’s making millions with this aggressive new rock & roll and which is run by the ’80s equivalent of Berry Gordy. There’s a story about women rappers, one about white rappers, one about rappers in Los Angeles, one about the booming rap scene in London. There’s a political story about rappers wooed by such notables as Nancy Reagan and Jesse Jackson. There’s an economic story about the success of these rappers inspiring a whole generation of kids to rap their way out of dead-end America.”
Again, this kind of corporate obtuseness was all too familiar to those of us in the hip-hop game at the time. So we decided to boycott the Grammy awards ceremony and, early in February of ‘89 we made an announcement to that effect. Will and Jeff were in (with Will declining the Grammys’ invitation for him to perform during the show.) LL was in. And Salt’N’Pepa were in, even though we didn’t manage or record them. (They were produced by Hurby “Luv Bug” Azor and signed to Eddie O’Loughlin’s Next Plateau label.) Salt explained that she’d climbed aboard out of embarrassment that she wouldn’t be able to satisfy her friends’ natural expectations: “All my friends were telling us, ‘We can’t wait to see you,’ and asking, ‘What are you going to wear?’“ But Kool Moe Dee and JJ Fad declined to join the boycott. The Grammys wondered if Moe might be willing to fill the spot vacated by Will. Indeed he was.
We’re ecstatic they made a rap category, and we’re ecstatic we were nominated. But we think we deserve better than that.
Apparently I sent out a press release announcing the boycott on Thursday, February 9, 1989, although I can’t put my hands on it now. The announcement touched off a fairly vigorous debate about the politics of the Grammys that would continue right up until the telecast itself, and beyond. The next day I was quoted in the Los Angeles Times complaining that the Grammys were “ghetto-izing” rap and “treating us like a stepchild.” Asked for comment, the Grammys Awards organizers were philosophical. “The problem is arithmetic,” they said. “When you have 76 Grammy categories and you only have time to put 12 on air, you’ve got 64 unhappy groups of people.”
Truthfully, the problem wasn’t only the arithmetic. David Browne, writing for the New York Daily News, provided a little historical context, noting that the Grammys had installed a new president, Michael Greene, only the previous fall, and then announced three new categories: Best Rap Performance, Best Bluegrass Recording, and Best Hard Rock/Heavy Metal Performance. This was an attempt to demonstrate, in Browne’s opinion, that “the long-staid Grammys were getting hip.” Nonetheless, the Awards folks managed not only to piss off the rappers, but the heavy metal guys, too, because they weren’t allowed to compete in the Best Rock and Pop categories.
The Grammy folks wrote off all of it as “nitpicking.” They’d gone out of their way, Browne wrote, “to address the Great Unwashed, particularly in the last five years. U2 winning Best Album of 1987 for The Joshua Tree is a long way from the night in 1978 when A Taste of Honey won Best New Artist over Elvis Costello or when super-wimp Christopher Cross swept the major categories in 1980.”
On the day of the Grammys telecast, we held a press conference in L.A. to make our case in person. Will and Jeff, and Salt’N’Pepa and their DJ Spinderella, were joined on camera by Chuck D and Flavor Flav of Public Enemy (who had released It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back the summer before), Slick Rick (who had released The Great Adventures of Slick Rick the previous November), and Kid’N’Play (Salt’N’Pepa’s label-mates). “We’re ecstatic they made a rap category, and we’re ecstatic we were nominated,” said Will. “But we think we deserve better than that.” Yours truly got on the mic to repurpose a gem from the gospel according to Malcolm X: “I’m not a diner until you let me dine.” Flavor, who was not a nominee, nonetheless jumped into the fray to disparage “the Slammies” to amusing effect.
The show itself went off as scheduled. Before joining the singer Karyn White to announce the winners of some of the R&B awards, Kool Moe Dee performed his rap. It went a little something like this:
On the behalf of all emcees
My co-workers and fellow nominees
Jazzy Jeff, JJ Fad,
Salt’N’Pepa and the boy who’s bad
We personify power and a drug-free mind
And we express ourselves through rhythm and rhyme
So I think it’s time that the whole world knows
Rap is here to stay – drummer, let’s go!
Before the evening was over, the word was out that Will and Jeff had been able to have their cake and eat it, too: they’d boycotted the Grammys on behalf of all rappers and nonetheless won the award for Best Rap Recording. The hottest after-party was the anti-Grammys blow-out hosted by Yo! MTV Raps at L.A.’s Cat & Fiddle nightclub. All the rappers who supported the boycott were there. Kool Moe Dee – no shame in his game – showed up, too.
The event’s greatest souvenirs might’ve been the photos shot with surprise guest Malcolm Forbes, the billionaire founder of the business magazine that bore his name, who arrived at the party on a motorcycle. What was the attraction? Perhaps Forbes liked the style of these young rappers. “In his latter years, Forbes was notable for a lavish continent-hopping lifestyle that included a private Boeing 727 jet, a fleet of motorcycles, a 40-acre estate, balloon racing, and public appearances with some of the world’s most glamorous women, including Elizabeth Taylor,” according to Michelangelo Signorile.
Indeed, the rappers and Forbes comprised a happy little mutual admiration society. Under the headline, “Who Gives A ** About a God-Damn Grammy?” the March issue of The Source ran an account of the boycott and the after-party written by Ted Demme, the producer of Yo! MTV Raps. It included a photo of Ice-T, Fab Five Freddy, Malcolm Forbes in a sweater, and a notably bejeweled Slick Rick, all of them clearly delighted to be in each other’s company.
The next day’s newspapers carried accounts of our press conference the day before. The Los Angeles Times quoted Will saying, “I was more than happy to accept the award, but I’m not as happy as I could have been. The presentation not being televised detracts from the excitement of the award.” The paper also reached LL Cool J, who supported the boycott but did not travel to L.A. for the press conference. LL said he had “absolutely no second feelings [about boycotting]. The way it happened was exactly the way I wanted it to happen.” Asked about Kool Moe Dee’s decision not to support the boycott, LL said, “Everybody to their own opinion.”
Moe himself was considerably more expansive. “One management company started [the boycott] and went to the papers and figured all the rappers would follow,” he told The Times. “It was wrong. They were trying to turn it into a race thing....I felt it was a negative move not to come to the Grammys – like crying over spilled milk.” Speaking to the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Moe said, “This wasn’t a real boycott. It was just one management company I’m not going to mention. The boycotting rappers didn’t even know what their statement was supposed to be. I asked LL Cool J and he didn’t even know what he was supposed to say. People can get turned off by little stuff like that, but it worked out OK for me.” And to the Los Angeles Daily News, he said, “I blame 50 percent of [the Grammys’ decision not to broadcast the Rap award] on the images of how rappers were portrayed in the past, which is very much in contrast to what rap is really about. So the public is very intimidated because they feel like every time a rapper gets onstage, he’s going to grab his crotch or something like that, do something derogative. I think it’s time we showed America rap is much more than that.” Moe revealed the name of the nasty rapper in a quote he gave to David Nathan of Black Radio Exclusive: “We don’t all wear gold and sneakers and I don’t like the image that’s been created. Like when LL Cool J grabbed himself at the American Music Awards when he was giving an award to Al B. Sure. That’s the kind of negative image all rappers have and I want to change that.”
Well! Where to start?
“The management company...was trying to turn it into a race thing.” Absolutely untrue. No one affiliated with Rush or Def Jam ever pinned the Grammys’ decision on race.
“I asked LL Cool J and he didn’t even know what he was supposed to say.” A complete lie. I asked LL himself about it in the immediate aftermath of the boycott and he told me he never spoke to Moe. Which makes sense. The two of them had been publicly battling each other virtually from the minute LL started recording. Moe was so threatened by the ascendance of this young upstart that the cover of his 1987 album, How Ya Like Me Now, features a red Kangol hat (L’s trademark) being crushed under the wheels of a Jeep. By the time of the Grammys dust-up, each rapper had recorded at least three vicious diss tracks about the other.
Moe obviously saw the Grammys debate as a new opportunity to attack LL and to big himself up in the process. Apart from his lie about having spoken to L, and his gratuitous disparagement of L’s unstatesmanlike comportment at the American Music Awards a few weeks before the Grammys, there was the shot he took at L in his Grammy’s rhyme. Remember how it begins?
On the behalf of all emcees
My co-workers and fellow nominees
Jazzy Jeff, JJ Fad,
Salt’N’Pepa, and the boy who’s bad
“The boy who’s bad?” That’s no one but LL, who had a big hit in the summer of ‘87 with a song called “I’m Bad.” What could more heartfelt than saluting one of your co-workers and fellows by not naming him and describing him as a boy?
More surprising than Moe’s personal petulance was the staunch support he received from several of the black teen monthlies. Gerrie Summers, of Word Up magazine – who claimed to be “neutral on this controversy” – begins her editorial in the July 1989 issue (which went on sale in April) by asserting the existence of a “campaign to rally against Kool Moe Dee.” I believe this to be a fabrication. I’d never heard of any such thing until I read Gerrie’s reference to it, and certainly no one at Rush or Def Jam had anything to do with it even if it did exist. Gerrie went on to note that Moe’s detractors “see him as a traitor who appeared on the Grammys for publicity and glory.” That was definitely true. Gerrie herself, for all of her declared neutrality, is depicted in a photo at the top of the column alongside Moe, whose arm is draped across her shoulder. The piece ends as follows: “Are we going to allow certain influential and powerful Ayatollah-types in the rap world to silence us if we disagree with their beliefs? Think about it.”
Of course, I was the “Ayatollah-type” Gerrie declined to name, which she confirmed when I phoned her after seeing the article in print. After our conversation, I mailed Gerrie a packet of press clips of Moe’s negative comments. “All that our people said [to the media] was that Moe was free to do what he wanted,” I noted in the accompanying letter. “Every time Moe opened his mouth it was to describe the boycott as ‘a negative move.’ Believe me, our artists were ready to blast Moe in print. They didn’t because I advised them not to.” In conclusion, I wrote, “I don’t make myself a hero in all this – I simply organized the widely-felt anti-Grammys resentment – but I also don’t think my part in this makes me an ‘Ayatollah-type.’”
Still, what the hell – ancient history, right? A tempest in a teapot. As everyone knows, Will Smith, the former Fresh Prince, went on to a huge career as a movie star in Hollywood, even as he doubled back to record a soundtrack album in 1999 that included, of all things, a remake of “Wild Wild West” featuring a cameo from Moe. And this year, 2015, was the fourth consecutive year that LL Cool J hosted the Grammy Awards telecast.
Some things, however, don’t change. Most obviously, the Grammy Awards are still pissing off rap music lovers. In a piece posted online two days before the broadcast of the Grammys this year, Complex took dead aim at the awards show as a way of marking the 25th anniversary of the presentation of the first Rap Grammy. “We expect the worst because it’s clear the Grammys don’t give a shit about rap,” they say. “The main reason we’re so pessimistic is because last year Macklemore won three out of the four rap Grammys – which means the Seattle rapper has more Grammys than Tupac, Biggie, Nas, DMX, Busta Rhymes, KRS-One, Rick Ross, Snoop Dogg, Mos Def, Run-DMC, Public Enemy, Big Pun, Jeezy, Ja Rule, and Kendrick Lamar combined.”
Kanye West had bigger fish to fry; this past February he was focused not on a rap award, but on the Album of the Year, and he proceeded to lose his mind when Beck and not Beyoncé was declared the winner. The award may’ve changed, but we know where he was coming from.