On merit, I’ve never taken the Grammys seriously. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences has always had a tense relationship with the hip-hop industry, and no rap fan has lent much credence to the yearly ritual of passing out tiny record-player trophies to astonished artists.
But apparently that’s all changed now. At least in the eyes of the venerable Jay-Z. His epic takedown during the awards show of The-Dream, an artist he worked with in winning the best rap/sung collaboration award for “No Church in the Wild,” was a far cry from the solidarity that used to be shown when it came to the rap game and the award show.
At first, Shawn Carter didn’t say much as he, Frank Ocean and The-Dream, born Terius Nash, accepted the trophy. But after Nash thanked his mother and grandfather for giving him the gifts to be a singer, Jay spoke up. The sound of his voice alone ended the music that typically plays off a recipient. It was like bizarro world: A rapper decides to talk at the Grammy Awards and the band actually stops to hear what he has to say.
And he used that opportunity, seemingly, to insult The-Dream: “I would like to thank the swap meet for his hat,” Jay said, referring to Nash’s outfit. Nash, sporting two hats, one of which had a logo of John Singleton’s movie “Boyz n the Hood” on it, was dressed for a typical video shoot, it seemed, not the red carpet. Carter basically called Nash out as too unrefined for the show.
It was a shocking moment. Twenty-four years after DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince took home the first-ever rap Grammy for “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” one of the most successful rappers of all time was insulting a collaborator in front of the world. There was a time when rappers boycotted the show en masse, in protest of what they felt was a lack of respect for the genre. Including Jay-Z.
“I am boycotting the Grammys because too many major rap artists continue to be overlooked,” Carter said back in 2002, standing up for the, ahem, rough-around-the-edges DMX. “Rappers deserve more attention from the Grammy committee and from the whole world. If it’s got a gun, everybody knows about it; but if we go on a world tour, no one knows.”
Sunday’s show was full of a lot of touching and powerful moments. Chuck Brown and Chris Lighty were honored during the “In Memoriam” segment, and the show ended with a tribute to the late MCA of the Beastie Boys. There was also a tribute to Bob Marley earlier in the night.
But Jay-Z’s quip stuck with me. Was it really necessary to dress down Nash like that? Have we really come so far that artists are dissing each other on the podium? Barely any of the categories for which hip-hop artists are nominated are even televised, and it’s 2013.
Carter willfully chose to ruin one of the biggest moments of The-Dream’s career, for nothing other than what appeared to be a laugh. It could have been a well-intentioned joke, but a man of Carter’s stature knows that his words matter. We know this because he raps about it all the time.
I’ve said before that I don’t think anyone in the rap industry owes anyone else anything by default, but Jay-Z’s quip just felt unnecessarily nasty. Maybe the game has advanced to the point that this isn’t a big deal. But on a night when only one of the four rappers to take the stage and perform in the show was under 40, it made it clear that we’re back to a situation in which being a part of the establishment is a requirement to be treated with respect at the Grammys.
Back in 1993, A Tribe Called Quest’s Phife famously said in their “Midnight Marauders” track “Award Tour” that he’ll “never let a statue tell me how nice I am.” Meaning he wasn’t going to let his self-worth as an artist be determined by the number of Grammys he won. But that doesn’t mean that winning one doesn’t feel good. It’s not a moment that you take away from someone you’ve worked with.
Like it or not, the hip-hop community is still a family at this point. That goes for artists, fans and the industry. Fighting in public, whether it’s trumped up for the cameras or not, makes us all look bad.
And last night, His Royal Hovness let the fam down. Big time.
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