Since Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ Sunday win over Kendrick Lamar for the Grammy’s “Best Rap Album” award, there has been no shortage of commentary. I suspect a number of “think pieces” have been written including the phrase “cultural appropriation.” America has had a problem candidly discussing race since it was “discovered,” so I’m all for some open dialogue on the matter. The problem is that we’re not really getting any. By and large, what’s flooding cyberspace is a bunch of half-assed rhetoric about how the “white guy who doesn’t even belong in Hip Hop” has “robbed” Kendrick Lamar.
If you’re looking for more of that here, feel free to redirect your browser to another site. Macklemore’s whiteness isn’t the sole driving reason he won the Grammy for “Best Rap Album,” although it’s a totally fair question to ask when trying to come to some conclusion about why what many felt was the best representation of Hip Hop during the Grammy Committee’s eligibility period of October 1, 2011 through September 30, 2012 wasn’t honored. Macklemore isn’t the antagonist to Kendrick’s protagonist or some kind of cultural interloper. And I’m not writing this to build that bullshit, straw-man argument here and shoot it down. But I do think people are asking the wrong questions as it regards why The Heist took home the honors instead of good kid, m.A.A.d city. Do the Grammy Awards still matter? Is there a better process for awarding the best Hip Hop in any given year? Why are people in Hip Hop looking for external validation from the Grammy Awards? Why does it seem like the process for awarding Grammys is shrouded in secrecy?
The Myth Of White Grammy Award Favoritism
I think Macklemore should stop apologizing for winning the Grammy for “Best Rap Album.” I’m not arguing that he should have won—I think Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music and obviously Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city (both released during the eligibility window) would have both been better choices. The Heist didn’t win solely because Macklemore & Ryan Lewis are white. The Grammy for “Best Rap Album” has only been in existence since 1995. Contrary to what Huffington Post erroneously asserted in a January 28 article, the Academy doesn’t “love white rappers.” In the 19 years since the award’s inception at the 38th Grammys, only one other white artist has won “Best Rap Album.” That would be one Marshall Bruce Mathers for Recovery, Relapse, The Eminem Show, The Marshall Mathers LP and The Slim Shady LP.
I think if the Grammy Committee truly went out of their way to award the top-selling white artists in Rap, they would have awarded Vanilla Ice in 1991 instead of LL Cool J. As it happens, LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” won over “Ice Ice Baby” in the category of “Best Rap Solo Performance.” This happened despite the fact that sales of Vanilla Ice’s To The Extreme (7 million) were more than three times higher than those of LL Cool J’s Mama Said Knock You Out album (2 million). But we’ll revisit the issue of how sales impact Grammy wins a bit later.
Two winners in 19 years doesn’t sound like some vast conspiracy to enable the domination of Rap by Caucasian males. If you want to make an argument that Macklemore’s whiteness afforded him the type of visibility the Grammy committee historically rewards, I would agree. Macklemore said as much himself during a CRWN interview with Elliott Wilson in the following quote:
“But it’s something that I absolutely, not only in terms of society, benefit from my white privilege but being a Hip Hop artist in 2013, I do as well. The people that are coming to shows, the people that are connecting, that are resonating with me, that are like, ‘I look like that guy. I have an immediate connection with him.’ I benefit from that privilege and I think that mainstream pop culture has accepted me on a level that they might be reluctant to, in terms of a person of color…”
I don’t think being white gets Macklemore, Ryan Lewis or any other artist a Grammy. But it does get them multiple appearances on the Ellen DeGeneres Show and repeated spins on Clear Channel radio stations across the country. And, in turn, they enjoy the type of popularity that finds middle-aged women playing their album as they pull up to Trader Joe’s.
Best In Show: Why The Grammys Historically Reward Popularity
Not to belabor the point, but if you look at the list of artists who have won the Grammy for “Best Rap Album,” I think they’re being rewarded more for popularity than whiteness or any other factor. If you look below at the previous Grammy winners dating back to 1995, what you’ll find is an overwhelming preference given toward mainstream, major label, popular albums that fit conveniently within the Top 40. The lone exception would be Naughty By Nature’s Poverty’s Paradise.
The “Best Rap Album” Grammy Winners Since 1994
1995: Naughty By Nature - Poverty's Paradise (500,000 Sold)
1996: Fugees - The Score (6 Million Sold)
1997: Puff Daddy & The Family - No Way Out (7 Million Sold)
1998: Jay Z - Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life (5 Million Sold)
1999: Eminem - The Slim Shady LP (4 Million Sold)
2000: Eminem - The Marshall Mathers LP (10 Million Sold)
2001: OutKast - Stankonia (4 Million Sold)
2002: Eminem - The Eminem Show (10 Million Sold)
2003: OutKast - Speakerboxxx / The Love Below (11 Million Sold)
2004: Kanye West - The College Dropout (2 Million Sold)
2005: Kanye West - Late Registration (3 Million Sold)
2006: Ludacris - Release Therapy (1 Million Sold)
2007: Kanye West - Graduation (2 Million Sold)
2008: Lil Wayne - Tha Carter III (3 Million Sold)
2009: Eminem - Relapse (2 Million Sold)
2010: Eminem - Recovery (4.5 Million Sold)
2011: Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (1 Million Sold)
2012: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis - The Heist (1.2 Million Sold)
Treach, Vin Rock and Kay Gee’s third album enjoyed moderate commercial success, but not nearly as much as other albums released during the Grammy Committee’s eligibility window. From October 1, 1994 through September 30, 1995 2Pac’s Me Against The World, Tha Dogg Pound’s Dogg Food (both #1 Billboard debuts) would have been more commercially popular choices. I’d argue that the committee—likely still smitten by Naughty’s “Hip Hop Hooray” popularity—went with a popular but slightly less threatening (at least compared to Tupac Shakur, Daz and Kurupt) choice. Given the above information, why do we put so much stock in the Grammys?
Pop Matters: Why The Grammys Are (Reluctantly) Still Relevant
When there’s such an egregious choice as Macklemore winning over Kendrick, one knee-jerk reaction is to say, “The Grammys don’t matter.” As much as it pains me to say it, I disagree. If you’re someone who’s not entrenched in Hip Hop music and culture on a daily basis, you can argue that Grammys are a perfectly logical way to get a qualitative analysis of what happened in music in any given year. The Grammys pass the “eye test.” If I’m from another planet (or even another country), and I know very little about popular American music, I’m going to start to ask what music people value and why. Eventually, I’d probably land on the Grammys as a benchmark, if for no other reason than the buzz surrounding the event and its historical track record. I’m not arguing that the Grammy Awards are the most accurate or even logical way to determine the best Rap/Hip Hop material in any given year.
Sadly, Hip Hop has done a piss poor job of bringing prestige, scholarly analysis and objectivity to its own awards. So awards such as the Grammys, American Music Awards and even the Billboard Awards win by default. Why? Because the Source Awards are most infamously associated with the Death Row versus Bad Boy face off and chain snatchings (with Andre 3000’s “The South got somethin’ to say” quote ranking a close third). The Vibe Awards conjure up memories of Young Buck stabbing Dr. Dre’s would-be assailant. And the O-Zone and Soul Train Awards are lumped in with other shows that lack the budget, history and national exposure of outfits like the Grammys. Unfortunately, yet again, Rap can only blame itself. If the Source Awards (or any other Hip Hop award show) had truly done a proper job honoring Hip Hop, I don’t think we’d have cared what the Grammy Awards had to say. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say artists like Biggie, Tupac and others put more stock in being honored by participants in their own culture than mainstream society.
I went on iTunes Sunday night after Macklemore’s win, and The Heist was already being described as a “Grammy Award Winning Album.” There’s a certain amount of prestige—real, imagined or externally manufactured—associated with winning a Grammy. There’s also a very real sales boost associated with winning a Grammy. According to Spotify, despite not winning “Best Rap Album,” Kendrick Lamar still saw his Spotify traffic increase by 99% after the Grammy Awards. When attempting to quantitatively gauge an album’s importance, fans and some critics will turn to the numbers—album sales, charting positions, and the amount of awards bestowed upon said album. In a perfect world, neither fans nor critics would only quantitatively judge an album in a manner measured numerically. But it’s not a perfect world, and people are fucking stupid. As such, I think a significant amount of people only use numbers because they assume they’re leveling the playing field. In reality, all album sales, charting positions and awards get you is the most popular, mainstream album. Occasionally the best Hip Hop album is also the most popular, mainstream album, but Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ win point out one of the many flaws in relying strictly on the numbers.
Crack In The System: Inherent Flaws In The Grammy Award Process
So aside from spawning a bunch of angry Hip Hop fans and “think pieces,” what’s the real takeaway from Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ win? I think it just reinforces the commonly held opinion that the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences doesn’t have a vested interest in Hip Hop music or culture. I think it would be foolish of us to expect them to have such an interest. I think the fact that the first win for “Best Rap Performance” was not televised speaks to this. The fact that Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince secured that win over Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton and Boogie Down Productions’ By All Means Necessary speaks further to this. If Hip Hop had a credible, Rap-centric award show, we wouldn't have cared about these slights.
I also think the Grammy Committee has a clear preference for mainstream, Top 40, major label Rap albums, despite instructions that voters “shall not be influenced by personal friendships, company loyalties, regional preferences or mass sales.” Aside from that, my biggest issue with the Grammy selection process is how the entire process is shrouded in secrecy. I think most of us probably know more about how the pope is selected than we do about how an album wins a Grammy. Both Rob Kenner and Killer Mike (Mike is a member of Atlanta’s Grammy committee) have shed some light on the process. Kenner penned an informative piece for Complex.com detailing his experience as a member of the screening committee for the “Best Reggae Album” category. Kenner’s evidence is strictly anecdotal, but given his credentials, they match up with both the “eye test” and the information made public about the Grammy voting process.
“I soon learned another unwritten rule during private conversations with other committee members: be careful about green-lighting an album by someone who was really famous if you don’t want to see that album win a Grammy,” Kenner wrote. “Because famous people tend to get more votes from clueless Academy members, regardless of the quality of their work.”
Additionally, members are encouraged to only vote in fields of their expertise, but according to Kenner’s experience, nothing prevents them from voting in a field they know nothing about. In theory, what prevents a member of the Heavy Metal screening committee from voting for Macklemore as “Best Rap Album” if it’s the only Rap album they know about? Nothing.
Macklemore essentially said as much to Hot 97 after his Grammy win. “This is the Grammys,” Macklemore said. “This is many different types of people. All different age groups filling out a ballot where they might not necessarily know the genre… I don’t really know about singer-songwriter or country music or whatever, but people are filling out bubbles of genres that they don’t know about. And that’s the process of it.”
This is all compounded by the fact that there is an anonymous nominations committee empowered to adjust the votes. Kenner mentions them, and they’re also referred to by Bill Wynam of Slate.com as a “secret manipulation of its membership’s nomination.” In theory, the anonymity should protect the committee from being swayed by record industry pressure and the ever-present possibility of payola which plagues radio. But this also further muddles the public perception of how Grammys are awarded.
No Apologies Necessary: Blame The Grammys Not Macklemore
Ultimately, the Grammy Awards could benefit from a bit of transparency. Given how many Top 40 projects and artists are awarded, I personally wouldn’t be mad at a public formula that rewards a weighted mixture of artistic merit, technical precision and sales. I don’t think commercial appeal should be the only way we measure an album’s success, because I don’t want to see PSY of “Gangnam Style” fame or Milli Vanilli win a Grammy. But I feel there is something to be said for popularity. And sales are a good way to quantitatively measure popularity.
All of which brings us back to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. The Heist was an extremely popular album. In addition to album sales of 1.1 million, The Heist spawned the single “Thrift Shop,” which has sold at least 7 million copies. “Same Love” boasts sales of 2 million, and “Can’t Hold Us” has moved 4 million units. I didn’t personally care for the album, because I found it leaned too far toward the pop side. And I’m not even saying pop is inherently bad. I just don’t care for it. I would have said the same thing if Black Eyed Peas won an award. But I find the argument that The Heist wasn’t Grammy worthy because it was “too pop” flawed—especially given the Grammy Committee’s history of rewarding mainstream albums. And since Macklemore & Ryan Lewis are only the second white artists to win “Best Rap Album,” I’m reluctant to fully play the race card. I’m not a Macklemore apologist, but I think he and Ryan Lewis are far from cultural interlopers. Not only was The Heist a truly independent album (though Lewis said Warner subsidiary Alternative Distribution Alliance pushed various singles from the album to Top 40 radio without a contractual agreement with Macklemore & Ryan Lewis LLC), but it’s at least Macklemore’s third Rap album.
I don’t think any of this is about Macklemore & Ryan Lewis being a white duo, being too pop or being so-called interlopers in Hip Hop. Musically, they knew exactly what they were doing, and they were critically and financially rewarded for their efforts. Sure, race plays a factor, but this isn’t a case of the evil white guys coming to infiltrate Hip Hop. The only fingers that should be pointed need to be aimed squarely at the Grammy Committee and at Hip Hop. The Grammy Awards have been around since 1958; that’s a time that obviously predates Hip Hop. And you can make a solid argument that Hip Hop has never been truly welcome. The Grammys were doing just fine without Rap. Why are people in Hip Hop still looking for validation outside the culture?
Hip Hop Needs To Do A Better Job Honoring Its Own Culture
Any form of music will be ignored while its still proving itself commercially viable. And Hip Hop was more or less ignored, or at best, treated like an inferior genre during its infancy. And I think this is why you had groups like Public Enemy saying, “Who gives a fuck about a Goddamn Grammy?” on the song “Terminator X to the Edge of Panic.” I think this is why Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince boycotted the Grammy Awards in 1989, and it’s why Jay Z also boycotted the 2002 Grammys. Whether we’re talking about Chubb Rock & Howie Tee’s 1989 album, And The Winner Is… or Steve Stoute’s full page op-ed in the New York Times, it’s all the same thing to me. The argument has shifted from Hip Hop being ignored to Hip Hop not liking how the genre and culture are being treated by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. This an issue of entitlement. I don’t think there’s a reasonable excuse for Hip Hop not having a viable alternative anymore now that the culture has surpassed its 40th birthday. The Grammy Academy uses an inherently flawed process to award artists, and as a fan, I find it even more frustrating because the problems with their process can be fixed rather easily. But what’s more frustrating is that after 40-plus years, we’re collectively still moping around and hoping for validation because we as Hip Hop consumers, critics and participants haven’t found a better way to honor our own culture. Given what I know and have experienced about the rebellious, self-empowered nature of the music and culture, I don’t think there’s anything “Hip Hop” about begging gatekeepers of mainstream American culture for their table scraps in hopes of recognition.
Omar Burgess is a Long Beach, California native who has contributed to various magazines, newspapers and has been an editor at HipHopDX since 2008. Follow him on Twitter @OmarBurgess.