This year's Grammy awards on Feb. 13 marked the 20-year anniversary of Public Enemy's boycott of the 1991 ceremony. It was the third year in a row that the group had been nominated for Best Rap Performance by a Group or Duo; the previous two years, the group lost to Young MC with "Bust a Move" and "Back on the Block," a song from a Quincy Jones album. The song featured Big Daddy Kane, Ice T, Kool Moe Dee and Melle Mel, but still. The Grammys weren't ready for Public Enemy's revolutionary rap.
Public Enemy didn't boycott because the Grammys snubbed them. The group stood in solidarity with Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons, angry that the television broadcast only featured the major awards, leaving 79 prizes—including the rap Grammys—off camera and awarded before the show. Simmons referred to "the same old broken-record snub of inner-city contributions to the music industry," as his impetus for the boycott. Everyone's favorite bald-headed Irish singer, Sinead O'Connor, got in on the action, saying the Grammys honored commercial success rather than artistic merit.
Public Enemy lost the Grammy that year to DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince's "Summertime." Point proven.
A lot has changed with the Grammys since 1991: The show televises rap awards along with many others that had been behind the scenes. Hip-hop artists receive nominations for, and sometimes win, Record of the Year and Album of the Year. The Grammy awards reflect hip-hop's ascension into the upper reaches of popular consciousness in some ways.
But how much has really changed? It is nothing new to hear someone decry the awards show for pandering to sales over substance, as Sinead O'Connor pointed out 20 years ago. A quick look at this year's hip-hop nominations shows that the best records are often not the ones that gain recognition. That's fine, I suppose. Most music lovers don't place much importance on the Grammys, anyway.
The powers-that-be at the Grammys truly screwed up this year, though. In the annual memoriam segment—a video collage of musicians and artists that have died in the past year—someone very important was missing: Gang Starr's MC, Guru.
Born Keith Elam, Guru succumbed to cancer April 19, 2010, at 43 years old. Given the drama in the days following his death, with the media-hyped reports of Guru's falling out with Gang Starr's other half, DJ Premier, it is safe to assume the Grammys knew about Guru's death.
Gang Starr, while holding a special place in the hearts of people like me and other hip-hoppers, was never, by any stretch of the imagination, a pop powerhouse. The group never had a platinum album. Instead, they exerted their influence through the incalculable number of artists they inspired, directly and indirectly. As O'Connor and Simmons alluded 20 years ago, real artists who don't sell millions and who talk about real inner-city things do not get included on the Grammy's memorial list. It's a shame.
Do yourself a favor this week: Locate and listen to Public Enemy's "Fear of a Black Planet" and Gang Starr's "Step Into the Arena" and reflect on, first, how incredibly amazing both records are, and second, how both records are better than any hip-hop records the Grammys have awarded over the past decade, at least.
Rest in peace, Guru. How much has really changed?