It was 1989. The scene: Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium. The host: Billy Crystal, who then was starring in films such as Memories of Me and When Harry Met Sally. The event was the 31st Annual Grammy Awards. George H.W. Bush had recently been sworn in as president of the United States, and the Gulf War would soon be looming. In the last year of the 1980s, pop ruled the Billboard charts but hip-hop continued its rise in sales and its impact on culture. Pioneers such as Public Enemy, Heavy D, 2 Live Crew, The Beastie Boys, Queen Latifah, Big Daddy Kane, De La Soul, Special Ed, 3rd Bass, Boogie Down Productions and more were changing music and the music industry.
That night though: Bobby McFerrin, would-be 10-time Grammy winner, won song of the year and record of the year for “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” The song was McFerrin’s only No. 1 hit and had a layer of controversy attached, as it had been used by the Bush presidential campaign in 1988 without the permission of McFerrin. In protest, McFerrin for years removed the song from his concert set lists. The televised broadcast of the Grammys also featured what would become a legendary performance by Whitney Houston — she sang her “One Moment in Time” against a montage backdrop from Team USA highlights of the ’88 Olympics.
But it’s what didn’t happen during the televised broadcast of the 31st Grammy Awards that made the 1989 event even more memorable. DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, aka Jeff Townes and Will Smith, who had been nominated for the first-ever best rap performance Grammy for their hit crossover single “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” were not there to pick up their award. When it had been decided that the only rap award would be announced during the nontelevised portion of the show, hip-hop had its own decisions to make. “We chose to boycott,” Smith said at the time. He called the idea of the afternoon award a “slap in the face. … You go to school for 12 years, they give you your diploma and they deny you that walk down the aisle.”
Besides Jeff and Will, the other first rap Grammy nominees were:
- J.J. Fad, “Supersonic”
- Kool Moe Dee, “Wild Wild West”
- LL Cool J, “Going Back to Cali”
- Salt-N-Pepa, “Push It”
All of these songs had been released one, two or, in the case of “Push It,” even three years before. Hip-hop by 1989 was going through a transformation. The anger was no longer mostly underground but rather more out front. Public Enemy would release its critically acclaimed Fear of a Black Planet in 1990, and the cracks in the foundation of revolutionary supergroup N.W.A. were beginning to show.
DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince were in a playful, more mainstream rap lane that included MC Hammer and his diamond 1990 Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ’Em. “Parents Just Don’t Understand” peaked at No. 12 on Billboard’s pop singles chart, but it was the building momentum that DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince saw on one of their first big tours that cemented for the West Philly duo what everyone else was seeing. “We were on the road, so we had no idea how the record was doing on the radio,” Jazzy Jeff said in Brian Coleman’s Check the Technique: Volume 2: More Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies. “I remember one night … Will did the first verse and then did the first line of the second verse, but told the crowd to finish it. And I thought, Oh, no, this could be the biggest disaster in the world! But … 20,000 people finished the verse.”
MC Hammer’s massive sales numbers, though, were the exception at the time for hip-hop, not the rule. Rap was still considered a fringe force, fighting not only for its place at the Grammy Awards but also for acceptance as a respected musical genre. It was just that fight and the almost constant controversy surrounding hip-hop that fueled its ascent to being the most popular musical genre in the world.
The news started out great. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) had announced that rap would have its own official category. “The excitement was through the roof,” said Jazzy Jeff. “It was validation for the culture.” But when the news quickly turned bittersweet, Russell Simmons and Lyor Cohen of Def Jam Recordings led a boycott of the 1989 Grammys. Joining them were the Fresh Prince and Jazzy Jeff along with Salt-N-Pepa, Public Enemy, Ice-T and others. Def Jam spokesman Bill Adler’s press release said that NARAS was “ghetto-izing” rap. The boycotting group even held a “Boycott the Grammys” party on the night of the broadcast.
The show wasn’t an all-out rap boycott, however. JJ Fad attended, as did Kool Moe Dee, who presented the embattled best rap performance award at the pre-show, saying, “On behalf of all MCs, my co-workers and fellow nominees — Jazzy Jeff, J.J. 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.”
The “boy who’s bad” refers to his rival LL Cool J. Years later, Moe Dee told The New York Times that he believed a better strategy than boycotting would have been for all the artists to show up and “make our case in that space where the world was watching.” Except, of course, that world wouldn’t have been watching the nontelevised version of the show.
One person who did agree with the boycott and believed it ultimately helped the duo cement their place in hip-hop was one of the producers of “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” Ruffhouse Records founder Joe “The Butcher” Nicolo. “It was important to make that stand,” said Nicolo. “I actually thought it would help them. They weren’t bowing down to the Grammy gods, and people respect you for that.”
Also supporting the boycott was DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s A&R representative at the time, “Tokyo Rose,” aka Ann Carli. “I supported the boycott,” recalled Carli. “Jive Records was always very supportive of artists.”
The stance taken by Smith and Townes in 1989 is difficult to imagine now. At the 58th Grammy Awards in 2016, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly was nominated for album of the year. And while the album didn’t win, it was a reminder that rap music is no longer a fringe genre but rather the most important and influential music in the world. But for every Kendrick moment, there is another example where what Smith, Townes and others fought for seems to be all but forgotten — like at the 57th Grammy Awards in 2015, where no rap awards were presented on the televised broadcast for the first time in 25 years.
Looking back on the protest in 2016, Jazzy Jeff (at this point with four Grammy nominations and two wins) said he felt that he and Smith (at this point with eight Grammy nominations and four wins) represented the culture well and ultimately had an impact. “We … were very, very young and thrust into a position with the eyes of the world on us,” he said. “And to see somebody like Kendrick … it just makes you proud.”
Not even a Grammy slight could take the shine off “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” Its success, and how it sparked the duo’s careers and the meteoric rise of Smith as a Hollywood heavyweight, is stunning. Carli recalled shooting the video for the single, which was done in one 18-hour shoot, and then watching the footage with director Scott Kalvert.
“Holy crap, the camera loves [this kid],” Carli remembers saying. “He’s so incredibly expressive, and he’s selling the story. I called my boss and I said … ‘You know, this kid is going to be a movie star. I think he can be as big as Eddie Murphy.’ ” Carli then proceeded to call Simmons, who managed the duo at the time, to share her feelings about the budding star. Famously, Simmons told Carli that he might be as big as Malcolm-Jamal Warner, but not Eddie Murphy.
Except for Lil Yachty as someone who presents a similar youthful, colorful vibe, Carli doesn’t see many who compare to DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince in today’s current rap climate. “They had a real love and understanding of the genre,” said Carli. “These young rappers don’t seem to have a knowledge and appreciation for the history and the shoulders they’re standing on. … Still to this day, Will is where he is because of his self-confidence, talent and, as Quincy Jones would say, his ‘ass power’… he sticks in the chair until it’s done.”
But as the 60th Grammy Awards approach, the best rap performance award features a class of nominees who each represent something special and also build on the foundation of what DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince and their peers did three decades ago:
- Kendrick Lamar: The collective spirit of the West Coast
- Jay-Z: A connection to four different decades of rap
- Migos: The youthful spirit of the genre today
- Big Sean: The holding of lyrics in high regard
- Cardi B: A new rap superstar