Will Smith Leads Star-Studded ‘Grammy Salute to 50 Years of Hip-Hop’



As the 50th anniversary of hip-hop comes to a close, the Recording Academy had one last trick up its sleeve to honor the pillars of the culture.

The Academy joined forces with CBS for “A Grammy Salute to 50 Years of Hip-Hop,” an aural spectacular that’s as much an ode to the culture as it is a documentation of it. Throughout the two-hour special, rappers and DJs from all walks of life came together to celebrate what started in the Bronx in the 1970s and spread across the world, charting its impact through a strong lineup of rappers, beatboxers, dancers, DJs and presenters.

The event, which took place at Inglewood’s YouTube Theater on November 8, featured a laundry list of performers spanning both decades and regions. Just a sampling of the artists: Queen Latifah, Common, Public Enemy, Rakim, Doug E. Fresh, MC Lyte, Rick Ross, Jeezy, Jermaine Dupri, YG, Too Short, E-40, De La Soul, Akon, Black Thought, Nelly, Gunna and Chance the Rapper each took turns rocking the mic, dropping a verse or two during medley performances that conveyed the breadth in style and substance in rap music.

One of the more notable moments came at the end, of course, when Will Smith — aka the Fresh Prince — reunited with DJ Jazzy Jeff for a medley of both solo and collaborative hits. Questlove, best known as the drummer for The Roots, gave a glowing introduction to the pair, who were the first hip-hop act to receive a Grammy award for hip-hop in 1989 with “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

“In a year and a night full of hip-hop moments, this is a big one,” said Questlove. “I grew up idolizing these two from my hometown of Illadelpho. They were the first artist to ever receive a Grammy award for hip-hop. Back then, they weren’t invited to perform or accept their award on camera, which led to the hip-hop community sitting things out that year. But thankfully, a year later, their hip-hop invitation did show up and they did become the first hip-hop group to ever perform at the Grammy Awards. And tonight, as a fan, as a friend, from way back in Philly, let’s welcome to the Grammy stage, the incomparable, the amazing, the legendary, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince!”

With Jazzy Jeff poised behind the turntables on an elevated podium, Smith kicked things off with “Brand New Funk,” a cut off their 1988 sophomore album “He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper.” Decked in an all-red ensemble with a Philly’s cap to match, Smith gave a brief tour of his discography, flanked by backup dancers for “Gettin’ Jiggy With It” and “Miami.” As he performed, his wife Jada Pinkett-Smith and children Willow and Jaden watched from the audience. It wouldn’t be a replete retrospective without a rendition of the theme song to his TV show “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” and the duo kept it brief with a concluding performance of “Summertime,” their highest-charting single that earned them their second Grammy in 1992 for best rap performance by a duo or group.

But the special packed more than just its marquee finisher. Flowers were given to the early queens of hip-hop, who kicked off the show with a who’s who of veterans and newcomers. Latifah, who appeared numerous times throughout the broadcast, joined Monie Love for their 1989 single “Ladies First.” What followed was something of a history lesson: Sha-Rock’s verse from Funky 4+1’s “That’s the Joint,” J.J. Fad’s “Supersonic,” Roxanne Shante’s “Roxanne’s Revenge” and MC Lyte’s “Cha Cha Cha.” They sprinkled a bit of more modern fare into the mix, with Remy Ma ripping through “All the Way Up” and Latto delivering “Put It on Da Floor.” To the song title’s credit, all the rappers came out at the end to join Latifah for “U.N.I.T.Y.,” an empowerment anthem addressing the inequity of and disrespect towards women in everyday society.

The attention soon turned to the south. “Fifty years ago, when hip-hop started, it was all about the East Coast and West Coast,” said presenter Chloe Bailey. “But then, the dirty south entered the chat.” Curated by Jermaine Dupri, whom Bailey referred to as “the forever mayor of the ATL,” the performance swung the spotlight around the rappers who helped define and propel Southern hip-hop into the mainstream. Jeezy, T.I. and Three 6 Mafia all ran through verses from some of their biggest hits, while UGK’s Bun B shouted out the late Pimp C during “Int’l Players Anthem.” GloRilla and Boosie Badazz joined in before 2 Live Crew’s Uncle Luke closed it out with “Scarred” and “I Wanna Rock.”

Public Enemy had their own moment, deservedly so, with an introduction from host LL Cool J. The Grammy Lifetime Achievement nominees were joined by Questlove on the turntables during some of their biggest hits, including “Fight the Power,” “Bring the Noise” and “Don’t Believe the Hype.” Flavor Flav and Chuck D brought the same impassioned fire that they’ve had since debuting in the mid-1980s.

The medleys kept on coming. Seth Rogen introduced a West Coast segment, which featured the most robust lineup of the evening. With DJ Battlecat on the decks, Warren G kicked it off with his classic “Regulator” before passing the mic to Luniz for “I Got 5 on It.” The hits just kept on coming, with Lady of Rage, YG, Tyga, Rody Ricch, DJ Quik, Yo-Yo and Cypress Hill performing some of their biggest songs. The medley ended in the Bay, with Too Short’s “Blow the Whistle” and E-40’s “Tell Me When to Go.”

The special, which also featured vignettes of Lin Manuel-Miranda and Jelly Roll talking about when they first fell in love with hip-hop, paid homage to the Native Tongues, a loose collective of artists in the 1980s and ‘90s that leaned on progressive ideology and jazz-inflected beats. Against the backdrop of a library, the performers sat at tables awaiting their turn to take the lead. What followed was a highlight reel of the movement’s touchstones: Common’s “I Used to Love H.E.R.,” Arrested People’s “People Everyday,” Digable Planets’ “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like That),” Black Sheep’s “The Choice is Yours,” Talib Kweli’s “Get By,” Latifah’s “Wrath of My Madness,” The Pharcyde’s “Runnin’” and De La Soul’s “The Bizness” with Common.

Actress Regina Hall teed up a performance from Big Daddy Kane, Black Thought and Rakim, while Akon led the charge for an international segment with renditions of “Locked Up” with Styles P and “Soul Survivor” with Jeezy. Blaqbonez made an appearance halfway through for “Like Ice Spice,” surrounded by dancers who dressed like Variety cover star Spice with a red afro, green tube top and cutoff jean shorts, just as she wears in the video for “Munch (Feelin’ U).”

Doug E. Fresh beatboxed his way through a celebration of the lives of those that hip-hop culture has lost, naming DMX, Nipsey Hussle, Tupac Shakur, Mark the 45 King and De La Soul’s Trugoy the Dove. Machine Gun Kelly introduced the following slate of artists with a personal anecdote. “The greatest thing to happen to me besides me becoming a father is hip-hop,” he said. “It was there for me when I was sad, when I was mad at the world, and most importantly, in the seventh grade when a girl decided to dance on me to ‘Hot in Herre’ by Nelly. Thank you. To me, hip-hop has always been the life of the party, and the party is just getting started.”

And the party continued, with yet another medley, this time led by 2 Chainz for “Birthday Song,” no doubt a reference to the anniversary at hand. Gunna, Coi Leroy, Nelly and Rick Ross shared the stage before Chance the Rapper brought back out 2 Chainz for the ebullient “No Problem,” with the aforementioned rappers reemerging on stage.

The night ended on a positive note from Harvey Mason Jr., who looked back on the event to contextualize it in the framework of the culture that brought them here. “Now it’s no coincidence that we’re all here at this time with so much stress and so much division and pain in the world, but this music is the antidote,” he said. “This music is the medicine. this music is the universal language that even the most divided of us can understand. But it also has the power to disrupt and change. It has the power to break through even the loudest noise and unify. And so let’s acknowledge that there is no music without hip-hop right now. The music business isn’t what it is without hip-hop. Tonight, we’ve celebrated, but more importantly, we’ve permanently cemented the legacy, the impact and the contributions of this music, of our music, to the culture and to the world forever.”


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