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Grammys finally move to a more urban beat

THE BALTIMORE SUN

They're usually a day late and 50 Cent short when it comes to musical trends. But the annual Grammy Awards, pop's most important showcase, has finally jumped onto the hip-hop and contemporary rhythm-and-blues bandwagon.

And, urban America wonders, where have they been for 25 years?

Hip-hop, with its incessant beats and spoken rhymes, and modern R&B;, which mixes elements of hip-hop with the soulful, soaring vocals of a generation ago, rule the airwaves. Together, they make up a multibillion-dollar part of the music industry, having slowly and steadily usurped genres such as grunge, alternative rock and, with a few exceptions, good old pop and rock. In any given week, a look at the Top 10 charts from Billboard -- a magazine that tracks the sales and radio play of singles and albums -- shows how the sound of America has changed.

Now, so have the Grammys, or, more precisely, the makeup of the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which votes on them.

"In the past, the membership didn't include many members from the urban community," says Alan Foster, the academy's senior award coordinator for urban music, who has worked to make its membership more inclusive.

And tonight, as the industry resumes its annual bombastic, glitzy celebration of art and commerce, the Grammy Awards (8 p.m. on CBS, WJZ Channel 13 in Baltimore) will emphasize R&B; and hip-hop like never before, with performances by the genres' biggest names.

The two styles overwhelm the major award categories, record of the year and album of the year. And the most successful black acts -- Jay-Z, Beyonce Knowles, OutKast and Pharrell Williams -- lead the nominations with six apiece.

"Hip-hop is happening," Foster says.

But so was disco.

It wasn't until two years after that dance phenomenon swept the globe that disco became a Grammy category in 1979, as the fad was in full fade. Gloria Gaynor won the best disco performance Grammy in 1979 for "I Will Survive," and the slot disappeared the next year.

When the academy instituted a hard-rock category in 1988, the first winner was Jethro Tull, a British group whose music mixes folk melodies, flutes and violins -- hardly the essence of heavy.

The members of Metallica, the genre's pre-eminent band at the time, were famously aghast. The Grammys also overlooked the pioneers of hip-hop: the Sugar Hill Gang, Run-D.M.C. and others. In between, recognition of hip-hop and rap, its more aggressive, less dance-oriented cousin, has been hit-and-miss. But the academy is becoming hipper.

When Foster took the job seven years ago, Grammys for hip-hop artists were among those presented off the air -- along with awards for liner notes (essays included in album packaging) and engineering. "I was like everybody else, thinking the award show didn't reflect what's out there," Foster says. "After I got here, the first goal was to have the membership reflect what's going on."

Foster, 40, reached out to the urban music community -- making rounds at clubs and record-label parties and events, and contacting producers, artists and engineers to recruit members. Foster says this year's nominations reflect the results of his grassroots efforts. "We're catching up," he says. "It's coming along."

More categories

Last year, Foster was responsible for diversifying the hip-hop categories, adding best female rap solo performance. Two more slots -- best urban/alternative performance and best contemporary R&B; album -- were also included as of last year.

"There was no need for a Luther Vandross to compete with B2K, or Aretha Franklin to be in the same category with Ashanti," Foster says. "As R&B; productions take on more hip-hop elements, it was important to have categories that reflect that."

The nominations are "a further indication of how established [hip-hop and R&B; have] become in recent years," says Gotti, 25, a one-name music editor at The Source, a New York-based hip-hop magazine. "It's taken [the Grammys] a long time to recognize the art form. But I think it's great that it's finally getting some recognition. Hip-hop has been here, like, 25 years."

Dennis Da Menace, a rapper and host on Fuse, a new cable music network, says, "I'm pretty confident in what's represented this year. ... The doors are open now for rappers who have been putting out albums for years."

Entering those newly open doors are hip-hop veterans MC Lyte and Queen Latifah, who received nominations for best female rap solo performance. Ten years ago, Latifah won a Grammy for her hit single "U.N.I.T.Y."

Still, acknowledging hip-hop and really knowing it aren't one and the same, if this year's nominations are any indication.

Two cases in point are The Roots, one of the genre's most influential and progressive groups, and Gang Starr, one of the finest duos in the game. Both acts released critically acclaimed albums last year that performed well on the charts. But together, they're nominated for a total of one Grammy: The Roots' gold-certified Phrenology is up against platinum-plus sellers by Missy Elliott, OutKast, Jay-Z and 50 Cent for best rap album.

Typical of the Grammys, the rap and R&B; artists garnering the most media attention and nominations have sold millions of units, and their videos are in frequent rotation on MTV. Gang Starr and the Roots, by contrast, are hip-hop artists who invigorate the genre with various influences -- jazz and rock, specifically -- in ways that aren't always embraced by radio, BET or MTV.

"The Grammys don't represent raw hip-hop," says Richard Nichols, 45, a 20-year industry veteran and producer who has managed the Roots for 12 years. "They don't care about the aesthetic. It's all sales-based. It's a promotional vehicle for artists."

Last year, Norah Jones' five Grammy wins boosted the sales of her debut CD, Come Away With Me, by 300 percent. And all acts that performed on the telecast saw a significant increase in sales the week after.

"People care if you sweep the Grammys," Nichols says. "If you win in an obscure category and nobody sees you on TV, the Grammy win doesn't mean that much."

With scheduled performances by OutKast, Robert Randolph and the Family Band and funk innovators Parliament Funkadelic and Earth, Wind & Fire, the awards show could be trying to make up for not televising R&B; wins last year.

'It's about ratings'

"Every year, I fight to have some R&B; and hip-hop represented on the show," Foster says. "I think last year was more of a tribute to New York; that's why you saw Simon & Garfunkel and Bruce Springsteen" on the broadcast.

"It's about ratings. When you only have so many slots, [the producers] are going for the ratings. And if Avril Lavigne is hot, they're going to go with Avril. ... Each year, they're giving a genre a shot. There's a theme going on."

Clearly, it's urban music's turn. By next year, there might be a new hot genre to steal the Grammys' focus. But the throbbing hip-hop beats and histrionics-soaked R&B; vocals burning the airwaves and the charts won't be fading soon.

"Hip-hop and R&B; are going to continue to grow and thrive and be successful," Gotti says, "Grammy or not."

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