I Went to the GRAMMYs, Here’s What It's Really Like

Here's everything the TV cameras didn't show you. I know, I was there.
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Here's everything the TV cameras didn't show you. I know, I was there.

You know it’s real when they tell you about the magnetometer. The word sounds like it belongs in a cheap science fiction movie – “Our only hope of returning to Earth lies in the fixing the Magnetometer!” - but it’s real and that’s the first time the weight of being at the GRAMMYs really sinks in. Hand stamps are for sweaty clubs, color-coded festival wristbands clearly won’t suffice. Even photo credentials can be counterfeited, and when there’s something like 25 million people watching a room filled with musical celebrities collectively worth as much as several Eastern European countries, counterfeit can’t be risked. So instead credentials are embedded with a nearly impossible to duplicate magnetic chip. Pass the magnetic barrier and be allowed access to the promised land. Fail and face exile, forced to huddle with the masses along Figueroa St. This year, I'm official. And so I enter the GRAMMYs and prepare to be radiated with the amassed star power of a thousand suns. 

I’m not sure how I got here. I mean, I can literally backtrack my path to the GRAMMYs. I left college with dreams of racking up serious Pulitzers, somewhere along the line detoured into writing about rap music, and nearly a decade later it’s become my common law marriage of a career. One day you look around the house, realize all the furniture is hers, and have to admit you’re in this thing for life even if you never technically said “I do.”

So a long time music writer at the world’s pre-eminent music event makes logical sense, but this music writer? Me? The one with the beard who spent much of the last two weeks writing about Kanye’s sex laptop? Truth be told, for years I’ve - ”hammered” is too strong of a word, let’s go with “forcefully poked” - the GRAMMYs for their apparent disconnection from the music it claims to celebrate, especially when it comes to hip-hop. Forget Macklemore over Kendrick, in 1998 Puff Daddy’s No Way Out beat out both Wu-Tang Forever and Life After Death for Best Rap Album. Nas has exactly zero GRAMMYs. It took until 1995 for the Academy to even recognize hip-hop as a genre worthy of awards. Those are the originals sins. The Heist over GKMC was only the spoiled apple that predictably grew from that rotten tree.

The annual uproar over the GRAMMYs rap-related awards didn’t stem solely from hip-hop’s love for argument, although that love certainly exists. It stemmed from the feeling that the GRAMMYs were living in an ivory tower, only humoring the hip-hop peasants below to avoid outright revolution. The commoners are mad their beloved Kendrick lost? Let them eat cake then. But as much as I tried to insist that hip-hop didn’t need an outsider’s approval to know its own greatness, the gravitational pull of the GRAMMYs was just too great. I couldn’t escape their orbit, and so year after year I applied to cover the awards, looking for acceptance and finding only a black hole.

And then, this year, I finally heard a yes. It was lit.

I didn’t want their approval to matter, but it mattered. Brilliant musicians spend the course of their careers in the shadow of the GRAMMYs without their brilliance lessened in the slightest. And brilliant music journalists – many better than me at genuinely not caring about being in close proximity to fame – spend their brilliant careers without once setting foot in the Staples Center, all of them understanding that what glitters is most often just a rock covered in glitter. But man, when that mainstream spotlight swings your way, it’s hard not to curl up beneath its warmth.

Mysteriously, though, I had no idea why my temperature was suddenly so high. Thousands of people applied each year, why me? I hadn’t exactly played the music industry popularity game, so had I been selected at random? Had DJBooth hit some magic number of pageviews and social media reach? Was someone at the committee a personal fan of my writing and had advocated for me? Had all those sacrificed goats to the Illuminati finally paid off? I had plenty of questions, but actually asking them felt like a dangerous proposition.     

Me: “Thanks for inviting me. I have to ask though, why was I selected?”

The GRAMMYS: “Wait, what’s your name again? Slavik? Slavik??? Oh, I’m sorry. We meant to approve Ryan Seacrest, his name was right next to yours alphabetically. Ha, isn’t that funny? Our mistake. [Shuffles papers.] This is awkward, you’re still standing here. [Shuffles more papers.] Yeah, you can go the fuck home now. Thanks.”

In the absence of information I chose to have faith in my abilities, count my blessings, and represent for all the kids who never got invited to sit at the cool table. If I had somehow slipped through the cracks, I was going to do my best to return through that same crack and report back all the wonders, and horrors, I might see on the other side. The high school friends who first got me hooked on hip-hop with Soundbombing tapes, the other writers I admire, Steve back in the Bay recovering from heart surgery, the fans, WE’RE ALL GOING TO THE GRAMMYS! I was hyped, only I quickly realized that the idea of going to the GRAMMYs and actually covering the GRAMMYs were two different things.

For instance, what was I supposed to wear? And let me tell you, for those of us with family members who routinely use ropes as belts (feel free to come to a Slavik family reunion and fact check me) fashion choices don’t come easy. Knowing I’d be surrounded be million-dollar dressed celebrities felt like being a dolphin thrown into the desert. Showing up wearing my everyday “whatever happens to be clean” outfit felt disrespectful, but showing up in a suit felt false. Ultimately, I decided I'd just rock some Adidas. I wasn’t about to change whatever had gotten me here, and it felt like some very small tribute to Run DMC and all the other originators who built this culture long before the GRAMMYs even recognized hip-hop’s existence. And so I crossed the magnetometer wearing Shelltoes.

By contrast, the red carpet is an orgy of publicity, a living, constantly moving mass of cameras and reporters and celebrities. It may look well-coordinated on TV, but off-camera it resembles something more like a Wall Street trading floor. While celebrities wax poetic about who made their $50,000 dress, to the side their publicist and reporters further down the line, “talent wranglers” as they’re fittingly called (the red carpet being more rodeo than black tie affair) furiously negotiate what outlet will land the next interview. There’s a very careful mathematics, a calculus of fame, taking place at all times. A miscalculation of your place in the game could mean a very lonely walk. Show up early and the major press won’t be there, show up late and the big cameras will be out but you risk walking behind Lady Gaga and being completely eclipsed by her massive shadow. Woe be to the publicist trying to convince someone to interview Ray J while they’re focused on Adele’s million dollar smile quickly approaching.

It was unclear just how far my credentials would let me travel, so I adopted the time honored tactic of walking like I should be there and waiting for someone to stop me. That was good enough to get within eye shot of the red carpet but setting up shop there didn't feel worth the trouble, not when I could see how easily I'd be passed over. A fun way to keep your emerging ego in check is to watch Diplo’s publicist pretend like you don't even exist after talking to Bow Wow for the official CBS broadcast. GODDAMN YOU SHAD MOSS YOU’VE CROSSED ME FOR THE LAST TIME! The red carpet was worth the experience, seeing Young Thug there was like seeing your second grade teacher at the grocery store, normal and super weird at the same time - but it was clearly a losing game for those on the low end of the media totem pole, so I left to hunker down inside. At least there I could move around instead of being confined to a small portion of the red carpet and had a chance at actual conversations, talking to Kirk Franklin about how he considered working with Kanye a religious mission, with the Vanguard about working with D’Angelo on Black Messiah (“The revolutionaries need something to make love to”). 

I couldn’t compete with major TV networks for interviews with mega-celebrities, I looked exactly like the kind of guy Taylor Swift's security had been instructed to taser if they approached her dressing room, so I started looking for everything the TV cameras wouldn’t show. It turns out that everyone attending the GRAMMYs who aren't famous enough to walk the red carpet enter the venue hidden behind a chain link fence. The image is of very excited and immaculately dressed cattle. I noticed Syd from The Internet walk in with her mother and that felt like a good and beautiful thing. I exchanged texts with Rapsody congratulating her on being there - I remembered interviewing her in a hotel lobby down the street from the Staples Center years before, and now here she was. I think for most people there, including myself, that's what the GRAMMYs are really about. Being able to say, finally, after years of pursueing an inherently unstable dream, "Here I am." Being there was a gift to all the mothers who endured years of other moms looking at them sideways when asked what their child did for a living. Hey Mom, tell them your son was at the GRAMMYs and watch them wilt. 

Actually being in the building was a strangely disjointed experience, you were somehow simultaneously closer and farther away from the action than everyone watching from home. Much of the time it was easiest to just watch the broadcast on one of the many TVs in the media center, but I also missed some of the big TV moments entirely. While the audio problems during Adele's set was a huge part of the night for those watching I didn't even notice. I had seen Dave Grohl and had calculated how to "accidentally" cross is path, managing to get in a quick hi and thank you. It doesn't quite sink in that Dave Grohl was in Nirvana (a.k.a. the biggest band of my generation) until he's a person standing right there and then oh shit, apparently Nirvana was comprised of actual humans instead of rock gods. Dave Grohl has excellent hair. That's a true thing in real life. 

That sense of just how quickly the distance between television and reality can collapse struck again when I was watching Meghan Trainor's performance and tweeted that she was the human version of the color beige. And then, because karma is very real, a couple hours later I found myself a few feet away from Trainor with a creeping sense of paranoia setting in, increasingly convinced that she had seen the tweet and I was going to have to explain to my grandkids that gramps was missing his two front teeth because Meghan Trainor had once beat him backstage at the GRAMMYs for a snarky tweet. Instead, I listened to her talk about the fight to believe in herself when so many people told her to stay in the songwriting shadows because she didn't look like a typical pop star. Turns out Trainor is beautiful and a shining example to humanity while my soul more closely resembles an airport Cinnabon. Lesson learned. 

And then there was the whole thing with the McMuffins. 

The McMuffin Incident

While The Weeknd wasn't particularly interested in talking to me, the woman handing out Egg McMuffins was happy to stop and talk. In many ways I related to that Egg Mcmuffin, we were both surrounded by riches, seemingly out of place but refusing to change out of our humble wrappings. And so I took a pic, fired off a tweet, and went back to watching the show. 

Ten minutes later I felt a pull at the back of my shirt. At first I thought it was security - I was getting thrown out of the GRAMMYs, I was prepared for this moment  - but instead found the woman with the Egg McMuffins. She had tracked me back down. That tweet had gone viral, appearing everywhere from Mashable to the NY Daily News, and she was she not pleased. Professionally she was happy, she worked for McDonalds and it was the biggest exposure of the night for them, but on a personal level it wasn't exactly a flattering picture. I believe the phrase "I'm trying to date!" was used repeatedly. I explained that I was firing off funny tweets, not taking a Tinder profile pic, but to no avail. Finally, I agreed to do a follow up tweet with a better picture and we parted ways on good terms. So the biggest journalistic impact I had that night was a tweet about a breakfast sandwich. I am the Egg McMuffin.  

Free from my viral tweet obligations I turned back to the main stage. Talking to Kendrick Lamar was my Holy Grail that night, but while we literally weren't far apart, in reality he might as well have been on another planet, and fair enough. I can't say that I'd want to talk to a stranger right before one of the biggest performances of my life either. But I can tell you that I quickly learned that celebrities in the front knew they might be on camera at any moment and so they reacted to every performance with the enthusiasm of a kid eating birthday cake on a trampoline, Taylor Swift in particular. Everytime someone won she reacted as if she's adopted them for a Serbian orphanage and raised them herself - "WE DID IT!!!" Instead, the back of the crowd was the true measurement of a performance's effectiveness, as "controversial" as it might have been, Kendrick's was the one time everyone seemed united in the moment, from the crowd to reporters to security to the people working at the venue, it all felt like we had just witnessed history. The GRAMMYs might have denied him the big awards, but they couldn't deny Kendrick's power with the people. 

And just like that it was over. Like a high school party broken up by the cops, as soon as the national broadcast switched off people began fleeing towards the exits in pursuit of the next place to drink. I hung around on the off-chance I might catch someone leaving and heard the Recording Academy president say that Lauryn Hill was supposed to perform with the Weeknd but showed up too late, the Alabama Shakes rolled through the media center and Brittany Howard is the woman we all want our daughters to become, but it quickly became apparent that the building would offer only diminishing returns from here on out and so I left, walking into a L.A. night filled with more chauffeured black sedans than a United Nations meeting. 

The next morning I boarded a plane and everything was the same. The GRAMMYs offer the illusion of access much more than actual access, and the media covering the event is really no different. Even if you do manage to talk to a celebrity, it's almost impossible to have a genuine connection within the surreal bubble that is an award show. I left the Staples Center that night without any new famous friends, McDonald's hasn't cut a check for that tweet (holla at ya boy), it's right back to trying to put my baby daughter down for a nap and writing about music on the internet for a living.  

It's true that a GRAMMY award can never be taken away (unless you're Milli Vanilli), but the moment you accept that award is the moment you're right back at zero, back to competing with everyone else for the next one. There's no finish line in the arts, no gold watch retirement, whether you're world famous or recording in your closet, you just keep making a thing and then making another thing until you either die or give up. What the GRAMMYs truly offers, more than an award or any judgement, is a landmark, a way for artists to feel like they've gone somewhere and, even if just for one night, that being here, in this place, is far enough. 

That night I felt far enough too, but now that night is over.

[By Nathan S, the managing editor of DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter. Image via Instagram.]