The year was 1998...
A month after John Elway and the Denver Broncos defeated the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl, America settled in to watch another deserving champion hoist a trophy, only it was a GRAMMY and not the Lombardi. Though the category was only two years old, this year the competition for Best Rap Album was heated and prestigious. Actually, there was no competition at all. Life After Death, a posthumous album from the one and only Biggie featuring cuts like "Hypnotize" and "Kick in the Door," was the clear winner. Well, maybe not. A group of seven emcees known as the Wu-Tang Clan had a little album called Wu-Tang Forever, plus MissyElliott had gone double-platinum with her genre-bending album, Supa Dupa Fly. So, which one took home the GRAMMY?
Puff Daddy's No Way Out, of course.
Are you fucking kidding me, GRAMMYs? How can you possibly give the album whose most successful single was a tribute to Biggie the award over Biggie?!?! It's like, in an effort to pay tribute to his fallen friend with "I'll Be Missing You," Puffy, by no fault of his own, ended up ruining the real tribute; a GRAMMY. Imagine if Life After Death had won; what a great, final sendoff to one of the most important emcees in history. But no, the GRAMMYs had to give it to his sidekick instead. Wu-Tang was not pleased, and ODB was not afraid to make his displeasure known.
And you thought Macklemore beating Kendrick was bad.
Though the GRAMMYs have a long history of being out of touch, it doesn't stop us from losing our collective shit each and every February. We already vented when the nominations were released, but come Sunday night, after Iggy walks her onion butt offstage, trophy in hand, we will get mad all over again. Why we're still surprised I don't know - IT'S THE SAME THING EVERY YEAR - but it's going to happen. The suckery is an annual tradition.
Well....I'm sick of it.
I'm sick of seeing deserving albums get disrespected. I'm sick of having to hear about it forever. I'm sick of knowing what is going to happen yet still ending the night tumbling down a endless spiral of disgust and anger. Still, as much vitriol as we hurl towards the GRAMMYs, how many of us really know how they work? Is it seven old, rich and white label execs in a room imagining new ways to torture hip-hop heads? Is it the Illuminati? How the fuck do the GRAMMY awards actually get decided? Where should we direct our anger?
Maybe it was Sun Tzu or maybe it was Rambo, but someone important once said, "keep your friends close and your enemies closer." So I set out to figure out just who my enemy is and how they do what they do. Here's what I found about how those golden trophies get handed out.
First and foremost, you have to be a member of The Recording Academy. There are three kinds of members: student, associate, and most importantly in this case, voting. Since we only care about voting at this stage, that's what I'm focused on. As you can imagine, there are some pretty specific guidelines (Eminem stans can't apply, sorry).
Recording Academy Voting Members are professionals with creative or technical credits on at least six commercially released tracks (or their equivalent). These may include vocalists, conductors, songwriters, composers, engineers, producers, instrumentalists, arrangers, art directors, album notes writers, narrators, and music video artists and technicians.
Fit the bill? Congrats you can apply! Here's the application.
"Okay, so I'm a voting member, now what?"
Patience. Before you can rock the vote, you have to wait until you have stuff to vote on. That process takes a while considering they receive over 20,000 entries a year from "registered media companies" which, I'm assuming are recording labels. After a song is entered, it goes through a review process.
Reviewing sessions by more than 150 experts in various fields are held to ensure that entered recordings meet specific qualifications and have been placed in appropriate field.
Once it passes the review session, only then can members vote on which entries are nominated.
The Academy's voting members, all involved in the creative and technical processes of recording, then participate in (1) the nominating process that determines the five finalists in each category; and (2) the final voting process which determines the GRAMMY winners.
Think of the process like the evolution of a Pokemon. A song starts out as an entry (a Charmander). Only after it passes rigorous, extensive testing can it evolve into a nomination (Charmeleon). Then, maybe, maybe, it turns into a winner (a Charizard). First though, they have to vote on all the Charmeleons.
In this final round, Recording Academy members may vote in up to 20 categories in the genre fields plus the four categories of the General Field (Record Of The Year, Album Of The Year, Song Of The Year and Best New Artist.) Ballots again are tabulated by the independent accounting firm of Deloitte.
And that's how a winner is born!
What stood out to me the most was how intense the rules for "vote solicitation" are. I had never really thought about this process and how, exactly, votes are distributed, so to think of it like any other election is kind of crazy. I pulled out some of the rules, but if you're interested you can read them all here.
- During balloting season (September through January), vote solicitation and product distribution at Recording Academy-sponsored events is strictly prohibited.
- Voters shall not be influenced by personal friendships, company loyalties, regional preferences, or mass sales.
- Voters shall not allow their choices to be suggested or directed by anything other than their own conscience.
- Voters shall not accept money or anything of value in exchange for votes.
- Voters shall not enter into any agreements or understandings on how to vote.
So that's essentially the process. Songs are entered and voted on by Recording Academy members. They then go through extensive, scrupulous review and grouping to make sure they fit the bill. Once all the t's are crossed and i's are dotted, the first round of voting begins. After the field's been whittled down to five per category, members vote again (though online balloting) on the winner, so long as they follow the a strict set of guidelines, ensuring that the process doesn't turn into the music industry version of Survivor with truces and pacts.
Well, fuck, that makes a ton of sense. The process sounds tedious, rigorous and extensive, all the qualities necessary for something to be done right. It's way more sensible and effective than my previous Illuminati theory. So how is it possible for a large group of smart, educated, experienced industry professionals to mess up without fail each year? I have a theory...
When I step into the voting booth, I have one, maybe two candidates I actually have an opinion on. I know where my vote is going for those. For the other seven hundred categories, I simply have no clue. I don't know what a comptroller does and I certainly don't know who would make a good comptroller, but that doesn't stop me from voting for the person with the coolest name. I have to imagine it's the same thing for the GRAMMYs. I'm sure all of Voting Members know their shit for one, maybe two categories, but how in touch do you think these people are with the hip-hop community? Of course they are going to go with the safe, popular pick like Macklemore. I can guarantee nobody over the age of 40 knows that money tress are the perfect place for shade, but I can bet they saw Macklemore perform "Same Love" on Ellen. They simply pick what's the safest and most popular, which as we all know isn't always the most deserving. It's a very democratic process, but democracy doesn't always yield the best results. Giving so many people so much say in things they have no clue about is how you get Iggy nominated for Best Song and Best Album based on "Fancy."
I know you feel helpless. I know you are mad. I know it sucks, but there is still hope.
Maybe I'm a little biased, but I think the hip-hop community is the most powerful, passionate group of music lovers in the world. We don't just love the music, we live and breath it. No other genre has a community like hip-hop. To a lot of us, from artists to fans, it's the single most important thing in the world. The passion is incredible, but rarely do we use it for good. Our community is so strong because we aren't legitimized by the outside world, but that's also part of the problem. We can scream at each other about the GRAMMYs until we are blue in the face, but that doesn't do anything to make it better.
Enough talk. I'm about that action boss. So this year, when Iggy wins, instead of getting mad, let's come together and do something about it. Nowhere does it say "hip-hip heads need not apply." As a community we've failed to adequately represent ourselves at the GRAMMYs; the results over the last 20 years have proven that. Let's get in there and cause change from the inside. Let's kick in the doors waving 44s. If we want the GRAMMYs to matter we have to make it matter. We have to make sure our voices are heard. There is no reason every artist who qualifies shouldn't apply. Imagine if those who really knew the community were voting. Imagine if instead of Macklemore sending a text apologizing, Kendrick walked away with that GRAMMY because every member of TDE registered and voted. Imagine if even a quarter of the artists who bitched last year became voting members. Imagine how much better off the GRAMMYs would be if hip-hop was voted on by people who actually knew the culture? What a world that would be.
I realize only a select few of us can actually apply, but we all have a role. If you can apply, please do so, and if you can't find someone who can and make them apply. Send a tweet to your favorite rapper asking him to apply instead of sending that "fuck Iggy" tweet. Meet an artist at a show? Ask them if they are a part of the Recording Academy. Each one of us has a role to play. Let's show the world how serious we take our music, let's show them how much we truly care.
The GRAMMYs can be fixed, but we have to fix them.
[Lucas Garrison is a writer for DJBooth.net. His favorite album is “College Dropout,” but you can also tweet him your favorite Migos songs at @LucasDJBooth.]