The underground, independent Seattle group had made it, right? Not from the viewpoint of some members of the Recording Academy, according to a person who attended the general Grammy committee meeting and spoke on condition of anonymity because that person wasn’t authorized to publicly reveal the information.
While Macklemore & Lewis are up for seven honors at Sunday’s Grammy Awards, including album of the year and best rap album for the platinum seller “The Heist,” most rap committee members felt the duo shouldn’t qualify for the rap categories because of their success on mainstream radio and their appeal in the pop world, the source said.
“Thrift Shop” not only topped the rap charts, it was also one of the year’s biggest pop songs, selling 7.3 million tracks.
The group’s follow-up, “Can’t Hold Us,” helped assimilate their name in pop music when it hit the No. 1 spot and sold more than 5 million tracks. But at a meeting held in Los Angeles late last year to discuss the Grammy categories, members of the rap committee declined their submissions.
At a meeting held a week later, members of the general Grammy committee discussed where Macklemore & Lewis should qualify, the source said. The general committee, which includes members from jazz, country, pop, rock and other genres, listened to their album to determine where they fit.
“Because of the controversy with them as a rap group it became something the entire Grammy committee discussed,” the person said.
A general committee vote decided the group should compete for rap awards. The source said it was a landslide vote and that veto of the rap committee’s decision wasn’t a common occurrence.
“It’s not that they don’t think he’s a rapper,” the person said of the rap committee’s decision. “It’s just that when you’re trying to protect categories and someone has become popular, it should be judged as much. … Where does their music exist? Who are their fans?”
A representative for the Recording Academy didn’t return an email seeking comment, and the performers weren’t available for interviews.
Macklemore & Lewis’ seven Grammy nominations include best rap album, rap song and rap performance for “Thrift Shop,” album of the year, song of the year for “Same Love” and best new artist.
Their manager used an expletive to describe the rap category debate.
“If you strip away being influenced by the popularity or by who their fans are or by the amount of radio traction their songs got … and just dissect musically what it is, there’s no question it’s a hip-hop album; they’re hip-hop songs,” said Zach Quillen, who didn’t attend any of the Grammy meetings. “When you start to look at other things (that) is when people’s judgment got cloudy. It’s what they look like, the demographic, the fan base, it’s the popularity, it’s the radio.”
Artists can submit songs or albums to multiple genres for Grammy Awards, but a screening committee decides where they best fit. Artists, though, can be nominated for multiple genres: Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors” and “Pusher Love Girl” are nominated for best pop solo performance and R&B song, respectively. Rihanna is also nominated for R&B and pop awards.
Quillen, who has managed Macklemore & Lewis since 2009, said the heavy play on Top 40 radio “absolutely changes perception,” somewhat taking away from the group’s hip-hop credibility.
“And perception can be very powerful,” he said. “And the thing Ben and Ryan are messing with is perception and people’s desire to put things in boxes.”
Noah “40” Shebib, Drake’s producer, believes Macklemore & Lewis should earn rap nominations, adding: “I’m not against either decision.”
“The playing fields are different. (Macklemore is) playing in a world that has more numbers. Bigger impact, bigger reach, more everything. All the rappers, they can dabble in those areas, but they don’t necessarily exist in that area. If you want to talk about the logistics of it – that would be a reason in my opinion to isolate him into the pop category because that’s his weight class,” Shebib said. “Let the rappers that exist on the urban market fight that out between themselves. So from that point of view and logistics, I would put him in a pop category.”
Shebib won the best rap album Grammy with Drake for “Take Care” last year and they are competing with Macklemore & Lewis for the honor this year with “Nothing Was the Same.” Drake’s “Started From the Bottom” and A$AP Rocky’s “(Expletive) Problems,” songs co-written by Shebib, will battle “Thrift Shop” for best rap song.
Shebib said Drake, like Macklemore, has faced his critics in rap.
“Sometimes people say Drake’s not a rapper, he’s a singer, but there’s a certain group of people who take that opinion of Drake because of the music that he makes, being that he isn’t boxed into just rap songs,” he said. “Now obviously, we all know Drake is a rapper and should be in the rap category. Same thing applies to the Macklemore conversation.”
While pop radio largely aided in Macklemore & Lewis’ breakthrough, urban radio still plays the duo’s songs.
Ebro Darden, program director of New York’s Hot 97, said he believes Macklemore & Lewis should compete for hip-hop Grammys, though he thinks sonically the group “lends itself to a more mainstream taste palate.”
“If you’re rapping over a beat, it’s hip-hop,” Darden said.
Macklemore & Lewis’ ultimate competitor at the Grammys is Kendrick Lamar, who also has seven nominations. They will compete with Lamar in three rap categories, as well as for album of the year and best new artist.
The duo’s manager said the musicians – who will perform at the awards show airing live from the Staples Center in Los Angeles – are putting the negativity behind them.
“Ben’s been rapping onstage since he was 14 years old and before ‘Thrift Shop’ hit pop radio, he very much considered himself an underground rap artist, Quillen said of Macklemore, whose name is Ben Haggerty. “Ben also has a thick skin and he’s also extremely proud of and confident with the art he puts out. … But I think like anybody he’s a human being, he’ll look at a comment like that and it’s disconcerting. But he’s also quick to move past it.”