Rap gets overdue seal of approval

Special to The Times

With Eminem and Nelly grabbing nominations for both album and song of the year, two of the Grammys' most prestigious awards, 2002 may go down as the year the music establishment got around to bestowing mainstream respectability on rap. Although Lauryn Hill won album of the year in 1999, never before have two rap artists appeared in these categories, and genre leaders say recognition is overdue.

"Hip-hop is the most important influence in American culture right now," said Russell Simmons, founder of the seminal hip-hop label Def Jam Records. Noting that the sound dictates trends in everything from clothes to cars to soft drinks, he added, "It's good that the Grammys recognize it as a cultural leader."

Chief among those on the leading edge, Simmons said, is Eminem, who was nominated for his album "The Eminem Show" and its single "Without Me." Nelly was nominated for his smash album, "Nellyville," and the song "Dilemma," a duet with Kelly Rowland of Destiny's Child.

"Eminem is just so important," Simmons added, saying that the Detroit rapper's impact is more than just a matter of race. "It's a class issue. He's making the connection from the trailers to the projects."

As for Nelly, no one's claiming that "Hot in Herre" was anything more than a dance craze -- and in some ways a conventional Grammy choice.

In fact, some said the nominations say more about marketplace success than artistic merit. "It's a good look for hip-hop, but it's only on the surface," said Jermaine Hall, music editor at the hip-hop magazine the Source. The nominations, he said, were driven by big sales of hip-hop albums during a down year for the industry and not by critical choices, which should honor acts like Jay-Z, DMX or Scarface. No rap acts, he pointed out, are ever nominated as songwriters.

Scott Sterling, editor in chief at another hip-hop magazine, Urb, added that the nominations say as much about the Grammys' efforts to overcome image problems as they do about rap. "When they gave the album of the year award to Steely Dan over Eminem [two years ago], even mainstream people knew it was a sham," he said. "It was clear that the Grammys had to get with the times."

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