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30 Milestones in Hip-Hop Awards History: Will Smith, Lauryn Hill & More

Written by on 29 March 2022

Smith has been responsible for many of rap’s milestones both as a solo artist and, earlier, as half of the duo D.J. Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince.

By Paul Grein

Will Smith made history on Sunday, March 27, and not just for the slap heard ’round the world. He also became the first entertainer who started out as a rapper to win an Oscar for acting. Smith won the best actor for his performance as Richard Williams, father and coach to future tennis greats Venus and Serena Williams, in King Richard.

Take a look at 30 milestones in hip-hop awards history.

1980Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks” becomes the first rap single to top the annual Pazz & Jop critics poll in the Village Voice.

1988:  Public Enemy’s sophomore album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, becomes the first rap album to top the Pazz & Jop poll.

Feb. 22, 1989: D.J. Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince’s “Parents Just Don’t Understand” becomes the first hip-hop recording to win a Grammy (best rap performance). But no rap act was invited to perform on the show. A year later, on Feb. 21, 1990, the duo becomes the first hip-hop act to perform on the Grammys. “We’d like to dedicate this performance to all the rappers last year that stood with us and helped us to earn the right to be on this stage tonight,” Smith said before he and D.J. Jazzy Jeff did “I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson.”

Jan. 27, 1992M.C. Hammer becomes the first hip-hop star to host the American Music Awards.

Feb. 24, 1993Arrested Development becomes the first hip-hop act to win a Grammy for a best new artist. In a thoughtful speech, the group’s front-man, Speech, gave thanks “to our ancestors. Without them, we would not have our characteristics and the power to fight as we do. Power to the people.”

Dec. 6, 1995: “Gangsta’s Paradise” by Coolio featuring L.V. becomes the first hip-hop hit to win single of the year at the Billboard Music Awards.

Jan. 11, 1999: Smith’s solo debut, Big Willie Style, becomes the first hip-hop album to win an American Music Award for favourite pop/rock album.

Feb. 24, 1999Lauryn Hill’s solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, becomes the first hip-hop album to win a Grammy for album of the year. Sting and Whitney Houston present the award. “This is crazy because this is hip-hop music,” Hill exclaims.

Sept. 7, 2000Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady” becomes the first video for a rap song to win video of the year at the MTV Video Music Awards. (Note: TLC’s “Waterfalls” and Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing),” which contain hip-hop elements, had won the award in 1995 and 1999, respectively.)

Oscars: Will Smith slaps Chris Rock over Jada Pinkett Smith joke

Feb. 12, 2002: Smith becomes the entertainer who started out as a rapper to receive an Oscar nod for acting. He is nominated for best actor for his performance as boxing champ Muhammad Ali in Ali.

Dec. 9, 2002: Eminem’s fourth studio album, The Eminem Show, becomes the first rap release to win album of the year at the Billboard Music Awards.

2002Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” becomes the first recording by a rap act to be inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry.

March 23, 2003: Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” from 8 Mile becomes the first rap song to win an Oscar for best original song. Eminem co-wrote the anthemic hit with Jeff Bass and Luis Resto. Only Resto was present to accept the award, from Barbra Streisand. “Oh my,” he began. “This all goes to Marshall [Mathers]…It’s a great thing working with Marshall day in, day out. He’s creative. He has symphonies in his head that I’m privileged to put on the tape. He’s a good man, a good heart. Here’s to you, Marshall.”

Feb. 8, 2004OutKast’s fifth studio album, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, becomes the first (and so far, only) rap release to win Grammys for both albums of the and best rap album. (The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was slotted in the best R&B album category at the Grammys.) The award is presented by Carlos Santana and Faith Hill. Big Boi calls L.A. Reid to join them on stage. “I want to bring Mr L.A. Reid up here,” he said. “This is the man that’s responsible for our career; our big brother since Day 1.”

2004Public Enemy’s third studio album, Fear of a Black Planet, becomes the first rap album to be inducted into the National Recording Registry.

Feb. 13, 2005Queen Latifah becomes the first entertainer who started out as a rapper to host the Grammys. By that point, she was also an Oscar-nominated actress (for Chicago) and a Grammy-nominated jazz singer (for The Dana Owens Album).

M-XCLOUD

Dec. 6, 2005LL Cool J becomes the first hip-hop star to host the Billboard Music Awards. He later goes on to host the Grammys five times, a total topped only by Andy Williams and John Denver.

March 5, 2006: “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” from Hustle & Flow becomes the first hip-hop song to be performed on the Oscar telecast. Three 6 Mafia teamed with Taraji P. Henson to perform the song, which wins an Oscar that night.

2007: Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five becomes the first rap act to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

June 15, 2008Lin-Manuel Miranda raps his acceptance speech when In the Heights wins the Tony for best original score written for the theatre. “Mr Sondheim, look, I made a hat/ Where there never was a hat/ It’s a Latin hat, at that,” he rapped. The show wins three other Tonys, including best musical.

2012: Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” becomes the first rap recording to be inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

2016Run-D.M.C. becomes the first hip-hop act to receive a lifetime achievement award from the Recording Academy. (Note: Gil Scott-Heron, whose spoken word poetry paved the way for rap, was honoured in 2012.)

June 15, 2017Jay-Z becomes the first rapper to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Dec. 3, 2017: LL Cool J becomes the first hip-hop artist to receive a Kennedy Center Honor. Queen Latifah begins the tribute by noting, “Tonight we are witnesses to history. LL Cool J, one of the pioneers of hip-hop, is the Kennedy Center’s first hip-hop honoree” (as the camera cut to Chief Justice John Roberts, applauding).

2017N.W.A’s debut studio album, Straight Outta Compton, becomes the first rap album to be inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

2018Kendrick Lamar’s fourth studio album, DAMN., becomes the first rap album to win the Pulitzer Prize for music. Lamar’s album was, in fact, the first musical work not in the jazz or classical genres to win the prize.

Feb. 10, 2019Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” becomes the first hip-hop single to win Grammys for record or song of the year. It wins both awards. Childish Gambino (a.k.a. Donald Glover) co-wrote the song with Ludwig Göransson and Jeffrey Lamar Williams.

Nov. 13, 2019Lil Nas X becomes the first hip-hop star to win a CMA Award. He and Billy Ray Cyrus share the award for musical event of the year for their megahit “Old Town Road (Remix).” At a press conference, Lil Nas X says, “I’m so happy that this song was accepted because it is the bridging of two completely polar opposite genres put together and I’m just happy it has gotten respect from both communities.”

April 25, 2021Questlove becomes the first hip-hop artist to serve as musical director of the Oscar telecast. (Note: Pharrell Williams, whose pop-soul sound incorporates hip-hop, served in this role, along with Hans Zimmer, in 2012.) One year later, Questlove wins an Oscar for best documentary (feature) for directing Summer of Soul.

March 27, 2022: Smith becomes the first entertainer who started out as a rapper to win an Academy Award for acting. The award, coming after he had swept virtually every other best actor prize, was widely expected. Smith’s extreme reaction to a joke about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, was not.


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