Will Smith was going to perform at the Grammys, but…

Will Smith was invited to perform at Grammys, but couldn't
Will Smith was invited to perform at Grammys, but couldn't

Will Smith with Grammys hip-hop tribute mastermind Questlove and director Spike Lee

Sunday night’s Grammy Awards ceremony kicked off what L.L. Cool J promised would be a year-long celebration of the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, which began, he explained, at a party in the Bronx in August 1973. The performance was one of the night’s finest moments, a beautifully curated and tightly produced tribute that brought together some of the genre’s biggest stars. Yet some hip-hop history makers were inevitably excluded, though mastermind Amir “Questlove” Thompson revealed he almost booked fellow Philadelphia native Will Smith.

“I’ll give the spoiler alert away. Will Smith was a part of the festivities tonight, but they started shooting Bad Boys 4 already this week, and there’s a lot of preliminary shots that he had to do, so we had to lose Will,” Questlove told Variety on the Grammys red carpet. “But that was gonna be a surprise moment. … It was a shot in the dark. I knew—he’s always shooting movies.”

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Smith’s presence on an awards show stage may have proved controversial following his last appearance at a similar ceremony. But when it comes to hip-hop history, Smith has earned his spot: he was the winner of the first-ever award for Best Rap Performance alongside DJ Jazzy Jeff (for “Parents Just Don’t Understand”) in 1989.

Smith and Jeff actually boycotted that year’s ceremony because the category wasn’t going to be televised; they were joined in the action by fellow nominees Salt-N-Pepa, Russell Simmons and LL Cool J (the latter of whom introduced and performed in Sunday’s tribute, in addition to being a frequent Grammys host in recent years). Smith would go on to be nominated for a total of eight Grammys, winning four. Jeff, a two-time Grammy winner (for “Parents” and “Summertime”), did make an appearance during the tribute.

“We had a lot of people, and, you know, some of them have other jobs. Like, even The Roots had to get Paul Schaffer to fill in for them at The Tonight Show while we’re out here for this week,” Questlove explained on the red carpet. “So, you know, same with Ice-T, and [Queen] Latifah, people had to leave their respective shows. L.L. [Cool J] to come and do this show. I mean, there was a lot of legit reasons why we couldn’t be all-inclusive of some people.”

In fact, LL was careful to note before the tribute that “We wish we could have included every single hip hop artist from 1973 to 2023,” an impossible feat for a 14-minute performance. (Questlove told Variety his original pitch was 27 minutes long, but had to be cut down.) However, some of those left out include some of the most successful and/or game-changing artists in the genre. A few of those, like Jay-Z, Kendric Lamar, and Cardi B, were present and doing other things at the ceremony. Others are perhaps more conspicuous in their absence, like Eminem, Lil Kim, Nicki Minaj, and Kanye West. The latter two rappers may have been too controversial for an invite (and Minaj has been vocal about her criticisms of the ceremony in the past), but their mark on the genre is undeniable.

Still, you can’t please everyone, and the fairly comprehensive tribute was a high point of a very long night. And the fact that he was invited at all might mean positive things for Smith’s suffering reputation.

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