Will Smith, Queen Latifah and Public Enemy Celebrate Hip-Hop in Star-Studded ‘Grammy Salute to 50 Years of Hip-Hop’: TV Review

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As the 50th anniversary of hip-hop comes to a close, the Recording Academy has one last trick up its sleeve to honor the pillars of the culture.

The Academy joins forces with CBS for “A Grammy Salute to 50 Years of Hip-Hop,” an aural spectacular that’s as much an ode to the culture as it is a documentation of it. Throughout the two-hour special (airing Sunday night from 8:30-10:30 p.m. ET/PT, with live and on-demand streaming on Paramount+), rappers and DJs from all walks of life come together to celebrate what started in the Bronx in the 1970s and spread across the world, charting its impact through a strong lineup of rappers, beatboxers, dancers, DJs and presenters.

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The special, filmed at Inglewood’s YouTube Theater on Nov, 8, features a laundry list of performers spanning both decades and regions. Just a sampling of the artists: Queen Latifah, Common, Public Enemy, Rakim, Doug E. Fresh, MC Lyte, Rick Ross, Jeezy, Jermaine Dupri, YG, Too Short, E-40, De La Soul, Akon, Black Thought, Nelly, Gunna and Chance the Rapper each take turns rocking the mic, dropping a verse or two during medley performances that convey the breadth in style and substance in rap music.

One of the more notable moments comes at the end, when Will Smith — aka the Fresh Prince — reunited with DJ Jazzy Jeff for a medley of both solo and collaborative hits. Questlove, best known as the drummer for the Roots, gives a glowing introduction to the pair, who were the first hip-hop act to receive a Grammy award for hip-hop in 1989 with “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

“In a year and a night full of hip-hop moments, this is a big one,” says Questlove. “I grew up idolizing these two from my hometown of Illadelpho. They were the first artist to ever receive a Grammy award for hip-hop. Back then, they weren’t invited to perform or accept their award on camera, which led to the hip-hop community sitting things out that year. But thankfully, a year later, their hip-hop invitation did show up and they did become the first hip-hop group to ever perform at the Grammy Awards. And tonight, as a fan, as a friend, from way back in Philly, let’s welcome to the Grammy stage, the incomparable, the amazing, the legendary, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince!”

With Jazzy Jeff poised behind the turntables on an elevated podium, Smith kicks things off with “Brand New Funk,” a cut off their 1988 sophomore album “He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper.” Decked in an all-red ensemble with a Philly’s cap to match, Smith gives a brief tour of his discography, flanked by backup dancers for “Gettin’ Jiggy With It” and “Miami.” As he performs, his wife Jada Pinkett-Smith and children Willow and Jaden watch from the audience. It wouldn’t be a replete retrospective without a rendition of the theme song to his TV show “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” and the duo keeps it brief with a concluding performance of “Summertime,” their highest-charting single, which earned them their second Grammy in 1992 for best rap performance by a duo or group.

But the special packs more than just its marquee finisher. Flowers are given to the early queens of hip-hop, who kick off the show with a who’s who of veterans and newcomers. Latifah, who appears numerous times throughout the broadcast, joins Monie Love for their 1989 single “Ladies First.” What follows is something of a history lesson: Sha-Rock’s verse from Funky 4+1’s “That’s the Joint,” J.J. Fad’s “Supersonic,” Roxanne Shante’s “Roxanne’s Revenge” and MC Lyte’s “Cha Cha Cha.” They sprinkle a bit of more modern fare into the mix, with Remy Ma ripping through “All the Way Up” and Latto delivering “Put It on Da Floor.” To the song title’s credit, all the rappers come out at the end to join Latifah for “U.N.I.T.Y.,” an empowerment anthem addressing the inequity of and disrespect towards women in everyday society.

The attention soon turns to the south. “Fifty years ago, when hip-hop started, it was all about the East Coast and West Coast,” says presenter Chloe Bailey. “But then, the dirty South entered the chat.” Curated by Jermaine Dupri, whom Bailey referred to as “the forever mayor of the ATL,” the performance swings the spotlight around the rappers who helped define and propel Southern hip-hop into the mainstream. Jeezy, T.I. and Three 6 Mafia all run through verses from some of their biggest hits, while UGK’s Bun B shout out the late Pimp C during “Int’l Players Anthem.” GloRilla and Boosie Badazz join in before 2 Live Crew’s Uncle Luke close it out with “Scarred” and “I Wanna Rock.”

Public Enemy has its own moment, deservedly so, with an introduction from host LL Cool J. The Grammy Lifetime Achievement nominees are joined by Questlove on the turntables during some of their biggest hits, including “Fight the Power,” “Bring the Noise” and “Don’t Believe the Hype.” Flavor Flav and Chuck D bring the same impassioned fire that they’ve had since debuting in the mid-1980s.

The medleys keep on coming. Seth Rogen introduces a West Coast segment, which features the most robust lineup of the evening. With DJ Battlecat on the decks, Warren G kicks it off with his classic “Regulator” before passing the mic to Luniz for “I Got 5 on It.” The hits parade on, with Lady of Rage, YG, Tyga, Rody Ricch, DJ Quik, Yo-Yo and Cypress Hill performing some of their biggest songs. The medley ends in the Bay, with Too Short’s “Blow the Whistle” and E-40’s “Tell Me When to Go.”

The special, which also features vignettes of Lin Manuel-Miranda and Jelly Roll talking about when they first fell in love with hip-hop, pays homage to the Native Tongues, a loose collective of artists in the 1980s and ‘90s that leaned on progressive ideology and jazz-inflected beats. Against the backdrop of a library, the performers sit at tables awaiting their turn to take the lead. What follows is a highlight reel of the movement’s touchstones: Common’s “I Used to Love H.E.R.,” Arrested People’s “People Everyday,” Digable Planets’ “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like That),” Black Sheep’s “The Choice Is Yours,” Talib Kweli’s “Get By,” Latifah’s “Wrath of My Madness,” the Pharcyde’s “Runnin’” and De La Soul’s “The Bizness” with Common.

Actress Regina Hall tees up a performance from Big Daddy Kane, Black Thought and Rakim, while Akon leads the charge for an international segment with renditions of “Locked Up” with Styles P and “Soul Survivor” with Jeezy. Blaqbonez makes an appearance halfway through for “Like Ice Spice,” surrounded by dancers who dressed like Variety cover star Spice with a red afro, green tube top and cutoff jean shorts, just as she wears in the video for “Munch (Feelin’ U).”

Doug E. Fresh beatboxes his way through a celebration of the lives of those that hip-hop culture has lost, naming DMX, Nipsey Hussle, Tupac Shakur, Mark the 45 King and De La Soul’s Trugoy the Dove. Machine Gun Kelly introduces the following slate of artists with a personal anecdote. “The greatest thing to happen to me besides me becoming a father is hip-hop,” he says. “It was there for me when I was sad, when I was mad at the world, and most importantly, in the seventh grade when a girl decided to dance on me to ‘Hot in Herre’ by Nelly. Thank you. To me, hip-hop has always been the life of the party, and the party is just getting started.”

And the party continues, with yet another medley, this time led by 2 Chainz for “Birthday Song,” no doubt a reference to the anniversary at hand. Gunna, Coi Leroy, Nelly and Rick Ross share the stage before Chance the Rapper brings back out 2 Chainz for the ebullient “No Problem,” with the aforementioned rappers reemerging on stage.

The night ends on a positive note from Harvey Mason Jr., who looks back on the event to contextualize it in the framework of the culture that brought them here. “Now it’s no coincidence that we’re all here at this time with so much stress and so much division and pain in the world, but this music is the antidote,” he says. “This music is the medicine. This music is the universal language that even the most divided of us can understand. But it also has the power to disrupt and change. It has the power to break through even the loudest noise and unify. And so let’s acknowledge that there is no music without hip-hop right now. The music business isn’t what it is without hip-hop. Tonight, we’ve celebrated, but more importantly, we’ve permanently cemented the legacy, the impact and the contributions of this music, of our music, to the culture and to the world forever.”

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