Ice Cube said he never expected to be onstage accepting a gilded gramophone with his fellow N.W.A members, but that’s what happened Saturday when he, MC-Ren, DJ Yella and the mother and son of late rapper Eazy-E received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy at the Recording Academy’s Special Merit Awards.
“My man, Dr. Dre, is not here. He wanted to make sure I let you know he’s not hating. He a billionaire. He got shit to do,” Cube said to laughter and applause. He thanked Dre for his “brilliance, talent and leadership” and said the group also owed a great debt to Eazy-E. “This is actually Eazy-E’s vision. He’s the one who allowed us to do this type of music,” Cube said. Eazy-E, considered by many to be the godfather of gangsta rap, released N.W.A’s legendary album Straight Outta Compton on his Ruthless Records label. (He died in 1995 at the age of 30.)
“We knew when we started to do music in 1985, ’86, ’87 that a Grammy was not in the cards for us, with the type of music we was doing. We actually didn’t think we would ever even get on the radio. We was cool with that,” Cube told the crowd at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre after a long standing ovation. Fellow honoree Gladys Knight stared up from the front row, smiling.
“We can’t sing like Gladys. None of us can hold a note like the Clark sisters,” Cube said, nodding to members of the gospel group sitting directly behind Knight. “But we still wanted to express ourselves and try to make sense of the world around us, in L.A., Compton, South Central, Long Beach, Watts. It was a different world out there, and we were trying to make sense of it. And what we did is, we did music. We did music from our hearts.” Ice Cube said nearly four decades after N.W.A’s music was considered too controversial for the airwaves, “the whole world is singing our songs. No way in the world could we ever have predicted that. We just wanted to do our thing. What is shows is, when you do your thing, the world will come to you.”
As the group was getting ready to leave the stage, Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason Jr. said he’d just received a text from Dr. Dre. “It’s very short, as expected,” Mason said to laughter. “I’m honored to receive this award with my N.W.A brothers,” Mason said, reading Dre’s words off his phone. “We’ve been together for a long time, so I regret not being there and being able to celebrate with you all. The ceremony falls on my daughter’s birthday, and as I wanted to be with you all and all the guys, I could not break her heart.”
The two-hour merit ceremony held the day before Sunday’s televised Grammy Awards bestowed Lifetime Achievement honors on N.W.A, Knight, Laurie Anderson, the Clark Sisters, Donna Summer and Tammy Wynette. It also handed out Trustees Awards to legendary producer Peter Asher, hip-hop pioneer DJ Kool Herc and industry lawyer Joel Katz. The Technical Grammy Award went to Tom Kobayashi and Tom Scott, creators of a digital pipeline that allowed editors and mixers in far flung locations to work on high quality audio in real time. The Best Song For Social Change Award went to “Refugee,” written by K’naan, Steve McEwan, and Gerald Eaton.
“I love you,” Knight said sweetly as she started her acceptance speech after her own extended standing ovation. “We love you too!” someone in the audience yelled back.
“I tell you, it’s been a wonderful, awesome journey,” Knight said. “And I’m grateful to be here with all of you. I love you. I would not have been able to be in this position without each one of us coming together.
The seven-time Grammy winner who’s scored Number One hits in pop, gospel, R&B and adult contemporary stopped her speech repeatedly to thank and compliment the crowd. “You look so good right now. You all looking good,” she said to the delighted audience. “Thank you for allowing me to give you just a little bit of what has become of my life. …I am so grateful. Ohhh, you should see you from up here. I thank you so much for allowing me to be here tonight.”
Anderson accepted her award after traveling from the east coast Saturday morning. “I make a kind of music that doesn’t have a snappy name. It’s called like ‘multimedia,’ or ‘art music,’ or the one I like the least, ‘experimental,’ which sounds like you’re making things in a lab that might explode,” she said to laughter. “So it’s really an honor to be here with my honorees who really do know how to get a groove going as well as make beautiful, mind-bending music.”
The composer, vocalist and visual artist with six Grammy nominations and one win has garnered fame for being the first artist-in-residence of NASA and for her collaborations with William S. Burroughs, Peter Gabriel, Philip Glass and her late husband, Lou Reed.
“Lifetime is an awesome word to put in an award. It makes you wonder what you did with all that time,” she said from the stage. “I was married to a musician. We spent our lives together listening to all kinds of music. So a special thank you to my dear husband, Lou Reed, who died 10 years ago.”
Anderson shared with the audience “three rules” that she and Reed lived by. “Don’t be afraid of anyone. Imagine what your life would be if you weren’t afraid of anyone at all,” she said. “Get a really good bullshit detector. And be really tender. With these three, you can really get through just about anything.”
Family members accepted the posthumously awarded trophies for Summer and Wynette. One highlight saw Summer’s husband encouraging her daughter Mimi to sing the unmistakable opening of her mom’s 1977 Disco megahit “I Feel Love.” She laughed, leaned over toward the microphone and perfectly channeled her mom’s angelic voice.
As they left the theater Saturday, two members of the hip-hop group Bone Thugs-n-Harmony marveled over being invited to introduce N.W.A for their award. “As kids, we aspired to be them. So we had to be a part of that,” Layzie Bone told Rolling Stone. His fellow group member, Flesh-n-Bone, said that without Eazy-E, “none of us would be up there.”
“We were real honored for them to call upon us to do this,” he said on N.W.A. “And we love DJ Kool Herc. He’s a legend in his own right. We was trying to breakdance as kids. We were inspired by what he did. Hip-hop wouldn’t be what it is today without DJ Kool Herc.”