LOS ANGELES — Before he launched into "Check the Rhime," lyrical hip-hop master Phife Dawg paused on stage for a kiss. It wasn't from his wife or even an adoring A Tribe Called Quest fan in the audience. No, the Five Foot Assassin leaned over to smooch a three-foot-tall Grammy statue before launching into his "funky introduction of how nice I am."
Phife was among the performers Thursday at "Word Revolution: A Celebration of the Evolution of Hip-Hop," part of the Grammy Foundation's 13th annual music preservation project. Along with lauding the power of rap, this year's event at the historic Wilshire Ebell Theatre also paid tribute to the hip-hop's history with clips from the foundation's archives.
"History is not dead," Neil Portnow, president and CEO of the Recording Academy, told the diverse crowd of Grammy winners, nominees and music lovers. "It lives. It breathes. It sings. It's a living thing that must be preserved. It tells us how we got from there to here. Tomorrow's hits are all grounded in the musicians, singers and rhymers that came before."
Slam poets from HBO's "Brave New Voices" kicked off the celebration, emerging from the crowd while spitting rhymes before Kid Capri and DJ Skee sprang into an East Coast-meets-West Coast set on their turntables. However, it wasn't until Naughty by Nature's Vin Rock and Treach took the stage with "O.P.P." until the entire audience was standing on their feet.
Treach pulled off his shirt for "Hip Hop Hooray," sporting a few more tattoos since the group won the first-ever best rap album Grammy in 1996 for "Poverty's Paradise." Other past Grammy winners who performed included Arrested Development, Everlast, DJ Jazzy Jeff and Chrisette Michele, who crooned "Unforgettable" as a tribute to jazz's influence on hip-hop.
"Tonight, we celebrate the wordsmiths and poets of rap, the writers of rhymes and double entendres who bend convention and break form to bring us fresh interpretations," Kristen Madsen, Grammy Foundation senior vice president, said between performances. "They stretch our ears to a new way of hearing, and they invest old words with newly syncopated life."
The most passionate cheers weren't for the performers but for highlight reels of hip-hop legends like the Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash and Tupac Shakur and past Grammy performances from artists such as Salt-N-Pepa, Eminem and OutKast. Dr. Dre, Drake and B.o.B. will be among the hip-hop performers at Sunday's 53rd annual Grammy Awards at the Staples Center.