Tupac, Biggie and Jay-Z’s Emmy Nods: “You Never Thought Hip-Hop Would Take It This Far”

Dig through the 120-plus Emmy categories and you’ll discover more than double-digit nominations for Succession and Ted Lasso. You’ll also uncover the indisputable influence of hip-hop.

The ever-growing television medium is keeping the legacies of two of the most important figures in rap — and overall pop culture — alive, and now the projects are competing for Emmys. Dear Mama, the FX documentary series about Tupac Shakur and his activist mother, Afeni, earned nominations for outstanding documentary or nonfiction series and writing for a nonfiction program, while a virtual reality concert that brought Notorious B.I.G. back to life is up for outstanding emerging media program.

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To top it off, rap’s ultimate entrepreneur, Jay-Z, is nominated for two Emmys, including a historic one for outstanding directing for a variety series for Rihanna’s Super Bowl halftime show. And this is all happening during the year that is the 50th anniversary of hip-hop. (The categories will be presented at the Creative Arts Emmys.)

Quoting Notorious B.I.G.’s anthemic hit “Juicy,” his former manager and RCA Records president Mark Pitts tells The Hollywood Reporter, “You never thought that hip-hop would take it this far.

“It’s about damn time that hip-hop is recognized,” he continues. “It just makes me feel confident about what we’ve been doing. And it solidifies it. It underlines it.”

Says Dear Mama director Allen Hughes, “Whether it’s the Emmys or Academy Awards or Peabodys, recognize these hip-hop stories, applaud them, give them the flowers in real time. We haven’t traditionally celebrated hip-hop stories, so it’s great to get the nomination, but get the win, baby!”

Shakur died Sept. 13, 1996, at 25, six days after he was gunned down, and police announced in July that an investigation into his unsolved killing has been revived. Notorious B.I.G. was 24 when he was fatally shot on March 9, 1997; his case remains unsolved.

“They happened to be two of the greatest that ever did it,” says Hughes, whose credits include the 1993 classic Menace II Society, HBO’s The Defiant Ones and several Shakur music videos. “To see that they’re Emmy-nominated in their respective projects is awesome. And it tells you how far we’ve come. It’s a testament to how powerful the genre is and how singular Biggie and Tupac are.”

Hughes started work on Dear Mama in 2019, and the first of five episodes became FX’s most watched unscripted series premiere. The director says the Emmy noms are great “because more people will see it, hopefully.

“Unless you get a nomination, in the history of things, it seems a little illegitimate, which is an unfortunate thing,” he adds.

The Notorious B.I.G. Sky’s the Limit: A VR Concert Experience premiered on Meta Horizon Worlds in December. It married avatar and motion capture technologies with music and storytelling to showcase the skilled lyricist performing in Brooklyn alongside Bad Boy Records labelmates Puff Daddy, Lil Cease and The Lox, plus newcomers like Latto.

“Ultimately, we came up with this idea that Biggie never died,” says Van Toffler, co-founder of Gunpowder & Sky, the studio that produced the VR concert. “He lives in this virtual world and he got to do and see things that he couldn’t have because he died.”

Rappers who have also built careers in TV and film have won Emmys over the years, including Queen Latifah, Common and Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino. Last year’s hip-hop halftime show won Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Kendrick Lamar, 50 Cent, Mary J. Blige and Jay-Z their first-ever Emmys. And this year’s Emmys recognition of Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. is further proof of how hip-hop has shaped pop culture. Toffler — a former MTV executive who also worked on the 2003 Oscar-nominated documentary Tupac: Resurrection — recalls the late ’80s launch of Yo! MTV Raps “when hip-hop videos just took over the channel. I mean, that’s all the audience wanted to see.

“It took the culture a little while to catch up to it, but the influence of hip-hop has permeated all aspects of entertainment and life,” he says.

Hughes hopes the next generation will take the hip-hop baton and run with it.

“It is OK to stand up for something. It doesn’t need to just be party music,” he says. “Although Tupac, Jay-Z and Biggie were incredible party music artists, they also did other things and pushed the medium. Let’s keep pushing the medium forward.”

This story first appeared in the Sept. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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