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VH1’s Hip-Hop Honors: A Running Diary

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I wonder how Freddie Foxxx feels about this (Rakim portrait by Grant Siedlecki)

It’s sort of impressive that VH1 has managed to churn out three straight years of Hip-Hop Honors shows without ever adequately explaining just what the show is supposed to do. It’s not an awards show or a hall of fame, and there aren’t any trophies or plaques or statuettes handed out. The format of the show hasn’t changed much since the beginning: important rappers get laudatory video packages and tribute performances from younger rappers, and then they come out and perform themselves. That’s it. The whole format is full of problems. There’s a reason why rap cover-songs hardly ever happen; the music is inherently self-referential, and there’s not that much to be gained from one rapper pretending to be another when he’s already basically pretending to be himself. And it’s a bit ridiculous to sum up long and twisty careers with two-minute video montages. It’s always interesting to see which rappers the network decides to get behind, but it’s not like all these people haven’t been honored to death in virtually every other conceivable format. But the network always manages to put together a pretty entertaining show, a weird combination of actual transcendent moments (Big Daddy Kane last year) and fascinating trainwrecks (Vivica Fox’s first-year hosting job). And they’ll probably never run out of important rappers to honor, so they can keep doing this forever.

9:00: Just like a whole lot of old rap albums, the show opens with a skit. Ice-T, this year’s host, shows up to the Law & Order: SVU set because he forgot he was hosting the show tonight. Christopher Meloni: “Rakim rocks!” This is not what I’d call a good omen.

9:02: The skit continues! Ice shows up to the venue late, and he’s mad because Fab 5 Freddy tells him that he got someone named Mike B to host instead. Mike B turns out to be Michael Bloomberg, who I guess has enough free time to do crap like this. He’s wearing sneakers, which is supposed to be hilarious. Bloomberg: “You can’t run the greatest city in the world if you’re not down with hip-hop.” But Giuliani did! So did Ed Koch!

9:06: 30 Rock is only one episode into its existence, and it’s already hard to tell where Tracy Morgan’s character on the show ends and the actual person begins; that’s impressive! For some reason, though, Morgan always abruptly stops being funny whenever he shows up to any function that involves rappers; remember when he took his shirt off at the Source Awards? No? He makes fun of the Beastie Boys, who chuckle uncomfortably.

9:08: Mike D now has ill-advised long and curly hair, and he looks like an old lady. The Beasties are still dressing like twelve-year-olds; remind me not to do that when I’m 40. We really get the sense from their video package that they started rapping because rap was funny, which is as good a reason as any.

9:10: Diddy, Q-Tip, and a pre-shooting Fabolous come out in Adidas tracksuits and do a couple of License to Ill songs. Diddy is Mike D, Q-Tip is Ad-Rock (complete with over-the-top nasal whine), and Fabolous is MCA because he’s the only one who can’t make his voice go all high. Good casting! They’re onstage for all of a minute and a half, and then Mix Master Mike chops up a bunch of other Beastie Boys records, which is boring. The actual Beasties come out afterwards and do “So Whatcha Want,” which Raekwon appears to enjoy. When he’s rapping, MCA still looks like he’d rather be meditating or something. Mix Master Mike switches the track up to the “Breathe” beat halfway through, which would’ve been amazing three years ago and is still pretty awesome now. They also do “The New Style,” and VH1 bleeps the word cursing in what I have to assume is a weird joke.

9:23: In his introduction to MC Lyte, Ice-T manages to take credit for the “99 Problems” hook. See, Lyte definitely doesn’t have a problem with a bitch. Or something like that.

9:26: In her video package, Lyte talks about making her first records when she was sixteen. It’s virtually impossible to imagine a credible rapper that young coming out now, but it used to happen all the time. The kids in Ice-T’s reality show Rap School, which comes on right after this show, are only a couple of years younger than that. The mind boggles.

9:27: Holy shit, it’s Yo-Yo! And she doesn’t look terrible!

9:28: I guess they really couldn’t do this show without ?uestlove, huh? He’s like the new Farnsworth Bentley or something. Da Brat, Remy Ma, and Lil Kim all do old Lyte songs. They’re all wearing tracksuits and truck jewelry, and they all sound pretty good. Lyte comes out and destroys them all, of course. VH1 has done a pretty good job finding a bunch of rappers who can still hold a stage. There are lots of shirtless male dancers onstage; I guess this is a rare opportunity for equal-opportunity objectification.

9:39: As host, Ice-T is mostly just playing hypeman, reading stuff off a teleprompter and yelling “Westside!” every once in a while. He’s not trying to tell jokes or anything, and that’s a shame, since he’s better at being funny than he is at acting cool.

9:42: Common introduces Rakim, and he does about as well as he possibly could given that he has like thirty seconds to explain why Rakim is great.

9:42: Most of these video packages are just straight self-mythologization, but Rakim actually gets a few seconds to talk about the writing process and internal rhymes, and that’s a whole lot more interesting.

9:44: Black Thought and Talib Kweli tag-team on “Paid in Full.” Talib can sort of rap on beat if he’s doing someone else’s song. Styles P, however, apparently cannot. I guess that makes Talib a better rapper than Styles. Rakim is wearing leather pants, which somehow looks less ridiculous than it should. He does a new song, but it’s pretty much impossible to hear him rapping over the Roots’ clatter, which is a damn shame, even if the song doesn’t sound like much.

9:54: Has Mike Epps ever been funny? I really have no idea.

9:55: Ice Cube: “The definition of a gangsta is somebody that’s living his life by his own rules.” I’m pretty sure that’s not actually the definition of gangsta.

9:59: A couple of weird song-choices to honor Ice Cube: Xzibit doing “Check Yo Self” and W.C. doing “It Was a Good Day.” I guess we’re meant to believe that The Predator is Ice Cube’s best album, which may actually be true. Cube comes out and does the two garbage-ass singles off his garbage-ass new album. What is it with old rappers doing new songs tonight? Don’t they realize everyone hates that? Cube and Lil Jon thoughtfully replace the word motherfucker with mother mother on some Tracy Bonham shit.

10:05: Chevy is still running that commercial with Slum Village? Or do they just drag it out of mothballs for shows like this one?

10:10: Ice Cube and Ice-T are both out to talk about Eazy-E. If Bill Paxton and William Sadler were there, we’d have a complete reunion of the cast of Trespass.

10:11: In the Eazy video package, Cube, Ren, and Yella all say nice things about the guy, but Dr. Dre is conspicuous in his absence.

10:16: Bone Thugs do “Crossroads” in remembrance, which is pretty funny since that one song was way more popular than any of Eazy’s solo joints. They don’t look quite right doing it onstage with no horse-drawn carriage.

10:18: Young Jeezy is onstage, but he’s pretty much just playing hypeman to Eazy’s son, Lil Eazy-E, who sounds eerily like his father. Then everyone does “Boyz N the Hood,” and it’s a cacophonous mess.

10:25: Diddy says that Russell Simmons is his hero, that he had the courage to bet his wife on the future. I’m pretty sure he meant to say life.

10:27: Simmons is in the crowd sitting next to Mike D, who has apparently forgiven him for stealing money.

10:29: Someone named Black Ice does some spoken-word nonsense about Simmons, and Lovebug Starski and Kid Capri play a bunch of old Def Jam records. It must be hard to come up with a halfway entertaining musical tribute to someone who never actually made music.

10:38: KRS-One is out to explain the difference between rap and hip-hop. Now we can all overstand! He talks about Afrika Bambaataa in the vaguest, most nebulous ways possible: “I say I am hip-hop. This man is hip-hop culture.”

10:41: Bambaataa probably has the greatest collection of futuristic sunglasses in human history, but if I didn’t know who he was before seeing this video package, I would still have no idea.

10:43: OutKast is here! Both guys in the same room and everything! But they’re not rapping; they’re just talking about Bambaataa.

10:44: Erykah Badu comes out in a crazy African headdress, which is weird since I don’t think there’s any singing whatsoever on most Bambaataa records. She leads a “Zulu! Gestapo!” chant, which probably confuses the hell out of about half the viewing audience. I will never get sick of hearing the “Looking for the Perfect Beat” keyboard line, but did they really need to get George Clinton and Bootsy Collins to blather messily over it? And now Black Thought and Fat Joe are doing “Planet Rock”? This is a complete clusterfuck, and it doesn’t really make any aesthetic case for Bambaataa’s music at all. Fat Joe is the only performer of the night who isn’t wearing some sort of period costume.

10:55: Forrest Whitaker is excited that Wu-Tang is back together! So am I! He talks about working with RZA on Ghost Dog. I love that movie.

10:57: In the video package, RZA explains that Wu-Tang is foundated in hip-hop. I love it when he totally just makes up words. There’s no Ghostface or Cappadonna anywhere in the video or onstage.

10:59: Raekwon does the first verse from “C.R.E.A.M.,” and Ice-T comes out to say goodnight? Is that it? No, they’re doing “Triumph” now, and we really never get enough chances to see Inspectah Deck and U-God rap on TV. Meth jumps into the crowd and everything, and the show ends with a great moment almost despite itself.

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