The bizarre, the chaotic, and the sublime all lined up exactly once, for 30 seconds or so, at Thursday night’s VH1 Hip-Hop Honors taping at Hammerstein Ballroom: Chuck D and Flavor Flav snarling through “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” as the Roots luxuriated in Isaac Hayes’s “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic” behind them. Three different permutations of soul all mashed wantonly together, that joyful, buoyant piano riff buried deep in the original’s solo bouncing perfectly off Public Enemy’s undimmed enmity. All from the network that brought up Pop-Up Video.
VH1 has done this for five years now, and it still doesn’t make any sense. Hip-Hop Honors basically seeks to triangulate the MTV Music Awards’ hell-raising anarchy with the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame’s backslapping reverence, inducting a class of older-to-progressively-newer-school luminaries every year (Tupac, Run-D.M.C., and PE were among 2004’s inaugural class; Missy Elliott joined Snoop Dogg in 2007’s) and staging elaborate odd-couple tributes live onstage. (Last year’s A Tribe Called Quest homage led to Lupe Fiasco’s lyrics-flubbing, uh, debacle.) This year’s hoedown—taped Thursday and aired Monday night—honored Cypress Hill, De La Soul, Slick Rick, Too Short, and Naughty by Nature. Another thing those five acts have in common: little to absolutely no VH1 airplay back in their primes. Not that this newfound praise is unwarranted or unappreciated, even if, this fete aside, the channel mostly interacts with past-their-prime rappers willing to spoof themselves as cuddly, harmless malcontents, Flavor Flav being the most drastic and unsightly example.
Anyway, Flav was far more tolerable in this context, with no wayward ladies of ill repute following him about and defecating on the stairs. (Though this year’s controversy involved the lack of female inductees, a dilemma VH1 assuaged by bringing out Eve and MC Lyte to pay tribute to Slick “Treat Her Like a Prostitute” Rick, which will certainly calm everyone down.) And the whole shebang has a really charming semi-coherence, even from way up in the Hammerstein’s mezzanine, full of wine-toting young professionals chatting blithely through all the earnest video tributes and loudly asking why Slick Rick wears an eyepatch. Biz Markie DJ’d from a towering balcony, boasting dookie ropes thick enough to secure a yacht to a dock and repeatedly announcing “I know y’all remember this one!” as he cued up “Wu Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthin’ ta Fuck Wit” and “I Wanna Sex You Up” and so forth. I elected to tune out the evening’s host, Tracy Morgan, after he made a “John McCain is physically incapable of getting his hands in the air and waving them like he just don’t care” joke within 30 seconds, but I suppose he’s the perfect cartoonishly deranged figure to emcee this thing. Not a bad scene, as surrealist award-show tapings go.
Random, mostly pre-recorded Tracy hijinks aside, the format here basically broke down to a) some admiring minor celebrity (Michael Strahan!) introduces the inductee; b) brief pre-taped video chat with the inductee, Cypress Hill insisting it wasn’t entirely about the herb, etc.; c) random artists hit the stage for a live rapid-fire medley tribute; d) inductees do their own live rapid-fire medley tribute. Cypress Hill went first, actually, and inspired probably the least effective segment all around, the Gym Class Heroes bashing away feebly in a valiant attempt to sound like the Roots as Fat Joe stomped about and Jim Jones wanly proclaimed “We ain’t goin’ out like that” as though he had every intention of goin’ out like that. De La Soul fared much better, both as honorees and performers: Estelle and Q-Tip did right by “A Roller Skating Jam Called ‘Saturdays’,” and the boys themselves gave the same respect to “Me, Myself & I,” famous apprehension toward their biggest hit aside. (Slipping “We hate this song” into the lyrics and what-have-you.)
Slick Rick, unsurprisingly, put the most thought into the visual side of things. After his star-studded intro (Ghostface Killah and Biz Markie leading the amped-to-be-on-TV crowd through “La Di Da Di”), the Ruler emerged on a gilded throne, tended to by four nubile, scantily clad lasses, with backup dancers curled up in little beds as “Children’s Story” unfolded—still for my money the most unsettling possible contrast between the exuberance of a track’s sound and the unrelenting grimness of its tale. (There was even a nightstick-wielding cop for comic relief, chasing after a perp dancing around in a rainbow beanie with a propeller on top.) Also unsurprisingly, Too Short, the other guy tonight who never could have dreamed he’d one day be lavishly honored by VH1, didn’t go in for such shenanigans, but his slate of cohorts—Luther Campbell (himself a newly minted VH1 star) on the intro, Kid Rock (in vintage Oakland A’s jacket, nice touch), Scarface, Bun B—was both the weirdest and the most fulfilling. Plenty of other big- and not-so-big-shots (Busta, Lil Jon, Cee-Lo delicately crooning “The Look of Love” during the Isaac Hayes tribute thing) flitted on and offstage throughout; it all felt a little random, but that’s clearly the strategy here—and why the hell not?
Naughty by Nature closed us out, which actually helps clear up some confusion: It’s not so much hip-hop nostalgia being sold here as just nostalgia, period, songs we can all know and love and shout along to even though we couldn’t all have picked Too Short out of a lineup back in the day and VH1 was in no mood to help us—or him. So, what the hell: Heyyyyy, hoooooo, heyyyyyyyy, hoooooooo. There probably was no way to keep Wyclef Jean away from this thing, but, hell, he wants to play guitar for a few minutes, fine. It’s always a great time for a block party, and it’s never too late to learn what “O.P.P.” stands for.