MTV turns 30 on Monday. To celebrate, we’re running a bunch of pieces on the channel, its legacy, and its future.
Debuting during the golden year of ’88, Yo! MTV Raps revolutionized TV coverage of hip-hop music. Of course, hip-hop videos existed long before Yo! launched—Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s gritty street-level visuals for “The Message,” peeping Kurtis Blow clad in black leather pants performing in front of a silhouetted Manhattan-skyline backdrop in “If I Ruled The World”—but the show provided hip-hop junkies with rap reportage like never before. Hosted by Ed Lover and Doctor Dre (the lesser-heralded one), who were assisted by Fab 5 Freddy, Yo! MTV Raps didn’t just showcase new videos and air interviews; it took viewers inside the worlds of the artists they profiled, which might mean delving down into producer Pete Rock’s dingy Mount Vernon basement, trading barbs with N.W.A. in LA, or letting shout-rap oiks Onyx slam dance with Freddy on the Brooklyn Bridge. Here are five of the best moments from its archives.
The Grand Freestyle Finale
In August of 1995, the suits yanked the plug on Yo! MTV Raps. (The show was revived and rebranded as simply Yo!, but the magic was gone.) In tribute to the show’s storied seven-year run, the greatest selection of rappers to ever freestyle in front of the same camera were invited into the studio to show and prove in what turned out to be a mammoth ten-minute freestyle session. With DJ Skribble spinning breaks and instrumentals on two turntables, Rakim sparked the session off before spots from Erick Sermon, Chubb Rock, MC Serch, Redman, Method Man (sporting a backpack), Large Professor, Special Ed and Craig Mack. (In the middle of all that Flavor Flav snuck in a brief ad-lib before Ed Lover barked, “Get out of here, Flavor!”) A fitting and affectionately remembered end to the series. As KRS put it in his rap, “Going out with respect.”
Leaders Of The New School Self-Destruct
It’s tricky stuff for four rap egos to occupy the same group at the same time—especially if one of them is constantly hearing not-too-discreet whispers that he should ditch his bandmates and take a shot at solo stardom. So it was with Leaders Of The New School, the Long Island quartet endorsed by Chuck D and featuring a lanky livewire MC by the name of Busta Rhymes as its jewel. LONS forged a fine rep with rambunctious live shows—performances of “What’s Next?” and “The International Zone Coaster” on Yo! MTV Raps display the group’s infectious energy—but Busta always hogged the stage and stole the show. Chatter that Bussa Bus should embark on a solo mission irked fellow LONS member Charlie Brown to the point where he became visibly pissed off during an interview with Fab 5 Freddy on the idyllic Brooklyn Heights Esplanade. LONS quickly fell apart, but it seems that the quartet never really gelled that well in the first place: In a 2006 interview, Busta told me, “Dinco D is a little dickhead, and Brown? I don’t get along with Brown and I never really did.”
Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Drunken Master Style”
Ol’ Dirt Dog’s second-most-notorious MTV appearance—the first being the time he allowed a camera crew to trail him cashing his welfare check while his solo debut was crawling up the charts—rap’s greatest unhinged cannon turns up sloshed and displays his loose and lifted freestyle thoughts over his own “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” instrumental. Ed Lover, in the back, tries hard to hold back his laughter before cutting ODB off and anointing him, “The Elvis Presley of rap music, y’all.” (More Wu: The whole darn (and slightly grumpy-sounding) family introduce themselves to Fab 5 Freddy, complete with Ghostface in a mask and Dirty revealing that he stores his milk and eggs outside ’cause he doesn’t own a fridge.)
Fighting The Power
Despite MTV’s general rabble-rousing pose, the station has a history of refusing to air certain rap videos. One of those was Public Enemy’s “By The Time I Get To Arizona,” which fantasized about assassinating a white supremacist governor. But despite this moment of censorship, Chuck D and his charges were regular and genial guests on the show (a situation likely helped by a close relationship with fellow Long Islander Dr. Dre). ’91’s in-studio performance of “Can’t Truss It” is a classic Yo! MTV Raps moment, with Chuck’s furious but focused intensity balanced by Flavor Flav’s antics and dress (obligatory oversized clock, top hat, and colors-of-the-rainbow jacket all present and correct).
2Pac Confesses To Assaulting The Hughes Brothers
“Check this out: They fired me, but did it in an around-about punk snitch way, so I caught ’em on the streets and beat they behind.” So confessed 2Pac live in interview with Ed Lover on Yo! MTV Raps, talking about his physical altercation with film directors Albert and Allen Hughes. The dispute came about after the Hughes Brothers dealt ‘Pac’s ambitions of cultivating a sideline career as an actor a blow by ditching him from the cast of the flick Menace II Society. (“I was a menace to the Hughes brothers!” ‘Pac also quipped.) Despite Ed Lover’s attempts to get ‘Pac to shut his gob and stop incriminating himself, the criminal confession was eventually used as the basis of a court case that culminated in the rapper spending 15 days in prison. D’oh, indeed. (Less Controversial ‘Pac: Performing “If My Homie Calls” and freestyling with fireman-turned-rapper-turned-reality-TV-chef, Coolio.)