WATCH: 14 Incredible Hip-Hop Performances Aired on TV

RunDMCGrafRockLet’s be honest, there are a lot of wack hip-hop performances that grace our televisions nowadays. A lot of the time it’s an emcee, a hype man and a DJ playing an instrumental, rapping over his lyrics or lip-syncing. Unless the song is a hit, the audience barely shows an interest in the artist.

It’s great to have The Roots on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon because you know any time a hip-hop artist is a guest on the show, that performance will be live. Shout out to the VH1 Hip-Hop Honors and BET Hip-Hop Awards for having some not-so-bad performances over the years too. Plus Arsenio back. But while The Roots are reppin’ hip-hop five nights a week on NBC, what other artists held it down on network TV before? I figured I’d take a look at some hip-hop history and share some of my favorite hip-hop performances on network television. Performances from late night shows, talk shows and specialty shows. What do you think?

A Tribe Called Quest and Leaders of the New School on The Arsenio Hall Show – Although A Tribe Called Quest and Leaders of the School’s “Scenario” was already a classic in the street and this performance was excellent – it was the nation’s introduction to the spastic and wild Busta Rhymes. He stole this performance.

LL Cool J on MTV’s Unplugged – In 1989, MTV introduced its MTV Unplugged series where bands and singers would assemble in an intimate setting and perform their hits acoustically. With hip-hop at its height in 1991, MTV had the guts to have an acoustic hip-hop show. They booked De La Soul, MC Lyte, A Tribe Called Quest and LL Cool J to do the show with a live band. Although all the performances were dope (click the links), LL Cool J stole the show with his live rendition of “Mama Said Knock You Out.” I believe after this performance, LL from then on toured with a live band instead of a DJ and a DAT machine. BONUS: A smoothed out “Jinglin’ Baby.”

Kanye West on Saturday Night Live – After the Kanye/Taylor Swift incident in 2009, Kanye basically escaped to Hawaii and began work on his album, not speaking to the media or making any appearances. Then he released “Power,” which became a hit on the streets. In the song he dissed Saturday Night Live for making fun of him and the Taylor Swift incident. When he was booked for the show’s season premiere, everyone was wondering if he’d diss the show on their own stage. Of course he changed the lyrics, but still, it was a powerful performance and in some cases redemptive.

Yo! MTV Raps Finale freetsyle with Rakim, KRS-One, Erick Sermon, Chubb Rock, MC Serch, Redman, Method Man, Large Professor, Special Ed, and Craig Mack – Yo! MTV Raps is cemented in hip-hop history. It began in 1988 first on Saturdays only and then a daily show. When it was announced the show was ending in 1995, after 7 years on the air, hip-hop’s hottest MCs held the greatest freestyle session ever aired on TV on the last episode of the show. Check the backpacks they were rocking!

Run-DMC on Graffiti Rock – Graffiti Rock was basically the first hip-hop show on network television. It was supposed to be like a hip-hop Soul Train. The show didn’t last too long, but the episodes that did air sure made an impact. A classic performance on the show was Run-DMC performing “Sucka MC’s” and then “battling” Kool Moe Dee and Special K. Despite all the corniness going on all around the performance, Run, DMC and Jam Master Jay still seem cool as hell 30 years later.

Jay-Z Unplugged – It’s safe to say that The Blueprint is arguably Jay-Z’s best album so MTV wasted no time in getting Jay-Z hooked up with The Roots for his own episode of MTV Unplugged. The entire show was classic with performances of joints like “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love),” “Can’t Knock the Hustle,” and “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem).”  While those songs stuck with you, it was the performance of “The Takeover,” that blew everything out of the water. Apparently when taping the episode, they had to replay the song three or four times because the crowd was going so wild, the music was drowned out by their screams. Even Nas went on the radio and dissed The Roots after the performance. Yeah, that burned his soul like ether.

Eminem at the Grammys with Elton John – At the time of this performance, Eminem was a superstar selling millions of records. For years hip-hop had been using the word “faggot” in rhymes and lyrics, but with Eminem’s stardom, his use of the word opened the curtain on hip-hop’s homophobic tendencies — and Em was the scapegoat. He was protested by GLAAD and there were picket lines outside of his shows. Em tried to explain that he wasn’t homophobic and that when he used the word in his rhymes, he wasn’t talking about gay people. People weren’t listening, so to shut people up, he connected with Elton John, the most famous openly gay man in the world, to perform “Stan” on the Grammys in 2001. Elton killed it on the piano throughout the performance. And Em flipping off the crowd at the end? Classic.

Three Six Mafia at The Oscars –  The film Hustle and Flow was a great flick about a group of folks in the hood trying to get out of their current situation using hip-hop. The song from the film that struck a chord with people was “It’s Hard Out Here (For a Pimp),” that was written by Three Six Mafia. The song was nominated for an Oscar and Three Six was invited to the ceremony to perform the song. How great is it to see some brothas straight out the hood rapping about some pimp ish to a bunch of people in tuxedos? Well, a lot of people didn’t find it so great and were embarrassed and also felt disrespected by the “dancers” supposedly portraying “ghetto characters,” which many found stereotypical. Doesn’t matter though, Three Six still walked away with their Oscar.

Mos Def on Chappelle’s Show – It was the first season, second episode and the world had not yet recognized the genius of Dave Chappelle. But one of the big hints of how great the show was going to be is when Chappelle and Mos Def were driving around New York and Mos is straight ripping a track during the whole trip. The song, “The Edge,” finally came out as its own single later on but of course we all favor that live in-car performance.

Redman on In Living Color – Honestly, there really isn’t anything THAT special about this performance except that it’s Redman’s first solo performance on network television and his introduction to the masses. The song “Blow Your Mind” was the first single off of Redman’s debut album, Whut? Thee AlbumIn Living Color was also a great outlet for hip-hop and urban artists to get some shine when there were so few avenues on TV.

The Roots on The Jon Stewart Show – The Roots have so many live television performances, the fan favorites span more than a decade. But of course one that sticks out and hardly anyone talks about is their very first live performance on network television. It was in 1995 on Jon Stewart’s MTV show the day before Do You Want More? hit stores. I’ve never seen Hub (bass player) so hyped up before!

The Fugees at the Apollo – When The Fugees released their sophomore album, The Score, in 1996, it brought a welcomed change in their sound’s style than what was on their debut. Along with that came a change in the group’s live show too. They recruited a band to back them and every performance had a little something extra that you wouldn’t find on their album. Basically, they put together a superb hip-hop show. If you never got to see them live, their performance at Showtime at the Apollo give just a quick taste and tease of what you would get at one of their tour stops.

Hip-hop stars on Arsenio – Yo-Yo, MC Lyte, Treach, A Tribe Called Quest, Fu-Schnickens, C.L. Smooth, Guru, Das Efx, Wu-Tang Clan, KRS-One, Mad Lion – In the early 90’s, The Arsenio Hall show was pretty much the only place hip-hop had on network television. It was rare that any other late night shows would book hip-hop guests. So when Arsenio announced that he was leaving his show in 1994, the top hip-hop stars of the era came out and surprised him with this performance. Oh yeah, “The Black man is god!”

Common & Kanye on Dave Chappelle – When word leaked that Kanye West was producing most of Common’s album, Be, back in 2005, folks were begging just to have a taste of what was to come from the project. That first morsel came in the form of “The Food,” performed live on Chappelle Show. The performance was so good, that Common and Kanye scrapped their studio version and put that live version on Common’s album.

About the author

Quibian Salazar-Moreno is co-founder of The Hollywood Shuffle. He's an experienced entertainment journalist based in Los Angeles, by way of Denver, Colorado.