We were excited to hear that Lil Wayne recently wrapped production on an episode of MTV’s Unplugged — mostly because it marks the show’s first hip-hop performance since Jay-Z’s acoustic concert in 2001 (not because we want to hear a stripped version of “Mrs. Officer”). We hope that Wayne’s appearance will pave the way for a new generation of rappers to grace the show’s stage. This news and Lupe Fiasco’s performance on Sunday night’s MTV Movie Awards got us thinking about our favorite hip hop performances on the network. Our top ten is after the jump.
Lauryn Hill, MTV Video Music Awards (1999)
Lauryn Hill’s 1999 VMA performance demonstrates why we were so excited to hear about the famously reclusive rapper’s recent return to the stage and headlining spot on this summer’s Rock the Bells tour. Hill’s performance of “Lost Ones” and “Everything Is Everything,” singles from her groundbreaking solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, is soulful and smooth. With nothing more than a live band, some backup singers, and a mic, Hill manages to captivate the audience, proving that female emcees have just as much power and, dare we say, swag as their male peers.
LL Cool J, Unplugged (1991)
In 1991, MTV’s Unplugged aired its first acoustic rap show. With performances by hip-hop phenoms De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, the episode changed the way many fans of the series viewed hip hop and opened the door for a more lush and live instrumental sound in rap music. While the sets by De La Soul and Tribe are, unsurprisingly, phenomenal, it is the energetic onslaught of LL Cool J’s performance of “Mama Said Knock You Out” and “Jingling Baby” that steals the show. Invoking the fervor of rock and the vocal tenacity of blues, LL proves that hip hop isn’t dependent on technology or devoid of emotionalism. It’s unfortunate that LL Cool J’s deodorant-caked armpits were as memorable as his performance.
Eminem, Dr. Dre, and Snoop Dogg, MTV Video Music Awards (1999)
Many may cite Eminem’s 2000 VMA performance of “The Real Slim Shady” as his most iconic — we too still remember the rapper storming Radio City Music Hall with a gaggle of Slim lookalikes behind him. Yet Eminem’s 1999 performance of “My Name Is” still comes out on top. For his first awards appearance, Marshall Mathers was clearly determined to showcase his skill, agreeing to share the stage with his mentor Dr. Dre and the indomitable Snoop Dogg. By holding his own among these goliaths of the game, Eminem proved that his hype was well-deserved.
Public Enemy, Yo! MTV Raps (1988)
Yo! MTV Raps was the first hip-hop show on the network and became known for showcasing new rap artists and music videos. It also featured numerous in-studio performances, pushing groups like Run-DMC and the Wu-Tang Clan into the mainstream. This appearance by Public Enemy, fresh off the release of It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, on the European version of Yo! represents hip hop at its most potent moment. With Chuck D vehemently spitting politically-charged rhymes, Flavor Flav embodying the ultimate hype man, and a silent military flanking the group throughout it all, this performance reminds us of what hip hop’s golden age was like.
Snoop Dogg, MTV Video Music Awards (1994)
While recording his debut album, Doggystyle, in 1993, Snoop Dogg was arrested in connection with the murder of rival gang member Philip Woldemariam. In 1994, while facing those charges, Snoop delivered an unshirking VMA performance. He rolls onto the stage in a wheelchair and, before both an open casket and a full gospel choir, raps “Murder Was the Case” in his signature laconic drawl, remaining cool in the face of his legal troubles. At the end, with his eyes closed as fans wave their hands in the air, Snoop declares his innocence. The stage goes black except for a glowing cross. We have to be honest — we get chills.
Jay-Z, Unplugged (2001)
Ten years after Unplugged’s first foray into hip hop, the series made magic once again, bringing one of Brooklyn’s finest to the acoustic stage. Jay-Z meets the new medium head on, pairing the blistering rhymes of The Blueprint with a more soulful sound. With none other than The Roots serving as his band, it would have been hard for Jay-Z to make a false step. The rapper’s exploration was well-rewarded — his timing is impeccable, the Roots’ backing complements his rich voice, and Jay scored another hit album when he released Jay-Z: Unplugged.
The Fugees and Nas, MTV Video Music Awards (1996)
His ill-advised political aspirations aside, Wyclef Jean definitely knows how to put on a good show. He opens this 1996 Fugee performance by playing a guitar with his teeth. Then, when he smashes the aforementioned guitar, the audience goes wild, and Jean, Pras Michel, and Lauryn Hill officially have us eating out of their hands. As if the Fugees’ charisma wasn’t enough, rap prodigy Nas joins the group onstage for an electrifying rendition of “If I Ruled the World.” Be sure to note Hill’s freestyling over Betty Wright’s “Clean Up Woman” — it’s a moment that’s easy to lose, yet the brief verse and sharp delivery only deepen our love for Ms. Hill.
Rakim, KRS-One, Erick Sermon, Chubb Rock, MC Serch, Redman, Method Man, Large Professor, Special Ed, and Graig Mack, Yo! MTV Raps (1995)
Yo! MTV Raps was one of the most influential music shows in television history, responsible for catapulting the careers of many of rap’s most famous names. So, when it was set to end after seven years (replaced by the less impressive Yo!), it was inevitable that the finale would be full of appearances by high-profile artists, many of whom had been a part of the show since its creation. Yo! MTV Raps ended with a freestyle rap session whose line-up rivals many of today’s big-budget music festivals. While KRS-One and Redman both go hard on the track, its Rakim’s effortless flow that leaves us stunned.
Outkast, MTV Video Music Awards (2004)
We love Outkast. If we had our way, their biggest hit wouldn’t have been “Hey Ya!” and everyone would have loved Big Boi’s solo debut, Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty, as much as we did. The Southern hip-hop duo’s performance at the 2004 VMAs was a medley of hits from their double album, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, that transformed the awards show into a party.
Run DMC and Aerosmith, MTV Video Music Awards (1987)
A landmark collaboration. A raw, magnetic performance. This is what both hip hop and MTV used to be about.