Many view contemporary hip-hop as a vehicle to flaunt one’s accomplishments. Whether it’s a celebration of money, women, power, or status, it’s practically impossible to turn on the TV or radio without being bombarded by some kind of indulgent message. But is hip-hop really about gaining respect by flexing a penchant for gluttony? Materialism was not the message early legend Mele Mel, for one, rapped about in hip-hop’s infancy. Mele Mel spoke about society’s faults and how they almost pushed him to “act a fool.” This social commentary trend continued with artists like KRS-One, Kool G Rap, Kool Moe Dee, Run-D.M.C., Slick Rick, and Rakim. But while kicking knowledge was a crucial part of the culture, rocking the party was equally important, and there was no better place to do so than at a home-style block party around the way. “I could remember getting water from Johnny pumps (fire hydrants) and splashing people,” remembers Marcus Glover, 40, out of East New York. “But when any song from Run-D.M.C., the Fat Boys, Expose, or KRS-One pumped out the boombox — everyone stopped and just started getting down.” It was that block-party atmosphere that VH-1 aimed to recreate with the Hip-Hop Honors Tour’s last stop at NYC’s famed Nokia Theatre. Billed as two-and-a-half hours of must-see hip-hop and soul, the show featured Philadelphia’s Grammy-award-winning five-piece band the Roots alongside Virginia freestyle prodigy Skillz and Brooklyn-born hip-hop legends Big Daddy Kane and MC Lyte. The VH-1 Hip-hop Honors is an annual event (currently in its fourth year) that celebrates the accomplishments of the genre’s pioneers. Recognizing the memory of these cultural icons also works as a history lesson for the new generation of fans who have only been listening to hip-hop for a decade. The show got underway with DJ Mixx and rapper Kinetic Energy (of the Arsonists) hyping the crowd, as DJ Ready Cee pumped out enough classic hits to wet the beak of any hip-hop enthusiast. After 40 minutes of Kinetic Energy’s powerful raps, he passed the mic to the Roots’ Black Thought, who, backed by bassist Owen Biddle (Leonard “Hub’ Hubbard’s replacement), guitarist “Captain” Kirk Douglas, percussionist Frankie Knuckles, keyboardist Kamal Gray, and Afro-centric drummer ?uestlove, unleashed a lyrical fury that immediately garnered vehement cheering. With a fashion-conscious Skillz by his side, Black Thought slowly quenched the crowd’s overwhelming hunger for old-school hip-hop with high-powered renditions of Run-D.M.C.’s “King of Rock” and N.W.A.’s “Fuck Tha Police”. The throwback frenzy continued as Black Thought and Skillz brought back a tidal wave of classic rap, covering Rakim’s “Microphone Fiend”, Kool G Rap’s “Men At Work”, Nas’ “Illmatic,” and Wu-Tang Clan’s seminal hit, “Protect Ya Neck”. On that last one, Black Thought showed stunning range, flawlessly performing verses by each of Wu-Tang’s nine members. Halfway through the Roots’ performance, queen of the game MC Lyte appeared in jeans and a corset wrapped around a white shirt. With trademark Brooklyn swagger, she galvanized the capacity crowd with an impeccable version of “Cha Cha Cha”, off 1989’s Eyes on This. The seismic booms kept fans dancing and cheering as MC Lyte gave a shout-out to her brother Milk Dee (the voice 50 Cent sampled on the song “I Get Money”) with a verse from the chart-topping “Top Billin”. She then bashed shallow love during “Paper Thin” before describing the intricacies of a sour relationship with a “crackhead” during “I Cram to Understand U”. After MC Lyte’s sinewy rhymes tore the roof off the Nokia, Black Thought and Skillz returned for another round of high-speed gymnastics (visually enhanced by strobe lights synced to ?uestlove’s drumming), passing the time until Big Daddy Kane showed the people his clout with a collection of lyrical knockouts. With a lightning-quick flow accentuated by freestyle rap-battle techniques, Big Daddy Kane is regarded as one of the greatest rappers of all time. Raised on the streets of what he called “the ’hood of the lyricist” — Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn — Kane was not only a mentor for other Brooklyn-bred rappers such as the Notorious B.I.G., but he also gave Jay-Z his first shot at stardom by hiring him as a hype man. In honor of Black Thought’s birthday a few days earlier, Kane and drummer ?uestlove presented the MC with a pimp cup. Then, Kane turned up the heat with classic party tracks “Set It Off”, “Smooth Operator”, and “Warm It Up, Kane”. Later, he brought out Big Scoob for a flashback dance routine with Black Thought during a heart-pounding rendition of “Raw”. Toward the middle of his set, Kane took a few minutes to acknowledge some of rap’s fallen heroes, shouting out Tupac Shakur, the Notorious B.I.G., Chief Cowboy from the Furious Five, and Old Dirty Bastard (a.k.a. ODB) and asking the audience to honor each artist’s name with a “moment of noise” rather than silence. Another surprising part of the evening’s festivities came when ?uestlove focused some attention on one of hip-hop’s most influential producers. An original Hitman from Bad Boy’s famous Hitman crew, DJ Rashad “Tumbling Dice” Smith was actually in the audience. “This man has a very impressive resume,” ?uestlove explained to the crowd before giving them a taste of famous joints like LL Cool J’s “Doin It” and Eric B. & Rakim’s “Don’t Sweat the Technique”. “This cat is a student of the Large Professor and he’s been making records since he was 15,” continued ?uestlove before introducing Eric B. & Rakim’s “Juice” as one of the first beats Smith made. Each time the crowd got riled up with one of Smith’s records, ?uestlove would cut it in the middle, unleashing a tornado of boos from the audience. “I know it’s blasphemous to cut the God (Rakim) off,” answered ?uestlove. “But there’s more,” he continued, as Smith’s beat for Busta Rhymes’ “Woo-Hah” bumped from the immense sound system. Both ?uestlove and Smith seemed to enjoy this record the most since they kept it running for the longest time, imitating Busta’s funky dance rhythms. “This is the song that will put his grandchildren through college,” were the words ?uestlove used to introduce the Notorious B.I.G.’s classic banger, “One More Chance”. Later in the show, MC Lyte returned to the stage and sang “Cold Rock the Party”, which was followed by Kane’s dance-step pop quiz. “Do you remember the running man?” Kane asked the audience. “How about the wop? Anybody remember the snake?” These dance demonstrations lead to serious gyrations by the “microphone lord” who then finished the show on a high note with a slew of fascinating rhymes from his timeless hit “Ain’t No Half-Steppin’,” off Long Live the Kane. Big Daddy Kane, along with MC Lyte, the Roots, and Skillz all represent the essence of early hip-hop. At its root, the revolutionary culture was never about getting the biggest record deal, flashing money and images of scantily clad women in videos, or displaying strength with firearms and gang signs. San Francisco rapper Gift of Gab (from Blackalicious) has described hip-hop as “a voice that we enlist to express how we be feelin about this and that.” His definition identifies the most altruistic quality of this beloved culture: expression. From the graffiti to the dancing, and all throughout the music, the central idea is the freedom to artistically express one’s point of view regarding any situation or obstacle. The pioneers of this social movement created a freedom-of-expression template that has survived long enough to impact the world. Through mass gatherings such as block parties or events similar to the VH-1 Hip-Hop Honors 2007, we can continue to empower youth by planting the seed of knowledge. After watching the Roots, Kane, MC Lyte, and Skillz radiate urban ingenuity at the 2007 VH-1 Hip-Hop Honors “block party”, it’s clear that Mele Mel’s original message is just as relevant to society today as it was 30 years ago. Long live hip-hop!
VH-1 Hip_Hop Honors Tour