Is ‘SNL’s History With Rap As Bad As Everyone Assumes?

Senior Pop Culture Editor
01.24.13 46 Comments

“The only thing Saturday Night Live does worse than telling jokes now is picking musical guests.” So goes two common complaints about the long-running sketch show, an argument, if you want to call it that, that’s just, well, wrong. SNL has never been and will never be perfect (that’s part of the charm), and although they’ve booked the dreary likes of Justin Bieber and Hootie and the Blowfish throughout their 38-season run, the show has also given national exposure to Fear, the Replacements, Arcade Fire, and other “lesser known” bands and artists.

This Saturday, Studio 8H will play host to Kendrick Lamar, one of 2012’s greatest underground-turned-mainstream success stories. He’s also an SNL rarity, in that he’s a rapper. The show predominantly chooses rock and pop acts, and whatever you want to define Lana Del Rey as, but while looking at their musical history, I grew curious about something: how has SNL‘s history with rap and hip-hop been? In this post, I highlighted every rapper/hip-hop group that played on the series from season one (1975) through the last episode of season 25 to air in 1999. I stopped there, because beginning in 2000, more rappers were being booked, and I was more interested in SNL‘s embrace of the genre before rap began to dominate FM radio. Let’s see how well they did.

Funky Four Plus One (February 14, 1981)

Funky 4+1 – Thats The Joint (On Saturday Night Liv… – MyVideo

Credit where credit’s due, SNL acknowledged one of the most important forefathers to rap long before most other institutions did. The Queens-born Funky Four Plus One — not only the first hip-hop act booked on a national TV series, but also the first to be fronted by a female MC — were the musical guests in an episode hosted by Debbie Harry, a big fan. But when people talk about SNL episodes from 1981, they discuss the one the week after Funk’s appearance, when Charles Rocket dropped his infamous “I’d like to know who the f*ck did it” ad-lib.

Run–D.M.C. (October 18, 1986)

SNL‘s first “real” rap act. Run–D.M.C. performed three songs, including “Walk This Way,” in an eclectic episode with special guests Sam Kinison, Buster Poindexter, and Spike Lee (as Mars from She’s Gotta Have It). The group had just achieved breakthrough status with their third album, Raising Hell, one of the first rap records to be played on top-40 radio, and it’s a good thing SNL got ’em when they did: Run’s next album, Tougher Than Leather, is a bit of stinker. Plus, for a show that, to many, IS New York, it would have been an in-retrospect embarrassment if SNL hadn’t booked one of the city’s all-time most influential groups,

LL Cool J (October 24, 1987)

One of SNL‘s more unfortunate decisions: for their October 24, 1987 episode, they split the musical guest duties between LL Cool J, who performed one song, “Go Cut Creator Go,” off of Bigger and Deffer, and Michael Penn’s band, the Pull. The hell? The episode was hosted by Sean Penn. Screw that guy.

Tevin Campbell, Kool Moe Dee, and Big Daddy Kane (February 10, 1990)

A trio that only Quincy Jones could pull off. Side note: for millions of people, Tevin Campbell and Kool Moe Dee are Powerline from A Goofy Movie and Guy Who Appears in Will Smith’s “Wild Wild West,” and only Powerline from A Goofy Movie and Guy Who Appears in Will Smith’s “Wild Wild West.” That’s unfortunate.

Vanilla Ice (January 12, 1991)

Klik hier om het video filmpje te bekijkenLook, Vanilla Ice was impossible to escape at the time. To the Extreme, which would go on to sell 15 million copies, was released in August 1990, and by the end of 1991, the “Ice Ice Baby” rapper had been nominated for a Grammy and starred in two movies, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze and the immortal Cool as Ice. It would have been weird if SNL hadn’t booked him, even if they should have picked A Tribe Called Quest (The Low End Theory) or De La Soul (De La Soul Is Dead) or Ice Cube (Death Certificate), instead.

Public Enemy (September 28, 1991)

What a season premiere. Michael Jordan, right after he won his first NBA championship with the Bulls, AND Public Enemy, right before they put out Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Black? Sure beats Seth MacFarlane and Frank Ocean from last year, especially when you consider Chuck D rapping “King and chief, probably had a big beef/Because of that now I grit my teeth” on live TV.

Hammer (December 7, 1991)

The first musician on this list to both host and be the musical guest, the MC-less Hammer was riding the high of the billion selling one-two punch of Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em and Too Legit to Quit during the winter of 1991. I already listed some of the groups with far superior albums from that year in Vanilla Ice’s entry, so instead of belaboring the point, I’ll mention that Hammer’s monologue involved Chris Rock as Michael Jackson.

Arrested Development (October 24, 1992)

In his entry about Arrested Development for the AV Club’s “Hip-Hop and You Do Stop” series, Nathan Rabin wrote:

Arrested Development were not savvy or lucky enough to have a [De La Soul producer] Prince Paul to save them excessive earnestness and clumsy sincerity. Instead, it had Baba Oje, an old man Speech met at University Of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who served as the group’s “elder,” a role that, according to the group’s bio on its website, entails bringing “wisdom to the youthful energy of the rap.” (Via)

Basically, they were too impassioned, too earnest, for their own good, which is why history hasn’t been kind to the OTHER Arrested Development (they must be so pissed about that; they were the first, after all). But in 1992, “Tennessee” and “People Everyday” were huge hits, as were “Hey Jealously” by Spin Doctors and “These Are Days” by 10,000 Maniacs, the two groups that bookend AD’s episode. Says it all.

Cypress Hill (October 2, 1993)

One week after Nirvana’s epic SNL appearance came Cypress Hill’s. Black Sunday had just become the then-highest selling first week rap album of all-time, and Cypress played the only two Cypress Hill songs people know, “Insane in the Brain” and “I Ain’t Goin’ Out Like That.” You know what other groups released albums in 1993? Tribe (Midnight Marauders), Wu-Tang (Enter the Wu-Tang), Snoop Dogg (Doggystyle), and Tupac (Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z.). Only two of the four would eventually guest on SNL.

Salt-n-Pepa (February 5, 1994)

Please watch Patrick Stewart’s introduction of “SALT AND PEPPER.” It’s SNL‘s best moment. Ever.

Snoop Doggy Dogg (March 19, 1994 and January 18, 1997)

Snoop has actually logged four appearances over the years: in 1994, fresh off the success of Doggystyle, he played “Gin and Juice” and “Lodi Dodi” in an episode hosted by Helen Hunt, which is very amusing, and again in 1997, between releasing 1996’s Tha Doggfather and 1998’s Da Game Is to Be Sold, Not to Be Told. I’ll get to his 1999 spot later, but I’ll never mention his 2004 episode (with Avril Lavigne!), when he already had become a parody of himself.

Beastie Boys (December 10, 1994 and November 21, 1998)

Beastie Boys SNL: Sure Shot and Heart Attack Man from BeastieBoysMedia on Vimeo.

Over a four-year span, Beastie Boys were on SNL twice (and once again in 1999, when they performed “Radio, Radio” with Elvis Costello for the show’s 25th anniversary special), playing “Sure Shot” and “Ricky’s Theme”/”Heart Attack Man” the first time and “Three MC’s and One DJ” and “Sabotage” the second. Both great, as was the Spartan Cheerleaders sketch with Adam Horovitz playing Jennifer Love Hewitt’s boyfriend

TLC (May 6, 1995)

Take back what I said earlier, re: Michael Jordan and Public Enemy: Bob Saget and TLC is the defining host-music guest pairing. The immensely popular CrazySexyCool had just come out, and with it, “Creep” and “Red Light Special,” both of which “Chilli,” “T-Boz,” and “Left Eye” sang live, presumably while Saget called up his Full House co-star, Dave Coulier, to discuss “how goddamn sexy these ladies are.”

Coolio (February 10, 1996)

Would Coolio have appeared on SNL if not for Dangerous Minds? No, he would not. What I’m saying is, I blame Michelle Pfeiffer for Jay-Z (Reasonable Doubt), OutKast (ATLiens), and Ghostface Killah (Ironman) being ignored by SNL in favor of the guy who would later rap the Kenan & Kel theme song. Yup, all her fault…

Tupac Shakur (February 17, 1996)

…but on the plus side, Tupac was booked the same year All Eyez on Me and The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory came out. Is it, however, Michelle’s fault that Killuminati was posthumously released? I’m not saying yes, but: yup.

Dr. Dre (October 26, 1996)

Before he was forgotten, Dr. Dre was on SNL in the fall of 1996, not long after he left Death Row Records to start his own label, Aftermath Entertainment, and put out the compilation album Dr. Dre Presents the Aftermath. It’d be three years before his next release, 2001, though he did produce the Firm’s The Album, which, oh God, why did I mention that album? I’m sorry.

Missy Misdemeanor Elliott (February 14, 1998)

SNL jumped on the Missy bandwagon relatively early, booking her after Supa Dupa Fly but before Da Real World. (This may have had something to do with the show pairing her with Touched By an Angel star Roma Downey; they knew they were gonna have to save face in the future.) Here’s hoping they hop back on it when she (maybe? please?) puts out a new album sometime this year.

Lauryn Hill (December 5, 1998)

In 1998, Lauryn Hill was that thing, that thing, etc. etc. etc. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill won approximately 282 Grammys, and four months after its release, she was singing “Doo Wop (That Thing)” and “Ex-Factor” on SNL, while host Vince Vaughn smugly looked on. Oh, to be a fly on the wall for their backstage chats.

Busta Rhymes and the Roots (February 13, 1999)

A match made in musical Heaven. Both Busta (E.L.E. (Extinction Level Event): The Final World Front) and the Roots (Things Fall Apart) put out their career-best albums in 1999, and as far as I can tell, their pairing had something to do with a Crib Underground 12-inch released the year prior, with “Do the Bus a Bus” on one side and “Without a Doubt” on the other. Two-band pairings is something SNL doesn’t do much anymore, but it wouldn’t be a bad thing every so often. Certainly better than more Karmin.

Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Eminem (October 23, 1999)

SNL‘s final musical collaboration of the millennium brought together arguably the three most recognizable rappers of the 1990s, with Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg performing “Still D.R.E.” and Dre and Eminem, “Forgot About Dre.” It’s a shame DMX wasn’t on the show until 2000, because *makes barking noises for four hours*

So, how’d they do? About as well as the show itself. There were a ton of misfires, from no Biggie and no Nas to yes Coolio and yes MC Hammer, but they got Beastie Boys, Lauryn Hill, and Missy Elliott in their primes. They probably (OK, definitely) could have done a better job, but they didn’t make a fool of themselves, either. That’s about all you can ask for from SNL.

Around The Web

UPROXX Instagram