If there is one reason I tuned in to the sixth annual VH1 Hip-Hop Honors—a tribute to Def Jam Records—hosted by comedian Tracy Morgan, it was for the performances.
Since the annual special first aired, Hip-Hop Honors has demonstrated how even in hip-hop, classic rap songs of yesterday can and arguably should be redone by today’s well-known artists. Not just by borrowing a couple of lines from one song, but a full-on, word-for-word rendition replete with the original beat.
This is the only formula VH1 can use to get a long-term-memory deficient, popularity-obsessed, young audience to tune in to a show about a bunch of rappers who were big before they were born.
R&B and jazz artists have done this for decades, taking great, influential songs and finding ways to remake them while keeping the original’s integrity in tact. When Thelonious Monk released his classic 1944 ballad, “Round Midnight,” I am sure he was OK when, 13 years later, Miles Davis recorded his own classic rendition, and put it on an album entitled ’Round About Midnight.
Quality remakes find a way to pay homage without crossing the line into cheesy nostalgia. This is something Eminem and The Roots understood when they took the stage to perform the night’s first tribute, “Rock The Bells,” LL Cool J’s hit single from his 1985 album, Radio (Def Jam).
To hear both Eminem and Black Thought (The Roots' MC) attack Cool J’s classic with such precision—breath control, check; staccato flow, check; rhyme each line verbatim, check—was to hear two rappers clearly influenced by LL Cool J’s early work. With the exception of Black Thought’s “Rest In Peace Michael Jackson” line (the original line LL wrote is “Do you like Michael Jackson”) neither rapper changed a word. Instead, they focused on the song’s greatness, its lyrics, rapping each bar like little kids lip-synching in front of a mirror. It should be noted that they also didn’t wear ridiculous outfits to hearken the era from which the song came. Eminem did the smart thing by opting for a Kangol baseball cap, instead of wearing the full-on bucket hat that LL would never leave home without.
Most of the other tributes did not fare so well.
When it was time for the show to focus on Def Jam’s southern label, Def Jam South, Houston rapper Scarface (who served as the division’s head of AR when it was getting off the ground)failed to move the audience when he performed “Guess Who’s Back,” a Kanye West-produced gem from Scarface’s album, The Fix. The problem was that the song is only 7 years old, an age too young to be classic, too old to be familiar. It also isn’t a proper tribute if an honoree himself performs the song. That’s like making a hall-of-fame inductee introduce himself. “Guess Who’s Back” would have resonated much stronger if a younger, more popular Southern artist like Young Jeezy performed it.
At other points in the show, the tributes were a confusing mess.
When rap-rock group Gym Class Heroes took the stage with D.C. rapper Wale and KRS-One, to perform the Beastie Boys’ 1986 hit “No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” all three MCs interjected their own rhymes within the original verses. Surprisingly, KRS-One—the token old-school rapper in the performance—was the most flagrant, abandoning script all together with an impromptu freestyle.
During the show’s tribute to Def Jam’s artist from the West Coast, it was a well-played move to select “Regulate,” the 1994 hit record originally rapped by Warren G and singer Nate Dogg, whose classic hook remains catchy to this day. It wasn’t such a well-played move to allow Warren G himself to perform the record. Singer Trey Songz gave a respectable performance in the role of Nate Dogg, but looked like a kid who wanted to be a West Coast gangster for Halloween, wearing dark shades and a white T-shirt underneath a gray and black flannel, with a single top-button buttoned.
The best remakes are subtle, creative in their own ways. Artists do not try to take someone else’s song and make it into their own; they have too much respect for the original. Nor does an artist do their own impersonation of a performer and their original song, lest they want to sound like a quality karaoke enthusiast.
With a remake, all an artist must do is find a way to acknowledge the great work of another artist by attempting to perform with just as much heart and soul as the original has; a hat tip of sorts. They make their fans want to hear what the original sounded like because their own version is so good.
Over the years, Hip-Hop Honors has attempted, with a fair amount of success, to keep the same integrity, and when an artist has failed to do so, controversy usually follows. Remember, two years ago, when the rapper Lupe Fiasco messed up the words to A Tribe Called Quest’s “Electric Relaxation” during a tribute performance? Purists and critics took Fiasco to task for weeks after his mistake.
Unfortunately, in this year’s special, there were too many Lupe Fiasco-like moments.
Jozen Cummings is the author and creator of the popular relationship blog Until I Get Married, which is currently in development for a television series with Warner Bros. He also hosts a weekly podcast with WNYC about Empire called Empire Afterparty, is a contributor at VerySmartBrothas.com and works at Twitter as an editorial curator. Follow him on Twitter.