Memory is a funny thing. For instance, according to my memory I watched The Arsenio Hall Show regularly and had riveting conversations with my friends about the cultural significance of you-know-who-said-you-know-what-to-you-know-who-about-whatever-it-was-that-had-happened on the show the night before. The truth is, though, that The Arsenio Hall Show debuted when I was 9-years-old and living in Frankfurt, Germany, and my household absolutely did not have CBS—my military brats all feel me on that AFN life—and the only time I ever saw it in real time was when I was staying with my grandma in Atlanta during those early 90s summers. I remember huddling up in my cousin’s bedroom to see whoever was going to be on that night. Oh yeah, and I literally only remember the show as being full of Black guests, largely hip-hop artists, Farrakhan and that time Presidential-nominee Bill Clinton played a saxophone on the show and convinced a bunch of Black people that he would be “our first Black president.”
Memory can be trash.
So imagine my surprise when I decided to watch old clips of the show and the guests were varied AF—I suppose doing a nightly show would make it impossible to limit your guests to Black folks only. In one clip, Tupac pointed out that rappers didn’t all mess with Arsenio like that because they didn’t feel like he was really putting them on. I literally don’t remember that at all. But that’s how cultural memory works decades after the fact, especially when a show—The Arsenio Hall Show—maintains such cultural resonance that the only way to remember it is as the late-night talk show for us, by us. You see to me, The Arsenio Hall Show was where we—Black folks—got to go and see ourselves and live our best lives and tell our stories. And it was that; if you go searching for video clips of the show you’ll see a veritable cornucopia of Blackness—Arsenio was the one to put rappers on in ways that the MTVs of the world weren’t. The show was hip-hop in the way that a lot of early 90s was hip-hop, from the guests, to the platform, to the acts he had closing out his shows.
Which brings me to something I’ve had on my heart for a long time. But first, some background.
I’ve said and written more than once that for a significant portion of my life that De La Soul’s sophomore album, De La Soul Is Dead, was my favorite album, regardless of genre. Released in 1991, the album was a dark departure from the perceived boho-hippie vibe of De La’s 1989 debut album, 3 Feet High and Rising. The album cover of 3 Feet... is a classic in its own right; bright yellow featuring colorful wording and imagery with the members of the group greyed out in a circle, the aesthetic harkened back to a Jefferson Airplane “White Rabbit” acid trip. The album, and especially its hit single, “Me, Myself and I” were absolute hits, indisputably considered classics both then and now; “Me, Myself and I” might as well be a cockroach as it will far outlive the group and probably the planet.
Here’s the thing, judging books by covers might as well be a national past-time and I mean, look at that album cover. Without listening intently to the lyrics and only jamming to the jams, you might think they were giving a rap version of a hippie vibe. Hell, they were talking about daisies, or more specifically “D.A.I.S.Y.” which stood for “Da Inner Sound, Y’all” and were part of the Native Tongues collective, which featured A Tribe Called Quest who came out the gate looking like the most secure men of all time who only wore clothes they could buy at the thrift store. Look, I’m not saying De La was on some hippie shit but I am saying I could see how one might assume that they were. Again, they said they weren’t and asked us to allow each person to live their best life how ever they wanted.
Well, sometime in 1989—I can’t seem to find the exact date to save my life—De La Soul closed out an episode of Arsenio. In his introduction of the group, Arsenio introduced the group as “the hippies of hip-hop” before De La performed “Me, Myself and I” where they quite specifically stated that they weren’t hippies. Now, if I’m being honest and not relying solely on memory, this is how Arsenio became of significance in my life. You see, on De La Soul Is Dead, the group leaned all the way into beefing with Arsenio. On the skits that tie the album together, there are bullies that terrorize little kids and steal their new De La tape (presumably the very tape we are all listening to), while also calling them all sorts of names including, an “Arsenio Hall-gum having punk...” where in the background a kid can be heard saying, “Oooooh, you let him call you Arsenio!!!” as if that was a diss.
Thing is, apparently it was because on the song “Pass the Plugs,” the group raps, “Arsenio dissed us but the crowd kept clapping.” Which is both true and subject to interpretation; the crowd definitely kept clapping as De La was being introduced, but I don’t know that Arsenio dissed the group; he definitely didn’t think he did. Hell, maybe Arsenio was just like most people who only listened to the beats and not the lyrics, or maybe his production assistants wrote that intro. Thing is, even me, an avowed stan of De La Soul Is Dead definitely viewed them as hippies on that first album. Just because you tell me you ain’t a hippie doesn’t mean you ain’t, ya know, giving me hippie vibes. Now, here’s the rub: Blackness is beautiful no matter how it’s packaged and I think that’s more or less how Arsenio was feeling when he said it. It didn’t sound like he viewed them being hippies as anything other than a statement of fact and one that was just fine.
Now, I can see why De La might not have been fans of being called hippies; the entirety of De La Soul Is Dead is a clinic in them rebelling against the label, going so far as to talk about how they used to fight and whip folks asses at shows who tried to test them for “being hippies, being punks.” So Arsenio might have unintentionally poured salt on an open wound and didn’t even know it. It ain’t his fault, but ya know, folks get triggered by different things. For De La, the hippie thing probably cast a shadow for them that they hated, especially at the time within hip-hop, at least enough to damn near create a whole ass classic album intended to counter that very image that Arsenio, on his very popular and very influential, audience-expanding show, put forth.
That’s the thing about influence, right? Arsenio, likely not having listened to the lyrics though definitely having heard the song—I was 9 when the song came out and even I was familiar with it—just said what he thought was a universal truth. That shit damn near inspired a classic piece of art. Oh what a tangled web we lace-front.
It’s probably situations like that that made rappers—at the time already leery of any attention that might make them seem less “real”—apprehensive about coming onto Arsenio, at least early on. Nobody wanted to catch a stray from Arsenio on television, especially if they already didn’t feel like he was genuinely giving rappers space and opportunity. And yet, for a solid five years, Arsenio was basically where you could go as a rapper and get some time to talk and become interesting to a record buying public. And those appearances which may not have been as plentiful as I remember—I don’t remember almost any non-Black, non-hip-hop-generation guests—are all that are seared into my mind as why The Arsenio Hall Show mattered so much.
We got to be seen for once by one of our own on a platform that was all about a culture we were developing, even if that wasn’t entirely the goal from jump. I remember Tupac and Snoop and KRS-One. The Arsenio Hall Show, even if maybe less Black than I remember, felt like the space for us, especially 30 years later. When I think of The Arsenio Hall Show, I definitely think of De La Soul Is Dead and how the intersection of two things I love the most met in the middle in the most awkward of ways, but I also think about how that could even be the case: Arsenio had hip-hop artists on his show. Arsenio got it; he knew how influential the culture was (and is) and allowed a space to make sure the culture got some time to shine, especially during a time when hip-hop was fighting for legitimacy even within our community. That legacy, that contribution, cannot be overstated enough.
Arsenio showed love in the Brooklyn way. And decades later the impact is still present. Which is why I never felt like Arsenio dissed De La; why would he? It didn’t seem to jive with the rest of his use of his platform. Hell, why bring a group on and diss them before letting them perform. The Arsenio Hall Show was for the culture. Nowadays there are tons of platforms that feature and shine a light on hip-hop. Hell, rappers are doing that job now. But in 1989 and 1991 and 1992???
That was all Arsenio and if my memory only reflects on it as a space that moved the Black community and hip-hop cultural needles then that’s alright with me.
Like Tupac said, “You are appreciated.”