The Yo! MTV Raps edition of MTV Unplugged dropped in May of 1991, featuring the considerable talents of De La Soul, MC Lyte, A Tribe Called Quest, and LL Cool J for a glorious half-hour of bootylicious rhymes. It was a very interesting moment for a show of this type to run. A lot was happening in the world of hip-hop right around then, including increased respectability among mainstream critics—but ironically, in the years to come the very rappers who had earned that reputation were about to become marginalized. Just a year or so earlier, one of the biggest rap-related news stories was the obscenity trial of 2 Live Crew, who while wonderful in their way may not have been the most ideal poster children for the budding artform. One would have been forgiven for ridiculing the notion of an “unplugged” rap show in 1991; the music was strongly associated with sampling and scratching (not to mention cursing), and its R&B roots, which had been there all along, had been somewhat obscured.
The rap world was in a massively sampladelic phase at that point, what with recent masterpieces like Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, and De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising. However, practitioners must have been aware on some level that the days of rampant sampling were about to come to an end. Sure enough, six months after this episode of MTV Unplugged debuted, a judge named Kevin Thomas Duffy began his ruling in a court case in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York called Grand Upright Music, Ltd v. Warner Bros. Records Inc. with the biblical commandment “Thou shalt not steal.” Duffy held that Biz Markie had infringed on Gilbert O’Sullivan’s copyright when he used O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally)” for his own song “Alone Again,” which appeared on his third album I Need a Haircut. The hip-hop world was about to learn how to do without sampling as a primary component of the music. (For an insightful reaction to this case from the time, check out Robert Christgau’s article “Adventures in Information Capitalism: Gilbert O’Sullivan Meets Biz Markie” from 1992.) The performers here may not have known it, but an exhibition of the musicality of rap was about to become a key part of the defense of the artform.
When this was taped, Arrested Development was right around the corner, but their time in the spotlight wouldn’t last. The music here sounds a bit like the Roots, no? Black Thought and Questlove had formed the band already, in 1987, but were still two years away from releasing their first LP, Organix. The lineup of A Tribe Called Quest, MC Lyte, LL Cool J, and De La Soul was highly NYC-centric, and another influence that was in the process of defining hip-hop in the 1990s was gangsta rap, led by the musicians associated with N.W.A., out of Los Angeles, who released their first album, Straight Outta Compton, in 1988. (The East Coast/West Coast battles between rap factions would soon become an unfortunate staple of the hip-hop scene.) Putting it mildly, the gangsta revolution in rap would serve as one solution to the sampling ruling, while also marginalizing acts like De La Soul and Tribe for the time being.
The centerpiece of the show here is clearly LL Cool J’s galvanizing rendition of “Mama Said Knock You Out,” which he performed shirtless. The rampant booty-shaking that is evident during that cut should serve as the rebuttal to anyone who ever thought that an unplugged rap show was a silly idea.
A Tribe Called Quest, “Can I Kick It”
MC Lyte, “Cappucino”
LL Cool J, “Jingling Baby”
LL Cool J, “Mama Said Knock You Out”
De La Soul, “Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey)”
Thank you Joe Yachanin!