Why you should care
Because when the rock-focused MTV Unplugged aired its first-ever acoustic rap show, the response was electrifying.
MTV Unplugged was designed primarily for rock fans who wanted to hear what their favorite artists sounded like when their instruments weren’t plugged into an amp. But that changed on May 1, 1991, when the channel aired the debut broadcast of Yo! Unplugged Rap, 60 minutes of acoustic beats to the rhyme that proved hip-hop was just as formidable with live instruments as it was with samples and breakbeats.
“[It’s like] you drink milk for 10 years and then [you have to] drink fruit punch,” A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip told MTV News about being backed by Pop’s Cool Love, the LA funk-metal band that provided grooves for the set. “It’s not that the fruit is bad, but you have to get used to it.”
The show set the stage for crossover artists like Michael Franti’s Spearhead, Arrested Development, The Roots and Jay Z’s monster mashup with Linkin Park.
“During rehearsal we’d go in and tell them where we wanted to drop,” MC Lyte added in the interview, “or where we wanted [a certain song] to come in to jazz it up a little, but from the regular track.”
Starting off with a slow fade into the bass line from Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” — the centerpiece of A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It?” — Q-Tip, Phife Dawg and Ali Shaheed Muhammad launched into a spirited performance that set the tone for the rest of the half-hour special. MC Lyte followed with a juke joint version of “Cappuccino,” her classic tale of life after death from a stray bullet. Headliner LL Cool J did a smoothed-out, piano-laden version of “Jingling Baby,” followed by an acoustic guitar and conga-heavy take on his classic “Mama Said Knock You Out.”
The live cut climaxed with a shirtless Todd Smith (roll-on deodorant visible for all to see) screaming so loudly into the sound system that his first mic went dead, stirring the packed crowd into an electric frenzy before it settled into the cerebral sarcasm of De La Soul, who closed the show with “Ring Ring Ring,” their ode to aspiring rappers who went to every length to get the trio to listen to their demo.
As this was a time on MTV when specials like this one didn’t run four times a day, the original airing and encore were the talk of the hip-hop nation for days and weeks to come. Never released as a recorded album or DVD, some 23 years later, it can be found only in clips online and on VHS tapes and bootlegs tucked into the attics and closets of music collectors. But its impact was immeasurable.
Not only did the show inspire future Unplugged episodes featuring hip-hop artists like Heavy D, Father MC and Mary J. Blige, but it also set the stage for crossover artists like Michael Franti’s Spearhead, Arrested Development, The Roots and eventually Jay Z’s monster mashup with Linkin Park that resulted in their multiplatinum-selling Collisi
It also influenced other rock-rap collaborations, including 1993’s soundtrack to the film Judgment Night, which paired hip-hop artists like Ice-T, Cypress Hill and Del Tha Funkee Homosapien with the likes of Faith No More, Pearl Jam and Sonic Youth. If Run DMC and Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” cracked the door for mainstream America to enter the world of urban verbal discourse, then this was the show that blasted it wide open.