TV O.D.: VH1’s 100 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on October 4, 2008
You on point, Toure? All the time, Kaleefa
Golly gee gosh, I still just love a good VH-1 Countdown. One thing I continue to have to give ’em credit for, despite all the increasingly whorey celebreality shows, the ruination of Best Week Ever, the white guys (mostly chicks now, I guess) with pianos, and the cancellation of my 15 minutes of fame, is that every six months or so, they’ll still manage to trot out a half-decent top 100 countdown. They’re not controversial, they’re not educational, they’re not even particularly interesting, but they’re as safe and comfortable as a warm blanket on a sunny spring morning. And though you wouldn’t know it if you don’t pay as much undue attention to these things as I do, but their lists have gotten a little bit better–more diverse, less pandering to the core AC demographic, and even slightly less hopelessly stuck in the past.
Their latest effort, a list of the top 100 hip-hop songs of all-time, is even more compelling if you remember how not that long ago, VH1 refused to even acknowledge the existence of hip-hop–the Pop-Up Video for Blondie’s “Rapture” claimed that it was the only rap video currently in VH-1’s rotation. About the turn of the century, rap became too big a commercial force for the channel to ignore entirely, so they made a sort of compromise–they still wouldn’t play more than a handful of rap videos, but every couple of months, they’d do some sort of public hip-hop celebration. So now we get History of Hip-Hop documentaries, lifetime Hip-Hop award shows, and for one beautiful TV season, Ego Trip’s The (White) Rapper Show. To watch a channel once so reactionary about the genre embrace it so enthusiastically, though, probably feels the same way my old friends feel when they hear me talking about sports now.
Still, to the channel’s credit once again, even if their love is insincere, they don’t do a terrible job of faking it. The list makes for a pretty respectable hip-hop canon, hitting all the real high points in the last 30 years of the genre. You could probably guess at least seven of the top ten, and those that you couldn’t would mostly make you nod and say “hm, fair enough.” The list does a good job of not repeating artists (only LL and Run-DMC have multiple songs, not counting guest or group appearances), and the songs they choose per artist tend to be more thoughtful than simply choosing the artist’s most popular song (“Juicy” over “Hypnotize,” “Tha Block is Hot” over “Lollipop,” “Stan” over “Lose Yourself,” and most impressively, “Hold It Now, Hit It” over the dozens of better-known BBoys songs). And through the sexy middle hours of the list, VH1 even manages to come up with a couple pleasant surprises–songs like the LOX’s “Money, Power & Respect” (#53), Lil’ Kim’s “Crush on You” (#75), Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing” (#39) and Cam’Ron’s “Oh Boy” (#89)–songs which you don’t normally associate with all-time hip-hop lists, but when you think about it, are pretty darn good songs.
That’s not to say that VH-1 has exactly solved hip-hop, though. The list, while not being as embarrassingly populist and ageist as the channel has been in the past, still has an obvious pro-crossover, pro-old school bent that means certain classic street anthems of recent-ish years that didn’t really burn up the pop charts–Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones (Pt. II),” The Clipse’s “Grindin’,” M.O.P.’s “Ante Up”–are left out in the cold. In their place are a bunch of chartburners that look pretty out of place on such a list (sure, “O.P.P.” and “The Humpty Dance” are timeless classics, but “U Can’t Touch This” at #26? “Gangsta’s Paradise” at #38? Ma$e’s “Feel So Good” anywhere? Fucking Kid n Play? ) and a couple too many historically significant selections that really aren’t very good songs (Run-DMC’s “Walk This Way,” Kool Moe Dee’s “How Ya Like Me Now?,” Ice-T’s “Colors”). Also, if you’re going to have a Fugees song in the top 25, shouldn’t it be one that actually has some rapping in it (beyond Wyclef going “One time, one time”)?
Petty complaints, though, for what is ultimately another solid, unchallenging VH-1 countdown. It’s stuff we’ve all heard before, from the same people in the same contexts (though I can’t help but wonder what Hip-Hop-Honoree to be Too $hort feels about not having a song on this list), but hey, watching and talking about great music never really gets old. Where else have you seen testimonies to the brilliance of the narrative structure of “Regulate” recently? The tearjerking beauty of the video for “Tha Crossroads”? The cinematic quality of the pencil-scribbling sound effects in the beat to “Stan”? Hell, they even sorta agree with me about PM Dawn. I can’t think of a more fun way to spend my TV watching late-nights.