Here’s The Story Behind The All-Star Cypher That Ended The Arsenio Hall Show
Twenty-five years ago this month, The Arsenio Hall Show dimmed the lights on a massive television platform, especially for Hip-Hop. Since early 1989, the actor/comedian/host planted his flag with a new kind of late-night talk-show with a penchant for the issues, people, and culture that inspired him. From M.C. Hammer to 3rd Bass, Wu-Tang Clan to Snoop Dogg, Rap music was front and center.
In 1987, Arsenio Hall had been part of a rotating cast of hosts to replace Joan Rivers on the fledgling FOX’s Late Show. During his three months in the spot, execs observed that Hall’s fill-in pumped up the ratings on a show that was at that time already ordered to be replaced. As Arsenio noted five years ago, even as an interim host on a show in the ’80s, he used creative freedom on a coasting show to put LL Cool J, Whodini, and others on network television. By Nielsen’s account, audiences responded at a time when other networks were not as inclusive towards Hip-Hop culture.
When Arsenio landed his show for 1989, it was his universe to play with. While pop culture may remember candidate Bill Clinton’s saxophone jam, the Cleveland Browns-inspired “dog pound” chants from the audience, or Hall’s animated brand of active listening (spoofed by Keenen Ivory Wayans on In Living Color), music may have been most important.
The Emmy-winning talk show may have inspired the title of C+C Music Factory’s “Things That Make You Go Hmmmm” in 1991, but it was a launchpad for Hip-Hop. “Basically, Hip-Hop saved my life,” Hall told DJ Vlad in 2014, as reported by HipHopDX. “Hip-Hop gave me a career. Sure there’s Bill Clinton, and sure there’s all the actors and actresses that came [on my show], but being able to put Will Smith on…and all those things. That brought a culture—and when I say ‘culture,’ I don’t mean Black, I mean the Hip Hop culture—it brought this whole new culture.”
By the mid-1990s, The Arsenio Hall Show was in a ratings decline, at least in the eyes of execs. In 1994, the final episode aired just as summer began. At the close of the show, a cast of MCs came together to give Arsenio a loving and thankful sendoff. Yo-Yo, MC Lyte, Treach, Phife Dawg, Q-Tip, Fu-Schnickens, C.L. Smooth, Guru, Das EFX, Wu-Tang Clan, KRS-One, and Mad Lion rocked while Pete Rock played a funky concoction of Bob James’ “Nautilus.”
After his rhyme, Kris proclaimed, “If it wasn’t for Arsenio, you wouldn’t see no Rap on TV,” after a verse that said in the wake of the cancellation, he would not be tuning in to David Letterman’s program. Other MCs wove Hall into their verses, with Lyte tracing his story back to Cleveland. In his rhyme, Phife cursed in anger that the show was leaving.
At 49:00 in a recent conversation with The Library With Tim Einenkel (available at AFH TV), Fu-Schnickens front-man Chip Fu recalls the significance of that television moment. “Hip-Hop was never on television because everybody was afraid of the messages that Hip-Hop would give. Even if you had a positive song, people would just [dismiss it], ‘Do not put that on late-night television.’ Late night TV was supposed to be for middle-aged people that came home after a hard day’s work and just open a can of beer, and just sit down [to] watch some [TV]. That’s what it was supposed to be about: questions and answers with their favorite actors or whatever. Arsenio was like, ‘Listen, I was brought up in Hip-Hop. I’m gonna turn this into what I want to turn it into. So every artist, whether it be Rock & Roll, Punk, Reggae, Hip-Hop, he had it on his show. Whether you’re controversial or not, he had you on his show. If it wasn’t for Arsenio, you wouldn’t have known about a lot of artists,” the Brooklyn, New York native Hip-Hop and Reggae artist tells Tim.
“So to hear that they were canceling his show, it struck a nerve with the Hip-Hop community. That was the platform. Now you had all the record companies going, ‘Now where are they gonna go now? Who are we gonna pitch our artists to?'” He and the Fu-Schnickens’ mentors and Jive Records label-mates, A Tribe Called Quest flew out to participate.
“I think [the finale cypher] was the weirdest meeting in the history of Hip-Hop because you have a room filled with everybody. Nobody’s talking to each other,” Chip recalls. “I remember coming out my hotel room, and I’m seeing everybody and their mama; no one is talking. Because everybody was in that headspace of, ‘Yo, this is the last performance on Arsenio Hall.’ So we went into this practice space; they had this huge practice space for us. I walked in, and you have Wu-Tang Clan over here, you’ve got Naughty By Nature over here. It was real quiet. And then you see Pete Rock over there [controlling the sound]. As soon as he pressed play, everybody started looking at each other, and we put the show together. Everybody left the egos at the door about who’s gonna go first, who’s gonna go second. We put that whole show together. That was all practiced. How you saw it [on TV] is how we practiced it, and how it came out is how we expected it to come out. The only part that we didn’t practice was the Mad Lion part, which was one of the most incredible [aspects]. KRS-One came out and freestyled his verse, then brought Mad Lion out to top everything off, which took it to another place.”
“I think that was one of the most creative days in Hip-Hop…it was about being a part of history,” he deduces, calling for a documentary. “There’s so many stories that could be told about that day because of all the groups that were there. First of all, there’s a lot of people that’s no longer with us: Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Guru, and Phife.” O.D.B. brought a bottle on stage while GZA rapped on behalf of the Clan. As the set ended, O.D.B. repeatedly told audiences “The Black man is God” while Hall embraced the artists on stage. “Half of the artists filled out the entire front bleachers at the show. There were that many artists there, [some] that didn’t even get on the song, but was just there to just show their respects.”
Chip adds that the significance of the event was processed immediately by the public. “People kept talking about that show. When Arsenio Hall came back to late night TV [in late 2013], everybody was petitioning for him to start the show with everybody that did that performance for him,” the MC says. “That was a great day for Hip-Hop.”
Elsewhere in the one-hour-plus interview available on AFH TV, Chip breaks down the techniques of acclaimed musician, producer, and engineer Bob Power. He also discusses his close relationship with Phife Dawg, and mentoring Shaquille O’Neal as a basketball superstar-turned-rapper. Fu also details new solo music.
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