While most of the country tuned into the Vice Presidential debate last night and wondered what the future holds, the crowd at New York's Hammerstein Ballroom looked back at rap history at VH1's Fifth Annual Hip Hop Honors. But there was some politicking in the house: After a set from resident DJ Biz Markie, host Tracy Morgan opened the show with a bit about being the President of the People, while fans on the floor waved campaign signs endorsing Slick Rick and Cypress Hill '08, two of the evening's honorees alongside Too $hort, De La Soul and Naughty by Nature. The show premieres on VH1 October 6th and 10 PM.
Before the show, Slick Rick offered a personal political endorsement. "I want to thank Governor David Paterson, it's a good thing we have a decent person in government," he said of the New York governor who granted him a pardon for murder charges last May. Then the tributes began with a look back at Cypress Hills' early days. Hip-hop was still rebel music when Cypress Hill rhymed about smoking weed and how they could just kill a man in the early '90s. Fat Joe ignited the opening tribute to the group while B-Real, Sen Dog and crew nodded with approval from their seats. Jim Jones took over on "I Ain't Goin' Out Like That" before Gym Class Heroes lit up "Insane in the Membrane," B-Real's nasal delivery getting drowned out by the band as the scent of marijuana wafted through the balcony.
Next, Estelle and Q-Tip teamed up for "A Roller Skating Jam Named 'Saturdays' " in honor of De La Soul. Mos Def and Public Enemy turned "Stakes Is High" into a battle cry before Cee-Lo entered, adorned in silver silk, followed by EPMD and De La Soul themselves, who breezed through "Me, Myself and I" and "Buddy."
"He was the hero, the villain, the man," former Giants defensive end Michael Strahan said as he introduced the Slick Rick tribute. MC Lyte showed she's still got it before Busta Rhymes, in a turquoise eye-patch and matching vest-suit, took over. Biz Markie beat-boxed alongside Ghostface on "La Di Da Di" and Eve flaunted her figure in a cat-suit. Soon, the Ruler sat on a throne center-stage, eye-patch sparkling, stroking a cat, launching into "A Children's Story." During rehearsal, Ghostface gave props to his idol: "When Slick Rick first hit the scene, I had to practice that British accent," Ghost said. "There's no other storyteller like this man."
One of night's highlights followed when Mos Def, the Roots band (minus Black Thought), Public Enemy, Cee-Lo and Estelle honored the life of the late Isaac Hayes though tracks like Mary J. Blige's "I Love You" and Biggie's "Warning" that sampled Hayes' music. Scarface joined in for "Mind Playing Tricks On Me" and Flavor Flav concluded the set with his only solo line of the night: "Yeaaaaah Boooooy!"
As Kid Rock initiated Too $hort's tribute, a woman in a I HELLA HEART OAKLAND baby tee danced in the second tier. Lil Jon, Bun B and Scarface helped Short Dog himself bring a bit of the Bay to Manhattan. After the show, Scarface was humbled. "I was honored to do something for Too $hort and Isaac Hayes, what else could you ask for?" he told Rolling Stone. "I grew up in my grandmother's house in a little neighborhood in Houston, Texas, and now I'm in fucking New York City on VH1."
For the final honor, the sounds of Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry" came from Wyclef Jean's guitar, blending into the tune of "Everything's Gonna Be Alright" behind Juelz Santana. Big Boi joined 'Clef for "O.P.P." before Treach, Vin Rock and an entourage of 15 had the Hammerstein chanting "Hip-Hop Hooray!"
Following the two-hour extravaganza, Q-Tip and MC Lyte DJed an afterparty at Opera nightclub while Ghostface hung out in VIP. "The rap game is cool but it ain't the same," said Ghost, who noted that he's currently compiling an R&B album. Lyte, showing little signs of aging since her debut 20 years ago, summed it all up with a smile: "It feels good to still be at it."