VH1’s Hip Hop Honors don’t air until Tuesday, October 13th at 9 p.m. EST/PST, but Rolling Stone was at the big event at Brooklyn’s Howard Gilman Opera House last night. At the sixth annual Honors, a cavalcade of stars paid tribute to Def Jam Records, the mainstay that laid the blueprint for the rap industry and launched the careers of everyone from Public Enemy to Kanye West. The room was packed to the gills with Def Jam friends, family and alumni — it’d actually be easier just to name who wasn’t there (notably: Jay-Z, Rihanna, Kanye, LL Cool J and the recovering Beastie Boys).
The first three performances were giddy with the energy of true rap geeks. The Roots opened with a rototom-heavy version of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominee LL Cool J‘s 1985 classic “Rock the Bells.” Guest spitter Eminem emerged for the second verse and started joyously trading lines with Black Thought like a pair of old friends.
Wale, KRS-One and Gym Class Heroes did a hard-rocking version of the Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn” — a landmark collabo since we’re pretty sure KRS-One has never repped any borough besides the Bronx. Frontman Travis McCoy brought his hard rock flow and KRS-One naturally stole the spotlight with a custom-fitted verse that ended with “Yo, Adam, get well soon.” However, it sounded like Wale stumbled over MCA’s “lemon to a lime” line and started freestyling — which could open up a can of Internet worms like when Lupe Fiasco bungled a Tribe Called Quest verse at the 2007 Honors (tune in on October 13th to check it out). Either way, we know for sure that Jay-Z knows the whole damn song.
Most electrifying performance was the huge onstage clusterfuck of Public Enemy, the entire Roots band, a squad of S1Ws and Street Sweeper Social Club doing a raucous, dizzying, sound-clouded performance of their pioneering 1987 hailstorm “Rebel Without a Pause.” Chuck was in his iconic Pittsburgh Pirates hat, Flavor Flav was in his “911 Is A Joke”-era white suit and Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello was wearing all smiles, ecstatic to perform with his heroes as he scratched out Terminator X’s “Rebel” solo on his guitar.
Some old friends returned, including Onyx, who joined Gym Class Heroes for a fast and funky “Slam,” including a super-amped Sticky Fingaz standing on the speakers, ripping off his shirt and diving into the opera box. Even more hard-rocking was DMX, who seemed poised to make an impression after a few years out of the spotlight, stalking the stage like a rock star for a Gym Class-aided “Party Up.” When Mary J. Blige joined Method Man for “I’ll Be There For You/You’re All I Need To Get By,” the audience practically went beserk.
But once the tributes and interesting collabos ended, the night became tedious. Rick Ross in a Kangol and Fila suit in front of some denim-clad Club MTV dancers did an uninspired “Hustlin.'” Warren G with Trey Songz performed an almost-too-chilled version of “Regulate” on top of the original single’s vocals. A sunglassed Ja Rule and Ashanti ran through “Down 4 U” and “Always On Time” so unenthusiastically that it like a cruel joke when sound problems forced them to perform it again. The night weirdly ended with Wale dressed in a Louis Vuitton backpack and vintage Kanye duds — a style that already seems as dated as an Adidas tracksuit — doing a version of Ye’s “Touch The Sky.” It was a performance that seemed conflicted about looking to the future, paying tribute to the artist too famous to show up to the party.
But a party it definitely was, and if you were at Howard Gilman Opera House, it really didn’t matter who was onstage, since the packed room was more like a friendly get-together than a stuffy tribute. Blastmaster KRS-One called out to his buddies and you could hear his booming voice across the hall, Busta Rhymes shared hugs, Chris Rock watched the show from the back of the room, Fab 5 Freddy looked like he had a million people to talk to, Def Jam co-founders Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin sat together like old friends.
A heckler in the audience screamed “Where’s Jay-Z,” and without missing a beat, house DJ Ed Lover said, “Right here,” and played “Money Ain’t a Thing.” If the night properly celebrated anything about Def Jam it was definitely the label’s communal power.