If hip-hop was finding its way into the living room of mainstream America by the early 1990s, then Yo! MTV Raps Unplugged kicked the door wide open. As VJ Mark Goodman had once explained to a stupefied David Bowie, the network was a “rock’n’roll station,” not minded to feature the work of a generation of trailblazing Black artists working in genres like hip-hop. But when the golden-age talents of De La Soul, MC Lyte, A Tribe Called Quest, and LL Cool J graced MTV Unplugged in 1991 for its first-ever acoustic rap show, the response was a sledgehammer blow to the station’s conventions.
You know the format. First airing in 1989, Unplugged saw musicians ditch their electronic instruments and strip their arrangements down to the bare bones. Eric Clapton’s career got a re-up in 1992 when he took heavy guitar workout “Layla’ and flipped it into an rickety acoustic blues number. And one of the most lasting images of MTV’s heyday is the sight of Nirvana, surrounded by candles and flowers, strumming acoustic guitars. Their 1993 cover of Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World The World” was like a full-on jack move.
But how could the format accommodate the beats, rhymes, and life of early 1990s rap music? Two turntables and a microphone were not an option—for rappers to take to the Unplugged stage, they’d have to reimagine their beats on instruments traditionally associated with folk, country, and rock. For the suits at MTV, it was too much to comprehend in 1991.
But Moses Edinborough was a maverick. At 26 years old, he had been recently promoted to a producer’s position on Yo! MTV Raps, the network’s most prominent hip-hop show, and the Saint Thomas native was hungry, with the assurance of youth on his side. Yet the genesis of Yo! MTV Raps Unplugged (sometimes titled Yo! Unplugged Rap) came from something as simple as a wager, when Edinborough got into a dust-up with an executive from Epic Records who argued that no rapper could perform with a live band. “Rakim and Kool G Rap could,” asserted Edinborough.
“He laughed in my face,” Edinborough wrote to me in 2015. “So I called him out. I said, ‘Let’s bet pay checks’. And that was it, he had to put up or shut up. But so did I. And at the time I was making about $1,100 a week and the A&R white guy [made] $3,600. It was a nice pay out for me.”
Edinborough turned in a treatment to Unplugged producer Joel Gallen and MTV bigwig Doug Herzog just a few days later. And then he waited. He waited days, which turned into weeks and, eventually, months. For Moses, the silence coming from the station’s senior guys was deafening. “I would give Joel and Doug ‘the look’ in the halls and they would walk the other way.”
The proposal eventually received an official rejection. It was a soft backhand, but a smack-down nonetheless, and work at the station went on. But a lifeline was to come six months later when Gallen burst into Edinborough’s office without warning. The look on his face was of pure exasperation. As fate would have it, Aerosmith, who had brought rap to so many new ears with their Run-D.M.C. collaboration “Walk This Way’, were unwittingly about to solidify their place in hip-hop history. “Aerosmith backed out of doing Unplugged,” said Joel. “We have all this money spent on a stage, we built a set, hired a crew and in four days we’re fucked if we can’t fill the space! And unless you can make your Rapper Unplugged thing happen, we’re going to lose lots of money!”
Moses’s dream project was on. But Gallen was about to drop a bombshell. “Can you make it happen by Monday?” he asked. The weekend was already upon them. Edinborough knew the rap community was pretty excited about doing anything at MTV, but four days? “The fuckers,” he thought.
With no time to strategize, Edinborough went straight to work with Sheri Howell from MTV’s talent relations department and together the pair sketched out their artist wish list. Yo! producer Todd 1 suggested Brookylnite MC Lyte, and the crew figured the sample-heavy style of De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest would easily translate into a live music format and give the New York-filmed show an authentic NYC vibe. But they still wanted someone with star quality to anchor the whole thing. “The lineup was coming together but I knew we didn’t have a star act,” recalled Moses. “This is how I phrased it: ‘We need the Elvis or Michael [Jackson] of Rap’.”
The crew were surprised that Rakim was unavailable, and MTV didn’t want anyone too “gangster,” meaning Kool G Rap was out. There was also worries from upstairs that KRS-One, Chuck D, or Kool Moe D didn’t have enough star power, and The Fresh Prince wasn’t ready for Unplugged either.
But Moses and Sheri were about to get lucky. At the very same time they were sweating on their headline attraction at the MTV offices on Times Square, LL Cool J was making an on-air appearance with host Downtown Julie Brown. When the duo found out, they hopped a cab and raced to Unitel Studios on West 57th Street to meet the rising King of Queens, Todd Smith.
Edinborough laid out his daring treatment, but the response was a firm, “No.” Twice more he repeated his request and received the same response before Uncle L promptly made his way out the door, escaping onto the busy Midtown streets. In desperation, Moses turned his attention to the rapper’s road manager. “This is historic and prestigious, what we are asking LL to do,” he pleaded.
The manager went after his client and moments later, Mr. Smith was back in front of the desperate MTV executives. Sitting in a backstage green room, a nervous and anxious Edinborough talked through the idea and finally received the yes he needed. But LL had a caveat. He didn’t want to do Moses’s proposed battle rap segment, which would have seen MCs taking each other on in the New York tradition of tossing lyrical barbs back and forth for sidewalk—or in this case, studio—supremacy. Moses remembered, “At the time I was like, ‘Shit that’s the best part of my idea.’ He was right and his decision was important. And it changed my treatment for the better.”
The next couple of days saw Lyte, Tribe, and De La working out their sets. Moses described the vibe at the Studio Instrument Rentals’ rehearsal space as “early afro-punk hip-hop,” as the M.C.s jammed with funky five-piece Pop’s Cool Love, an L.A. band drafted in to provide the grooves.
“We didn’t just book a rock band, we booked a band who really understood hip-hop,” Sheri Howell told me. “Some of the artists wanted the songs exactly like the tracks. Some of them were OK with a little bit of fluctuation or flourish that was not the track. And then there was LL who came along like a kid in a candy store with live instrumentation and just altered everything.”
LL Cool J has been distant during practice. He prowled the rehearsal space, just watching his co-stars prepare until they’d worked out how their hits could translate into the Unplugged format. Drunk on the music in the air, finally he walked up to the band, “I’m not doing any of the stuff they did,” he proclaimed. “I want it to go like this.”
“Man, I get goosebumps right now thinking of him with the band,” asserted Moses. “I remember how he made the band slow down ‘Jingling Baby’ and then build to a sizzling piano riff explosion on ‘Mama Said Knock You Out.” I watched LL arrange and orchestrate his set like a genius artist possessed to find perfection. And in watching him work, I knew what we were about to do would be magic.”
As hectic as preparations had been, the shoot at Chelsea Studios—recorded on the same day as the R.E.M. edition of the show—went as smoothly as the opening bass guitar plucks of Tribe’s “Can I Kick It.” Pop’s Cool Love’s acoustic licks were funky, the piano tinkled beautifully and the drums thumped hard. Lyte spit ferociously on her anti-drug, narrative-heavy single “Cappucino” while De La Soul kept heads bobbin’ with “Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey).” MTV’s reservations that hip hop would work on Unplugged were quickly banished as each song sounded just as good on live instruments as the beat machine and samplers that birthed them.
“The music started and the studio audience lost its mind—hell, I did too,” says Moses. “The people were rocking. Guys whipped off their shirts in the middle of the set. Women were swinging their hair, shaking their ass and rocking hard. I couldn’t stay in the control room, I had to be on the set. So I stood behind the camera crane as it swung capturing the hip hop acts do what that record executive said wasn’t possible. I watched as an idea I had in my head shook up the world.”
The show’s centrepiece, though, was LL Cool J’s set. The only artist who performed two songs on the aired 30-minute special, Uncle L worked the stage like he’d been fronting a band for years. The sexy slither of “Jingling Baby” sounded fully realised as a smooth jazz jam, but the crescendo was “Mama Said Knock You Out.” The crowd went wild for the energetic, freewheeling re-imagination of the track, which smartly worked in the piano lick from Otis Redding’s “Hard To Handle.” LL, spitting sweaty and shirtless, looked every bit a ‘90s superstar.
“It was really an electrifying moment for the audience, for the crew and for all the people working on it and the channel,” said Howell. “[MTV] ran it for years, because it was just a really unique and original and awesome rendition of that song.”
“I was clueless,” LL told Jeff Nolan in 2016 on how the performance would be rapturously received. “I was absolutely clueless. Y’know, I just went in, I thought that’s what you’re supposed to do. ‘Oh, you want me to do it with a band? Ok, well, if we’re going to do it with a band, this is how we should do it’.”
Overwhelmed with emotion as filming ended, Moses made his way back to his office. The hallways of MTV were already buzzing. “I entered my office and on my desk was a note from the president of the channel, Judy McGrath. She wrote, ‘I heard it was the best Unplugged ever! Congratulations, Judy’. I still have that note in a frame on a wall.”
Repeats of LL’s performance played on MTV for years. On the rapper’s next tour, he took a full band with him. Later, Jay-Z and Lauryn Hill would both appear on their own episodes of Unplugged - the recordings reside in a unique corner of both artists’ discography.
Four years after the unplugged show aired, the regular Yo! MTV Raps show was taken off the air. It was a sign of the channel’s dedication to making hip hop a cornerstone of their schedule. The bling-bling era was upon them; rap’s place as a pillar of global entertainment was undeniable. The cultural crossover that almost didn’t happen in 1991 was another step in bringing hip hop to a worldwide stage. Still, its architect Moses Edinborough stayed humble.
“The rap Unplugged happened because Aerosmith said no, MTV said yes, and hip hop was ready to take on the world,” he wrote. “It had very little to do with me. I was just a lucky bastard from the small island of Saint Thomas who won a bet because I was able to read the tea leaves and I got a front row seat at a milestone moment in hip-hop.”
Subscribe to DEAN MAGAZINE
Subscribe to the newsletter and unlock access to member-only content.