Project X Hits the Hip-Hop Nostalgia Circuit

As part of Idolator’s continuing effort to geekily analyze every music chart known to man, we present a new edition of Project X, in which Michaelangelo Matos breaks down top-ten lists from every genre imaginable. After the jump, he sits through VH1’s latest TV-based listicle, 100 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs, and finds a few poignant moments among the MC Hammer jokes:

Last week, when I wrote about listicles, I forgot a non-print, but still big and obvious, agent of the format’s spread: cable television. The televised countdown goes back to the ’50s, when longstanding radio favorite Your Hit Parade counted down the Top 7 or Top 10 (depending on the season) songs of the week, as performed by an in-house band and singers. Then rock and roll happened, and bye-bye house bands. This begat the record hop (e.g. American Bandstand and Soul Train and, in the U.K., Top of the Pops), followed by video, which just before MTV led to the syndicated America’s Top 10 and Solid Gold, each using different chart data and methodology to deliver the week’s Top 10. MTV did some of that, too. It also spawned VH1, which started out MOR but soon found its footing when it adopted a campier, retro approach, becoming Nick at Nite to MTV’s Nickelodeon. Which mean, wouldn’t you know, tons and tons of countdowns of the all-time Top 100 thisses or thats.

The one the channel ran last week actually had me a little bit excited, in part because I had no real idea how it would shake out: 100 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs, which ran in five installments. Maybe I would have figured the outcome had I allowed myself to guess, but between having absolutely no time to myself lately and wanting to keep my responses fresh, I watched all of it cold.

VH1’s 10 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs (as aired Friday, October 3) 1. Public Enemy, “Fight the Power” (Def Jam, 1989) 2. Sugarhill Gang, “Rapper’s Delight” (Sugarhill, 1979) 3. Dr. Dre ft. Snoop Doggy Dogg, “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” (Death Row, 1993) 4. Run-D.M.C., “Walk This Way” (Profile, 1986) 5. Grandmaster Flash & the Furious 5, “The Message” (Sugarhill, 1982) 6. N.W.A., “Straight Outta Compton” (Ruthless, 1988) 7. The Notorious B.I.G., “Juicy” (Bad Boy, 1994) 8. Snoop Doggy Dogg, “Gin and Juice” (Death Row, 1993) 9. Salt-n-Pepa, “Push It” (Next Plateau, 1986) 10. Kurtis Blow, “The Breaks” (Mercury, 1980)

(You can find the entire list at Stereogum.)

That’s a Top 10 I would never have guessed–“The Breaks” at No. 10? “Push It” at No. 9?—and yet, reading it, I’m not surprised at all. Of course Public Enemy is No. 1: watching in order, I kept expecting “911 Is Joke” to pop up somewhere on the chart’s bottom half. That was the big one on MTV, right? That seemed to determine a few selections: No. 6, with its Symbolic Video; No. 38, Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise,” which makes every part of my body cringe; and No. 25, MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This,” whose talking-head segments seemed the most genuinely strained, as opposed to I-can’t-think-of-anything-to-say-help times 20 strained.

My guesses for the Top 10 mostly took place as the show reached the 30s. That’s one pleasure of this sort of thing: you get to play along. The game was tipped at the top of the final episode when its first selection, Kanye West ft. Jamie Foxx’s “Gold Digger,” prompted the arrival of Chuck D, almost nowhere to be seen in four prior episodes despite his obvious place as one of the most historically attuned rap pros. Surely he could be quotable about Hammer–whom Chuck D has always paid respect to in interviews–and his old tour-mates the Beastie Boys. Their entry–No. 27, “Hold It Now, Hit It”–was not a big hit at the time but has remained an enduring cult favorite, something the producers clearly did a lot of to balance out all that MTV.

Me, I’d wondered if the Beasties might not appear on the second episode, when 3rd Bass and House of Pain placed 70th (“Pop Goes the Weasel”) and 66th (“Jump Around”), respectively. If that sounds overly cynical, I’ll just say I figured they might make the list twice, along with others of their golden-era Def Jam ilk and maybe Jay-Z. (“Hard Knock Life” at No. 11?! Not “Big Pimpin’” or “99 Problems” or even “Izzo”? Come on!) The first episode made me especially suspicious of the way the numbers were running. The list was advertised as having been voted for by viewers, who must have been voting in very controlled patterns to place together three consecutive house/disco-inflected jams: Jungle Brothers’ “What ‘U’ Waitin’ ‘4’,” Wyclef Jean ft. Refugee All Stars’, “We Tryin’ to Stay Alive,” and Heavy D. & the Boyz’ “Now That We’ve Found Love,” Nos. 88 to 86. Come on, guys.

Aside from the usual wan jokes and “hey, I know the words of this very popular chorus too!” talking-head stuff, the clips and artist bios were rather more endearing here than on most of VH1’s 100-best-whatever fare. And more poignant: if you’re looking for a drinking game, wait till VH1 runs this as a marathon and swallow one shot for each time announcer Fab 5 Freddy mentions “the hip-hop nostalgia circuit.” You don’t even have to know the list to figure out who’s on it: Sir Mix-a-Lot (No. 17, “Baby Got Back”); Young MC (No. 47, “Bust a Move”); Tone-Loc (No. 39, “Wild Thing”); Arrested Development (No. 78, “Tennessee”); P.M. Dawn (No. 81, “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss”); Digital Underground (No. 29, “The Humpty Dance”); and 2 Live Crew (No. 83, “Me So Horny”), for starters.

It’s the old school, though, that got to me. (“Old school” has acquired too many meanings for its own good, so let me state clearly that I’m talking about artists who preceded Run-D.M.C.) Spoonie Gee (No. 65, “Love Rap”) walking around New York, head shaved, with a splendid orange-and-brown button-down, or J.J. Fad (No. 72, “Supersonic”) reminiscing about their younger selves, were somehow more poignant than their constantly touring descendants. And of course the Funky 4 + 1, creators of No. 41 (see what they did there?), “That’s the Joint,” still my favorite single of all time. Knowing that Sha Rock, the group’s female MC, does hip-hop bus tours–as does Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers (No. 77, “Cold Crush Brothers at the Dixie”)–makes me want to do something touristy for once in my life. And hearing the group discuss their disappointment at never having made an album gave a little gravity to a show that needed it.