David Letterman's Best Hip-Hop Moments: Run D.M.C., Beastie Boys, J. Cole and More
David Letterman has long been known as a lover of rock 'n' roll...all it takes to get the late night host on your side was to behave erratically or energetically onstage, which would almost certainly merit an "oh boy!" It took a little bit more to get the longtime host of the The Late Show fired up for hip-hop however. To honor Letterman as he prepares to host the last night of his 33-year run on CBS (and to avoid conflicting with everyone else's list of the best performances ever on the show), Music Times has gathered up five great hip-hop performances that took place late night over the years, with almost all coming from emcees in Letterman's adopted hometown of New York City, including Run-D.M.C. and The Beastie Boys.
Granted, Letterman was a little late to the game when it came to hip-hop. He made up for it by making sure to get acts from the scene's old school era to perform on The Late Show, booking Run-D.M.C. for a December episode during 1993 (perhaps he recalled that time he saw the band performing "Walk This Way" with Aerosmith on MTV). Nowadays few people might think of Run-D.M.C. when you think Christmas carols, but the group had dropped the successful single "Christmas in Hollis" for the Christmas Rap and A Very Special Christmas (a Special Olympics compilation) collections during 1987. The group rarely performed the song live but they came on during the Christmas season to perform the track with Paul Shaffer and the band (Shaffer operates the jingle bells).
Busta Rhymes / A Tribe Called Quest / The Fugees (1996)
Maybe, reckoned hip-hoppers, if Letterman couldn't appreciate hip-hop stars by themselves, he'd be more excited about a multitude of stars on the stage at the same time? Maybe this was the mindset when three of the most exciting acts in the game all came onboard for The Late Show during 1996: The show performance simply enough, with members of A Tribe Called Quest filing out one at a time to perform bars from the song "Rumble In The Jungle." Then The Fugees, the group that actually penned the song, made their respective entrances. Although Lauryn Hill may have gotten the loudest round of applause from the crowd, it was Busta Rhymes that elevated the energy on the stage the most. It's a smaller stage than one might imagine and the collective had to be careful of running into the emcee currently on the mic, but Rhymes threw caution to the wind and bounded around wildly (as he always has). He's made other energetic performances on Letterman in the years since.
The Beastie Boys (2004)
The Beastie Boys are another act that made numerous appearances on the talk show throughout the years, all of them acclaimed. None of their appearances, and very few appearances from other bands as well, can touch the trio's 2004 performance of current single "Ch-Check It Out." After Letterman announces the performance, fans can only see the trio's DJ onstage, scratching out the beat and then the video flips to a subway entrance on nearby Broadway. The group emerges, singing their respective verses and walking down the street as the camera follows them in front (much like their own handheld video antics from the '80s). The scores of people on the street look curious and entertained, and police officers can be seen blocking intersections so that they can stroll through unbothered. Eventually the group enters a hallway and continues moving until the camera switches again to the studio, where the Boys enter the stage, still performing (and revealing the last bit had been shot live). The song ends next to Letterman's desk.
One reason why Letterman may have had a soft spot for the Beastie Boys: Much of their classic music featured traditional rock instruments. Maybe that's why Dave took so much to Blakroc, a collaborative project between The Black Keys and hip-hop entrepreneur Damon Dash, which resulted in rappers jumping on instrumentals from Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney. Jack White may accuse the Keys of stealing his vibe but he never oversaw anything like this. The band came to The Late Show with Mos Def and Jim Jones to perform the album's "Ain't Nothing Like You (Hoochie Coo)," with the Harlem emcee (Jones) delivering the verses while Def (from Brooklyn) took the hook. Letterman acknowledged before signing off that it was "pretty cool."
J. Cole (2014)
Letterman may have been a national act, technically, but he wasn't immune to the going-ons of the surrounding New York City area. When the death of Eric Garner and a slew of black men around the nation created unrest, there wasn't really much that the otherwise comedian could say on his show. His thoughts on the matter became obvious when J. Cole took the stage during late 2014 to perform "Be Free" off of his new album 2014 Forest Hills Drive. Letterman introduced the performer with a joke as always but his mood had shifted a few minutes later, when Cole was done delivering his minimalist and morose anthem, with only a keyboard backing him. "Oh my God, do you know what I mean?" he said upon greeting his guest. "Fantastic. Boy oh boy oh boy. J. Cole. Beautiful."