The 25 Most Memorable Hip-Hop and R&B MTV VMAs Performances
The MTV Video Music Awards is one of the grandest annual events in American music. Since its inception in 1984, the VMAs have shocked and wowed the world, all while solidifying and sometimes even harming careers.
MTV's relationship with hip-hop and R&B has always been complicated, but changed thanks to Michael Jackson in 1983. Following the release of Thriller, CBS Recordings wanted to debut the video for "Bille Jean" on the network. After being told that the video didn't fit the MTV format, CBS threaten to remove all of their artists from the station's lineup, which would've affected 25% of MTV's programming. With their backs against the wall, they debut the video, making Jackson the leader of breaking down the color barrier at MTV.
While Yo! MTV Raps helped hip-hop get in the door at MTV; it was still a rare occasion to see a hip-hop act on stage at their big show. In this list, we celebrate twenty-five times hip-hop and R&B owned the VMA stage. Winning an astronaut statuette— affectionately known as a "Moonman"— is fun, but the scene is where the stars really shine.
Tina Turner - "What's Love Got to Do with It" (1984)
When MTV first aired in 1981, it was instantly associated with the youth and the music the young crowd was listening to at the time. Tina Turner unveiled one of the greatest reinventions in music history in the 1980s after divorcing Ike Turner in 1978. Her transformation was well received with the MTV demo, making her the first black woman to perform at the VMAs when she played at the inaugural show in 1984. She did not have her usual troupe of dancers or a band; instead, Turner stood solely as a woman who showed that rock 'n' roll is for all ages.
David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, and Hall & Oates - "The Way You Do the You Do"/"My Girl" (1985)
MTV was born from famous music performance shows from the 1960s and 1970s like American Bandstand and The Ed Sullivan Show. Having Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin, lead singers of the Temptations during their prime years, was a fitting way for MTV to honor its roots. Accompanied by '80s blue-eyed soul duo Hall & Oates, the performance beautifully captured how good music transcends generations, race, and continuously inspire.
Whitney Houston— "How Will I Know"/"Greatest Love of All" (1986)
In its early days, MTV was known for rock, pop, and, more slowly, crossover R&B. Whitney Houston introduced something new to the latter. She had the skills to master a pop song, but she also possessed the vocal prowess to make the biggest metal head stop in his tracks to listen to her ballads. In her first VMAs performance, Houston had the audience pop with her hit "How Will I Know." As she moved across the stage in a wholesome white dress, the crowd was engaged and having fun right along with her. But just a few moments later, she was able to keep the audience captivated with "The Greatest Love of All," a ballad celebrating self-love and prepubescent potential. Houston's success with ballads etched a place on the network for the pop and R&B divas with strong voices that would later proceed her.
Run-D.M.C. featuring Aerosmith— "Walk This Way" (1987)
Hip-hop's place on MTV got off to a rocky start. As weird as it might sound today, hip-hop was still declared as a fad in 1987. Run-D.M.C. shattered the glass ceiling for hip-hop's acceptance into MTV. Their sample of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" allowed them to connect with the rock faithful and showed that the group had an overall appreciation for music. They became the first hip-hop act to perform at the VMAs. Aerosmith was also thankful for the opportunity to collaborate with Aerosmith because they were able to be introduced to a new generation.
MC Hammer— "Let's Get It Started"/"U Can't Touch This" (1990)
By the onset of the '90s, hip-hop began to enjoy increased commercial success. MC Hammer released one of the most successful debut albums in music history with his preacher reminiscent rapping style, old-school funk samples, and modernized James Brown dance routines. He introduced the elaborate hip-hop music sets that would become a mainstay in the 90s— elaborate outfits and choreography that could replace a workout routine.
New Edition — "Poison"/"Tap Into My Heart"/"Rub You the Right Way"/"Sensitivity"/"If It Isn't Love"/"Mr. Telephone Man"/"Can You Stand the Rain" (1990)
Most group breakups are not pretty. During the '80s, New Edition dismissed original member Bobby Brown and replaced him with Johnny Gill after a string of bad behavior that put the group's success in jeopardy. As time went one, each member, past and present, found success with various other projects. The group's ability to show such individuality but still reflect their roots as a group is rare and was celebrated at the 1990 VMAs. Some viewers might have wondered if that performance would be the only time they would see this variation of New Edition, but fortunately, we had the chance to see them reunite one more time for the 2017 BET Awards, before things with the group we sour (again).
Lil' Jon & The Eastside Boyz, Petey Pablo, Ying Yang Twins, Terror Squad - "Salt Shaker," "Freek-A-Leak," Lean Back" (2003)
The Crunk era was on full display at the 2003 VMAs thanks to the King of Crunk, Lil Jon. In 2003 the Terror Squad had the No. 1 record in the country with "Lean Back," and several Lil' Jon-produced tracks like Petey Palo's "Free-A-Leak," and "Salt Shaker" were taking over the Billboard Hot 100. The whole building was getting loose (peep Bruce Willis) as Vivica A. Fox joined the fells on stage to stop and wiggle with it.
Mariah Carey - "Emotions" (1991)
Bursting onto the scene a year earlier, Mariah Carey was met with immediate success but was somewhat of a mystery as a live performer. Her album vocals could shatter glass, but the question was could she do it live? Carey answered that question in her first performance for the network at the 1991 VMAs. She delivered whistle register live and in action, along with improvising over the track. She even closed the song a cappella so people could know her talent was not to be doubted.
Prince and The New Power Generation - "Gett Off" (1991)
Prince did more than show off his new band The New Power Generation, he showed his derriere — or so viewers thought. Turns there was flesh-colored fabric covering Prince's buttocks that night. According to his longtime fabric dyer Marliss Jensen,"And that yellow suit--his butt 'suit'--did not show his butt. That was fabric." Regardless of the confusion, it remains one of the most infamous moments in VMA history.
En Vogue - "Free Your Mind" (1992)
En Vogue was the first R&B girl group and the only second girl group overall to perform at the VMAs. They are also the most awarded girl group in VMA history, with a total of seven Moonman statues to their name. The song "Free Your Mind" embodied much of what MTV prided itself on— being progressive and resisting the status quo. Donned in American Revolution-inspired clothing, the ladies declared a new world order against the prejudices of our time.
Naughty by Nature -"Hip Hop Hooray" (1993)
After a long stretch of pop-friendly hip-hop, the VMAs delivered a performance that spoke to New York hip-hop purists. With no flashy outfits or elaborate dance routines, Naughty by Nature took it back to turntables and straight rhymes. The group's catchy lyrics and fun beats found them popularity when they debuted, but this performance showed that they a matured Naughty by Nature could rock the house too.
Janet Jackson -"That's the Way Love Goes"/"If" (1993)
Janet Jackson was not a new artist in 1993 and had already performed at the VMAs previously. But by 1993, she was janet. and that made all of the difference. She moved across the stage in a black crop top, quite a change for a woman who frequently danced covered from head to toe on her previous records. Miss Jackson let the world in on her quarter-life renaissance.
Boyz II Men - "I'll Make Love to You" (1994)
Boyz II Men was the most commercially successful male R&B group of the '90s. Their prep school meets street-smart style made them popular with the youngins but favorable for the parents. This performance at the 1994 VMAs epitomized that. They sang about an all-night love session while wearing blazers and hats. The real treat of the performance, however, is how BIIM was able to deviate from the original and run a clinic on R&B vocals.
Snoop Doggy Dogg - "Murder Was the Case" (1994)
Early in his career, Snoop was charged with murder and would be intertwined in three years of criminal legal proceedings associated with the charge. His performance at the 1994 VMAs was more than just a promotional stop for his album and short film, Murder Was the Case. With an eerie stage setup that seemed ripped out of a funeral, the performance was a personal catharsis and ultimate affirmation about his character. Closing the performance with, "I'm innocent. I'm innocent," it remains one of the defining moments of his career.
Michael Jackson - Medley (1995)
MTV started with one idea, but the genius of Michael Jackson transformed the network into even more than it thought it could be. His impact on MTV was so profound that in 1991 the VMAs renamed its Vanguard Award, the award show's highest honor, after him. It was not until 1995 that Jackson gave a live performance at the awards show, and it was a spectacle of the hits and dance moves of his storied career. He invited Slash, guitarist from Guns 'n' Roses on the stage with him and tongues wagged when Jackson seemed to try to rush him off the stage. Representatives for Jackson would later say that Jackson was channeling his hero's James Brown stage act when Brown's sidekick Bobby would try to usher him off stage.
TLC - "Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg"/"Kick Your Game"/"Creep"/"Waterfalls" (1995)
TLC became one of the best-selling girl groups of all time and their performance at the 1995 VMAs was the quintessence of their reign. They burst onto the scene three years earlier in bright colors, condoms, and hyperactive tunes. They paid tribute to that by opening with "Ain't 2 Proud to Beg." But this time, clad in duo-chromatic black and white, they showed how they had matured since their debut. The choreography was sexier, the songs were cooler, but the energy was still crazy.
The Fugees (with a guest appearance from Nas) - Medley (1996)
The Fugees are quintessential '90s hip-hop, but they celebrate the black diaspora in their 1996 VMAs performance. The set opened with Wyclef Jean plays a few chords from "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" on electric guitar. He then broke the guitar on stage, a nod to Jimi Hendrix's signature move. It should be noted that Jimi Hendrix played the national anthem to a predominantly white audience in one of the most iconic moments from Woodstock. It was a moment of poetic justice for Wyclef to play the Black National Anthem at a predominantly white event on the electric guitar. As the set progressed, the Caribbean was celebrated. Just as they told us it did not matter if we were "Ready or Not," Nas made an impromptu entrance onto the stage to perform "If I Ruled the World."
Bone Thugs-N-Harmony - "The Crossroads" (1996)
The quintet from Cleveland was known for being super casual, but they were a vision in white at the 1996 VMAs. After the set opened with the gospel chorus singing the classic "Mary Don't You Weep," they step out in white suits in a way only they could. Although "Tha Crossroads" is a song about physical death, the performance still had a celebratory feel. Performing at the VMAs was a professional breakthrough for Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, and they were appreciative of the moment.
Lil' Kim, Da Brat, Missy Elliott, Left-Eye and Angie Martinez - "Not Tonight (Ladies Night Remix)" (1997)
There is nothing like women being able to come together and celebrate each other as well as the music they created. Angie Martinez opened the set in a clad in shiny, baggy bronze suit. Lil' Kim, Left-Eye and Da Brat then launched into a Greek imperial theme. Later Missy Elliott strolled up from the audience to bring it back to the '90s. It might have been one song, but they offered five different vibes that night.
Brandy and Monica - "The Boy Is Mine" (1998)
A golden piece of advice in media is that the best way to beat a story is to get ahead of the story. From the time Monica and Brandy made their respective debuts in the mid-90s, rumors swirled that the two had beef. Rather than play nice, they spun the storyline into a monster hit. It culminated at the 1998 VMAs when the two performed the song in an opera-inspired performance. It was rumored that the real action happened backstage before the show began, and Monica confirmed that rumor in 2012, claiming that she punched Brandy in the eye as they were preparing for the show. The two made up, and then apparently fell out again with Brandy declaring that the song is hers.
Lauryn Hill - "Lost Ones"/"Everything Is Everything" (1999)
The last VMAs of the millennium was essentially a sneak peak at what the next century might present. Lauryn Hill performing at the VMAs was more than just another set. Her set could have almost mistaken for a church house at moments, but she straight preached as she delivered her message to the masses. Her delivery was so intense that the set almost because a concert unto itself rather than an awards show segment.
OutKast - "Prototype"/"The Way You Move"/"Ghettomusick"/"Hey Ya!" (2004)
The success OutKast had on their Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was one of those rare yet incredible moments when being the "weird" one is beautifully awarded. They were allowed to close the 2004 VMAs. Big Boi came one stage with his classic ATL cool. Andre 3000's set was a patriotic theme, representing the presidential election of 2004. Behind him were voting booth and female dancers dressed in power suits. As much as the duo seems to operate in an alternate reality, they showed that they understand real issues.
Jay-Z featuring Alicia Keys - "Empire State of Mind" (2009)
Jay-Z is one of the biggest rappers of his generation. Alicia Keys is one of the biggest songstresses of her era. That should be enough for a memorable performance right? Well, an unexpected guest had to do them one better. Lil' Mama, a native New Yorker herself, felt compelled to rush the stage as the song began to close. She even invited herself to pose alongside Jay-Z and Keys in the classic b-boy stance. Her antics resulted in thousands of memes over the then-fairly new Twitter. It goes to show that some of the best moments in VMA history were totally unplanned.
Beyoncé - "Love on Top" (2011)
Beyonce had rocked the VMA stage before, but in 2011 she delivered one of the biggest surprises the show had ever seen. She took the opportunity to announce that she was expecting her first child with her husband Jay-Z. She still shimmied across the stage in sequins, but this time it was less about channeling her alter ego and more about basking in the moment of pending motherhood. The grand finale of her announcement seemed to spill off stage as Jay-Z proudly beam from the audience as Beyonce rubbed her stomach made many of their fans feel they were awaiting the arrival of one of their own relatives.
Frank Ocean - "Thinkin' Bout You" (2012)
The acceptance of Frank Ocean on a stage as large as the VMAs is important on several levels. He began to gain traction as a solo artist once he amassed a significant social media following. With the music industry still trying to find its identity in the digital age, Ocean's emergence seemed to hint that the tide was starting to turn. Furthermore, two months before his VMA performance, Ocean wrote an open letter on Tumblr about the first time he fell in love with a man on his Tumblr page. MTV is a longtime proponent of LGBT rights, but there had never been an openly gay black man with Ocean's aesthetic to perform on the stage. His performance was simplistic, but the impact was significant.