Music Sermon: How 'The Arsenio Hall Show' Brought Black Music To Late Night
#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the '90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.
In 1989, the late-night landscape was ruled by old white men who mimed golf swings when they landed jokes, and the only mainstream outlet to see your favorite hip-hop acts - or young urban acts period – was the one-year-old Yo! MTV Raps (or It’s Showtime at the Apollo, which required willing yourself to stay up until after Saturday Night Live).
And then came Arsenio Hall. We’ll put his recent out-of-touch and curmudgeonly remarks (you can delete tweets, but screen caps are forever) aside to remember that The Arsenio Hall Show was the first late night platform to bring black cool into America’s living rooms. Hall changed the late-night game, gave young black entertainers much-needed legitimacy, and warmed the TV world up for the slate of hip-hop influenced programming that was on the way, like In Living Color, Martin, Living Single and New York Undercover. The show hit massive heights before a relatively quick burnout, but through its five-year run, Hall gifted the culture with unforgettable, iconic moments, new catchphrases for the lexicon, and…a president?
Let’s look at why Arsenio was the place to be for Gen Xers to “get busy” every night for five years.
In 1988, Hall filled in when Joan Rivers (who’d given him his first stand-up slot on The Tonight Show) abruptly walked off of her Fox talk show.
Very quickly, it was evident he was not following the traditional late-night formula, but had something special going. Guests were disarmed and at ease; it felt like watching friends chillin’ and chatting, instead of a formal interview. Viewers were eating it up, and the ratings reflected it.
LL COOL J – 1988
Little Baby L talks image, plays coy about his personal life, and licks his lips a lot.
Unfortunately for Fox execs, by the time they thought to offer Hall the show permanently, best friend Eddie Murphy had already tapped him for Coming to America, and the movie’s studio, Paramount, had locked him into a deal. A deal that included three movies and a syndicated late night show, which he’d executive produce.
The Arsenio Hall Show premiered on January 3, 1989. It was designed to feel like a party, and was widely described as the “hippest” thing on TV. “Hall’s invitation might read: Give me your hip MTV fans, your urban viewers, college students, the crowd that gravitates toward cable or the huddled masses that don’t watch TV at all,” remarked The Washington Post shortly after the show debuted. More important than that, however, was that Arsenio was looking to fill a hole for black entertainment specifically––and he knew there was a growing need because black culture was permeating pop culture, period. Explaining his vision in 1989, Hall highlighted the void. “Where does the urban contemporary audience see Bobby Brown, the number one pop – not R&B, but pop, that means white people bought it – crossover artist in America, who could not get on a talk show?”
Everything about The Arsenio Hall Show format reflected a 30 year-old (or 34 year-old, depending on who you believe) black man at the helm. Instead of a band, Arsenio had “The Posse.” Instead of a quiet, polite studio audience, there was “The Dog Pound” (named for Hall’s hometown Cleveland Brown’s “dogs”) who pumped their fists and barked - loudly - in lieu of clapping. Instead of a desk, Hall would be stretched out in an armchair with his Reebok-clad feet up on an ottoman. Or maybe even sitting on the ottoman. Instead of “We’ve got a great show for you tonight,” the program officially kicked off with “Let's. Get. Busy!” It really was like going to an exclusive lounge every night to hang out.
Also, the show was black. As hell. Early critics and even other comedians criticized Hall’s unabashed blackness in the show; his use of slang, his style, his relaxed format, his ease with the guests. He was undeterred. “The critics say Arsenio is maybe too urban to succeed; a studio head may say it,” Hall told the New York Times during his first season. “But the biggest mistake a black man can make creatively is not to be himself.” That’s what quickly set him apart from the other shows. Where everyone else was competing for the same older viewers, Hall immediately locked in the 18-34 demographic. Aside from the show’s energy, the biggest difference was that he booked acts other shows wouldn’t touch. Aside from Yo! MTV Raps, no other show was putting hip-hop on the air – even some existing prominent black-owned media platforms. “Hip Hop gave me a career,” Hall told Vlad TV in 2014. “...I was bringing this (whole new culture) into the living rooms of people who could safely watch it and get to understand it, and that’s really why it worked. Don Cornelius is an idol. Oprah, an idol. But they didn’t like hip-hop. And that was the best thing that ever happened to me…because I got all of that.”
And indeed, Hall always had all of the hip-hop acts.
KOOL MOE DEE – 1989
NWA - 1990
Before performing, Hall talked to the group about their infamous drama with the FBI.
WEST COAST RAP ALL STARS – 1990
This was the only live TV performance of the supergroup‘s “All in the Same Gang.”
Providing a performance platform wasn’t the only aspect that made Hall’s show unique. He was also giving acts couch time, so we saw a conversational side of these artists beyond the standard promo spiel that we couldn’t really see anywhere else.
ICE-T - 1990
Ice-T talked to Arsenio about gang violence in Los Angeles, including speaking in front of the Congressional Black Caucus, who he felt hadn’t been paying attention. “The gang situation in Los Angeles has been here twenty years. And then a lady got killed in Westwood – you know, a non-black. Somebody out of the neighborhood. Then all of a sudden, there were 387 murders that year and 70,000 gang members; they didn’t join that night!”
2Pac – 1993
A clearly…lit Pac came on Arsenio to talk Poetic Justice, including his oft-repeated and later debunked story that Janet Jackson demanded he be tested for HIV before she’d participate in any love scenes. “I was like ‘No, I’m not taking the test. If I’ma get to really lay with her, we can take four tests…she really wanna be sure.’ But other than that, it’s disrespectful to me.”
The show’s fresh perspective and authenticity were so successful, six months into the first season Arsenio was #2 behind Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, beating David Letterman’s Late Night. White critics and TV execs weren’t warm to Arsenio or his show, and didn’t understand its success (they were equally confused a couple of years later with the success of Fox’s urban line up). They even protested that the show was too black, and it was unfair because they didn’t get the references and felt left out (funny how that’s still happening when black folks see a need and create something dope). Hall’s response was, to paraphrase, “They’ll be aight.” After all, black people have been adjusting to all white entertainment for…ever, “…like I did when I watched my first Bob Hope special, my first Three Stooges…My whole culturalization requires that I understand everything that America is,” Hall told the Washington Post, and he truly did present black culture as part of America in a real way for five years.
As the show hit its stride, it was the destination for all our favorite acts because they knew they were at home. That comfort level showed up in their performance.
The best performance of “Poison” ever. Shout out to the Str8 Ahead dancers; the reason BBD was so live.
HEAVY D – 1989
You’re at home chanting “Go, Heavy” with the Dog Pound, aren’t you?
TRIBE CALLED QUEST & LEADERS OF THE NEW SCHOOL – 1992
Busta Rhymes' first TV performance. The star power shining all up and through.
And it wasn’t just the hip-hop acts; Arsenio was key in breaking R&B acts as well.
Mariah Carey’s first official TV performance? Arsenio.
MARIAH CAREY – 1990
En Vogue’s first TV performance? Arsenio.
EN VOGUE - 1990
TLC’s first TV performance? Most likely Arsenio. But Babyface definitely called Hall directly to book them.
TLC – 1991
Beyond the young and hip moments, Arsenio also made sure our legends had a home and space to be heard.
MILES DAVIS – 1989
Davis was in poor health and his voice barely audible, but Hall gave him ample couch time after his performance, keeping the convo going as though he could hear Miles loud and clear.
SAMMY DAVIS JR - 1989
Arsenio would give dedicated time to entertainers instead of rushing them through segments. Sammy Davis Jr. had already been on the couch for about 15 minutes when he decided, impromptu, that he wanted to perform a number (he’d initially said he didn’t want to sing during his appearance). He then returned to the couch telling Hall, “I say this to you on a one to one basis: you ever need me, you got me, for the rest of my life.”
The Godfather was on Arsenio’s show multiple times.
PRINCE - 1991
Hall turned the entire program over to Prince twice during the show’s original run.
And on a non-music note, where else would you get Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard and Mike Tyson on the same couch? Greatness. (1990)
Arsenio proved that the landscape could be broader than the very formulaic, mildly edgy space that had been late-night. The biggest moment that drove this point home was presidential candidate William Jefferson Clinton, who was having some trouble in the polls, jamming on the sax.
BILL CLINTON - 1992
The performance is noted in the annals of TV and political history as not only a turning point in Clinton’s campaign, but in how candidates campaigned moving forward. At the time, Clinton was criticized for letting his proverbial hair down that way; detractors said it wasn’t “presidential.” But it helped him win the young, urban vote (and possibly kicked off the whole “First Black President” mess that we should all forget). It must have been some kind of presidential, because he became the president.
Hall also permeated pop culture at large. His monologue segment “Things That Make You Go Hmmmm’’ was flipped into a No. 1 dance hit by C+C Music Factory…
...and the Dog Pound’s infectious barking (which morphed, over time, from a full “Woof Woof” to something like a “Woo Woo” or a “Whoot Whoot”) apparently inspired Tag Team’s tootsie-roll-inducing classic “Whoomp! There It Is.” Group members Cecil “DC” Glen and Steve “Roll’n” Gibson have credited The Arsenio Hall Show for the idea, “People had been saying ‘There it is’ forever. Everybody in Arsenio Hall’s television audience used to do the “Woof” chant. We put that together with the ‘There it is’ dance-floor chant we were hearing at the club.
In 1992, Carson stepped down from the late-night throne and threw the space into a warring frenzy for audience and ratings. Jay Leno ascended to Carson’s spot at The Tonight Show, and Dave Letterman, angry he didn’t get the coveted gig, jumped ship from NBC to CBS. Hall, who was syndicated and not locked in to a specific network or time, was left vulnerable. NBC and CBS started pressuring markets that carried The Arsenio Hall Show to drop him or change his time slot. The Tonight Show was going for a young demo with Leno, and started booking guests that were usually in Arsenio’s domain. Leno, who had also moved up to an earlier time slot, created an irreverent, who-knows-what-might-happen vibe for his new The Late Show – an older (and whiter) version of Hall’s energy.
In ‘93 Hall’s ratings started taking a hit, and in 1994 he wrapped the show. For the final episode, Queen Latifah asked Hall to let her produce a segment, but he couldn’t be involved. She put together one of the greatest rap cyphers ever seen on television – Yo-Yo, MC Lyte, Naughty By Nature, A Tribe Called Quest, Fu-Schnickens, Pete Rock and CL Smooth, Gang Starr, Das EFX, Wu-Tang Clan, KRS One and Mad Lion - to surprise Hall and get busy one last time.
And LMAO at Ghostface shouting “The black man is God” over and over again at the end. This is what happens when you put Wu Tang on live TV.
In 2014, Hall made a short-lived return to the late-night scene, but it wasn’t hittin’ the same way this time. First, he’s much older. And while hip-hop has gotten older, too, what made The Arsenio Hall show fresh and different was its young energy. Second, he wasn’t offering something special and exclusive anymore. In the same VLAD TV interview mentioned earlier, he noted the difference in the landscape. “The hard part now is, you can turn on Fallon, or Kimmel, or any Jimmy… They’ve all got rappers. And they might sit and talk to the big ones, so I don’t do anything unique now.”
Still, his original run is more than enough to forgive later shortfalls. We appreciate all that you gave to and did for the culture, Arsenio. Just stay off twitter, please, so we can continue to enjoy it.