Saturday Night Live has been famously criticized through the years for the show’s lack of diversity among its cast members. On the music front, however, SNL has long welcomed artists of different backgrounds and developing styles, from its very first episode with guest Billy Preston to three appearances by Prince to Drake’s recent return for a second time as both host and musical performer.
While SNL took heat early on for ignoring punk rock as it developed just a few subway stops south, New York City’s other game-changing musical innovation of that era—hip-hop—has been a fixture of the show for 35 of its 40 years. Their track record, of course, hasn’t been perfect (who’s has?), but SNL now contains enough hip hop history to earn a look back at the show’s role in the rap revolution.
Funky 4 + 1 – “That’s the Joint” (1981)
SNL allowed host and musical guest Debbie Harry to invite another artist on to perform. As Blondie was rock’s earliest proponents of hip hop, Debbie introduced the Funky 4 + 1 to America. History happened that night as Saturday Night Live showcased the first ever nationally televised performance of rap music.
Run DMC – “Walk This Way” (1986)
With Malcolm Jamal-Warner hosting, Run DMC stormed the SNL stage with their rap-rock crossover breakthrough and there was no going back: hip hop would soon enough swallow the music world whole.
LL Cool J – “Go Cut Creator Go” (1987)
Almost a year to the day that Run DMC blew up SNL, LL Cool J and DJ Cut Creator upped the game yet again. Amazingly, in retrospect, LL Cool J was just seventeen years old. He did not come off like a “teen” performer—this was a fully realized artist unleashed.
Cypress Hill – “I Ain’t Going Out Like That” (1993)
After a brilliant performance of “I Ain’t Going Out Like That,” the song title proved unfortunately prescient. DJ Muggs fired up a joint live on the air, and SNL promptly announced the group would never be invited back. Sadly, the show stuck by that edict. Was it worth it? That moment remains as dope as dope gets.
Tupac Shakur- “California Love” (1996)
Just shortly before he was murdered, Tupac Shakur lit up SNL with intensity and joy. Each time you watch the clip now, it’s both an electrifying snapshot of a cultural moment and a heartbreaking reminder of what the world lost with the killing of this rising genius.
Snoop Dogg – “Lodi Dodi” (1994)
By the time Snoop Dogg guested on SNL, he’d scored an array of hit singles from his quadruple platinum debut LP, Doggystyle. Amazingly, Snoop paid respect to hip hop’s first generation by performing a cover of “La Di Da Di” by Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick. Snoop’s choice of a Tommy Hilfiger sweatshirt also instantly sent the designer’s sales skyrocketing.
Old School Rappers Meet Eminem (2000)
Grand Master Rap (Jerry Minor) and Kid Shazzam (Horatio Sanz), two prehistoric OG hip-hop MCs, routinely preached against profanity and bad vibes in contemporary rap. On one monumental occasion, they even convinced Eminem to change his ways and join them in their signature chorus: “Rap rap, ribbity rap rap, rip rop ribbity do!”
Kanye West – “Gold Digger/Touch the Sky” (2005)
Kanye West kicked off his combustive but ultimately rich and mutually beneficial relationship with SNL by busting out a medley of his monster hits, backed by an orchestra in masks. Imagine: he was just getting started.
Kanye West – “Power” (2010)
Kaney utterly transformed the possibilities of SNL’s stage in 2010, by mounting an entire ballet and performing along with the entrancing visuals. That’s “Power.”
The Jay Z Story (2015)
In a so-funny-it-hurts (because its true) commentary on Hollywood whitewashing Mike O’Brien as Jay Z in a biopic of the rap god, along with J.K. Simmons as Nas.
Drake Impersonates Katt Williams (2014)
Drake can hardly keep himself from laughing as he does a spot-on impression of Katt Williams. You will not blame him, as you’ll be too busy cracking up yourself.
“Hotline Bling Dance Moves” Parody
In between Drake’s two landmark SNL gigs, Jay Pharaoh busts out his Drake impersonation to defend his “Hotline Bling” dance moves. He raps hard about how cool it is that his signature style is so popular among squares on the order of dads (Beck Bennett), teachers (Taran Killam), accountants (Donald Trump) and Ed Grimley (Martin Short).
In his second time doing double duty as SNL host and musical guest, Drake kicked off the show by turning his monologue into a gut-busting, eye-opening song about not wanting to be a meme anymore. Later on, he starred in one of the show’s all-time funniest short films, where, one by one, the annoyed Canadian superstar expresses his true feelings about the SNL cast members who don’t properly respect him.