Video Vault: 10 Classic Showtime at the Apollo Performances

Words by Daniel Isenberg (@StanIpcus)

Back in the day, Showtime at the Apollo was one of the few programs on the television dial where you could see live hip-hop performances. The show was comprised of an amateur contest for talent who hoped to make a name for themselves on TV and become famous one day, and also performances by the popular hip-hop and R&B recording artists of the time. And the Apollo Theater crowd was no joke. If you were wack, they would let you know. Just ask thirteen year old Lauryn Hill, who got booed during her first performance on 125th Street. But on the flipside, the Uptown support was real, especially for the featured acts of the night. The people loved to see their favorite hip-hop and R&B stars up close and personal in Harlem’s most famous concert hall. And for the folks not in attendance, it was thrilling to watch artists who they may have only seen before in music videos doing their thing on stage from the comfort of their home.

For our latest Video Vault feature, we dug through old clips on YouTube to find 10 Classic Showtime at the Apollo Performances, featuring legendary acts like Run-D.M.C., A Tribe Called Quest, The Notorious B.I.G., Nas, and many more. We even included a performance by Lauryn Hill, who made a triumphant return to the Apollo as a signed recording artist with The Fugees to tear the house down. Show ya love by checking out the videos below.

1. Stop The Violence Movement “Self Destruction” (1989)

Remember when hip-hop songs took a social stance on something? Nah, right? Well they did! In fact, the popular rappers of the late ’80s, led by Boogie Down Production’s KRS-One, took the Apollo stage in 1989 to perform their collaborative record “Self Destruction,” urging everyone to stop the violence. This wasn’t the most organized performance, and the entire all-star lineup from the song’s original recording was not in the building. But nonetheless, it’s dope to see KRS, Kool Moe Dee, Heavy D (RIP), Just-Ice, and Doug E. Fresh on stage together putting it down for the cause.

2. Run-D.M.C. “Beats to the Rhyme” (1990)

Would you like to learn how to do a proper television rap performance? Well then watch how Run-D.M.C. does this. Jam Master Jay on the turntables cutting up records live, with Run and D.M.C. playing off each other’s rhymes like The King and Duck Johnson. No flashy bullshit, just straight hip-hop. And for those of you that follow our features regularly, peep the Bob James “Nautilus” sample on this. RIP JMJ, you were the illest, man. Damn.

4. Biz Markie “Just a Friend” (1990)

Rocking a Los Angeles Raiders skully cap, the now legendary Biz Markie took the Apollo stage in 1990 to perform his smash hit “Just a Friend,” and the crowd was with him every step of the way, singing the chorus loud as hell, clapping, and dancing along. This is a feel-good hip-hop moment, for sure. And we should all be thankful that it has been preserved on the Internet. You the man, Biz!

4. A Tribe Called Quest “Can I Kick It?” (1991)

Years before Jay Z asked the Mad Wednesdays crowd if he could kick it on “22 Two’s,” A Tribe Called Quest rocked the Apollo with their Peoples Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm single, which asked the same question. Q-Tip and Phife Dawg (who sported an Orlando Magic snapback and Champion hoodie) had the people on their feet, spitting their Linden Boulevard styles, and killing it with the call and response chorus. This is how you rock a crowd, young blood.

5. The Notorious B.I.G. “One More Chance (Remix)” (1995)

Biggie kept the momentum of his 1994 debut album Ready to Die alive the year after its release with a remix of “One More Chance,” which quickly became 1995’s song of the summer. Introduced by Steve Harvey as “the undisputed King of New York,” B.I.G. took the stage at the Apollo with Puff Daddy playing hypeman, and gave the Uptown crowd and TV viewers at home a live rendition of his chilled-out smash. All hail the King. #RIPBIG

6. Jodeci ft. Raekwon and Ghostface Killah “Freek ‘N You (Remix)” (1996)

Is Jodeci’s “Freek ‘N You” remix with Rae and Ghost the greatest R&B hip-hop remix of all-time? It’s safe to say that if someone did in fact make this claim, the pushback would be minimal. It was a mixtape classic, got mad radio burn, and only on Showtime at the Apollo would fans be lucky enough to see it performed live in action. Watch as the Apollo Kids Lex Diamonds and Tony Starks spit their immaculate darts, while Jodeci gets the ladies warmed up for the after party. This shit is still fire, all day like Harry Belafonte.

7. The Fugees “How Many Mics/Freestyle” (1996)

Sure, Lauryn Hill caught a raw deal as a kid performing on Showtime at the Apollo, but rap fans already knew she was ill on the mic well before she made her return with The Fugees. Still, to ensure that there was no confusion, halfway through her verse on “How Many Mics,” Wyclef stopped her mid-rhyme to address the crowd, and let Lauryn flip the script on “The Bridge is Over” instrumental, with the funky live drummer adding on. And she let it be known as the crowd went nuts, “If you talkin’ females, let’s just say that I’m the nicest.” Check for the turnt up reggae cypher at the end, too. Bow!

8. Nas ft/ AZ, Cormega, and Foxy Brown “Affirmative Action” (1996)

First of all, shout to whoever thought to have Nas Escobar and his affiliates seated at a roundtable to start the performance of his It Was Written posse cut. That’s gangster. Ha. And shout to Nas’ hat too! Shit is G. This is what The Firm was originally supposed to look like, before Cormega was replaced by Nature. Gotta say, as much as we love Nature, it’s a shame that Cormega got the boot. It would’ve been nice to have them all down. Oh well. And check for a young Foxy Brown, spitting that math, son.

9. Puff Daddy ft. The Lox and Mase “All About the Benjamins/Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems” (1997)

After Biggie was tragically murdered, Puff was forced to keep the Bad Boy movement alive without him. And to his credit, he did an excellent job, turning artists like The LOX and Ma$e into bonafide stars. And they all united at the Apollo for a team performance of “All About the Benjamins”—dipped in Bad Boy baseball jerseys with bats in hand—proving that without their fallen brother B.I.G., they still could make hits. And to keep Biggie’s memory alive, they performed the Life After Death single “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems,” too. Nice set.

10. LL Cool J ft. Method Man, Redman, and DMX “4, 3, 2, 1” (1998)

No, Canibus was not present for this “4, 3, 2, 1″ performance, but it’s doubtful that anyone in the Apollo crowd really gave a shit. Especially the ladies, who screamed all the way through LL’s verse, and made extra noise when he grabbed his bozack. Props to Meth and Red for always tearing down stages, but the dude to watch here is DMX. That man is a vicious performer, and TV appearances like this made it very clear that rap superstardom was in his immediate future. Grrrrrrrrr.

Shout out to all the YouTube channels keeping the culture alive with the fresh uploads. We appreciate you! And check out this bonus clip of the entire Wu-Tang Clan performing “Triumph” on Showtime at the Apollo (if embedding on the video wasn’t disabled it definitely would’ve made our short list). 

Previously: Video Vault: The Top 20 Rap Videos of 1993 | Video Vault: 5 Classic Wake Up Show Freestyles |Video Vault: 5 Pre-Reasonable Doubt Jay-Z Videos | Video Vault: 7 Classic Smack DVD Clips