Steve Stoute is certain that you can draw a line connecting the birth of hip-hop, at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, directly to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, where President Obama is serving his second term in office. He began to tell that story in part one of his new series, “The Tanning of America,” which premiered on VH1 Monday night.
The series is based on Stoute’s 2011 book of the same title, but the four-part show is proving to be even more interesting with commentary from hip-hop legends such as Russell Simmons, Reverend Run, Rick Rubin, Nas and Diddy. Stoute, a marketing mogul and longtime business partner of Jay Z, makes the factual argument that hip-hop culture is responsible for blurring color lines in America, and making room for the country’s first black president.
The first segment highlights the 1970s origins of the culture through the mid-80s, culminating with the meteoric rise of Run-D.M.C. Even for those who are well-versed in hip-hop’s beginnings, the special included some priceless footage.
In addition to watching a young Rick Rubin head-banging in an early Def Jam commercial (after he co-founded the label with Russell Simmons) viewers also got a closer look at some of the first mainstream artists and publications that give rap music a chance.
A writer from the Wall Street Journal remembered the phone call from Def Jam publicist Bill Adler, who convinced her to write a 1994 profile on “rap mogul” Russell Simmons and his burgeoning label. She’d later spend a night partying in the Bronx with Russell and his young protégé, named LL Cool J.
Then, there was Run-D.M.C. It’s a fairly well-known fact that the trio popularized the Adidas shell toe sneakers with their 1986 hit “My Adidas,” but it was still chilling to see the images of a sold-out show at Madison Square Garden, where approximately 19,000 fans were holding up their shell toes on command. That made it pretty easy for Run-D.M.C. to become the first rap act to sign a major endorsement deal.
Later, their collaboration with Aerosmith on “Walk This Way” would go on to become one of the biggest crossover hits of all time, but it’s incredible to look back and realize that, at the time, the three boys from Queens weren’t really into it. They had no interest in rapping over the entire record, only doing so at Russell’s insistence, with Rev Run admitting that he thought Aerosmith’s vocals on the track were too “hillbilly-ish.”
In retrospect, it’s obvious that they made the right decision.
Part two of “The Tanning of America,” debuts on VH1 at 11 p.m. Tuesday night (February 25).