MTV aired the final episode of “YO! MTV Raps” on Aug. 17, 1995. The last show featured Ed Lover, Doctor Dré, Fab 5 Freddy and T-Money, surrounded by seemingly dozens of emcees, DJs and general well-wishers. It was a celebration of “YO! MTV Raps,” which debuted 30 years ago on Aug. 6, 1988, and the culture that birthed it — and there are few more pure expressions of hip-hop culture than the freestyle cypher, with rappers trying to top each other with verses, sometimes created on the spot, other times pre-written.
Chubb Rock: The day I got called for the last episode, it was bittersweet, because I thought we were all going there to protest [the cancellation].
Ed Lover: We did “Live Fridays” all the time, so we could have just grabbed people individually and been like “can you rhyme?” But we just passed the mic around the room, because I’ve got Method Man and Redman and Rakim and Serch and Chubb Rock. To this day I can’t name everybody that was on there.
Chubb Rock: [What] Ed and Dré tried to make it was a celebration and a triumph, even though I know it must have been killing them inside. And not because, “Oh, we’re not going to be on TV anymore,” because they were brilliant and went on to be big radio people, so that wasn’t the case. But they knew how important it was for the culture. So everyone was trying to have a smile on their face, but it was sad day.
Ed Lover: How do you get a collection of three dope-a– emcees in a room and not do anything with them? You can’t interview them all individually. So what you can do that would be epic? Pass this mic around and let these dudes get busy.
Erick Sermon: Nobody kind of knew. It wasn’t said that day that it was going to happen. But it was only right to do that. We were all just meeting up to have interviews, and to just talk about “YO! MTV Raps,” and that it was ending, but at the end of it, they were like “we’re going to freestyle.” Maybe they had it planned, but I had no clue.
Doctor Dré: It wasn’t. It never was. That was the whole beauty of it all. They all came in to say thank you and goodbye, we love you guys, the whole thing, and it just started. They asked Skribble to DJ for me, ’cause they didn’t want me to be behind the turntables through this thing, and we just started it. And it kept going and going and then Ed ended with a freestyle. It was a thought that like one or two people would join in, but everybody who came through wanted to participate.
Chubb Rock: To me, it was almost like, “Let’s remind everybody that this is a real genre. Let’s remind people what they’re going to miss. Let’s remind people about this culture.” That’s what that whole cypher was — how you gonna live without this?
There was no better person to kick off the segment than Rakim, one of the most revered emcees in hip-hop’s history. Even in 1995, a few years removed from his final album with Eric B, few names loomed larger in terms of pure lyricism.
Ed Lover: He’s just the god emcee with his flow and his tone. He’s not the most jovial person that’s in the room. He’s just so cool. There’s not a lot of jokes with him — Ra’s just cool. So to have him bless the mic was just like, oh my god. I was just so hyped up standing in the back and watching this dude whose records I had bought, and now was on this first-name basis. Even to this day, I can’t believe I know Rakim.
Erick Sermon: Rakim is someone who I based my style after, someone who I looked at as a mentor, I was from two towns over from Rakim in Long Island. And then for Rakim to rhyme over the EPMD’s “It’s My Thing”? ‘Cause we also had problems in the beginning with Rakim, a small competition thing back then. When the beat came on and Rakim rocked to it, I was like “holy s—.” That turned the page for me, of us becoming friends after that. He could have said “change the beat,” but he didn’t.
From there, the talent didn’t relent. KRS-One, another of the most respected rappers of all time, came next, followed by Sermon, who had previously been best known as one-half of the duo EPMD.
Erick Sermon [on following Rakim and KRS-One]: That’s so ill. If you watch [KRS-One]’s face, they knew of me, but I’m a soloist now, and they didn’t know yet. … I was able to hold my own with an ill-a– verse that day. I’m glad it was documented. … Being in there with Rakim, KRS-One, Chubb Rock, [Redman] and [Method Man] … the fact that I was able to hold my own in a room full of lyricists like that is what I’m proud of too, and that I was called for that episode.
Ten rappers in all took part — five that could have been considered “veterans” in 1995 (Rakim, KRS-One, Sermon, Chubb Rock and a post-3rd Bass MC Serch), and five younger emcees (Redman, Method Man, Extra P, Craig Mack — and the “youthful veteran” Special Ed, whose first hits came when he was just 16). The variety of flows and approaches to rhyming (the cool of Rakim, the wit of Chubb Rock) made it not just a showcase for individual emcees, but also for the culture itself.
Chubb Rock: [Freestyle]’s the organic part of it. It isn’t based on charts, on Billboard, who’s the producer. Everybody’s on the same beat, and you’re just expressing whatever’s on your mind. That’s going to always be the basis of hip-hop. It’s like Prince; he was this prolific musician, with all of these incredible recordings. But the best stuff ever is when he would just show up at a cafe in New York and just jam.
Erick Sermon: Everybody was great that night. Serch was great — and it wasn’t 3rd Bass, it was just dope. To see Hammer in there with Redman, at the time that they were beefing, it was monumental. It was monumental that day.
Doctor Dré: I don’t think you could recreate that, say “let’s make that happen again.” I think it’s just that moment, that time, and the rap gods were looking over us and saying, “DING. There you go.”
After a final freestyle from Ed Lover, the show said its goodbyes. But while the audience at home had gotten a glimpse of what was happening in that studio, the people there had seen the full picture.
Ed Lover: Off camera, when we weren’t rolling, the camaraderie that was in that room … If I could go back and sit down, just sit down and watch what was going on in that room, I would probably cry today. The amount of respect that those guys had for the guys who came before them, the amount of respect that you saw from Red and Meth and that generation for KRS-One and Rakim and Serch? That was amazing.
Doctor Dré: When you do something like this, and you’re wrapping it up, you never remember the last day. You remember all of the days that came before it. Because the last day is a celebration, but it’s also a funeral. You want to celebrate the life, not the end. So people always tell me, “man that thing was so incredible” but I don’t remember it like that. I remember when they all finished, we’re in a corner and we’re all crying, and people are hugging us, and we’re laughing and joking about it.
Ed Lover: For all of these guys to do that, to show love and show [the show’s importance] without having to say that the show was important? To rhyme and to make it super important? You couldn’t duplicate that if you wanted to.