Q Magazine

More Props Than 'The Arsenio Hall Show': 'Arsenio's' Greatest Musical Moments

The groundbreaking late night show, which premiered 35 years ago today, hosted some of the greatest musical performances of its era, from Prince and Mariah to Dre and Snoop.

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Though it only lasted a few years, "The Arsenio Hall Show" was like nothing else on network TV. And from 1989-1994, there was no better place to catch the era's best music. From a full Prince takeover to Mariah Carey's TV debut and a moment that genuinely altered American political history, here are the show's 15 greatest musical moments.

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Luther Vandross, “Any Love” (1989)

When Arsenio Hall’s eponymous show first debuted on this day 35 years ago, it was anything but a sure bet. The host’s popularity as a fill-in for Joan Rivers two years earlier had taken TV execs by surprise, and Oprah Winfrey was already busy upending some tired conventional wisdom with her massively successful daytime show, but there was still trepidation among TV’s whiter old guard about whether there was an audience for a Black late night host on network television. (At that time, the safe money in late night was on CBS’s The Pat Sajak Show, which launched a week later…and was gone by April.) But from the very first broadcast, it was clear that Arsenio meant business, and he brought out the big guns straight away, with the era’s R&B king Luther Vandross delivering a typically smoldering reading of “Any Love.” Arsenio was an instant success, and Vandross would appear several more times on the show’s run, including the finale. -- Andrew Barker

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Quincy Jones, “Back on the Block” (1989)

In 1989, Quincy Jones — “Q” to his friends — was known to the current generation of kids as the co-producer of Michael Jackson’s pop trifecta of Off the Wall, Thriller and Bad, but it had been eight years since his last solo album, 1981’s The Dude. While it’s not as though he really needed a comeback, per se, he definitely went out of his way to make a splash with his return to recording, an all-star affair entitled Back on the Block. For his Arsenio performance, Q didn’t spare the star power, bringing along Ice-T, Melle Mel, Big Daddy Kane, Quincy Jones III, and Tevin Campbell, not to mention some top-shelf backup singers. The end result is so good that, by its conclusion, you’ve forgiven Q for his rapping at the very beginning. -- Will Harris

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De La Soul, “Me Myself and I” (1989)

“I like to call them the hippies of hip-hop.” This was how Hall introduced De La Soul, then making their network television debut on his show in 1989. There were a few odd things about this statement. For starters, this was hardly an original insight — pretty much everyone had called De La Soul the hippies of hip-hop by this point. In fact, so many people had already called De La Soul the hippies of hip-hop that the group explicitly stated that they were not hippies on the first verse of their biggest single, “Me Myself and I” … the song that they were seconds away from performing when Arsenio said this. The intro so irked De La that they took a moment to complain about it on their next album, the thoroughly un-hippie-like De La Soul Is Dead, with Posdnous rapping: “Arsenio dissed us, but the crowd kept clapping.” But whatever grudges may have been born at that moment, De La still managed to deliver one for the books. -- A.B.

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Duran Duran, “Girls on Film” (1989)

1989 was a transitional time in Duran Duran’s career, having pared themselves down to only three original members — Simon Le Bon, John Taylor, and Nick Rhodes — and bringing in former Missing Persons guitarist Warren Cuccurullo and noted session drummer Sterling Campbell to fill out the lineup. As such, they didn’t necessarily feel as beholden to hew solely to the sound of the original “Fab Five” roster that had made them famous, which is extremely evident in this performance. It’s still unquestionably the classic song from their early career, but it’s a slightly different take on it, one that — unless it slipped past us somehow — was never committed to disc. This is clearly a Duran Duran that isn’t afraid to take chances, and damned if it doesn’t work. -- W.H.

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M.C. Hammer, “Turn This Mutha Out” (1989)

There was a time when M.C. Hammer was one of the biggest artists in the world, with his song “Can’t Touch This” going top-10 in the UK and topping the charts in the US and his album Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em going multiplatinum on both shores. But it was a case of an LP becoming so popular that Hammer couldn’t possibly match its success, and he became such a mainstream figure because of it that it quickly became everyone’s frame of reference to his work. When Hammer first appeared on Arsenio, however, he was only a few months into being a major-label artist, and for those who discovered him in the “Can’t Touch This” era, it’s hard to explain what a force of nature he was when — after an introduction from his hype man, 2 Bigg M.C. — he stormed onto the stage and delivered a performance that brought the studio audience to their feet and instantly captured the attention of countless viewers. -- W.H.

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Living Colour, “Cult of Personality” (1989)

It’s still somewhat mindboggling to consider that Living Colour made waves in the late ‘80s just by virtue of being a “black rock band.” They obviously weren’t the first, and they certainly weren’t alone in their field, but at the time, there simply weren’t that many African-American rock bands getting a great deal of mainstream attention. That may or may not be why they were booked on Arsenio – the show’s audience was definitely more prone to embracing hip-hop and R&B artists – but whatever led to their appearance, they made the most of it. Lead singer Corey Glover stalked the stage like a panther, whipping his hair around and howling out the lyrics to the band’s biggest hit, with guitarist Vernon Reid shredding his way through the song. The band has a history of solid talk-show appearances, but this remains one of their all-time best. -- W.H.

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Mariah Carey, “Vision of Love” (1990)

Just last week, Mariah Carey notched her 93rd week at the top of Billboard’s weekly singles chart. When she made her television debut on Arsenio in June of 1990, she had zero weeks at the top of the Billboard chart; in fact, her self-titled debut album hadn’t even hit record store shelves. And yet her inherent Mariah-ness is already fully on display throughout this run through her first single, “Vision of Love.” “Arsenio was more than a host,” Carey would later recall of the experience in her memoir. “He had more than a late night show; it was a cultural event, a true Black experience — or, rather, it was a mainstream entertainment show seen through a Black lens.” She would be back on the show a mere three months later; by that time “Vision” had become her first No. 1. -- A.B.

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Whitney Houston and Stevie Wonder, “Superstition” (1990)

For the record, this was not the featured performance between these two on this particular show. Houston and Wonder had previously duetted on the Wonder-penned “We Didn’t Know” earlier in the hour, and that performance is thoroughly professional, and definitely worth watching. But it’s the show-closing, seemingly unrehearsed take on “Superstition” that’s the real keeper. From Wonder’s whispered directions to Houston, to Arsenio’s charmingly unconvincing feigned annoyance at being roped into the song, this was exactly the sort of semi-chaotic, seat-of-the-pants spectacle that made Arsenio such a must-watch in its prime. -- A.B.

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Prince, “Let’s Go Crazy” / “Kiss” / “Cream” / “Purple Rain” / “Daddy Pop” (1991)

The first of three Prince appearances on Arsenio (if you include the show’s brief return in 2014) was less a late-night performance than a total show takeover, with Arsenio ceding the spotlight to his musical guest for a full half-hour. As the host later remembered in a 2018 interview: “Back in the early days, Prince used to give me a lot of rules and guidelines. He didn’t really talk to me then. He would say, ‘Why don’t you book Patti LaBelle while I change clothes?’ And then we would talk about him rather than to him.” And thanks to Hall’s humility, dearly beloved, we have this. -- A.B.

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Bill Clinton, “Heartbreak Hotel” (1992)

You can’t really overstate what a big deal it was when then-candidate William Jefferson Clinton appeared on Arsenio. Indeed, it’s no exaggeration to say that it was a legitimate turning point in the 1992 election. It was literally an unprecedented moment in US political history: a presidential candidate wearing shades, wailing away on his sax, offering up a classic Elvis tune. As Ethos 3 wrote of the moment, “He wasn’t pretending, and he wasn’t pandering. He was a cool dude, obviously hip to what young people liked. He was a guy who could hang with musicians, and at the same time, be the leader of the free world. He seemed like a guy who’d be fun to drink a beer with.” And that, as history reveals, made all the difference. -- W.H.

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“Weird Al” Yankovic, “Smells Like Nirvana” (1992)

No, Nirvana never did Arsenio, but the show got a halfway-decent approximation of the band when Yankovic showed up to perform his parody of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” along with cheerleaders and a janitor, a la the original Nirvana video. Our man Al was decked out in his full Kurt Cobain regalia, wearing his wig in such a way that it covered his face almost completely, to the point where someone half glancing at the TV would barely have seen his then-standard glasses and mustache. Granted, the end of the performance, where it appears that he’s sprawled out dead on the studio floor, doesn’t play as well now, but just keep in mind that Cobain was still alive and well at the time of the episode. -- W.H.

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Pete Rock & CL Smooth, “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” (1992)

If we had to pinpoint one single performance that proves the historic value of the Arsenio archives, it might well be this one. Prince, Mariah, Duran Duran…all might have turned in memorable, unique showings on the Arsenio set, but they were hardly scarce on television otherwise. Pete Rock & CL Smooth, however, were simply not the type of act that was fielding too many late night TV invitations in its heyday. And yet here they are, delivering an absolutely scorching take of one of the greatest hip-hop songs ever written, at a time when it was brand new. -- A.B.

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Spinal Tap, “The Majesty of Rock” (1992)

1992 was a big year for Spinal Tap, having reconvened to record Break Like the Wind, which was either their umpteenth album in their fictional discography or their first proper studio LP as a real band. However you wish to perceive the situation, the band ended up making two appearances on Arsenio that year, but since we’ve passed the window in which it would feel appropriate to include their performance of “Christmas with the Devil,” we’re instead going with this track from Break Like the Wind, which – in addition to being a real corker of a tune, replete with keyboard-created strings whenever it enters the chorus – features a wonderfully funny throwaway onscreen joke just as the song is concluding. (Just keep your eyes open as the camera pans down to David St. Hubbins’ feet. You can’t miss it.) -- W.H.

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Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, “Deep Cover” / “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” (1993)

These days, Dr. Dre is a billionaire Super Bowl halftime performer, and Snoop Dogg’s many extra-musical ventures include a business partnership with Martha Stewart and a gig providing TV commentary for the Olympics. So it’s difficult to explain to the youngsters just how scary much of white middle America found these two back in the early 1990s, and what a rare and subversive thrill it was to see them on network television. Which makes it all the more special to see Dre’s appearance on Arsenio in 1993, sitting for a thoroughly awkward chat (with his mother watching on) before bringing out his then-22-year-old protege for a run through “Deep Cover” and “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang.” Interscope Records chief Jimmy Iovine had spent the previous year telling anyone who would listen that Dre and Snoop were going to be the decade’s Jagger and Richards; here, a national audience could see what he meant. -- A.B.

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James Brown, “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine” (1993)

Given his reputation as the Godfather of Soul, it should come as no surprise that James Brown appeared more than once on Arsenio, and whenever he did, no matter what new single he might’ve been there to promote, he inevitably dipped into his back catalog of classic tracks. In this case, he truly went to town: with backup singers and backup dancers galore, Brown not only belted out the tune while giving the audience some of his best moves, he also shifts over to the organ at one point and starts pounding on the keys while his sax player wanders around the stage and into the crowd. Eventually, Brown finds his way back to center stage to bring the epic performance to a close, at which point Arsenio promises that they’ll be back with more, but there was no way they were ever going to top that. -- W.H.


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