Photo: Kate Glicksberg
To understand the magnitude of hip-hop’s impact, just follow its journey on The Apollo stage. For many rap artists wanting to make it big, few things mattered more than performing at this historic Harlem landmark. Since the theater opened as The Apollo in 1934, it has served as one of the few venues specifically created to shine a light on the extraordinary talent in the Black community. On this stage stars were born; performances became once-in-a-lifetime moments; and legends were cemented.
A co-sign—or lack thereof—from the audience could take an artist from unknown to superstar or drop them back into obscurity. For those in attendance (or watching on TV), it was a chance to fall in love with hip-hop again and again. We’ve rounded up 10 unforgettable performances, often from the Showtime at the Apollo series that coincided with hip-hop’s rise into global consciousness, that showcase the power of The Apollo and hip-hop’s relationship.
September 12, 1987 (broadcast date), “I Need Love"
When 19-year-old LL Cool J hit The Apollo stage to perform “I Need Love,” it was easy to understand why all the Ladies Love Cool James—indeed, a number of women rushed the stage to surround and hug the rapper after he issued an open stage invitation mid-song. The Queens native’s sophomore album, Bigger and Deffer, spawned several hits, but it was LL Cool J’s melodic serenade to the ladies that solidified him as a hip-hop heartthrob.
April 2, 1988 (broadcast date), “Push It” and “Chick on the Side”
The members of the first gold- and platinum-selling female rap group—Cheryl James (Salt), Sandra Denton (Pepa) and Deidra Roper (DJ Spinderella)—are largely credited with empowering women to boldly embrace their femininity and sexuality in a genre dominated by men. Salt-N-Pepa did so with hit songs like “Push It,” which they performed on The Apollo stage in 1988; this marked another first, as they became the first women’s hip-hop act to appear on Showtime at the Apollo.
November 18, 1988, numerous tracks
During hip-hop’s so-called golden era, Cold Chillin’ Records was home to many of the genre’s biggest stars. Founded by music manager Tyrone Williams, the label showcased the Juice Crew, a hip-hop collective comprising stars on the rise such as Big Daddy Kane (shown in the video above), Marley Marl and the late Biz Markie. Those artists took to The Apollo stage along with a handful of DJs and other label mates (MC Shan, Roxanne Shanté) in late 1988 for a show that launched their world tour.
November 18, 1995 (broadcast date), “One More Chance” and “Player’s Anthem”
There’s no way to tell the story of Brooklyn’s rise in hip-hop during the 1990s without discussing Notorious B.I.G. At just 23, the Brooklyn-born rapper performed a pair of songs for an episode of Showtime at the Apollo: “One More Chance,” one of the singles from his debut album, Ready to Die, alongside Harlem’s P. Diddy, followed by the lead single from Junior M.A.F.I.A’s new release, Conspiracy, which he fronted alongside Lil’ Kim. These were among the biggest hits from Biggie’s brief yet impactful career.
April 27, 1996 (broadcast date), “Fu-Gee-La” and “How Many Mics”
With the release of their second album, The Score, and their memorable freestyle at The Apollo in 1996, the Fugees—Wyclef Jean, Pras Michel and Lauryn Hill—made their presence felt. When they stopped “How Many Mics” mid-song and Hill went into her improvised rap, it electrified a stagnant crowd and minted a new star. The Fugees blend of reggae, funk and hip-hop made them one of the most successful alternative hip-hop acts, and Hill became an icon (if a reclusive one), thanks to her socially conscious lyrics and landmark solo album. Hill had actually showed her talents at Amateur Night at The Apollo back in 1987, when she was received with boos as well as cheers.
February 22, 1997 (broadcast date), “No Time” (with Puff Daddy) and “Crush on You” (with Lil’ Cease)
Long before Nicki Minaj and Cardi B, the so-called Queen of New York was Kimberly Jones, aka Lil’ Kim. The Brooklyn rapper catapulted onto the scene in 1994 as part of Junior M.A.F.I.A., under the mentorship of her childhood friend Notorious B.I.G. In late 1996, Lil’ Kim’s debut Hard Core debuted at number 3 on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums. The album inspired both praise and controversy for its raunchy, explicit lyrics. In 1997 she took the stage to perform “No Time,” the first single from the album, as an energetic duet with Puffy.
November 13, 2007, numerous tracks
Hailing from Bedford-Stuyvesant, the same Brooklyn neighborhood as his close friend Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z arrived with Reasonable Doubt in 1996—named one of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time (it came in at 67). The following year he made his first Apollo appearance at the Hip Hop Peace Fest, though his concert a decade later in support of the album American Gangster was arguably more impactful. The show included a number of special guests, including Nas, who performed on two songs.
June 13, 2011, “All I Do”
Fresh (aka, the Human Beat Box) and his Get Fresh Crew, which included another NYC rapper, Slick Rick, created two of hip-hop’s earliest classics: “The Show” and “La Di Da Di.” The latter, backed by Fresh’s beatboxing, is one of the most sampled songs in music history. In 2011, Fresh continued to make history when he stepped on The Apollo stage at a spring gala to jam with another musical icon, Stevie Wonder, alongside jazz pianist Chick Corea. This impromptu moment encapsulated hip-hop’s evolution from a predominately young, Black musical genre into one that transcended age and race, placing its stars in the same ranks of those of longer established musical forms.
August 5, 2016, numerous tracks
The gruff voice, the commanding presence, the pain and vulnerability—all these made DMX a magnetic artist from the time he released his debut album, It’s Dark and Hell is Hot, in 1998. The rapper’s concert at the Apollo in 2016 was a memorable, high-energy performance that ended in typical DMX fashion, with a poetic soliloquy that shared his pain.
April 16, 2023, complete setlist
To see hip-hop’s enduring legacy, look no further than the career of Lil Wayne. Off the streets of New Orleans, Lil Wayne signed to Cash Money Records in 1997 at the age of 14 as a member of the Hot Boys. To date he has around 50 albums, EPs and mixtapes to his credit. He has cited Missy Elliot, Jay-Z and Notorious B.I.G. as musical influences, and been recognized by hip-hop founding fathers like DJ Kool Herc, who called him one of his favorite MCs. In 2023, Lil Wayne hit The Apollo for a career-spanning concert and reflected on something of a full-circle moment: “I know the first time I stepped on this actual stage, [Showtime at] the Apollo was still an actual show that came on television and I was on that motherf—er. I think Shemar Moore was hosting it, but I was there.”*
*Editor's note: When he was 17, Lil Wayne appeared with Juvenile and the Hot Boys on a 1999 episode of Showtime at the Apollo (hosted by Steve Harvey), performing “Back That Thang Up” and “Bling Bling.”