It's been almost 15 years since The Real World first debuted on MTV, and television programming has never been the same. Survivor changed the game again in 2000, and since then, reality TV has been dominating the airwaves, both on network and cable channels. Personally I never got into the whole phenomenon, although Dog the Bounty Hunter is definitely a bad-ass. Regardless, seeing as hip-hop music and imagery has become a huge part of mainstream America, it only makes sense that we now have many rappers getting into the act. This is a breakdown of the key players.
By far the most popular--and controversial--hip-hop figure on TV, Flavor Flav is arguably more famous (and presumably richer) than ever, thanks to his televised antics on a trilogy of VH1 shows. Even at the height of Public Enemy's reign, Flav was not so much an emcee as a hype-man, mascot, and clown prince; the animated foil to Chuck D's deadly serious, politically provocative orator. At first he was just a bit player, one part of an ensemble cast of celebrity misfits and Hollywood has-beens vying for face time on the 2003 season of The Surreal Life. But his limitless charisma easily eclipsed all others, and an odd-couple pairing with aging Amazon and ex-Mrs. Stallone Bridgette Nielson (whose career went south after a hot streak in the '80s), led to a compelling spin-off called Strange Love, which followed the two unlikely lovebirds around Europe and New York. After she left him for a random Italian boy-toy, Flav returned bigger than ever with his own Bachelor-esque show Flavor of Love, which features an assortment of scandalous hoochies competing for his affection (and/or Hollywood careers) while fighting with each other, falling out of their clothes, and going to the bathroom on the floor. Many have loudly complained that the ladies' behavior and the program itself is shamelessly racist, sexist, and severely damaging to the public's perception of black people, by purposely playing up stereotypes of ignorance and buffoonery. Nonetheless, it is the top-ranked program in the 21-year history of VH1, and you can be sure that when the show is finally canceled, it will be readily available in syndication, on DVD, and online. Flav himself has hinted that this will be the last year, and that he wants to host a talk show next. He also just dropped his first-ever solo album (which, oddly, has had little to no promotion), entitled Hollywood, and is rumored to be working on another PE project as well.
Quite possibly the most legally challenged rap artist still active today, DMX gets more press for his numerous run-ins with the law than he does for his music, despite an enormously successful career that has spawned many multiplatinum hits. He has also maintained an acting career since the mid-1990s, starring in an array of crime-themed features with the likes of Nas, Steven Seagal, and Jet Li, among others. But despite his many numerous accomplishments in the world of entertainment (he is the only artist to have five albums in a row debut at number one), his "wtf?"-inducing rap sheet often overshadows his musical output. Over the years he has been busted many times for drug, gun, and driving offenses, as well as animal cruelty and assault. Somewhere in a BET boardroom, somebody pitched the idea of a DMX reality show, and surprise surprise, it's a huge hit. Soul of a Man is a six-part series that sees him getting out of (New York prison) Rikers Island after a short bid, relocating to Arizona in an attempt to clear his head, and speaking candidly about family, faith, and his long struggle with drug addiction. The show was interesting, compelling, and surprisingly deep, showing another side to the Dark Man that few fans had ever experienced before.
Another jailbird rapper, another BET reality show. On Countdown to Lockdown, the cameras follow BK street chick turned divalicious megastar Lil' Kim, as she prepares for her year-and-a-day prison sentence that she received as punishment for her perjury conviction. I only caught a few brief scenes of this, but for the most part it just seemed like a whole lot of shopping, trips to the nail salon, and yelling at bummed-out underlings while trying to hype her album The Naked Truth, which flopped upon its release. Kim was great a decade ago when she first came out as Biggie's take-no-shorts Bed-Stuy homegirl, and she's still a better emcee than most of the mainstream females out today (not saying much); but the few bits of this show that I saw made her come off like a totally spoiled, self-absorbed superbitch. That being said, it was immensely popular.
Just on principle, this show sounded pretty bad. Take Ice-T, who was totally the man back in the day but has since become better known for playing a cop on Law and Order, and hook him up with a bunch of sheltered rich kids at an Upper West Side prep school. He teaches them to be hip-hop; they're all kind of square and clueless; zaniness ensues. Pretty much the exact same premise as Gene Simmons' Rock School, but with less hair and more beatboxing, and set in the States instead of the UK. Honestly, though, the show is kinda fresh. I've only seen bits and pieces, but it comes off as very genuine and with a good message. The Iceman teaches them that there's more to hip-hop than just flossing and acting hard, and gives the kids some solid life lessons in the process. Instead of just rapping, he's got them DJing, dancing, and getting busy in various capacities, and even though the students are all rich youngsters who have probably never even heard an Ice-T record, a lot of them are really into it. As an added bonus, you get DJ Premier and MC Lyte as talent judges, two legitimate legends who are trying to help the kids rather than just s*** on them like American Idol. Hard to say if this show will last, but it's definitely entertaining and more "good, clean fun" than a lot of these other joints.
Another sort of "feel-good" show, Run's House takes in in-depth look at the family life of Run-D.M.C. microphone master turned man of God, Rev Run. Shot mostly at his mansion in New Jersey, and running around meetings in NYC, it follows the hectic but overwhelmingly positive daily existence of the whole Simmons family, including wife Justine, oldest daughter and model Vanessa, another daughter named Angela, and three sons, two of whom are aspiring rappers. It's a little bit like The Osbournes, but with way less swearing/mumbling/drug problems. Run's brother, hip-hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons, also shows up regularly, and every episode ends with the Rev text messaging inspirational messages to all the people, while lounging in a bubble bath. His wife's pregnancy was a big part of the plot last season, but the baby was delivered stillborn this past September. Whether or not the show will return to MTV remains to be seen, but it developed a pretty loyal following during its two-year run. On a related note, his old partner in rhyme, DMC, starred in a VH1 documentary called DMC: My Adoption Journey about tracking down his long-lost birth mother.
This was supposed to lead up to a series called Stuck to ODB on Spike TV, though as far as I know, only this VH1 special ever aired. Everybody knows Dirty was the greatest, a total one-of-a-kind rap genius whose unpredictable mindstate and voracious appetite for drugs helped him create amazing music, and ultimately killed him. ODB on Parole basically followed him around New York, from getting out of prison upstate at Clinton Correctional Facility, to the Roc-A-Fella press conference (where he signed a million-dollar deal), to trying to adjust to the realities of life as a parolee in Brooklyn. Throughout the show, we see him getting drug tested with his P.O., eating clams on Coney Island, talking about his Dirt McGirt clothing line, recording songs for his new album, dealing with his moms, his girlfriend, various members of the Wu, Dame Dash, and his new manager, a clueless production assistant named Jared. ODB is one of my all-time favorite artists, and I eagerly tuned in for this when it was on in 2003, but it seemed painfully obvious even then that a lot of these cats were only there to make money off of him, and weren't genuine friends so much as blatant exploiters. This was even more apparent at his terribly depressing final concert in October of that year, which I flew cross-country to see. I don't think VH1 has ever showed this again, and it's not out on DVD (not yet, at least), but it stands as a cautionary example of what can happen when drugs, money, and vultures come together. Rest in peace, Ol' Dirty.