On February 14, 1981, Blondie’s Debbie Harry introduced Funky 4 + 1 to the Saturday Night Live stage. The Bronx group became the first rap act to ever perform on television, their lead MC Sha Rock shepherding a then-unknown culture into the late-night sphere.
In 1989, Arsenio Hall introduced De La Soul as “the hippies of hip-hop” on his eponymous late-night show before the group performed “Me Myself & I,” the very song they crafted to tell fans and critics alike to stop calling them hippies. The show’s final episode on May 27, 1994, was capped with a huge freestyle session featuring MC Lyte, A Tribe Called Quest, a handful of Wu-Tang Clan members and Guru from Gang Starr, among others.
Fast forward 20 years to March 2009, The Roots become the house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon before they all upgraded to The Tonight Show following Jay Leno’s departure in 2014.
As hip-hop has grown more and more popular since the Boogie Down Bronx days, it has continued to creep further and further into late-night television. So far, in fact, that premiere artists like Kendrick Lamar and Chance The Rapper have taken to premiering songs via talk shows. Rap performances on late-night TV bring in millions of viewers to shows that a younger generation probably wouldn’t care about otherwise; Colbert’s given stage time to plenty a rapper, but you won’t catch him waiting in line for a papaya juice.
Yet, few things feel as hip-hop within the late-night sphere as Desus and Mero turning the internet into their own personal bodega stand.
Both Desus Nice (born Daniel Baker) and The Kid Mero (born Joel Martinez) are Bronx natives. Desus had a literature degree from College of Mount Saint Vincent and a shitty social media job for an accounting firm. Mero worked as an aide at a junior high school and would spend off hours playing Call of Duty and hanging outside the bodega “[hoping] someone would buy me a beer,” as he told Rolling Stone in 2015. To vent their frustrations and get some jokes off, they both took to Twitter, a social media clout-building decision that eventually led them to television.
The comedy duo has been tearing up the airwaves at Viceland since October 2016, turning the two-man Uptown act they perfected on shows like Uncommon Sense and the Complex web series Desus vs. Mero and their Bodega Boys podcast into the self-dubbed “Number one show in late night.” The pair work within the confines of many other late-night shows: they riff on current events and gossip on and off of the internet before they interview an “illustrious guest”—who, of course, receives a rainbow over their head with a message of their choice. (The earliest guests got rocks, which have apparently appreciated in sentimental value). There’s no live performance element, but it’s their approach to—and reverence for—hip-hop as a whole that makes the show resonate with the entirety of the culture.
Beyond interviewing rap and rap-adjacent stars from Rae Sremmurd and Jean Grae and Quelle Chris to Fat Joe and Method Man, Desus & Mero's entire approach is rooted in the bare-knuckle joking and jumped turnstiles culture that birthed hip-hop in the first place. No matter the guest type—rapper, entertainer or politician—every question comes from a place of honesty and passion; fandom that can’t be faked. Mero’s boisterous personality is the live version of the all-caps mixtape reviews he used to write for Noisey. (This is still the best Danny Brown review I’ve ever read in my life.)
Stylistically, neither of them dons a suit; they stunt in streetwear and the freshest sneakers and Timbs and regularly sport merch from underground rappers like Your Old Droog and Conway The Machine, among others. Every guest signs their big wooden table, which is adorned with graffiti. They may be on my TV and computer screen thanks to Vice Media, but hearing them jump between flaming Trump, hot basketball takes and cracking on DJs Envy and Akademiks brings me back to the days when I’d listen to my barber take on the world while trimming my fade.
In April, I took my first trip to the Apollo Theater to see their 5 Borough Tour. Their opening DJ had the entire upper deck swag surfing before the duo even stepped onto the stage. When they arrived, both men were flying their respective Jamaican and Dominican flags, with Desus turning his back to the crowd to reveal a red silk Diplomats jacket. The Harlem applause was deafening. Mero commented that he’d never watched Showtime at the Apollo as a kid because he didn’t always have cable. “You gotta rub the stump, it’s tradition,” Desus replied. In his fresh white Timberlands, Mero walked over to his co-host and humped the stump. Endless laughter. The Bronx-bred Bodega Boys had conquered Harlem and delivered an Apollo experience I won't soon forget.
Making it on TV and retaining an edge is no easy task, especially as a representative of hip-hop. For every Atlanta or The Chi that does hip-hop culture proud, there are a dozen shows like The Mayor or The Get Down that don’t make the cut. Desus & Mero are the physical manifestations of The Roots playing Fishbone’s “Lyin’ Ass Bitch” as Michele Bachmann walked across the Tonight Show stage, and the overt diss to Arsenio that De La Soul slipped onto De La Soul Is Dead. They're the synthesis of Cipha Sounds and Russell Peters by way of a corner store cypher. This shit is in their blood.
They’re not the first hip-hop presence on late-night TV, but they’re definitely the most potent and relevant, and they did it by being themselves.
Get the Bodega Boys their Emmy already.