2001 was probably the best year for Black Entertainment Television to try an establish their own awards ceremony. The network was riding high off the popularity of music-based programs like 106 & Park, Rap City, Midnight Love, and even the datacode of stereotyped bizarreness that was Cita’s World. Unlike MTV, however, they didn’t have a celebration to honor the stars they dedicated so much airtime to. That was until June 19, 2001 when the biggest and brightest in black entertainment at the time would gather at the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada for a night of music, fun, and celebrating what the culture had to offer to the entertainment industry. And in 2001, that was a lot. Hip-hop and R&B back then was quite different from how it is now, and for those who grew up in that time period, it will likely be forever timeless and that’s reflected in the winners, which we will get to. Was BET’s first attempt at an award ceremony a worthwhile endeavour right out the gate? Let’s find out.
Steve Harvey may be a controversial figure now due to his reported ego and pretty much every time he spills his two cents on the current political climate, but back then, he was the star of a successful WB sitcom and one of The Original Kings of Comedy. He and his TV co-star and fellow joke-busting king Cedric The Entertainer took the reins for the first ever BET Awards and proceeded to do what good award shows hosts do: make it come naturally. The two already had an established chemistry and they bought it to the award show stage with bits that seemed off the cuff more likely than not, even when they weren’t. And while some of their bits did go on for a little long, they did get some entertaining bits out of it. Sure, joking about Lil’ Bow Wow‘s age at the time was expected, questioning why he has a credit card aside from to buy heaps of junk food. But for some reason, it was kind of funny when they ironically claimed how “shocking” it was that Destiny’s Child won an award and when Cedric did a little dance to remind us how fun the Soul Train line used to be. They’re not the funniest hosts in the show’s history; Chris Rock, Mo’Nique, and even Anthony Anderson & Tracee Ellis Ross bought more to their hosting stints comedically. But it was kind of refreshing to see hosts that didn’t have to try too hard for the first ever show.
Given the sixteen year passage in time, there are obviously a few people who served as presenters at the 2001 BET Awards that you could reasonably not expect to see on the show nowadays. I don’t think anyone will tune into this year’s show expecting an Eric Benét or Ja Rule sighting, or the arrival of former 106 & Park hosts AJ & Free. Most definitely ruled out would be the outrageous Lovita-Jenkins-as-a-Reboot-character cyber-VJ that was Cita. Another presenter who could possibly be M.I.A. from the 2017 guest list is Ray J, who presented with his sister Brandy and was grilled by the Moesha star for his raunchy music, because “Wait A Minute” was so dirty, am I right? But oh boy, she had no idea what was to come, did she? Jagged Edge presented with Baywatch beauty Tracy Bingham and ended up giving a brief and impromptu performance of the greatest party song of all-time, and do not fight me on this. Nelly and Tyrese presented Best Female Group, and Nelly tried to sneak a peek in the envelope before the video package was even announced. Ludacris had to stand on a box to meet Shaq eye-to-eye, Mo’Nique spent her time on stage invading Musiq Soulchild’s personal space, Ananda Lewis was an absolute vision in red, and Chris Tucker managed to get a pretty funny Rosa Parks bit out while presenting Video of the Year. Jodeci also reunited for the first time in five years in a rather odd appearance on stage that left some wondering what member Devante was on moreso than what their next album (which was released FOURTEEN years later) would sound like.
Generally, BET Awards performances these days are extravagant and full of pizzazz. When Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar kicked off the 2017 BET Awards, they did it with a bang. The most extravagant the 2001 BET Awards got in terms of performances? Sisqó pre-dating Lady GaGa‘s Super Bowl dive by 16 years. Yes, that happened; he has no WWE memes to show for it, though? Eve’s performance was a little more extravagant; Gwen Stefani, then still mainly known as the spunky lead singer of No Doubt, rolled out to perform her “Let Me Blow Your Mind” hook in a pimped out car. Destiny’s Child had the first performance of the night, and by proxy the first BET Awards performance ever, as the pink-clad girl group rose from the stage in pyramids and proceeded to steam up the stage. But yes, for the most part, not a lot of off-the-wall moments or VMA-level theatrics on this night, especially from the rap performances. Jay Z started in a recording studio, which must’ve inspired Taylor Swift in 2012, before then going to a regular rap performance with hypemen, a turntable, and inviting people on-stage. Performances from Snoop Dogg and OutKast were similar, minus the recording studio and inviting up random people. One inadvertently funny performance, however, was Lil’ Bow Wow’s, because it’s just kind of amusing to see a then-14 year old pint-sized Shad Moss, hair longer and straighter than Triple H’s back in the day, running around the stage performing alongside a fully-grown hypeman. Usher performance (which I couldn’t find online; sorry) stood out due to the fact that he started from the crowd, serenaded then-flame Chilli of TLC for a bit, then made his way to the stage where he danced behind a screen before then dancing in front of the screen. As usual, there was a token gospel performance courtesy of Donnie McClurkin and Patti Labelle. Perhaps the most memorable performance by far, however, was the Whitney Houston tribute, going over 20 minutes long and featuring the outstanding the back-to-back vocal talent of Christina Aguilera, Luther Vandross, and Whitney herself.
As someone who listened to nothing but hip-hop and R&B at the time, save for a few pop acts who regularly got play on Radio Disney and B96 (seems odd considering what regularly charts on my Top 20 Countdown now), I can say with confidence that it is hard to argue against pretty much all of these winners. Though to be fair, every category has tough competition in its ranks. Whereas nowadays, Best Group generally contains collaborative efforts that don’t technically count as official groups, 2001 only contained one of those spread out across their gender-split Best Group categories. Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, & Nate Dogg competed in Best Group against legitimate groups Jagged Edge, 112, Boyz II Men, and eventual winner OutKast. The women’s field saw Destiny’s Child beat out fellow girl groups 3LW, 702, and Blaque, as well as gospel duo Mary Mary. Speaking of the gospel field, Donnie McClurkin took top honors there, beating out Mary Mary, Yolanda Adams, Hezekiah Walker, and the DJ Khaled of gospel himself, Kirk Franklin. As someone who grew up in a house that always had gospel playing on Sunday morning, I can say that was no mean feat. Nelly won Best New Artist over Musiq Soulchild, India.Arie, Jill Scott, and Lil’ Bow Wow. But don’t feel too bad for the at-the-time little pup and future faux-stunter. Mr. 106 & Park’s track “Bow Wow (That’s My Name)” did win the Viewer’s Choice Award, because of course he did. The heartthrob acts always do.
There were relevant femcees aplenty back then, so Best Female Hip-Hop Artist actually looked like it could be anyone’s for the taking, as compared to now where the winner is always so obvious they just should call it the Nicki Minaj Award from now on. But Eve won the girl fight, carrying a 76ers jersey that actually got her a few boos. And she accepted the award from Laker Shaq, which is just hilarious given the context of the 2001 NBA Finals. Anyway, The Ruff Ryder’s First Lady beat out Missy Elliott, Da Brat, Lil Kim, and Trina. The still-hyphenated Jay-Z won Best Male Hip-Hop Artist over Snoop Dogg and three artists whose relevance they’d both outlast: Ja Rule, Mystikal, and Nelly. Musiq Soulchild, in the peak of his fame, beat out Joe, R. Kelly, Carl Thomas, and Maxwell for Best Male R&B Artist and the incomparable Mary J. Blige (who’s nominated this year, believe it or not) won Best Female R&B Artist over Aaliyah (who unfortunately passed away two months after the ceremony), Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, and Janet Jackson. Speaking of Damita Jo, despite tracks like “Son of a Gun”, “Someone to Call my Lover”, “Doesn’t Really Matter”, and “All For You” dropping at the time, she was nominated for plenty but won nada, even losing out on Video of the Year to “Miss Jackson” by OutKast. The category also featured “The Next Episode” by Dr. Dre, “Independent Women” by Destiny’s Child, and “Stan” by Eminem and Dido. And as mentioned before, Whitney Houston was the Lifetime Achievement Award winner, receiving the award from her mother Cissy, daughter Bobbi Kristina, and the aforementioned performers; if you’ve never seen her speech, check it out here because it’s one to watch indeed.
If the first ever BET Awards got anything right, it’s being original. Instead of being focused on being trendy or outrageous like the VMAs, they kept things simple and kept the attention on where it should have been: honoring the best in black entertainment at the time. In that regard, I think they succeeded. Sure, the BET Awards have gotten flashier over time and will likely reach peak-flashiness with this year’s Leslie Jones-hosted ceremony, but that’s to be expected with award shows that have the longevity of this one. This show was briefly uploaded to YouTube a couple of years ago before being taken down because Viacom, but if you can find a copy anywhere, it’s definitely worth a watch, especially for those nostalgia for this time period in urban entertainment.