Could Arsenio Hall Be the Next Don Cornelius?

It very quickly became a widely talked-about television moment. Grammy-nominated and Soul Train Award-winning hip-hop star Kendrick Lamar was a guest on the recently revived and canceled The Arsenio Hall Show (original run Jan. 1989–May ’9194; 2nd run Sept. 2013–May ’14), smiling from ear to ear as the iconic late night host described Lamar to his audience as “one of the most important hip-hop artists of our time”. With blessings from music legend Dr. Dre, the Compton, CA-born Aftermath Entertainment/Interscope artist had already taken the recording industry by storm with his self-portrait debut album good kid, m.A.A.d city, yet Hall was the first to grant Lamar a proper interview opportunity. This was apparently part of a greater plan. With his face straightened by both seriousness and sincerity, Hall turned to Lamar, pointed at him sternly, and confessed, “I came back so brothers like you could have this platform off the record and on.”

A platform like Arsenio would be of good use to independent hip-hop star HighTyde, too. Formally of Word/Warner Bros., the Midwest Music Challenger winner says he watched the show growing up, imagining himself as a guest. “It would have been almost surreal to end up on Arsenio’s couch,” says the Battle Creek, MI native. “To hear someone like Arsenio say to Kendrick Lamar I’m coming back because of someone like you, well that would be every artists dream to hear. It’s nice to see someone of his level of fame give back to those artists who struggle and grind to make their way to the top.”

Another prominent public figured famously gave back to artists looking to rise, welcoming them as guests before a national viewing audience. That person was late Soul Train creator, Don Cornelius. With his fast moving Train Cornelius became a measuring stick, and a celebrated symbol of excellence Arsenio had, at various points of his once dominant late night career, drawn comparisons to. But were they properly or popularly warranted? Some felt Arsenio was well on his way to being the next Don Cornelius. While both Soul Train and The Arsenio Hall Show are no longer airing new episodes, there is a chance Hall could yet be poised to make a Cornelius-type run in entertainment.

Given what he has already accomplished and could potentially continue, could Arsenio Hall be the next Don Cornelius? For an answer, posed this question to Christopher McDonald, Bowlegged Lou, Ericka Blount Danois, Cheryl Pepsii Riley, MC Lyte, Teddy Riley, Christon Gray, HighTyde, and Dena D.

“When I think of Arsenio Hall, I think of a man who culturally bridged a gap in late night television. I was a teenager during his original run and I remember feeling instantly drawn to his show because the guest sitting on his couch was just like me; or like my friend Damon from around the way; or my friends I played ball with. And I also think of Arsenio for inviting a wild-haired head banger to perform an electrifying rock song on the show the following night. Suddenly people in America were getting a cultural microcosm of the United States right in their living rooms. White mid-westerners who listened to country were suddenly buying hip-hop… and black teens, like myself, started appreciating rock n’ roll if they weren’t listening to it before. Don did the same when Soul Train transmitted pop-lockin’ dancers through American television sets.

Unless I missed this, Don didn’t frequent rock acts on his program. But how could you on a show called Soul Train. Arsenio and Don are both cool dudes, but polar on the cool spectrum. Arsenio is vivacious, slick and funny, whereas Don was “ice cold” cool. The man didn’t have to lift a brow or an inflection in his voice, and he still kept your interest. Now that’s cool!

One aspect of Arsenio’s old and new show that I’ve always enjoyed is the lack thereof of the typical desk late night hosts have between themselves and their guests. This has given Arsenio the opportunity to lean in and talk to the guests as if their old friends. This always made me feel like Arsenio was just a guy on the street speaking candidly to some of our favorite stars. And guess what…these stars opened up. If a star figure had this platform, I don’t think this sort of casual feeling would translate the same.”–Christopher McDonald (former Music Producer/Booker for The Arsenio Hall Show)

“I’ve got nothing against Arsenio, but no way can you compare Arsenio to Don! It’s just not the same like when you’re with a historian, a historic person like Don Cornelius who is an icon in this business. Artists of today would learn more, and have more respect. But they don’t have that person anymore. They end up taking things for granted.

When we did our final performance on Soul Train, we were interviewed by Shemar Moore who’d taken over for Don. As much as we liked Shemar, it just wasn’t the same. Questlove of The Roots pointed something out to me; he is a huge fan of Soul Train, and has the shows on tapes and DVDS and everything. He told me when he’d see us on Soul Train Don Cornelius would always say, ‘Hey, I love having you guys on here. You guys are articulate.’ He said Don never said that to a lot of black groups!

When they say the longest running syndicated show in television history, it makes me so proud. If American Bandstand could play black acts on their show, Soul Train could do the same with the white acts. But they had to have some semblance of soul to them. Don Cornelius also had Average White Band on the show, and also KC & The Sunshine Band. I thought it was great. David Bowie was on Soul Train! I feel Don and Soul Train never really got the just due they deserved. I’ve always felt Soul Train deserved more. Don just [had] such an aura.” – Bowlegged Lou of Full Force

“I don’t know if Arsenio is the next Don. He may be the old Don. They are similar in that they were both trailblazers in the still predominantly white world of television. When Arsenio’s show began he invited hip-hop stars on when they weren’t even getting radio play. He and Don both understood the importance of the youth market. Besides that, I’m not sure if I can draw a comparison. Two different shows.”–Ericka Blount Danois, author of Love, Peace, and Soul: Behind the Scenes of America’s Favorite Dance Show Soul Train: Classic Moments

“Wow, I never really thought about this; but yes, that would make all the sense in the world. I was really pulling for Arsenio when the show came back. Loved the show from back in the day. And real talk, how Don Cornelius gave such an amazing platform to our artists and all those making real music, who were not readily getting the American Bandstand opportunities, Arsenio did that for the next generation of artists who were not invited to play Leno or Letterman. So, though I hadn’t thought of it before, Arsenio Hall could absolutely be the next legendary ‘Don Cornelius.’ I would love to see that happen…and then I want on the show.”–Cheryl Pepsii Riley

“Well, first, it was miraculous that we would even get to have Arsenio again, and we all felt saddened by the terms for which he had to leave. I was excited for him. And I’m sure for him it was like a dream come true to work back up toward having what he initially built up. One day you’re on top of the world, then the next day you’re like ‘What?’ No show. I actually was on the new show. It was great to see him on the set moving around. He wore a robe and some Snoop Dogg slippers. He was back at home. As far as Arsenio and Don, the one way they’re alike is their genuine interest in their guests. They’re interested in the information and news being shared by each individual who were guests on their shows.”—MC Lyte

“Soul Train was responsible for a lot of my career. And it felt incredible to be part of a big dynasty like The Arsenio Hall Show. When Arsenio came back, it was like celebrating him again. Then going on the show was like putting our shoes back on to dance again. I was just happy to see him back on the mound. And it was great to have that platform again for diverse music. But, for me, I wouldn’t compare Arsenio to Don.

Don was like the Dick Clark of our culture. He had the biggest artists and he had diversity. To me, Arsenio was more like Don Kirshner. He was more on the talk show side, so I don’t think I would compare the two, but I do think they have similarities. They both helped build black culture without being pro-black, but they were both representatives of the culture and race. They were both strong in what they did.”—Teddy Riley

“The subject is interesting, Arsenio and Don. I think they both did something similar. They’ve both done so much for the music industry, and the entertainment industry in general. They didn’t just effect culture. They created an environment where culture had a voice. They helped culture express itself. I’m more of the Arsenio era. I never experienced Soul Train like my father, but I experienced Arsenio. And there was not a show that was more anticipated to see successful Black entertainers of all genres. He showcased it in a way we remained ourselves. We didn’t have to succumb to other cultures but could express ourselves in a way that was comfortable for them. We were able to be ourselves. People were entertained by ourselves being ourselves, and we don’t see much of that anymore! Now we have to adapt to be entertaining. When Arsenio came back it felt like blacks could be themselves again. And that is the correlation between him and Don Cornelius.”–Christon Gray

“What Don did for artists was provide a venue, he provided national exposure. He believed in not only the artists but the music itself. ‘And as always, we wish you love, peace, and soul!’ was for earlier generations, what phrases like ‘Show me the money!’ was for today’s generation. It’s too early for me to say whether Arsenio Hall will be the next incarnation of the late, great, legendary Don Cornelius. Don has been a staple, not only for creating and developing Soul Train from initial concept, but to providing a stage for performers of not only the urban music scene, but rock and jazz. From the likes of Gladys Knight, to Michael Jackson, we all owe our respects to a man who had a belief, and who stood by that belief that artists deserved to be heard. However, Arsenio has the passion. He does exactly what Don did, and that was believe. He believes in the music, he believes in the artists, and he has the ability and networks to connect audiences to the aforementioned. While there will never be anyone who could possibly replace Don Cornelius, I look forward to seeing how Arsenio will take the legacy of ‘The Don’ and run with it.”—HighTyde

“No, I don’t think Arsenio Hall is the next Don Cornelius. Don cannot be replaced. No disrespect to Arsenio. I believe that both men have brought a greatness to the world of television media and entertainment, but Don was an innovator. He started something that no black person did back then. He set the platform for Arsenio and Nick Cannon to do what they’ve done in the entertainment business. He showed that it can be done. He inspired them to do what they do now. Both Don and Arsenio showcased Black entertainers and other artist in hip hop and R&B music, giving them a spotlight when there was none for them. I appreciate them both for that. Don stayed consistent with Soul Train for 35 years. Arsenio ended after five years, though he did come back briefly.

Don showcased Black dancers on his show, giving them an outlet to be seen. I loved that both showcased my brother Tony Thompson, lead singer of Hi-Five, on their show. Don Cornelius represents a major cultural change in the entertainment business. I thank him for that. I also thank Arsenio for evolving and making things happen as well for showcasing black American culture. Both men have added to our culture for generations to come. Respect.”–Dena D, former Soul Train Dancer

- Joe Walker