Tonight, MTV2 will pull back the curtain on Hip-Hop Squares, the new rap-centric reboot of the classic game show Hollywood Squares. For those who never had the pleasure of watching the likes of Shadoe Stevens or Jim J. Bullock riff in syndication, the show goes a little something like this: The host (in this case New York radio DJ Peter Rosenberg) asks a question of one of nine celebrities, who are positioned on a massive upright Tic-tac-toe board, and each contestant chooses whether or not to agree with the celeb’s response. If they’re correct, they “win” the square. After that, it’s basically Tic-tac-toe.
Of course, Hip-Hop Squares will offer more than just wacky trivia. The show also encourages extracurricular activities, starting with the champagne toast prior to each taping and the cameras capturing jokes and pranks in the green room.
A few weeks ago, EW stopped by Steiner Studios in Brooklyn, where Hip-Hop Squares was taping (right next door to HBO’s Girls). The panelists that day included Nick Cannon (who skipped the bubbly and toasted with a disgusting looking smoothie thanks to his ongoing kidney-related issues), legendary hip-hop prankster Biz Markie (who regularly busted out his beatboxing skills both on camera and during production breaks), DJ Khaled, and Fat Joe. There was quite a bit of buzz around the green room about the prior day’s taping, when Childish Gambino (Community‘s Donald Glover) spit filthy one-liners and Rosenberg managed to squash a mini-beef with chart-topping Pittsburgh rapper Mac Miller.
Before the show, Cannon noted that this was something of a homecoming for him in more ways than one. “I was on the last one when I was like 19 years old,” he explained, referring to the turn-of-the-century reboot hosted by Tom Bergeron. “Henry Winkler was the executive producer, and Whoopi Goldberg was the center square. I was on there with Burt Reynolds, and I remember he was cool as s—.” Cannon was also excited to be working alongside Biz Markie, who threw him some early work. “I used to carry Biz’s crates when I was 17,” he revealed.
For his part, Markie was there mostly to have fun. “I used to watch it when Paul Lynde was on it,” Markie said of his Hollywood Squares history. “My goal is to bring raw flavor to the show. You know, unpredictable funniness. No filter. There’s never no filter with me anyway. I go by feeling.”
Cannon’s philosophy is simple: “Just lie the whole time. That’s my focus. Just lie about everything and act like you know it all. You gotta sell it. There should be a story around every answer. Rappers are good at lying, so it should be easy for them. They don’t really tell the truth too much.”
Biz was ready to take on that challenge. “That’s not going to be a problem,” he said of Cannon’s advice. “I can sell anything. I’m very convincing.”
Once the cameras started rolling, the spectacle really amped up. Though there were a handful of actors and comedians also on the panel that day (including DeRay Davis and Donnell Rawlings), most of the big laughs came out of the mouths of the musicians. Though Cannon was in the coveted center square, Fat Joe acted as the godfather of the panel, regularly exchanging bon mots with his pal DJ Khaled and weighing in on other people’s answers. In one of the best moments of the afternoon, radio DJ Angie Martinez took Joe to task when he answered a question authoritatively and then literally leaned back in his chair, echoing his 2004 radio smash “Lean Back.”
The show promises to be a breezy way to spend a half hour, and the backstage preparation (and open bar) fuels a pretty excellent chemistry on set. But despite the star power on the panels (Common, Method Man, Ghostface, and Jersey Shore star Vinny Guadagnino will also come through during the first season), the real star of the show might be the incredible set built for the program. It’s the same as it has always been, but it lends to the sense of fun. And on Hip-Hop Squares, that’s sort of the point.
Hip-Hop Squares premieres tonight at 11 p.m. on MTV2.