Ludacris, OutKast, Ja Rule, Sisqo. Sound like the lineup for BET’s request show, 106 & Park? Think again. Each artist appeared as a musical guest on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno this year. David Letterman recently hosted Nelly and Jay-Z. Craig Kilborn gave it up for Fabolous and Ludacris, while Conan O’Brien was chillin’ with Dilated Peoples and Snoop. After years of a rap drought on late-night TV, it’s suddenly raining hip-hop cats and Doggs.

Since Arsenio Hall left the airwaves in 1994, rap acts have struggled to find a place on late night. In the mid-’90s, network execs blamed poor ratings for the lack of bookings. ”When I was starting in rap, all I wanted to do was get on Arsenio because that was the only place on late night you could actually see rap acts,” says Dilated Peoples’ Rakaa. ”For a long time after that, most shows didn’t play rap.”

So why the recent shift? It’s all about the Benjamins — or at least the Nielsens. When OutKast played Tonight Jan. 30, ratings among 12- to 34-year-olds jumped 44 percent from the previous night, when Barry Manilow appeared. ”Hip-hop artists are taken more seriously now,” says Fred Birckhead, music booker for Kilborn’s The Late Late Show. ”Hip-hop is a huge part of young people’s musical tastes.”

Another sign of the rhymes is Carson Daly’s Last Call. Since its January debut, NBC’s early-hours rollout featured Wu-Tang Clan, L.L. Cool J, Faith Evans, and a two-part interview with Marion ”Suge” Knight. Thanks in part to the hip-hop-heavy guest list, ratings for the time slot are up 17 percent over last year — and E! just inked a deal to replay episodes later the same day. Notes exec producer David Friedman, ”I’m not sure NBC was champing at the bit for us to do hip-hop, but it worked.”

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