A Music Box, A Basement & MTV

During Hip-Hop’s Golden Age there were typically three shows that came to mind when you wanted to see your favorite rappers: Video Music Box, Yo! MTV Raps, and Rap City. If you wanted to see Hip-Hop on TV, these were your platforms. These shows were respected, recognizable forces to be reckoned with during their heydays. Even though there was quite the rivalry between the networks, they all did something massive. Whether locally or nationally, they each introduced Hip-Hop to mainstream audiences across America. Even after decades have passed, these shows are all still mentioned in Hip-Hop culture today.

Pictured: “Uncle” Ralph McDaniels, interviewing Kool DJ Red Alert and Johnny Famous

It all started with Video Music Box, the very first show focused on Hip-Hop and the culture at large. The show brought music videos to the tri-state area (New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut), and gave a taste of what the newly emerging rap scene looked like. Debuting in May of 1983, Ralph McDaniels (a.k.a. Uncle Ralph) brought Hip-Hop to your front door with interviews of the hottest rappers, music videos and everything in-between. The show came complete with Whodini’s “5 Minutes of Funk” serving as its theme music. It became WNYC’s highest-rated show, and still airs on the network to this day. At one point in time, it was the only Hip-Hop program in syndication. With Video Music Box serving as Hip-Hop’s launchpad into America, it paved the way for future Hip-Hop shows like Yo! MTV Raps and Rap City. Music videos from the likes of Black Moon, Wu-Tang Clan, KRS-1, and more were seen by a slightly bigger audience. But McDaniels didn’t launch Video Music Box alone, he had the help of music video pioneer Lionel C. Martin, otherwise known as “The Vid Kid”.

Featured (from top to bottom): Leonard Martin (left) with actor Bill Bellamy, Martin with TLC (second from right)

A Queens native, Martin produced music videos for TLC, Public Enemy, Big Daddy Kane, Jay Z, En Vogue, Nas, and Stevie Wonder to name a few. Martin and McDaniels decided to travel to the artists, and cover parties in the rap scene. They wanted to show how Hip-Hop took over New York City, while giving a face and a voice to the culture. This was also a pivotal moment in Martin’s life, as he felt that Hip-Hop needed better representation. With that, the modern music video was born, and he began to transition into directing music videos. The first video Martin directed was Roxanne Shanté’s “Roxanne’s Revenge” in 1984. From there he went onto working with Marley Marl and the Cold Chillin’ Crew, which then led to working with bigger acts like Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, and MC Shan. At the time, Hip-Hop music video budgets were only around $30,000 to $40,000, yet Martin still made the most out of what they had and made it work.

But despite everything that was happening, Video Music Box still wasn’t a mainstream series. In fact, McDaniels even approached MTV to do a Hip-Hop show back in 1986. The major network felt that mainstream television wasn’t ready for Hip-Hop yet, and declined the offer. However, two years later, Yo! MTV Raps was launched. For Uncle Ralph, it wasn’t about having ill feelings or competition, it was about the opportunity for Hip-Hop to branch out to other cities, both in the states and across the world.

Pictured (from top): Fab 5 Freddy (second from left) interviewing NWA;  Ed Lover infamously covering 2Pac’s mouth.

September 18, 1988: A day that will forever go down in Hip-Hop history. What would soon become a part of music history, Yo! MTV Raps would serve as the match to the candle that would take Hip-Hop to the foreground of mainstream America. No matter what part of the country, Yo! MTV Raps was more than just a T.V. show — it was a way to be in touch with the culture. If you wanted to know about the latest trends or who the hottest artists were, Yo! was where you got your answer. With hosts like Ed Lover, Doctor Dré, and Fab 5 Freddy, there was never a dull moment on the show. They each brought something to the table which in turn helped the show become what it was. Yo! had so many different elements to it, that it allowed people from all over to connect through their love of Hip-Hop.

The show was created by Peter Dougherty and the late Ted Demme, both part of MTV’s on-air promotions at the time. They had suggested that the network execs create a show around Hip-Hop culture. With that, Yo! MTV Raps was born and a pilot was quickly made and aired on August 13, 1988. The pilot was hosted by Run DMC alongside DJ Jazzy Jeff and a young Will Smith, who was at the time better known by his moniker, The Fresh Prince. The show was an overnight success and became a weekend show hosted by Fab 5 Freddy. A month later, the first official episode debuted and the network ordered a weekday series. Fab 5 Freddy believed the idea of hosting the show seven days was a bit much, so it was decided that he would host on the weekends, and another host would take the weekday show. Enter Ed Lover and Doctor Dré, the tag team hosts who were soon to become household names after first hosting on March 13, 1989. But their love for Hip-Hop came at a serious price.

MTV only had the salary space for one host, so the two split the salary between themselves. Despite that, Yo! was able to be seen in millions of homes across America. The show helped artists pick and choose what singles to release from their albums, and worked their “image” around MTV. The recognition from Yo! would serve as credibility, and gave artists who were already mainstream a way to be exposed to a national audience. Topics all across the board were covered, including safe sex, the L.A. Riots, and everything in-between. Once Hip-Hop became an international force, it began to shape pop culture as we know it today. Yo! served as a way to bridge the gap, and all for the love of Hip-Hop. Even with MTV realizing that Hip-Hop was marketable, rap videos still weren’t in regular rotation. On the other hand, live performances on the show began to increase, which gave an even bigger boost to the ratings. With that, there was also quite a bit of competition from other networks, one of them being BET.

From top left: Hans “Prime” Dobson (left) with Big Daddy Kane; Chris “The Mayor” Thomas (center); and Big Tigger

In August 1989, BET aired Rap City’s very first episode. What made Rap City stand out from the rest was the fact that it was the first Hip-Hop show on a Black-owned network. It also had the longest running Hip-Hop program on television, lasting for just under 20 years. Rap City was originally a spin-off of the show Video Vibrations’ “Rap Week” segment, which was hosted by Alvin “The Unseen VJ” Jones. The segment was created because rappers felt that their music wasn’t getting the recognition it deserved. Airing during the holiday season, the segment helped the show receive some of the highest-ratings in the history of BET. Though BET embraced Hip-Hop, Bob Johnson, the network’s founder, wasn’t interested in the music, or the culture for that matter. Despite that, Rap City was created and it gave Hip-Hop yet another platform to use. Hosted by comedian Chris “The Mayor” Thomas and Hans “Prime” Dobson, the show was an instant success. The creativity behind the show was at an all-time high, and still made sure to discuss important matters within the community.

By 1999, BET was in talks to sell the network to Viacom for a whopping $2.3 Billion. This also caused the show to slightly change its format, changing the name to Rap City: Tha Basement, and only keeping one host for the show, Big Tigger. Darian “Big Tigger” Morgan got his start on BET as a Hip-Hop news correspondent for the Washington, D.C. area. From there, they made him the third host, with dancer, choreographer, and fitness instructor Leslie “Big Lez” Segar and comedian and radio personality, Joe Clair. The trio hosted the show together until 1999, just before the Viacom buyout. From then on, Big Tigger was the sole host of the show until 2005, when he went on to host 106 & Park. This also ended Tha Basement, as it was meant to portray a hangout spot where you’d go after school to just, well, hangout with friends. It also had a booth for rappers to drop freestyles. Jay Z, Snoop Dogg, Mobb Deep, Dipset, Kanye West, Ludacris, Redman, Method Man, DMX, even Big Tigger and so many more have graced the booth’s presence during the show’s duration.

Each of these shows have respectively and effectively introduced Hip-Hop to suburban America, and the world at large. Video Music Box is still alive and well after 30 years, Uncle Ralph even hosts the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival, and will host again for it’s 13th year. While Yo! MTV Raps ended in 1995 and Rap City in 2008, these shows all successfully chronicled Hip-Hop’s golden age. They showed that nobody was excluded from the culture, and no matter where Hip-Hop went, they were all sure to follow. Had it not been for shows like Video Music Box, Rap City, and Yo!, Hip-Hop would never have become as globally popular as it is today. They each brought Hip-Hop to the forefront of pop culture, and shaped it to what we know it as today.