Q&A: Blockhead On Public Access, The Baby Show, And Learning About Sex From Channel J
"Public access was a platform for the weirdest New Yorkers who had any sort of gumption to create," says Blockhead, a hip-hop producer whose new album on the Ninja Tune label, Interludes After Midnight, is named in homage to a late-night show on channel 35 that just so happened to be hooked around the concept of what we'll call nakedness. Having grown up in Manhattan, public-access TV formed part of the fabric of Blockhead's upbringing; he ran a show himself that included cameos from Aesop Rock and Adrian Grenier, while his hip-hop schooling was embellished with public-access broadcasts hosted by Heather Hunter, Ricky Powell and a curious endeavor involving a Boot Camp Clik-obsessed "old guy who looked like Rick Rubin and was all about weed." We got Blockhead to reminisce over the most bizarro public access footage he's ever witnessed, receiving death threats for his own show, and the legacy of the risqué Robin Byrd.
Interludes After Midnight is named after a public access TV show, right?
Yeah, it was sort of this porn channel. Actually, leased access were the porn channelsyou had to pay for them. The show was a naked guy who would interview porn stars in kinda like a studio. It was like this low-budget studio setup with, like, plants around the desk and this old naked hairy guy interviewing girls. They'd play that for 20 seconds and then they'd play four minutes of escort commercials. It's channel 35 now. It might still be on.
Is your album a tribute to that show?
Well, I was initially going to call the album The Robin Byrd Era, but she wouldn't let me use her name for legal reasons. So the sentiment of the album is more about that time than public access itself. It's about the years when public access was a staple of my life, like the late-'80s and early-'90s 'til the late-'90s, and this was a regular thing in my life and a defining era in my life. But I did name a song after a show called Midnight Blue that Al Goldstein did, and there's still a song called "The Robin Byrd Era" on there. So there's little references to things in my mind, but it's not like a companion piece to watch public access to.
When did you first discover Interludes After Midnight?
I was in fifth grade, 10 years old, having a sleepover at a friend's and it was Channel J then. It was wildly inappropriate. That was my first window into porn. It was kinda like a a rude awakening, 'cause it jumped a lot of levels about what an 11-year-old should see. It definitely moulded me to an extent! Then there was also Robin Byrd, who is still on. She's a legend. It's amazingthey're still showing the same Robin Byrd episodes I was watching back in the '90s now. She must be about 60 years old now. She's a big local celebrity, but also a huge gay rights activist. She's in a way a gay celebrity, and she's definitely revered by the gay community. I have a friend who goes to Fire Island for the weekend and he drove by a dock and saw Robin Byrd sitting in a chair being worshipped by like ten gay dudes.
What were your first impressions of The Robin Byrd Show?
Well I remember I was too young to differentiate if she was hot or not! It was just, "Oh, a girl in underwear!" Then she became a staple. Everyone who had cable knew who she was.
What was your favorite part about The Robin Byrd Show?
The frolicking was the best part. The stripping was always really creepy, and you'd never know when you'd get a tranny, so for an 11-year-old it was using it for learning.
Who was the best transvestite on the show?
There were some shockingly passable ones! But she did things like she'd interview the people and do this song called "Baby, Let Me Bang Your Box" at the end of each show. She would lip-synch to the song and she would put the dudes' penises in her eyeand usually they were gay dudes and they were not into itand she would bury her face in the girls' breasts.
How did "Baby, Let Me Bang Your Box" go?
[Sings] "Baby let me bang your box..." I'm trying to think what genre that would be. It's kinda like early Motown, like the Supremes mixed with country music and ragtime. It's a great song.
Clip from The Baby Show
You ran your own public access show, right?
Yeah, The Baby Show. It was a bunch of kids acting around and being disgusting. We didn't do it for ego, but if we got noticed on the street... We were more trying to get girls.
Did being on a public access TV show help with getting girls?
Not for me. The guy who was in charge of everything funneled them all. We had a phone line where they'd leave messages, and it was usually all 18- and 19-year-old guys, and he'd always kinda cut any girls off first and we could never get in there.
What did The Baby Show involve?
The show was sketch and improv comedy and voice overs where we'd watch TV and freestyle words in their mouths. It was often sloppy and always ended with dick jokes. Aesop Rock was on it sometimes; me and him later did a thing on MTV where we did a fake public access show. Adrian Grenier was on The Baby Show too.
Who was the more promising actor in those days, Aesop Rock or Adrian Grenier?
Honestly, Aesop was on it a lot more, 'cause he was a part of the close-knit group while Adrian was an outlier friend. Aesop was good! It was always comedic roles for him; he plays a very good straight-man and he's a quick-witted guy.
Before the interview, you emailed over a public access clip you put together that was more like a cut-and-paste collage. What was that?
The stuff I emailed you wasI used to have blank VHS tapes by the TV and if I saw something crazy on public access I'd tape it. So that was a compilation of all Manhattan neighborhood shows.
One of the scenes on the tape shows a male and female in matching clothing rapping. Who were they?
I don't know who they were, but that was the funniest thing to me. A huge thing on public access was the talent shows, like someone performing against a blank wall in the their room and there's no crowd. There's shows for bluegrass like that and punk and I was so obsessed with rap at the time so I taped that one. But I thought the guy singing "Emotions" by Mariah Carey is the best.
You don't know whether he's sincere or making fun of the song.
I think he meant it. I was amazed when he finally talks and he has this weird accent. You expect him to be learning disabled and he's not as learning disabled as you'd expect.
What else was in this pile of VHS tapes you had?
I had taped a lot of [Ricky Powell's] Rappin' With the Rickster. We'd also tape shows which we started beefs with. We'd attack other shows.
Do you remember any of the beefs you started with another show?
There's this show called Wannabe TV and it's these two teenage girls who were the most annoying: They'd lip-synch these songs and have these terrible songs and clips of them being snotty. For some reason we were like, "Fuck these girls, man!" So we taped them and did a voice over of it and apparently kids at their school saw it and they were getting harassed. So their mom called us up and was like you guys have to not show that clip again or I'll bring the law into it. We were like okay. So we made a skit about what happened and instead of using them we dressed up as them and voice overed ourselves. We made this really meta ten minute video just decimating these two girls.
Did you ever meet the girls?
Yes, one of them. A friend of minethe one who would funnel all the girls inhe saw them eating at a restaurant and gave them a card with The Baby Show on it. There was some bullying... But what I hear now, I know some people who know them, and they're pretty terrible.
What was the process involved in getting a TV show aired on public access?
You would apply for a slot and you were put on a waiting list. We were on at midnight at Tuesday. We had a good slot 'cause we took over from this show Wild Style, where Heather Hunter would interview rappers, so our viewership was huge straightaway. Of course, people would hate us for not being porn stars, but we had some new fans who stayed with us. The downfall of our show was when they changed the slot to 2 a.m. on a Tuesday.
How did you gauge the success of the show?
We'd judge by call-ins and the reaction on the street. We'd get spotted all the time. People would be like, "Baby Show!" That happened for a year or two. And we'd gauge it off how mad people were on the call-ins.
How mad did people get when they called in?
We had death threats. We got a lot of them. We were pretty irreverent and it's a fun thing to do for like guys in Washington Heights to see hip-hoppy white guys and they're like, "Fuck you!" I think they wanted to murder us.
How did you react to the death threats?
At the end of the show, we'd play the calls and show us reacting to them. But we didn't really want to stir that up 'cause I was always on edge about getting a random punch in the face.
It's more public than just anonymous comments on YouTube.
But it's the same thingthe dregs of society deciding to vocalize themselves. But a lot of it is faceless. Call-in show guys are very ego-centric though. It's like the comments section on YouTube but live and you can really go nuts on people. Some people, I think, looked at it as a real artistic output; no one had high production values but people would put their all into it. It was like student films, very artsy and pretentious at times.
Were there any rules about what you could and could not broadcast?
There were definitive rules on what you can and cannot show, like you can't show erect genitalia, no real violence, or someone peeing or shitting. But you can say whatever you wantthere were no banned words. It was the defecating and boners really. You can't show porn really. Even lease access couldn't really show that, but people tried to get away with it. They had a show called High Society that showed edited clips of porns. At 14-years-old that way my favorite show ever. That was as close as they got. I saw a show get taken off mid-show when they showed something like that. It this show these Albanian dudes from the Upper East Side did, called Army of Darkness, and they showed a scene from a porn and it just turned off. There was someone monitoring it. I don't think that was always the case, but you never knew if someone was watching.
At its best, did public access TV act like a playground for people to experiment with ideas?
It was kinda like the minor leaguesa lot of people got picked up by like MTV. There was a show called Squirt TV that Jake Fogelnest, one of the guys who does VH1's [I Love] The '80slike a commentator guyhe got picked up. MTV called us but we were way too dirty. They were like, "We're interested in your show, but not sure what to do with it." So it ended there and never really panned out. I'm not surprised. And Harmony Korine called us once. He was like, "You guys are awesome!" I was like, alright. That's our claim to fame.
But Max Kellerman, the boxing analyst, he had a show for years called Max on Boxing and that guy's amazing. He's now a HBO analyst. It was definitely a breeding ground and a jump-off point for a lot of people. And it might be off topic, but there was a show called Media Shower and the whole show was showing old funny clips. It's like a predecessor of YouTube. It's all of this found footage and snarky commenting on them. There's a famous clip of a guy playing a comedian or guitarist and he gets heckled and the camera's still on him but he talks shit to the audience and he breaks his guitar over the crowd you don't see it, you just hear it, because the camera doesn't moveand he walks back and is like, "Fuck it, it's over!" So stuff like that, random funny things and rare movies that are ironically funny.
You mentioned Heather Hunter's show Wild Style. Which rappers do you remember appearing on it?
She had Everlast on it, Mic Geronimo was on it. It was awesome. It was her and these two stripper friends of hers; the guys would come in and she'd interview them but [the interviews] were always incredibly sexual and the rappers would either recoil or totally go with it. She'd do the interview sitting on their lap coiling their hair. Then at the end some of her friends might strip.
Which rappers embraced Heather Hunter's interview technique?
Well Mic Geronimo had a very public girlfriend at the time; Everlast embraced it. The Boot Camp Clik guys were into it. She's a revered woman, especially in the mid-90s. She was trying to start a music career and I think that was her in. And she'd show her videos, these terrible house songs. But as a young guy, that was greatrap and porn, it's perfect!
What's the most bizarre show you've ever seen on public access TV?
There's a show that's still on today and this fuckin' guy... I know 'cause I can tell the street, but his whole thing is filming girls going by on the screen to this creepy music he makes, like these really dark synthetic drums. He just films girls and slowly follows them down the street with the camera. It's right off of Bleecker Street, in front of Peanut Butter & Co, off Sullivan Street I think. I watch it looking for someone I know. Sometimes he'd find a neighbor and look through their window.
What's the vibe of the show? Is it creepy?
The apartment parts are a bit out to line, like looking into someone's home, but the street thing, I get it. It's always young girls. He had good tastethey are usually pretty cute. But I'd definitely like to go to that block and locate which fire escape it is.
There's also a lot of great archived footage that people take at shows on public access.
Yeah, some people put up really great stuff. If I was into punk rock or hardcore, there are shows that are just dedicated to half an hour of old New York City hardcore shows from the '80s or '90s which I imagine would be awesome for someone who gave a shit about it. There used to be a lot of good rap video shows in the '90s, too. It's waned a bit now, because YouTube exists and eliminates everything.
Which rap shows do you remember on public access TV?
This one called IndieCent Exposurelike indie musicand this old guy looked like Rick Rubin and he was all about weed. It was close ups of him, he was old, like 45, and obsessed with the Boot Camp Clik and would like interview Buckshot and Smif-n-Wessun and obsessively show their videos. He'd get advance things that no one had seen before. It was close ups of him inhaling a joint for like two minutes. That show was awesome. We'd call in and harass him; we'd call in and harass him as him, doing his voice. He had ins though, 'cause he had a lot of good videos.
Was he a part of the rap industry?
I've got to think [the artists] were either amused by him, or maybe he worked as a studio engineer. He would have relatively famous rappers on. I see it in the listings now and again but I think it's just a mistake. That was a good one. And where's one that's still on called Nasty Videos. They used to show good videos and more like thugged-out stuff.
Have you seen the two guys reading the Bible and adding their own ad libs to it?
Yes! They are the 13th Tribe of Israel, and they stand on the street in 42nd Street yelling at people and berating white people. Their show is the best. They do call-in shows and they are amazing. People would either be trolling them or legitimately arguing with them, 'cause they're super anti-white, anti-Jewish, hate everyone and they quote things from the Bible that make no sense. One will tell the other guy to read from the Bible and then be like, "Point proven!" They still exist. You can probably find them on a corner by 42nd Street and Broadway. But that show's great if for nothing else but for sociological purposes because it's so interesting that these people exist. Public access just shows you so many crazy people!
If you had to create a new public access TV show now, what would you do?
I would probably be lazy and do a call-in show 'cause it's easy and weirdly gratifying. It leaves a lot of openings to be funny, 'cause you can troll people back as much as they can troll you. It would be funny to do Baby Show again, but I'm not sure I have time.
What's your favorite call-in show?
There was a show called G Street Live which was these five dudes from Grand Street, these guido guys. Some were Jewish, some were Italian, and all were, like, called Paulie and Howie and that became the thing that everyone at school called up to. Eventually we'd get on it. I watched it religiously. It was five guys sitting taking calls in sweatpants. They were such easy targets, but they took it wellthey were good sports.
When you called in, did they engage in the banter?
There was one of them that was kinda funny, but the rest of them the come back was always like, "Oh, dude!" It was such a dimwitted show; it was awesome. The thing was, it was hard to get through; you'd spend 40 minutes just trying to get through.
What's your favorite all-time public access show then, all formats considered?
We mentioned the Heather Hunter show, and Ricky Powell's show is one of my favorites, and I think Concrete TV is definitely the most impressive. I don't know if I could sit and watch the whole thing, 'cause it's really exhausting, but it's the most impressive. All the footage is connected, like cut and pasted together for 30 minutes non-stop. This guy must sit around going, "Any explosions?" Then he has like 15 million explosions to chose from. I wonder what the guy does, like he must be an editor in real life to have access to that stuff. He must just watch movies and mark them. But my favorite to watch is Media Shower, because it was the predecessor to so much.
Which rappers do you think would be great at hosting a public access call-in show?
I think 50 Cent would be amazing at that. There was actually a Star and Bucwild showthe ones that used to do Hot97that was a call-in show that was awesome because Star is so funny, he's hilarious. They lined up the screen with bottles of liquor and were drinking bottles of Hennessy and talking shit with people all the time. But any rapper who in real life is witty would work. I bet Fat Joe would be great. I don't think Nas would be a good call-in guy. It would be like, "Ah, god, he's preaching again." And Kool G Rap is a funny guy in real life. I'd call in to that one.
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