'Uncle' Ralph McDaniels, A Hip-Hop Pioneer, Still Inside the Box
For a generation that gets its music videos from YouTube and the like, it's hard to conceive of a time when your options in that regard were far, far fewer. In December 1983, "Uncle" Ralph McDaniels, a former intern and engineer for WNYC, channel 31, premiered Video Music Box, a daily show that showcased everyone from Madonna to Jimi Hendrix to New Kids on the Block. With partners-in-crime Ray Dejon, Lionel "Vid Kid" Martin, Crazy Sam, and Tuffy, McDaniels saw a market for the then-fledgling hip-hop that surrounded him in the city and—long before 106 & Park or Yo! MTV Raps—turned The Box into the first, and premier, source for hip-hop videos, launching the careers of countless MCs, including Fat Joe, Nas, and the Wu-Tang Clan.
"If there was no Bill Gates, there would be no Internet as we know it today," says Buckshot, MC for the influential New York hip-hop group Black Moon. "Well, if there was no Ralph McDaniels, there would be no hip-hop as we know it today. He was the first video show for rap, and a true hip-hop pioneer."
A quarter-century later, McDaniels still hosts the show, while simultaneously planning a series of 25 public events commemorating the anniversary. In addition to spearheading a July 18 concert at Central Park's SummerStage featuring hip-hop legends Naughty by Nature, Nice & Smooth, Rob Base, Chubb Rock, and O.C., the impresario gets the tribute treatment during August's Harlem Week, just hosted the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival, and is masterminding numerous one-off hip-hop shows around the city, featuring such classic MCs as Big Daddy Kane, Slick Rick, and KRS-One.
"I guess when you're a kid, '25th anniversary' sounds old, but it's still fresh in my mind," says McDaniels. "I'm an O.G., there's no doubt about that. But at the same time, I don't look at it as old. I look at it like: We were there from the beginning, and we just still satisfying the public that's into what we're about."
For countless New York hip-hop fans, running home after school to catch the hour-long show was a daily ritual, on par with eating and sleeping as a basic and necessary instinct. And while Video Music Box never received national exposure, its influence can be felt in nearly all of its successors. "For me and hundreds of thousands of heads, you were checking Ralph at 3:30 when he came on," recalls Fab 5 Freddy, original host of Yo! MTV Raps. "It was the only way you could see that sort of content pre-BET, pre-MTV, pre-cable. It had a ginormous effect on the culture. Whenever people come up to me and say, 'Yo Fab, Yo! MTV Raps!', I always go, 'Well, the cat who did it first was Ralph McDaniels.' The show was a model and an inspiration."
It all started back in 1982, when, in an attempt to differentiate itself from PBS, a new show called Studio 31 Dance Party emerged on WNYC, with McDaniels as co-producer and voice-over host. "Video was kinda new at the time, and people had heard about MTV, but nobody had really seen it," he recalls. After a year, he retooled and rechristened the show, stepping outside the studio to shoot in different communities around the city (thus spawning the now-ubiquitous "shout-out"). McDaniels gradually became as well known for his interviews as the videos he played. A calm talker amid an industry of outspoken bravado, he'd always be at the right industry party or concert at the right time, capturing exclusive freestyles and conducting raw, spontaneous interviews with hip-hop's best. Consequently, the show became the first place to gain insight into your favorite MCs past the albums. Thanks to McDaniels's lens and microphone, personalities were displayed, trash was talked, and a cultural phenomenon was born.
Two years later, with MTV steadfastly refusing to play hip-hop, it was The Box that would exclusively broadcast Fresh Fest, an epic hip-hop concert tour featuring Run-DMC, Whodini, LL Cool J, and Grandmaster Flash. Watching a diverse, Nassau Coliseum–sized crowd on TV for the first time, the regionalism that dominated early-'80s hip-hop mutated into a united, city-wide force. "The kids in the South Bronx and Bed-Stuy, all they knew was that they liked hip-hop," McDaniels recalls. "They didn't realize that hip-hop was going out to all different arenas. If you never left your block, you didn't realize there were other people that didn't look like you that were into this. Even people in hip-hop didn't realize that white kids were going to the shows like that."
With the dots connected, it was inevitable that the networks would come calling. While cable's reach was limited at the time, MTV was still the behemoth when it came to distribution. But in meetings with the network, and Licensed to Ill still an unborn child, McDaniels was told repeatedly that "Middle America wasn't ready for hip-hop." Despite evidence to the contrary—specifically Fresh Fest's sea of white faces in the audience—he recalls that their attitude was: "That's cool at the shows, but television is a whole different story." (That "story" would change three years later in 1988 with the premiere of Yo! MTV Raps, whose cast and crew had all been Box devotees.)
Looking back, McDaniels doesn't begrudge the network for their cultural myopia. "I was happy when MTV started playing hip-hop videos," he says. "I wish that I had some kind of involvement at the time, but I was also producing and directing. We were getting national play on some stuff that we created, so that was a good thing. People in Oakland were like, 'I dug that video you did.' " He's now credited with directing and producing more than 300 videos, including Nas's "It Ain't Hard to Tell," Wu-Tang's "C.R.E.A.M.," and Black Moon's "Who Got Da Props?"
In 2008, McDaniels shows no signs of being the O.G. content simply to rest on his laurels. The Hot 97 DJ is currently planning a relaunch of OnFumes.com, a video site he co-founded last year focusing on "the era of now," but also featuring interviews and videos selected from thousands of hours of archival footage.Video Music Box, now on at midnight, currently focuses more on the current hits. (McDaniels's other show, The Bridge, is devoted to classic hip-hop and comes on an hour earlier.) But to the people it inspired, the original is still discussed in near-reverential tones, as "a cultural revolution leading us into this era where people of color could see images of themselves not being negative," Freddy recalls. "It was the guide for everybody in the culture. He was the go-to cat to get some love to help get your project going—and that is not to be taken lightly."
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