Suggest to Ralph McDaniels that he was an instrumental part of New York’s hip-hop culture, and his warm smile will give way to a humble laugh. But don’t let his charm fool you. He’s a visionary and a caretaker, a man who not only produced and directed the first rap videos but who also created the first outlet for them—and invented the shout-out, too.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Whodini’s “Five Minutes of Funk” served as the opening theme for Video Music Box, a show on WNYC hosted by the man known as “Uncle Ralph.” Back then, kids who grew up with a TV and a love of hip-hop would run home from school so as not to miss a beat of the latest clips by Smif-N-Wessun or Raekwon.
McDaniels was born in Bed-Stuy to Trinidadian parents; later on, the family moved to Queens, which McDaniels says had a lot to do with his success. “Basements, man,” he explains. “That’s why brothers from Queens have been so successful. We have space in the basement to figure it all out in. Basements are creative zones in Queens.”
McDaniels attended Bayside High School, played football, and DJ’d the after-parties to all the games. He developed a rep for “having a box in hand at all times” and went from LaGuardia Community College to the New York Institute of Technology. But his work in the TV business—at Manhattan Cable, at the former Metromedia Channel, and finally at WNYC—prepared him best.
“Back then, cable was only available in Manhattan between 23rd and 96th streets,” McDaniels recalls. “I learned a lot during that time, but what really was most beneficial was the fact that I would be around these TV personalities and hosts. TV was like a fantasy world to most people. To me, the mystery wasn’t there because I interacted in that world. So I knew I could do what the people on TV did because I saw that the hosts were just regular people like you and me.”
After graduation, WNYC offered him a full-time job. “This was in 1981 or 1982,” McDaniels says. “[The 60-minute weekly series] New York Hot Trax was technically the first video show in the country at the time, but they played all music—they didn’t focus on rap and dance like we would eventually. MTV came out in August of 1981, but to most people, it was just a logo because so few people had cable at this time. And they were obviously on some rock stuff. It was dope, but I knew what my community wanted to hear because I was still a DJ.”
Back then, record companies would send videotapes of their artists performing to the TV stations he worked at. The videos weren’t technically for broadcast—they were supposed to be reviewed by bookers and people looking for stories—but the artists were ones McDaniels would play in the club. Rap videos were pretty scarce, and the few that did exist were of low quality. Meanwhile, the Top 40–leaning MTV was notorious for its lack of support for black music. “What if I air these promos and videos?” McDaniels thought.
Using those clips, he launched Video Music Box, the first music video show focused entirely on the urban market, in late 1983. He would play some Madonna (“Puerto Ricans broke Madonna. She was accepted in that community first before MTV accepted her”), Hall & Oates, and Tears for Fears, but as time passed, he focused more and more on hip-hop. Eventually, with the help of Russell Simmons, McDaniels and his partner, Lionel C. Martin, started eradicating the genre’s video drought. The first video they directed and produced was MC Shan’s “Left Me Lonely.” From there, they did clips for Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Flash, The Fat Boys, Biz Markie, and Big Daddy Kane.
Once the ball was rolling, McDaniels approached MTV about broadcasting a hip-hop video show. “They told me no way,” he recalls. “No way was Middle America ready for that.” That was, until 1987, when MTV launched Yo! MTV Raps. McDaniels wasn’t bitter, though. “Ultimately, Yo! was great for the culture,” he admits. And for his career: “I had dudes from the West Coast hitting me up to direct their videos.”
And Video Music Box still had competitive advantages over Yo! “We were on every weekday back then, and we were playing videos that MTV wouldn’t play,” McDaniels says. “Plus we were filming live performances and parties. People would hit me up, like, ‘I was just at that party last night; now it’s on TV? Whoa!’ Other video networks just didn’t have that ‘in’ like we did.”
Video Music Box celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2013, but McDaniels has had difficulty convincing the current administrators of NYC life—the show’s home—of its relevance, despite its high ratings. “Since the start, they let me know they don’t think much of Video Music Box and its offshoot, The Bridge,” he says. Criminal, ain’t it? Still, Uncle Ralph is not bitter. He still receives videos from new, hungry artists including G.E.D. and staples such as Nas.
“I just try to keep everything I do innovative,” McDaniels says. “I’ve always placed a lot of importance on innovation. That’s what keeps me relevant.” Relevant, indeed. Shout-out to you, Uncle Ralph, for documenting our culture like none other.
Video Music Box airs Wednesdays at 11:30 p.m. and Sundays at midnight on NYC life