|“Video Music Box’s” Ralph McDaniels|
New York is not only the birthplace of hip-hop culture, but the home of the first television program to broadcast rap videos. Video visionary Ralph McDaniels launched “Video Music Box” 30 years ago and now, three decades and a global phenomenon later, the hip-hop nation is ready to celebrate. Among the events focusing on the anniversary is tonight’s All Hail the Queen: A Tribute to Women in Hip-Hop event that looks to bridge hip-hop’s generation gap with performances from today’s up-and-coming female MCs paying homage to the ladies on the mic that paved the way. We spoke to “Uncle Ralph” about how his game-changing program came to be.
Congrats on 30 years of “Video Music Box.” Being you’re directly responsible for introducing so many people to hip-hop, do you recall your own personal first exposure to it?
It was probably, I want to say, ’76. Breakbeats were starting to become prevalent and I was in a record store, watching a DJ buy some breakbeats, going through each song and realizing he was only playing a certain part of the record he was looking for. While I was looking for full songs, I found it interesting he was looking for a particular break in the record. I realized that, it was a movement of mostly guys from the Bronx who were just playing that particular part of the record. I was living in Queens at the time, and we were playing the breaks of records around the city, but we were not as micromanaging as he was. That’s when I realized something was going on with the Bronx DJs that was a little bit different than the rest of the city.
What was the original concept for “Video Music Box?”
The original idea was to entertain people with this new genre called “music video” and also kind of document what was going on in the New York City music scene, not just in hip-hop, but in general.
Was there an exact moment when you first realized the impact that “Video Music Box” was having?
I realized it, probably, right away. I was just telling friends about it. There was no promotion for it, it was all word of mouth. I really realized it when we aired the Fresh Fest in 1985, which was a full concert of Run-DMC, Fat Boys, Whodini, Grandmaster Flash, LL Cool J, Dynamic Breakers, and we aired the whole concert. People started responding to it right away, kind of blown away that they saw a whole hip-hop concert out of the arena.
At what point did you start creating rap videos?
The first one we did, which was myself producing and my partner Lionel C. Martin directing, was [1987’s] MC Shan “Left Me Lonely.” Lionel and I consulted on “Roxanne’s Revenge” before that, but the first one we did was “Left Me Lonely.”
As “Video Music Box’s” audience continued to get bigger, were you pressured with any further restrictions or were you given more freedom?
One of the things that was always interesting to me was restrictions when it came to clothing. When we had to start blurring out name-brands. It was always irritating to me because you never saw that in any other genre of music. You had to blur out the logos of a particular team or a name brand, it became kind of irritating. That was mostly in regard to making videos. In regards to “Video Music Box,” one of the great things was that it was on a channel where people didn’t really know what it was. It was a thing with music and the kids were into it, so they left it alone and I would just do what I do. So, we talked about things that were going on in the community like police brutality or teenage pregnancy or drugs that were important to the community that I didn’t always see on the national channels, that we could address from the local standpoint. We did have that type of freedom to discuss what was going on in between videos, and that’s one of the things I think people really enjoyed about it. Along with being entertained, you were getting information that pertained to that particular moment.
What was the most controversial video that you played?
We played a video by this group called Imagination called “Just An Illusion.” It was house music, which was really popular at the time, that was coming out of Europe, Chicago and New Jersey. Imagination were kind of artsy, and we were on a PBS station which was kind of artsy, and there was a scene in the video with strawberries bouncing off of a woman’s breast. We played it and somebody complained about it. At the time Ed Koch was the mayor and he said “this was beyond art,” and I guess the combination of the music and the picture made it a little bit hotter than they expected. But, I always looked at it as a pretty artsy-type video. Also, I didn’t know this until recently, but we used to play all of Luke’s videos and he told my brother recently that we broke [2 Live Crew]. He wasn’t getting played in Miami, he was getting played in New York first.
Wow, do you recall any other artists whose careers “Video Music Box” broke?
X-Clan was a direct result of “Video Music Box.” They were doing promos for us, and they hadn’t recorded a record at all. They went to Island Records and said that they had a record done when they really didn’t. The people at Island Records were familiar with them from seeing them on my show. They called me up and said they were thinking about signing them, and I said “sign them,” but I had never heard an X-Clan record up to that point. They got signed based upon that, and Professor X and Brother J went on to make some great music. Wu-Tang Clan were definitely affected by “Video Music Box” playing a video they had put together on their own. They weren’t signed yet, and Steve Rifkind called me up and wanted to know what I thought of them, and I said “I think you should sign them, they’re the most incredible thing I’ve seen in a while.” He signed them to RCA/Loud Records. So, two clans.
How does tonight’s “All Hail the Queen” at the Bronx Museum of the Arts tie-in to the 30th Anniversary of “Video Music Box?”
Well, the mandate for “Video Music Box 30” is bridging the gap. Let’s bring the true school and new school acts together so we can learn from each other. I think some of the older artists forgot that they used to be 19-years-old and some of the newer artists just forgot that somebody paved the way for all of this to open up and have a lane for hip-hop music in the daytime. I think we can learn from each other, and what we’re doing is a tribute by five different new artists to their favorite hip-hop artists. Something where “this is what I would do for her.” It’s kind of a live mixtape, hosted by “The Source’s” editor Kim Osario and Mecca Thames of Music Choice to talk about opportunities that exist [in hip-hop] from a woman’s perspective.
Another big annual event coming up that you’ve been involved with is the Hip-Hop Culture Center’s 6th Annual Rapathon on April 6th at the Kennedy Community Center, where MCs will be freestyling nonstop for 28 hours, this year to benefit Harlem Mothers S.A.V.E. How did you first get involved with the Rapathon?
I think I met Hip-Hop Culture Center founder Curtis Sherrod and I thought [The Center] was a great thing he had going on it Harlem. He told me about the Rapathon, which I thought was amazing, and I got involved with that [because] I thought we should start documenting it. Then, we started Livestreaming it. I thought it was amazing that there were, all in one place, so many great MCs that were not signed to a label doing it for the love of hip-hop, which was how it started. None of these people were there to make a dollar, which was how it started out. We were trying to get our name out and be somebody at its purest form. That’s what I could relate to. That was me. I was a DJ, I just wanted to play music and let people know that this was what I do and that I’m pretty good at it. The Rapathon gives that opportunity to people.
Finally, after 30 years and thousands of videos broadcasted, what do you think makes for a good rap video?
I think, first of all, the lyrics is what starts it off. For me, I listen to music first as a DJ and then I listen to the lyrics because I’m old school. As far as the video is concerned, I think the lyrics are more important because you’re telling the story, it’s a short movie. The person that has the best story and some good music to go along with it, has the potential to make a great video. I think that will last. Kendrick Lamar is a little abstract, but he has something to say. Slick Rick has something to say. KRS-ONE has something to say. There’s no particular formula, but if you have something to say, it’s a good story with some good lyrics and it’s engaging, and if the person feels they’re part of the story, they’ll feel like “I could be that person.” It’s all a theater of the mind, that’s what we do. We want to make a video that tells the story in either an abstract way or a literal way so long as the story comes across. If you’re going to do a video, do something that will really engage people.
Ralph McDaniels can be found on Twitter at @VideoMusicBox