Ralph McDaniels Celebrates 30 Years of Video Music Box
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.
"Video Music Box's" Ralph McDaniels
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.