Ralph McDaniels, creator and longtime host of the pioneering music video program Video Music Box, spoke at length with weekly online radio talk show The NY Hip Hop Report about the progression of his illustrious career, current projects and the upcoming kickoff to a year’s worth of special events lined up to celebrate the show’s 30th anniversary.
McDaniels shared details and personal stories of his early days at WNYC, recalling as his career carried him from intern to show host, first at VMB pre-cursor Studio 31 Dance Party and then on to the now-iconic Video Music Box, which brought music video television to the New York City masses, particularly videos by black artists and the newly emerging rap scene which at the time was completely underserved.
“I was in college, and interning [at public television station WNYC] as a behind the scenes dude, pulling cables… Grunt work, whatever I could do, for free.. A ‘go-get-some-coffee-type-dude’,” McDaniels recalled, laughing. After being hired as an engineer, McDaniels started to see opportunity to create a show. Music videos were still primarily performance videos, but McDaniels saw the potential.
“Studio 31 Dance Party was basically my idea of taking these performance videos, putting them together and airing them.” It lasted for about a year, and despite Ralph’s insistence, the station still wasn’t sold on the idea of a consistent music video show, until ABC came out with New York Hot Tracks, hosted by WKTU on-air personaliy Carlos DeJesus.
“This is exactly what I was talking about,” McDaniels remembered. “I needed that to show them, so I made a copy, showed them and they were like, ‘You’re right. This would work. Can you do this?’ and I said ‘Yeah, this is what I’ve been telling you. I’ve been trying to do this for a year and a half.’ Finally, they said ‘Well, what’s the name of the show?’ I said ‘Video Music Box.’” And in May 1983, anchored by the now-hauntingly-familiar thumping beat of Whodini’s “5 Minutes of Funk” in the intro, Video Music Box was born.
It soon became the highest-rated show on the station and continues to air new episodes, 30 years later.
The man affectionately known by a generation of hip hop fans as “Uncle Ralph” went on to share several anecdotes about the excitement surrounding the young days of hip hop on television. During the 40-minute long interview, he reminded listeners how Video Music Box served as launching pad for countless hip hop artists, both by broadcasting videos, as well as though videos he and partner Lionel “Vid Kid” Martin directed for iconic hip hop luminaries such as Nas (“It Ain’t Hard To Tell”), Wu-Tang Clan (“C.R.E.A.M.”), Black Moon (“Who Got The Props”), Supa Cat (“Ghetto Red Hot”) and many others.
Show host Manny Faces, editor-in-chief of New York-focused hip hop publication Birthplace Magazine, asked McDaniels about his attempt to bring the successful Video Music Box concept to MTV. Despite McDaniels’ popularity with hip hop artists (Nas, for instance, insisted that it be McDaniels who put together his press kit), and the success of Video Music Box on a regional level, MTV wasn’t ready.
“Yeah, we approached them in 1986,” he said, “And they said, ‘Mainstream TV’s not ready for hip hop. I said, ‘Did you ever go to the Fresh Fest? You play Run-DMC! ALL kids are wearing Run-DMC gear and listening to the music.” His pitch fell on deaf ears, yet once again, McDaniels was ahead of his time, as it was only a year before the network saw the light, and brought YO! MTV Raps to the nation.
Though you could still sense wisps of nostalgic frustration in Uncle Ralph’s calm baritone voice, he made it clear he held no grudge, and in fact, focused on the silver lining to the circumstances.
“People were like, ‘Yo, what do you think? Is that your competition?’ I said, ‘No, now the music can go further.’ If I or The Vid Kid did a video, it automatically got played across the country. That made our work get seen by people in other areas we didn’t reach.”
McDaniels sprinkled several historic anecdotes throughout his interview (2 Live Crew’s Luke gave Video Music Box and in fact, the New York audience, credit for blowing up), spoke on meeting iconic artists for the first time (On Big Pun: “We had him in our talent show on 125th. As soon as you saw him, you knew, this dude was NICE.”) and spoke at length about the many upcoming events planned for both the 30 year anniversary of Video Music Box and the 40th anniversary of hip hop, also occurring in 2013.
“The whole concept for the year is ‘bridging the gap’ between the ‘true school’ and the ‘new school,’ to bring knowledge to both schools,” McDaniels explained. “I feel like the true school forgot that they were 18 or 20 years old at one time, and [today’s] 18 year old sometimes doesn’t respect the older artist that has been around, for whatever reason. So I think it’s an opportunity now with the 30th anniversary to bring both of those generations together. That’s why we have [people like] Joey Bada$$ and Afrika Bambaataa on the same panel to discuss these concepts and ideas.”
Other events in the works include a concert highlighting female hip hoppers, both upcoming as well as pioneers and a possible Central Park concert, similar to one that was held to commemorate Video Music Box’s 25th anniversary. McDaniels also hinted at an end-of-the-year show at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.
Listeners were also the first to hear that this year’s annual Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival, which McDaniels hosts regularly, will be dedicated solely to the legacy of Video Music Box’s 30 year history.
Perhaps most exciting for fans of archival goodies that have been leaked in the past, McDaniels mentioned his plans to finish a book and DVD project that he’s “been trying to get out forever,” and to release additional documentary footage, much of it previously unseen. “Some stuff you’ve seen, and a lot you haven’t,” he promised. “I was really digging in the video crates and pulled out some stuff I know isn’t out there on YouTube.”
In all, the lengthy, informative and entertaining interview painted a fascinating picture, as McDaniels spoke in a captivating manner about his career, current projects and future aspirations.
It was also clear throughout that Ralph McDaniels has no intention on hanging up the fabled VMB microphone any time soon.
“I wouldn’t think that I would still be doing this thirty years later,” he stated. “But every time I think, ‘Ah, that’s enough,’ I still think there’s a lot of work to do, a lot more information that needs to get out, not just the music side, but in general, for the community.”
It is for that continued respectful dedication to documenting hip hop music and culture, we think we can speak for the community when we say invoke the classic New York City hip hop salutation and say, “We’d like to give a shoutout… To Uncle Ralph.”
For more information on the events associated with the 30 year anniversary of Video Music Box, be sure to visit The Calendar of NY-area hip hop events on BirthplaceMag.com
Follow Ralph McDaniels on Twitter – @VideoMusicBox
Listen to the entire Ralph McDaniels interview on Episode 037 of The NY Hip Hop Report below.
Watch Video Music Box Wednesdays and Saturdays at 11:30 p.m. on WNYC TV Ch 22/25 (Comcast/ Cablevision/ DirecTV/ Time Warner)