If you were living in the New York City/tri-state area from the Juice Crew 80s to the Bad Boy 90s, most of your afternoons were probably spent in front of the boob tube watching Video Music Box. Premiering in late 1983 as the brainchild of television producer Ralph McDaniels, the invocative program had urban music fans flocking to six-days a week at 3:30 pm (noon on Saturday) to check out the latest rap or R&B video clips.
Opening with the catchy Five Minutes of Funk theme song performed by underrated rap group Whodini, the program was the perfect introduction to a different world of Black music. For the eighties babies Video Music Box became the streetwise New York City equivalent of Soul Train or American Bandstand. Certainly, in that golden age of rap, when I still lived in Harlem and verbal rhyme slayers and groundbreaking DJs ruled the day. When Run-DMC, Big Daddy Kane, Roxanne Shante, KRS-1 and Kid n Play, just to name a few, were beginning their musical careers, Video Music Box was one of the few outlets to show their work love without compromise. In addition, the show also mixed in the R&B be it the new jack triumphs of Uptown Records, Lower East Side boy Luther Vandross, Brit chick Sade, and pop crooning sisters Whitney Houston and Anita Baker who were launching the age of the new R&B diva.
There was no blueprint for what I was doing, McDaniels told me from his home in Long Island. A former dj that grew-up in Brooklyn and Queens, he attended New York Institute of Technology where he studied CommunicationsTVFilm and graduated in 1982. Of course, there was MTV, but hardly anyone in the city had cable back then. A truly grassroots effort, McDaniels, working alongside his friend and co-host Lionel C. Martin (The Vid Kid), they ventured into various clubs with cameras and interviewed artists as well as patrons. It was from those live moments that shout outs were born.
We were the first to use the term on TV, McDaniels says, though Im not sure how it all started. Sometimes Ill watch Bill O’Reilly and hell be giving shout-outs. Im thinking to myself, Do you even know where that comes from? Its funny.
While Video Music Box didnt have many funds for advertising or promotion, the show became a sensation simply by word of mouth. McDaniels became such a beloved figure in the industry, folks began referring to him as Uncle Ralph. That was started by (legendary dj) Red Alert, because I took care of many people, McDaniels says.
Run-DMC on Video Music Box:
However, some people also took care of him. One of the highlights of the show was when I was able to get Gil Scott-Heron to come on and be interviewed, remembers McDaniels, who grew-up in a family of activists. The rappers were my contemporaries, but Gil was one of my heroes. I also interviewed Stevie Wonder, who was a lot of fun.
Stevie Wonder on Video Music Box
Like roving reporters on the hip-hop scene, McDaniels and his crew were uptown, downtown and wherever else in the tri-state where the scene was popping. At the time, Id run into at some ill party and a few days later, the footage was on television. During that same 80s era, I worked in the recreation department of a city-run homeless shelter on Catherine Street and often used Video Music Box as a weapon when the children were acting up. If you kids dont act right, there will be no Video Music Box today. That ploy always worked.
As the show grew in popularity, some fans began bootlegging Video Music Box episodes and sending them to friends and family in other parts of the world. I went to Ice Ts house in Los Angeles and he had stacks of VHS tapes of Video Music Box, McDaniels laughed. Station programmers in other cities began to bite the Video Music Box concept. At one point three were like two hundred shows across the country, all inspired by what we were doing.
On a national level, Video Music Box was also the inspiration for Yo! MTV Raps, which launched in 1988 with host Fab 5 Freddy. The producer Ted Demme said he used to watch Video Music Box every day. Freddy has said himself, if there was no Video Music Box, there would be no Yo!
Aaliyah on Video Music Box:
In addition, McDaniels and Lionel Martin co-founded Classic Concepts Productions, a film and video production company that produced over 300 music videos, commercials, films, and documentaries between 1987 and 1997. With McDaniels producing and Martin directing, Classic Concepts was instrumental in producing videos for Public Enemy, Cool C, MC Lyte, BBD, Wu Tang Clan, TLC and others.
Back in the day, budgets for Black music videos was short money. All those million dollar Hype Williams spectacles that went down a few years later didnt exist yet; Martin and McDaniels had to do a lot with very little. Visually, Martin was a pioneer whose videos would go on to inspire a the next generation of directors including Hype Williams, Malik Sayeed, Little X and countless others.
Like rap music itself, which went from the hoods of New York to becoming a global phenomenon, those early days of Video Music Box inspired countless kids and young adults who today work in various industries. During the height of the 80 and early 90s I was also struggling with my own work as a writer who wanted to document this culture. Video Music Box was the window into my dreams, helping me to see everything anything I wanted to be, everybodys cool Uncle Ralph was broadcasting on the screen.
These are a few of my favorite videos from back in the day. Believe me, there are so many more. The list is not intended to be any particular order of importance.
Michael A. Gonzales has been writing about music since the 1980s. A few of his subjects include Barry White (Vibe), DAngelo (Wax Poetics) and Lauryn Hill (The Source). In addition to soulhead, he contributes to Complex, Pitchfork Review, XXL, Baltimore City Paper, Philadelphia Weekly and The Weeklings. His essay on the DeBarge family appears in Best African-American Essays 2009. Gonzales blogs at Blackadelicpop.blogspot.com. Check out some of his work for soulhead.