“Video Music Box” (1983- ) was the first television show in the world to regularly feature hip hop videos. In the 1980s it appeared six days a week on Channel 31 in New York from 3:30 to 4:30pm – right after school. Jay-Z watched it. So did Mary J.
It played hip hop before the radio stations would touch it. It helped to spread hip hop throughout New York and its suburbs, just as “Yo! MTV Raps” (1988-1995) would later do for America as a whole.
When “Video Music Box” first appeared it was the only television show by and for young blacks of New York. On top of that, you did not need cable to see it – Channel 31 was a public television station owned by the city.
“Video Music Box” was the brainchild of its host, DJ Ralph McDaniels, also known as Uncle Ralph. As a DJ he knew and loved hip hop. As a film student he wanted to put hip hop and what was going on in black New York on film, on television.
In 1982 he got his degree and started working full-time for Channel 31. He told them he wanted to do a show of hip hop videos. The people who ran 31 were highbrows, the sort who like their black music D.O.R.F: Dead, Old, Retro or Foreign. Hip hop was the opposite of all that: living, new, now and American.
They met him halfway and let him do “Studio 31 Dance Party”, a music video show of disco and R&B songs. He would slip in a few hip hop videos.
In time he persuaded them that hip hop was art just as much as Mozart. So in December 1983 they let him air “Video Music Box” late at night. When it did well they let him move it to the time he wanted: every day after school. It became one of the most watched shows on public television in New York.
I watched it in the late 1980s. I thought it was the city’s way of feeding us anti-drug messages, which dutifully appeared about every 20 minutes – like “This Is Your Brain on Drugs” (1987). This was back when crack was at its height.
McDaniels produced and directed over 300 videos himself, like the first ones for Wu-Tang Clan and Nas. He filmed hip hop concerts and put parts of them on the show. He also got videos from Russell Simmons, who founded Def Jam in 1984.
The show helped not just hip hop artists but even people like director Hype Williams.
McDaniels did more than just play hip hop: there was a healthy serving of R&B along with some rock and reggae too. He let people do shout-outs, did on-the-street interviews and talked about stuff like police brutality. He wanted not to just entertain but to inform.
In 1996 Mayor Giuliani sold Channel 31. “Video Music Box” then moved to 25, where it still appears late at night on Wednesdays.