Amy “Aimstar” Andrieux
As the former Publisher of transcultural magazine TRACE, Senior Producer at MTV.com and Executive Editor/General Manager at The Source magazine, Amy Andrieux is an entertainment and lifestyle journalist, she has interviewed several key figures from Kobe Bryant, Larry Clark, Jamel Shabazz, Shepard Fairey and Pharrell Williams, to Queen Latifah, Rem Koolhaas, Bobbito Garcia, Edwidge Danticat and Spike Lee, among many others. Her essays have been featured in Transculturalism: How the World is Coming Together (Powerhouse Books, 2003; Ten Years of Trace (Booth Clibborn, 2006); andEyeJammie’s Hip Hop Encyclopedia (MTV Books/Simon & Schuster). In the summer of 2011, Amy launched TheStarklife.com, a digital cultural magazine that prides itself on being progressive, edgy and urbane. Although she spends her downtime painting (oils mostly), djing (Rap to Rock) classic tunes, curating art shows (Anarchy was the first!), reading (currently on page 96 of Matthew A. Singer’s The Untethered Soul) and vintage shopping, this Bed Stuy dweller also regularly contributes to BlackEnterprise.com, has also been featured as a Freestyle Friday judge on BET’s 106 and Park, on CNN, CW Network, Geraldo at Large, MTV’s Sucker Free Summit, Channel 4 UK, TRACE TV, Hot 97’s Street Soldiers, Centric’s Keeping Up with the Joneses among other top rated programs, panels such as BET’s My Mic Sounds Nice, and hosting/moderating interviews including the (Grammys) NY Recording Academy’s monthly Up Close and Personal series with Big Boi.
DJ Ralph McDaniels means more to the ever-evolving landscape of media than most, who have long-followed the beloved host and producer on his groundbreaking television show, Video Music Box, would ever assume. As a cultural curator, A&R and media maverick, Uncle Ralph lead the charge when it came to documenting “our” experience, whether that meant Hip-Hop or what was happening within our communities or both, and continued to do right by all of us as the culture grew, shifted and evolved. Now celebrating thirty years since he founded the landmark show that continues to be broadcast, dubbed and distributed worldwide, we head to back to how it all began way back when and unveil his trail of ingenuity since.
Interview and Words: Amy “Aimstar” Andrieux
So let’s start with the first question, how did it begin? What sparked the brainchild,Video Music Box? Can you describe that moment?
Uncle Ralph: Well, I was working at the [WNYC-TV] TV station as an intern and then I got a job as an engineer, a TV engineer. And I was watching the programs, and you know, I was looking at —pretty boring to me, kind of PBS stuff, but not like regular PBS. It was kind of a combination of city—New York City programming and PBS stuff, which meant that like we had shows about the Fire department. We had shows about the Police department and any other kind of department that New York City had and then we also had crafts. So that was the highlight for the people.
So I was like, “Okay, this is boring stuff to me, whatever.” But it was my first job, like my real, real job within that space. One day, and this was like 1982, a tape came in and it had all these different performances of some R&B artists that I was familiar with. So this was like groups like The Whispers, Carrie Lucas—They were all on the same label—SOLAR Records, which, ironically, Don Cornelius had something to do with it.
Uncle Ralph: So I was like, “Wow, this is great.” It wasn’t really like a music video, but them performing on a soundstage and at that time, that was how you would send out promo videos, you know. Technically those were music videos at the time. So if a group couldn’t be in this town or do a PR [promo run], you had nothing to worry about because you could just put the tape in the deck. And I said to myself, “You know, this is great. We should put this on-air.” And my first suggestion to the Programming Director at the time was—they had fundraisers, and I was like, “You should put this on during the fundraisers because people will probably donate money more, you know, especially if they see something like this, something that they like.” It was like, ‘Eh… You know…’
So then they came back to me right around the time of [one] of the fundraisers and was like, ‘You know what, give me those tapes that you had. We’re going to use them for the fundraiser.’ And they used it for the fundraiser and it did really well. You know, I was just happy to be sitting there watching it on TV.
Uncle Ralph: Like, “Oh, wow, this is really on TV!” And then I said [to the Programming Director] “You know, we should do a show” or—I’m not sure if I said, “I would like to do a show” or “We should have this on [-air] on a regular basis, but it was some type of conversation like that that we had. And it was kind of like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. Maybe, maybe, maybe.’
Then like three months later, a guy came up—because I gave them the tapes, so I forgot about giving them the tapes—so a guy came up, we were working together at the time—another Black guy—and he said, ‘I’m getting ready to do a show. It’s calledStudio 31 Dance Party and I want to use these tapes that you gave them. Do you have any more?’ And I was like [Laughs], “What?” You know, “That’s my idea!” [Laughs] So [he was like], ‘Well, this is what they want me to do.’ And I was like, “Nah….Well, I have to be down with that because that was my idea. “ You know, I was passionate about it.
So I ended up being the voice of this thing called Studio 31 Dance Party. So the guy who was putting the tapes together, I don’t know, he was there for like six months. You know, it was kind of off and on; they would just play it [the show] every once in a while. And I would always clash with him all the time, like, “Nah, don’t play that.” “This wack…” “This is what it is.” And eventually, he was like, ‘Look, I don’t want to do this anymore. If you want to do it, you do it yourself.’ And I was like, “Great!”
By that time we had a new Program Director. I went to sit down with him. I told him what had been going on for the last year, and he says, ‘So what do you want to do? Can you do the show?’ And I said, “Yeah, I want to do it like every day.“ [The programming director replied] ‘I’m not sure you can do it every day, but what do you want to call it?’ I said, “Video Music Box”. That was the beginning of Video Music Box and that was in 1983.
They put me on at night at first, late night. And then we came up with an idea because the singers were really try to plug these videos to the youth, so there was one [episode] that we put on afterschool and that’s when it became an afterschool show.
How old were you at the time?
Uncle Ralph: I was….22, 21-22.
Twenty-two and you were the master of your own show already.
Uncle Ralph: Yeah.
And you didn’t think anything of it? You know, how did people relate to you at that point when the show first aired?
Uncle Ralph: Well, this is the tricky part about that. Nobody even knew that that station existed because it was [on] Channel 31. At least I didn’t think people really knew that that station existed.
Uncle Ralph: It was Channel 31. Nobody was watching Channel 31. Everybody was up to Channel 13 and then there was the Spanish people channel, 47.
Uncle Ralph: [Laughs] You know, anything else in between there was like—
The fuzz. Yeah, the fuzz.
Uncle Ralph: Yeah. So then it was just like displaced because you didn’t see me, you just heard my voice; Nobody knew it was me. It wasn’t like I was on the screen, because I didn’t want to be on the screen. I just wanted to play the videos that I thought people would like. And then the station came to me like, ‘We have to see you. They want to know who this person is. ‘And I was like, “Nah, I don’t people to know who I am.” [Laughs]
And they said, ‘Well, you have to be on screen. We’ve got to start shooting.’ That’s when I started to go out and doing stuff in the community and doing different events. And then people started to see who I was. It was all around the same time, ’83, ’84. That’s when it became, “Oh, DJ Ralph McDaniels is a person. “ You know, like you sawwho he was.
Were you—At the time MTV was maybe three years old, and I don’t think Yo! MTV Raps was even on-air [yet], were you.…
Uncle Ralph: You didn’t see MTV because MTV came out of cable. MTV was like a program or a channel that developed directly out of cable TV, and still up to that point, nobody had cable. Only people in Manhattan had cable. So people in Brooklyn didn’t know what MTV [was]; I didn’t know what MTV [was]. I mean, I had an idea of what MTV was because at some point I worked on Manhattan cable and they had the logo, MTV. But I hadn’t seen it. I had an idea; I saw promos that had Rock videos in it, but I didn’t know what MTV was.
But that brings up a valid point. Not only did people not have, or the majority of people did not have cable at the time, MTV was primarily Rock and Pop [music], you know. And you were offering something that was fairly new to the mainstream. Did you face challenges at all with respect to that? Like in-house [at the station WNYC-TV]?
Uncle Ralph: Not really because it was so new and it was music. You know, music has a way of kind of like getting past the politics. So it was like, ‘Wow, this is something new.’ Like the Internet: ‘This is something new. We’ve never seen anything like this before.’ People were just kind of like, ‘What is this?’ You know, they didn’t really have the time to figure out, you know, the politics of it. They were just kind of so amazed by the fact that there were music videos.
So let’s take it back to the streets. I’ve always heard, whenever you hear the name Ralph McDaniels, you think “Tastemaker of the Streets”. It’s been said many times, you know. Do you see yourself as a tastemaker? I kind of see you as an original A&R because when I used to watch Video Music Box, that’s how I figured out who was hot and who wasn’t because if they weren’t on Video Music Box, they weren’t dope. How do you see yourself?
Uncle Ralph: I think definitely a tastemaker because it was just basically my own taste and my own views. You got to remember too that at the same time, there weren’t a lot of music videos that I thought appealed to my community. And so, anything that was played, definitely with Black people on it, was new. Black people was like, ‘Oh wow, I didn’t even know what this person looked like other than seeing them on the album cover. ‘
Uncle Ralph: And now they’re moving… [Laughs] So that was the initial impact of it. Then there was the, okay, now we’re starting to get, you know, variety. Certain artists were having a bunch of videos or performances, or whatever it was, and you know, we had to make a choice on this song. “This is really going to fit for our audience.” “You know that song seems like they made that song for White people. So we may not really be able to play that one. We’re going to play this one.” [Laughs] So this is where the decisions of Ralph McDaniels come into play, and we starting playing certain songs. And I’m not just talking about Black artists either. We played Madonna. We played Hall and Oates, you know, U2, Tears for Fears. Those groups were in the opening of Video Music Box. And the same time [we’d play] James Brown, Michael Jackson, of course. So yeah, we just started making these decisions on which videos were going to work for us. So I didn’t look of myself—I think the word tastemaker didn’t even exist back then, but we knew that there was going to be the possibility of this going down.
The videos we were playing were definitely videos that I thought would work for us. Some of them were not—by this time, now we were starting to get videos from different places or I’m calling places that I know made a video, or that I heard made a video and trying to get it. And people were like, ‘Oh yeah, can you play it?’ I’m like, “Yeah, send it to me.”
And so I’m getting videos in from independent groups, from major labels, wherever I can find it because like I said, there were only a few videos being made in the beginning. So I need more variety now, I’m searching for stuff now.
So when did you sleep between hosting, and you were probably editing videos as well and calling on for videos? [Laughs]
Uncle Ralph: Yeah, well my boy, who worked with me there and he did the show. I would just compile, you know, meanwhile I was still an engineer there [at the station]. I was a regular there; that was my job. This was like, I wasn’t getting paid for this [Video Music Box].
Uncle Ralph: I was just doing it because it was something I was interested in. So my regular job was an engineer, you know, pulling cables, okay, shooting this, doing this kind of stuff—camerawork, you know, all that back behind the scenes. And I was doing this [Video Music Box] during my free time. But my boy who worked there was an editor, so I’d give him the tapes and I’d say, “Yo, when you get a chance, just put it like this.” And he would just give me the rundown, ‘Like what do you want me to edit here?’ So I’d be like, “Okay, put this, this, this, this and that.” And so then he’d come back to me like, “Okay, here it is.” And I’d be like, “Okay, cool. So we’ve got show Number 10.” [Laughs] That was how we did it, you know.
And then like I said, eventually we had to do events, so we started going out. So I remember we were going to back then it was The Roxy. We did events at The Roxy and by that time it was like Hip-Hop had come from the South Bronx or come from Uptown and was working its way into the Village [Greenwich Village] into the different clubs and venues. And one of the main venues was The Roxy. So you could get Afrika Bambaataa or you know, Grandmaster Flash, down in those areas. Because I didn’t know those guys, I was from Brooklyn. I didn’t know them, I mean I heard of them, but I didn’t really know them. So it was a good opportunity for me to kind of like let them know what I was doing, but prior they had no clue of what this was all about because there were no videos, shows or any type of TV show that was really dedicated to what they were doing. And this is in regards to Hip-Hop. In regards to R&B now, that was a different story. The record companies were starting to see that okay, there’s some show that’s on this channel and we’re going to start getting in contact with these people and they had resources to get in contact with me. They had a P.R. person who would get in contact with me. Hip-Hop didn’t really have any resources yet. It was still basically primed by the youth. So there is no phone number for these guys at the time.
So then how would you dig [for new material]? Just by going to the venues?
Uncle Ralph: Yeah, just by going to the venues. There were guys there and they shot videos, and they didn’t even know that it was like a video, you know. And it was like, ‘Oh, we did shoot something…’ And it would take like forever! Like nowadays, you shoot a video, three weeks later it comes out. Back then you shoot a video and it comes out in like two months. [Laughs]
Uncle Ralph: [You would ask] “Yo the videos ready yet?” [And they would respond] “Nah, they not done yet.’ Okay, cool. They’d take forever!
And you also got involved in that too. You launched a company to produce videos for artists as things progressed.
Uncle Ralph: Right and that was part of why we did it because when we met with people who would be making the videos, we realized they didn’t know anything about our culture from our perspective. And we were like, “Okay, we should start doing this because these guys really don’t know.” You know, they missed the point in this song. They didn’t show this very important lyric; they didn’t have any visual for that. They didn’t show it and that’s what everybody was like waiting on, that part. ‘Oh, I can’t wait to get to see that part cause how are they going to show that in the video?’ And they didn’t show it. So when it got to the part it was like, ‘Whoa what happened?’
So we realized— and now I’m starting to grow as a producer at the same time that I’m doing this thing—that it’s important to document our culture because if we depend on someone else to do it, it will be totally wrong. So just in general my whole mindset changed, not just in regard to Video Music Box but just in general, you have to document this so that now, in 2012, we can show it in its proper light in its original form because it’s not to be tainted in some way. And that’s also became part of why I wanted to do music videos because I felt that we could do the same thing. And so my partner at the time Lionel C. Martin said let’s start a production company that makes music videos. I had never done that before so I didn’t really think too much about that. And I said, “You know, the music videos look a lot different than regular videos do.” And we realized that music videos were shot in film, with 35mm film or 16mm film. And we were like we never worked with film. I don’t know anything about film. If you ask me about video, the video camera, I can do that, but film? Who knows that?
Lionel started working at Children’s Television Workshop. They did Sesame Street and shows like that. Sesame Street was shot entirely in film, and that’s how he learned about film. And then he brought it back to me like, ‘I got it. I know how to do this.’ And we started making music videos.
Uncle Ralph: The first one we made was MC Shan’s—the first video we shot in film was MC Shan’s “Left Me Lonely.”
AMAZING! So not only did you set the prototype for video music shows, you also set the standard for music videos in general as well. Do you ever look at it like that? Or do you look at it as if you were just doing your part? See what I’m saying because that is tremendous!
Uncle Ralph: I got you. In regards to music videos, I felt it was our responsibility. You got to understand, I’m a child of—my parents were like ‘60s people. I’m a ‘60s baby. So I come from an era of we have to show responsibility for our people, and if we’re not, we’re not really fulfilling the dream that our parents had, or Martin Luther King [,Jr.] or Malcolm X—we’re not fulfilling that. So I just felt that it was in me already to just—we have to show our people in a proper light just like anybody else. You know, it can’t be just that we’re down on the subway looking crazy—we’re not all like that. I’m working on TV and I’m part of that group, you know. So I just think that was just what as in me, you know, to do that, to make our people look better. So if there was any way to do that, we had to tell a story that showed us in different scenarios cause we were in different scenarios.
I guess, now that you say that, it’s really—I never really even thought about it— that was a big difference in what we did. But I tell people also that prior to or around 1983 when we first started doing these music videos, all the times that you saw Black people [on TV]—You saw them on Soul Train. You saw them having a good time on Soul Train, but that was another group’s era. That was the end of….
Uncle Ralph: Yeah that was a different era. This was like a new era of music. You know, like music was changing. And you’re just so young, anytime something happens, ‘A cop got shot…’, our whole community knows it was a Black person [who did it]. Here you go, you see Black people getting pushed into a car. That’s why I told you, prior to that, 1982, ’81, it was just negative images of Black people. Like a Black man or a White person would say that and we wanted Black people to look good. And that’s why we put a conscious effort into Video Music Box.
In talking about setting the prototype, you picked up where Soul Train was and took it beyond. And you see shows [now] like 106 and Park and [the now defunct] TRL, etc, etc who kind of followed suit as to what you did, you know. When you look at those shows and you look back at what it took to create Video Music Box, what do you think? What’s the first thing that comes to mind?
Uncle Ralph: When I look at those shows, 106 and Park, TRL—
Even Yo! MTV Raps at one point, which just had a revival…
Uncle Ralph: Yeah, and Yo! MTV Raps….that we created something that, you know, has now—We could never get the show outside of New York. You know, it was like, “We tried.” We weren’t MTV, blah, blah, blah., but we were always more, to me. Or they [MTV] just wanted it to be—I used to always say, “They [MTV] don’t get it.” And then six months later they got it. But then you know we didn’t realize the power of what this was and that they wanted to organize themselves so they could control the power. So 106 and Park, no let’s not say 106 and Park. Let’s say Yo! MTV Raps was like, ‘This guy Ralph McDaniels has something. We cannot just let him control it. We have to control it.’ And so they organized themselves, and basically took the elements of what we did with money and turned it into Yo! MTV Raps. So I wasn’t mad about Yo! MTV Raps for a number of reasons, because one now obvious, videos that we were directing and producing were then moving on to air [on MTV], which is our work. And I knew that it was going across the country, so I was like, “Well, we’re getting national airplay for our videos that we produced. That’s cool. Keep on moving forward and continue to create all these different things.”
But in regards to Video Music Box, I felt like somebody was going to come and say, ‘We need to have your show!’ You know, it will eventually happen; somebody is going to pick us up. Somebody’s going to say, ‘Yo, we want to pick up your show because your show is better than that.’ And it did not. And so, we were like, “Aight, okay. That phone call is not going to happen.” We need to keep on moving and continue to keep on creating. Maybe that’s not my calling. Maybe this is just a starting point to making music videos, now commercials and I’m going to keep on moving to something else, while Video Music Box still continues to create at the local level.
Exactly, I was going to ask you about that too in terms of Public Access Television. You know, with the boom of cable, and now the Internet and Video-on-Demand, you’ve continued to broadcast the show on Public Access. I was curious as to why?
Uncle Ralph: [Laughs] A number of reasons…1) We knew that—This is the thing and this is kind of —[W]NYC-TV, which was Channel 31 in the beginning, was Public Broadcasting. It was part of PBS. The word Public Access came out of cable; that was something else. But Public Broadcasting was you know, like, Channel 13. So we were like the secondary station in New York for Public Broadcasting with Channel 31, and then it was Channel 21. That’s also another part of Public Broadcasting —part of PBS network, which is like CBS. There’s CBS and there’s PBS. So there are stations all over the country that are affiliated and certain shows that are national. And so we had a larger audience than Public Access. Public Access was really setup for cable people—local people with cable. But we were everywhere in the New York tri-state area, down in Pennsylvania, South Jersey, Connecticut, you know, anywhere in that range you could pick us up. Where if you were on Public Access, you could probably see it played in Manhattan, or you could see it Queens, or you know, whatever that cable station’s viewership was. So we had a larger audience than the average Public Access show. And what was the question again?
Why stay on Public [Broadcast] Television after the boom of cable?
Uncle Ralph: And we knew that even when Yo! MTV Raps came about in the beginning we still had a bigger audience viewership. Like I could go to the ratings and see, you know, in the beginning. And we were like, “Well, the reason is we really represent what New York is all about. And New York was where most of the—by that time, now it [Video Music Box] was really becoming, really, a Hip-Hop show, because Hip-Hop was so big, and such a big movement. And we were like, “Hmmm. They—Yo! MTV Raps —is not going to play this, but we can play this. We had more control and more A&R, and we showed events, New York events that we were at that they weren’t going to. You know, they weren’t going to the real parties, the real hood places and all this stuff because they just didn’t do that. And we did it. And so, we continued to keep on doing it because we knew that the audience recognized that we were the real deal and they [MTV] didn’t have access to that in the beginning. Eventually they started getting it more as they made good, real deal come to town. Like ‘We can’t find Eric B. and Rakim, so let’s have Eric B. and Rakim come up here,’ you know. But we went to where Eric B. and Rakim were performing, so we went to the small clubs. We went to the venues. We went to the block parties. You know, whatever it was that was going on at the time we can get in with a camera. And so it felt like authentic to the viewer, and we knew that we could continue to do that.
And as time went on, now 10, 30 years later, we’re still on TV because I still think that there is a need for authenticity for our young people to see. And the culture needs to be seen, because what has happened over the years, you know, the industry took the “Rap” but they left the culture behind. The “Rap” is, of course, what you know, the people wanted. That’s part of what the viewer/folks wanted in on, but they forgot about the culture. And I’m not just talking about the culture of Hip-Hop. I’m talking about the culture of our community.
Uncle Ralph: And we could show that. And when you watch Video Music Box, it was quite obvious that there’s a Black person that’s doing the show. It’s not a White person that’s doing the show [Laughs], or a non-Black person doing the show.
At any point did you feel that you had to rival MTV or BET?
Uncle Ralph: Yeah, in the beginning because we didn’t know. We didn’t know what that was. We were like, “Whoa, we have to like step our game up. What are they doing?” You know? And at one point, I realized we don’t have the money that MTV has. You know, we can’t compete with the production value that they have. There’s a force behind it that you know, we cannot compete with, but we can continue to just keep on going to the heart of our people with the programming and with the conversations, and with other things that might not be totally Hip-Hop, you know, and bring that to the street. [For example] Police brutality in New York City; Nelson Mandela is released from jail. You know, we’re going to go in to Boys and Girls high school [in Brooklyn] and get footage of Nelson Mandela right there, you know. Whatever it was, we knew we had to bring that to the screen, to keep ourselves relevant.
And you continue to stay relevant because, and I love how the universe works like that because while at the beginning they may have been a rival or someone to look out for, in the end they came to you to get your footage. [Laughs]
Uncle Ralph: Oh yeah, which is pretty crazy. I think that there was reason to believe that they were paying attention to what we were doing all along. [Laughs] So now here it is, we license footage to MTV, to BET, to VH1, to now, TVOne. You know, we did a lot of stuff with UnSung. They know that, or somebody knows that that was a source for a lot of early visuals that they probably grew up on.
Uncle Ralph: And so, they’re going back and saying, ‘Call this guy Ralph McDaniels. I’m sure, I know I saw it on this show when I was a kid. And he has it.’ [Laughs] So, yeah we do [that], I mean, our archives is ridiculous. I mean we have over 20-thousand hours of just footage, of artists, of Hip-Hop artists, of the scene, of Reggae artists—it just goes on and on and on. You know, people will ask me, ‘Do you have 125th street in 1985?’ And I’m like, “Uh yeah. Actually, I do because I was up there shooting something waiting for Just-Ice, so we were shooting some stuff and there is.” You know, 125th street looks a lot different now than it did 20 years ago. And yeah, so we have it. We have Bed Stuy, even that kind of stuff, and the value of it is infinite because it can go on forever. So our archives, which have become very important, like people who taped Video Music Box on VHS are starting to place stuff up on YouTube now. And you see stuff, whatever it was…. It was Nas in 19-whatever, ’93, getting ready to come out and it was on Video Music Box. You know because I heard about this guy named Nas and I was like, “We gotta find out who this dude is.” He was like, ‘Yo, I’m getting ready to release my album, a new album. Can you do this, like can you call up the producers and play this thing?” It was really an EPK, but it became like the documentation of the process with Large Professor and the Illmatic album.
You know that’s like my favorite EPK of like all time right? I just want you to know that.
Uncle Ralph: Oh really?! [Laughs]
[Laughs] YES! So just, fyi…[Laughs]
Uncle Ralph: I was positive about that, you know, because I knew that it was something that Nas was supported on by what he was saying. And I heard a couple of the songs and I had worked with [MC] Serch, one of the 3rd Bass members. So I learned about Nas also from 3rd Bass through Serch. So I had access to him through Serch and that’s how it all came about. And they said to me, ‘We gotta do a video, can you do “It Ain’t Hard to Tell’?’ That’s how we ended up doing the first , technically, single that came off that album.
Wow you’ve broken ground in so many ways. It’s just phenomenal to me. Like the first Hip-Hop tour to be broadcast…
Uncle Ralph: Yeah, that was Fresh Fest. Fresh Fest was the first tour of all of these big dawgs, who went on tour together and it was titled Fresh Fest. It was here and it came to New York City. I wanted to go out there and capture a few things and do the interview. And Russell Simmons and I, who lived in the same area in Queens at the time, you know, I said, “Russell, I really want to tape Fresh Fest. “ He said, ‘No, problem. Just get up with Lyor Cohen. Lyor was the guy who ran the office, now he runs Warner Music. [Laughs] So, Lyor was like, ‘Ralph, no problem, no problem. ‘
So when I got there, Lyor was like, ‘We got a problem. Such and such wants to charge one-thousand dollars to tape.’
So I was like, “Aw man, you got to be kidding me…”
He says, ‘We’ll figure it out. Don’t worry, don’t worry, don’t worry.’
So we ended up with one camera basically taping that whole concert: running the performances when it happened, running back to meet with artists getting interviews, run back outside and maybe miss the first three seconds of something, but we’d get the whole scene, run back and you know, tape the whole concert. And then we broadcasted and that was a pivotal point for Video Music Box because most people didn’t realize how big Hip-Hop was at that time, that there was that many people in one place going to see a show. You know, that was like ten-thousand, twelve-thousand people at the Nassau Coliseum. The diversity of the audience also people didn’t realize, like Black people in the hood didn’t realize that White people was listening to Hip-Hop.
Uncle Ralph: Like, ‘White people know this?’ ‘They know the words!’ Like, ‘I can’t believe that they know the words…’ They didn’t realize that this was so diverse and that there were so many people into this music. And that’s when for a lot of people and I know, like Fab Five Freddy said to me, ‘That’s when I knew that I wanted to do this because when I saw that I was like, “This is big.”’ This is happening and it’s not just people in Bed Stuy. It’s not just people in the Bronx. It’s people everywhere or I don’t know where these White people are coming from, but they’re coming. They’re into it just like I’m into it.
So you know, once we kind of moved downtown, and that was like in ’85—once you kind of moved into the [Greenwich] Village, you realized that Hip-Hop was just a lifestyle of people. It really didn’t have anything to do with color at that point. It was just all kinds of people: Asian, Black, Indian, Puerto Rican… You know, you knew that Blacks and Latinos were into it, but you didn’t realize that those other people were into it like you were into it.
Uncle Ralph: And then you realized that it was more of a lifestyle and it really didn’t have any color onto it at that time.
Is that why you decided to break into fashion as well with the first “urban fashion show”, Phat Fashions?
Uncle Ralph: The urban fashion thing came about because people were giving me clothes all the time, like these shirts and stuff. It really just started off with t-shirts and they would be like, ‘Yo, I like your t-shirt. Like, what is it? Where can I buy it?’
[I’d say] “Oh, on 165th street…” Especially like FUBU, for instance. We did an interview with Daymond John and he kind of reached out to me. He was like, you know, I met him somewhere, I think, and he was like ‘We got this thing called FUBU; For Us, By Us.’
And I’m like, “No, that’s great. Like, that’s totally my mindset.” You know, Black people doing their thing, I love it, you know. I went to Daymond and was like, “Whatever you got, bring it up to the station and your crew.” You know, four guys came up with all these outfits. [I said] “Where is this stuff?” And he told me like you know in stores. I’m like, “Really, which stores?” He came to me and kept saying, ‘Yo, can we get my stuff in these videos?’ And I said, “Well we’ll see if we can work something out.” And I started placing them in music videos. That was the whole product placement beginning too, getting things in videos.
I didn’t realize [though] that he [Daymond] didn’t have as many clothes as he said he did. Then eventually he said, ‘Well how come we’re not doing something with the designers’ because it just seemed like there was just more and more guys doing clothes, you know. We had Karl Kani interested, like it was just all of this stuff, you know. And [so] we decided to do a show and it was called the Phat Fashion show. It was all about Hip-Hop and we brought artists in, kind of sticking to that vein and you know, created the show with designers that I knew.
It also included like Tommy Hilfiger and some other people because Tommy Hilfiger at the time was coming to me to place clothes in some music videos. This was like the early ‘90s or mid ‘90s and we were like, “Yeah we can place those.“ So we started having a relationship with that company. And Russell, he didn’t quite have Phat Farm yet, but he was trying to figure it out and Puffy —or P. Diddy— didn’t have Sean John, but he was stylish, you know. That was his thing. He was like, ‘Yo, man, can I host one of your shows?’ And I was like, “Yeah.” So he hosted one of the shows. Anybody that was into style in Hip-Hop was attracted to that show.
Uncle Ralph: They would all come in and then eventually, Sean John came about and we’d put it in the show. Phat Farm came about; we’d put it in the show. But it all really kind of started with FUBU. That was what put the idea in my head because I realized that there was no platform for these designers. You couldn’t get on Fashion Week. They weren’t allowed. Fashion Week wasn’t happening for Hip-Hop like that in no way. So we created a show, and people were like, ‘You should make like the alternative to Fashion Week.’ And I was like, “Well, I’m not trying to trying to compete with Fashion Week, because like there’s no way I can, you know. But I can create something—we can do something for our young people that are creating clothes. Really, basically it started off with jeans and t-shirts and then eventually it went to suits, you know, the whole experience around our culture.
Let’s talk about the multiple generations of Hip-Hop. How have you been able to—I mean, I know that we talked about authenticity, and [about] being culturally relevant and involved, but how have you been able to traverse across multiple generations of Hip-Hop as it changed and as it grew? Because that is a tough feat, there are institutions in Hip-Hop that haven’t been around as long as Video Music Box, but still fell apart, you know, trying to cater to this industry or cater to the people. What do you think it is that you did that keeps it relevant across those generations no matter what?
Uncle Ralph: I think, for us, we do the best we can to respect the young person coming into it, to treat them with respect, you know. A lot of times like now, like old school artists don’t respect young music because they don’t feel they pay homage to the old school music. And I don’t think they should—I believe that they should, but I don’t think that they should hold them [accountable] if they don’t know. And a lot of kids, they just don’t know. They don’t know or they’re afraid to ask, or whatever. We just said, just bring us whatever you’re doing, let me—and I may not like it, but I might understand the energy of it and play it.
Uncle Ralph: You know there are certain artists now that we play that I might not be a total fan of it, but I understand it and I’ve experienced it. Part of it has to do with I started working at Hot 97[FM]. If I didn’t work at Hot 97, I probably wouldn’t have quite got the energy like that and started going to the events and stuff because I might like, at that time, at 40-years old, I’m at an event with 20-year olds. [Laughs]
Uncle Ralph: And I’m like, “Okay, I’m understanding this.” It’s like Techno music; you don’t understand the beat until you go to a Techno event. And then you go, ‘Okay, I got it now. Oh so this is all about drugs and okay, okay, I got it!‘ [Laughs]
Uncle Ralph: So that kind of helped me in understanding what was happening and in following particular groups, where I might not have been listening to their music on a regular basis, or I might not have been attracted to them, like, nah I’m not interested. But I feel like now I’m listening to their music because I went to the event and saw people reacting toward it. And I’m like, “Okay,” I don’t know what this person’s saying,” and now I’m like, “Okay, I got it now, I see what’s happening here. And this is why they’re popping for a 20-year old.” So we’ll embrace certain music that they do. That’s the key right there. There’s some old school people that I hate their music, but I have to [play it]. It’s not like how it used to be. Video Music Box is not how it used to be. But likenothing is like how it used to be. You have to continue to keep moving on. And you have to be aware of the fact that Video Music Box became popular, to me, because there were a lot of young people who were 16-17 [years old], couldn’t get out of the house, couldn’t go out to the clubs, their parents might have been strict—couldn’t do that, couldn’t do this, but they could watch me and they could see it. So I have to appeal to those kids in 2012 that are sitting at home on a Wednesday night or Saturday night, and going to the channel. I have to play something that appeals to them.
So nowadays I have to be aware of exactly what’s going on and what’s new. That’s why we’ve been able to [connect] with where young people’s ideas are. Even if I don’t quite agree with it or I don’t quite get it, I have to at least be aware of it and touch it through the show. It’s like some new artist that is just like, you know, whatever. Like you’re just talking…like when The Carter III came out, Lil Wayne’s, and he was at Summer Jam (you know, I tape all of the Summer Jam stuff for Hot 97), I sat there and watched the audience and they were so into everything that Lil Wayne said. I was like, “Wow. This guy has a lot of power here. This is sixty-thousand people and they get it.” So I had to go through every song on The Carter III to get it. I mean, I kind of already knew what Lil Wayne was all about having watched him come about as a young kid out of Cash Money…
Yeah the Hot Boys clan…
Uncle Ralph: So it wasn’t hard to kind of figure out where Lil Wayne was coming from, but he’s just an example of he’s talking to the common denominator in the hood with what he’s saying. Now he’s got the attention. Now he’s got the potential to say whatever he wants and change people’s lives socially. And that’s what I try to go after Lil Wayne with, like, “You have the power now to do a lot of different things,” you know, and to help young people understand the importance of what they have, and just don’t keep on making music that’s just to get the attention. I think there’s a lot of things they can do with this.
Do you think they do? Do you think they understand that?
Uncle Ralph: Some do, some do, but you can’t— you don’t know who these people are. Really, you know them for their music in most cases, but I think that some do.
Let’s talk about Video Music Box Global. I think that’s poignant, advancing with the times, understanding that Hip-Hop has gone global. It touches on everything from South America to Germany and Japan, and back again, you know. So what has been the process for you now in getting the content from overseas and incorporating that into the programming?
Uncle Ralph: It really came through just relationships. One thing about New York, and I realized one day walking down 125th street and I was like, “Where are all the African-Americans go? Because everyone is from Africa, or from another place—from Haiti, from the Dominican Republic—all these different places, and I was like, “Okay, so…but they look like Hip-Hop.”
Uncle Ralph: And I’m like, “Okay, so we’re not touching those people at all,” you know. We’re not thinking about, I mean, I’m aware of it because, you know, I have a lot of Haitian friends so I know I’m definitely familiar with the Haitian culture. But Africans, I really didn’t, you know, know like that, and I was like, “Okay, we have to start reaching out to these people because at least here, at least in the United States, we can find some music that they’ll be able to relate to. It might be traditional [music] from their country that’s being made, almost like Jamaica. There are songs that come out in Jamaica that they never really make it like Sean Paul. They’re just like locally they’re big, like if you go to Brooklyn, you can hear those records. Like, ‘I love this song,’ you know, but it’s not like we play it on the radio here. So it’s almost like that.
And so we started reaching out to different areas that were making some cool music and it may not have been necessarily Hip-Hop either. It was just music. It could be House music. It could be like “Superman” song, like that and when I started doing a little research, I mean I knew the record, but it was like How is House music sounding just like that in that particular region? And they were good videos. They were very well-produced videos and they must have a really good team because they’re spending money over there. And you know, it just hasn’t quite yet transcended into the US like that. It has in the House lane, but not to the rest of the masses; the House people know this stuff but not our young people. So I started playing videos like that and that’s just how it happened.
Video Music Box is known in those regions. It’s like, ‘Oh yeah, Video Music Box, that’s the real deal. That’s the show, that’s the show!’ Because people would make copies of it and send it back to their countries and it would get played on some local cable show or in some popular spot where they play visuals at. I was aware of that because I would get some type of correspondence from somebody in those particular areas in Africa, in Germany, in South America, definitely in the Caribbean, or my friends would travel and they would see me and say, ‘Do you know how big you are over there? When I say that I worked with you, they go like, “What?!”’
So the culture kind of picked up on each other, I guess and recognized it, just like I recognized what they were doing. And they took whatever it was they could get their hands on and broadcasted it, passed it around or whatever.
Real recognizes real.
Uncle Ralph: So that’s what this is all about now. We consciously make an effort to look for it. Like I want to have what’s the hottest thing in Ghana right now, let’s get that, you know. What’s the hottest thing in Rio or wherever, right now. I need that.
And how does OnFumes.com play into this?
Uncle Ralph: OnFumes was/is a compilation of just visuals and things that I had that people only saw on Video Music Box, not only, but also some more popular stuff as well. We did that because we knew that the Internet was a big thing to deal with and we wanted to create something that people could get instantly. Just go to OnFumes and you’ll find out some things there that you might not have seen before, or you want to watch whenever you want to watch it. It was partially dominant to what was going on at the time, but we’re going to do another site, which is VideoMusicBox.TV and that’s going to be I think more dedicated to the culture.
All things Video Music Box.
Uncle Ralph: Yeah, yeah.
That’s awesome! I think this is my final question, I think [Laughs]. When you look back, and you think about all the shows that you’ve taped, all of the people that you’ve met, all of the experiences that you’ve had, what is probably the most memorable and that sums up the entire thing in a nutshell? I know that’s hard, but that one moment….
Uncle Ralph: I think probably like I can clearly remember interviewing Stevie Wonder. For me that was a big thing, to just sit there and it kick it with Stevie. And I had worked with him on a couple of music videos so we got to know each other. So to sit there and you know, talk with him, from my perspective, like I’m having a conversation with Stevie Wonder.
One of the interviews that I was really like aggressive about getting was Gil Scott-Heron. Gil Scott-Heron, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, you know, that was always my theme song, but we are televising each other. [I said to myself] “I have to find this guy who made this record and it was kind of hard because Gil can be, you know, elusive. [Laughs]
Uncle Ralph: And we got him. I got him at the Blue Note and I was like, “This is it! I got it! Gil Scott-Heron. The world is gonna love this!” And so we get Gil Scott-Heron. And then what happened was, and I’ll tell you a story about him was that I did the interview, and then years went by and we’d converse with each other. He would call me and ask me about “What do you think about this,’ and me: “What should I do with that for now?” And he’d be like, ‘Well what do you think about such and such because they want to use my music. I don’t know them but…’ [I’d say]: “They’re cool.” Or “Nah, don’t do that unless they’re paying you.”
And so, really we’d have conversations like that. And then I was working on the filmJuice. I was the Associate Producer on Juice.
I didn’t know that! That’s dope!
Uncle Ralph: Yeah so I’m working on Juice with Ernest Dickerson’s first directorial debut and there was a scene where Omar Epps and the girl from EnVogue are in there watching TV. And they were like, ‘Okay, so what are they watching?’
[I said:] “They’re watching Video Music Box!” [Laughs] So Ernest was like, ‘Okay, good idea. We need that so we can get it cleared. ‘ And I’m like, “Alright, no problem.” So I gave them the interview with Gil Scott-Heron because it meant so much to me. So it ends up in the movie, you know, for like three seconds maybe. I’m like, “I can’t believe I got that in there because I love Gil. I just love his voice; I loved him from the beginning. So the movie came out, and a few days after the movie comes out Gil calls me. He says, ‘Brother man, Brother man.’
Me: “Gil, what’s up?”
Gil: ‘Did you put me in a movie?’
Uncle Ralph: [Laughs] And I was like [to myself], “Oh shit.” You know, like “Damn, I never even told him about this shit,” you know.
Me: “Yeah, but we really just hear your voice.”
Gil: ‘That’s all I got is my voice.’
Uncle Ralph: [Laughs] So I said: “Damn, aw man. I don’t even know what to say. I feel bad.”
He was like: ‘Don’t worry about it. You just made me cool with my daughter because my daughter told me about it.
[Laughs] I was like, “Oh!” And he was like, ‘You’re cool. Don’t worry about it cause my daughter was talking to me and she don’t ever talk to me! And she’s telling me that she just saw me in a movie.’
Uncle Ralph: [Laughs] So I say like, “Okay…”
And he says, ‘It’s cool.’
And I said, “Thank you man. Dang, I’m sorry man.”
And he says, ‘Ahhh it’s cool.’
And I say, “Okay.”
So that was a Gil Scott-Heron moment that was pretty cool.
I think this is my final question, I swear. You’re celebrating 30 years, what does the next 30 years look like to you?
Uncle Ralph: Hmmm, good question. I think that the music is almost like it’s starting to go back to where it was when I first started. It was all different types of music that were [around], you know, Pop music, Hip-Hop to House music, to Dancehall music, to Techno, to Punk—all this stuff started around the same time, within a couple of years of each other. And now we’re starting to find a fusion of that is starting to come back around. Where Hip-Hop had dominated the scene for a really long time, but kids are starting to like, like Rihanna, we’re dancing again with like Techno sounds. The Reggae music always holds its own. So you’re going to see some different types like Dubstep music—all these different types of music—even House music is starting to come back in some way. So all of this stuff is starting to come back basically because of technology. The kids are experiencing different sounds and have the ability to play with them right at their house, you know on their laptops. And that’s what’s going to bring the new music, or not necessarily new, but bring back some of those sounds that we knew from back then forward again. And so we’ll see if it will attach itself. We’ll probably familiar with [it], but it will be something cool and different and it’s not just totally about Hip-Hop anymore. I’d like to see some more R&B, real R&B singers, real Blues singers. I’d like to see some Jazz—you know, and that would be great if that could happen because of the simplification of making that type of music and what it takes to do that, you have to really kind of know music and not just know the computer. Yeah, so that’s where it’s at.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with me. Like you are so phenomenal. You are amazing!
Uncle Ralph: Thank you. Just to be aware of, like right now I’m trying to like do stuff with young people just so they understand the importance and power of technology. We didn’t have that back then. We had to go somewhere to get in to use the technology. But now they have the technology right there in their hands. And they have the ability to just, you know, do things right there on the spot. And it’s important, don’t ever think it’s not important because 30 years from now, that is important. And it’s important that it’s documented and looked at how it will be 30 years from now. Like a lot of things get lost in the translation, you know, and you want to have somebody documenting it in a real way.
Absolutely, and I hope you’re the one who’s still documenting it and you have a protégé right behind you. I really do.
Uncle Ralph: I know right. [Laughs]