Filed under: BK All Day,Interviews,Non-Rapper Dudes,Not Your Average,Tape Vaults,VHS Vaults,Video Clips
Written by: Robbie Ettelson
“Uncle” Ralph McDaniels is an institution in New York hip-hop. Creating the city’s first music video show – Video Music Box – in 1983, he delivered rap videos, concert footage and interviews years before Yo! MTV Raps and Rap City hit the airwaves. He was also involved on the other side of the camera, producing and directing music videos for the Juice Crew, Nas and Wu-Tang Clan amongst others. Celebrating thirty years on the air this month, Uncle Ralph took some time out to discuss how he started off his career as a DJ, the birth of music videos and the impact of filming Fresh Fest 2 in the first part of our interview.
Robbie: Where did you grow-up?
Ralph McDaniels: I grew-up in Brooklyn and then I moved to Queens as a teenager, and that’s where my music really took off. In Brooklyn I was young, but I was influenced by my family, they’re Caribbean and American, so we listened to all types of music in the house. We listened to soca, we listened to reggae, we listened to R&B, we listened to soul music. By the time I got to Queens and started getting some type of DJ set-up in my house, then I could play new music that I listened to and that’s how that whole thing jumped off. When I went to college, I moved back to Brooklyn.
How did you get your start in music?
It was me and my partner, Lionel Martin. Back then, he was called DJ Trip. We had a crew we used to call The Brothership – don’t ask, it’s a crazy name. We started doing clubs, and my first gig in a club was a place called The Blue Ice. People used to pack it in, 300-400 people. That was a lot to me. Back in the days when DJ’s would play, there would be a band, and the band would be the headliner. The DJ was secondary, and then after a while the DJ became the headliner because the promoters didn’t want to pay for a band. Around that time I met Russell Simmons, he lived in our neighborhood and he was a party promoter. They were called Rush parties. Somehow he started working with these record companies and he started becoming a record promoter.
This is before hip-hop was really out here like that as far as records, he was working for a company that put out a lotta R&B stuff. He would come by and bring records to you and leave little notes on them, like “Yo, this is the hottest record right now! You’ve gotta play this!” I’ve still got those records. Moving into the early 80’s, he went to City College and he hooked-up with this guy named Kurtis Blow. Kurtis Blow started making records, so he used to bring me Kurtis Blow white-label 12”s. His brother DJ Run was Kurtis Blow’s DJ at the time. This is the beginning of us kinda understanding what a record company does, because prior to that we were just going to stores and buying our own records and equipment. That’s all we knew. We didn’t understand that there was a record label and they gave you free records and they wanted you to play them if you could to get a vibe on it. Now we’re getting an understanding of what the music business is all about, because Russell works with all of these companies.
Not to mention saving you a lot of money?
It should have, but the promoters would always bring you more garbage records than good records, so you would still end up going to the record store and buying music. At the same time as my DJ career, I’m going to college for film and television. I get the bug for film and television and start doing all these free internships, so I learned how television works. At my job at the TV station, they’re like, “Get us music to play behind the interviews and stuff”. So now I’m calling up record companies, going “Yo, I need this record”. Anything to get me free records was all I wanted to do. I’m calling Atlantic Records, Columbia Records, every day there’s a package coming over from the record company. I’m like, “Wow, this is great!” Then my internship stopped and I couldn’t get anymore free records! So I was trying to get them to send it to my house instead of to the station because I knew my gig was about to be up. “They’re getting kind of pissed-off because there’s a lot of music here. Why don’t you just send it to my house instead?” [laughs]
Then we would just go directly to the record companies and get the music. There wasn’t a lot of early hip-hop labels, but one of them – that I started working with and got a lot of records from – was Profile Records. That was the label that Run-DMC would eventually be on, but they weren’t at the time that I worked there. They did R&B/disco records – uptempo R&B records. That was a guy named Corey Robbins and another guy. They were like, “OK, you’ve got a job. We want you to take these sample records to the record store”. Basically, what Russell was doing, I was doing now. So I was taking records to stores up in 125th street in Harlem, in The Bronx – they didn’t want to go there, so they had to send the black guy there. So we went and it was great. We were getting free records and everybody was kinda sweating us, because we had the records. We did that for them and some similar labels like West-End Records, who dibbed and dabbed with hip-hop.
What was next?
In 1983, I was sitting in the station and they was broadcasting some corny-ass shit. They had some documentaries on animals that was cool, but most of it was just city information, like “If you need to call the fire department, this is what you need to do…” I was like, “C’mon man, there’s gotta be something else we can do on this station!” One day these tapes came in, and they were performances of artists. This was the beginning of music videos, but they weren’t quite music videos because they were just videos of the artists performing in a room, like it was a TV show but there wasn’t an audience or anything. They were all black artists, this was Solar Records, who was this really cool label from the 80’s, and they had groups like Shalamar, The Whispers, Carrie Lucas – all of these cool West Coast R&B sounds. Whoever it came in to, they didn’t know what to do with it, so I said, “Can I keep this?” I noticed that there were other labels that were doing this, but they weren’t as good as this one. I was dibbing and dabbing with editing, and I put all these things together, and because I’m a DJ I put it in a mix kid of way. Catch it on the beat, in a cut way.
Cutting and pasting the tape? What was the format of these videos?
They were ¾ cassette tapes. These huge cassette tapes. That was the format that music videos in the 80’s and most of the 90’s were delivered in. They were like a big version of the VHS tape, but not as long. At the most, they were an hour. So I presented this to the program director, and I didn’t know what I was doing, because I was the engineer. I said “This would be kind of cool if we could do something with this”. Mind you, there is no MTV or anything that exists like that. Only thing we have is American Bandstand and Soul Train and a couple of other little shows. The word “Music Video” doesn’t even exist. They were “promos”. So I put theses promos together, and the guy used it in the fundraiser. They used to have fund raisers to keep the station going, and it got a good response. The phones got really busy when they played the music videos. So the guy is like, “This might be a good idea!” Mind you, this is not my regular job. I’m talking to these people but I’ve still gotta do my own job. I gave the guy the tapes, and two months later they tell me “We’re going to do a show”, but it was this other guy. I was like, “Wait a minute, that’s my idea!” He didn’t even seem like he wanted to do it, he was like, “Yeah, I know it’s your idea but this is what they want me to do”. I was like, “Nah, I gotta be down with this, man. Hold up”.
They called the show Studio 31 Dance Party. This is in 1982 and I was the host of the show – just my voice. You see an idea coming to life, so you’re happy to be down, even though I felt like they were jacking my idea. We start doing the show, and he wanted to program it. I program like a DJ – going up, keep the same pace – then we bring it down, play a slow jam, then we bring it back up. Start off strong, finish off strong, He programmed random, so we used to bump heads all the time. So we argued a lot, and finally he was like, “You know what? I don’t wanna do this no more. I’m tired of you, fuck this bullshit!” I was like, “Good!” So now there’s no producer of the show. They had gotten a new Program Director, so I went down there and said, “Look, I think this show would be good if it came on after school, and I want to call it Video Music Box”. He said, “OK, how many days you wanna come on?” I said, “Every day!” They gave us a little budget to create an opening for it, and we started doing Video Music Box in 1983. In 1985, it was really starting to kick off and get really popular. The only people that had cable in New York City were people who were rich, who lived in Manhattan. MTV existed, but I never saw it.
How were you promoting the show?
It was just word-of-mouth. There were only 10, 15 channels in total, and we were on UHF, which had latin news and music, this information channel and our channel. Music videos were starting to become a regular thing, so there are more being made. In the beginning, maybe there were ten hip-hop videos.
What was the first hip-hop video that you ever saw?
It might have been CD-3 “Get Tough”. That was on Profile, and we played that. Not sure if that or “The Message” was first though. Sometimes they would wait for six months before they made a video, to make sure they had a hit record. Eventually, groups like Whodini, the Fat Boys, Run-DMC, Kurtis Blow started popping-up. The beginning of Video Music Box was a mix of whatever I thought was cool. Hip-hop videos were automatically in the “cool” package, then you had some R&B records that were danceable, then you had some rock ‘n roll records that were cool, like John Mellencamp because of the break-beat.
“Jack and Diane”?
Exactly! We played everything by him, just because of “Jack and Diane”.
How did your extensive coverage of the Fresh Fest come about?
The Fresh Fest was a turning point for us. We’d never taped a hip-hop concert – there wasn’t a hip-hop concert to tape. We got wind of the concert, and Russell managed half of these groups, so I knew everybody that was involved with it. I was like, “Yo Rush, I wanna come and tape the concert”. Russell hadn’t quite got what the TV show was about, he was more like a radio guy. He was like, “OK, whatever you wanna do, Ralph. I don’t know how that works, can you speak to Lyor?” Lyor Cowen was the road manager for a lot of the groups, not just Run-DMC. When I got there, Lyor was like, “Yo, these people are giving me a hard time because they want us to pay if we have cameras in here, because you need to pay a location fee. You guys might not be able to tape it, because I can’t afford to do that”. So we hung-out for a little while and just snuck our way in. It was so busy that after a while he was like, “Just do what you want”. This was Fresh Fest 2, and we taped the whole thing. We were running back and forth – we had one camera – we would be on stage with the group, taping them perform, follow them off the stage, do the interview immediately after they get off stage when they’re really feeling good about themselves, and then run onstage to catch the next group and hopefully not miss the intro. I still do it sometimes like that. So we taped the whole concert, I came back to the station and I edited – overnight – the whole thing, and we aired it two days later.
Everybody saw it, and it was the turning point for a lot of people that were kinda into hip-hop, because they saw a venue that had 15,000 people there – mixed, white, black, asian, whatever – and that had never really been seen on TV before. I don’t think it had ever been seen in a public space that big. Black kids from the hood didn’t know that white kids from the suburbs were into hip-hop like that, because we’d never seen them. It showed that hip-hop was it’s own thing, it had no color on it at that point. If you were into the music, it was all about that, and nobody cared where you came from. From a social stand-point, it was a big thing because now we knew that hip-hop as a movement could change a lot of people’s thinking, and not just black kids, like people thought. That was a major thing. Guys like Fab 5 Freddy told me that it changed his life.
Not to mention winning you a lot of new viewers?
Absolutely. We aired it only a couple of times, we should have aired it for a week! We didn’t know. That was a major game changer, because people who weren’t into hip-hop were all of a sudden paying attention to it, for a number of different reasons. Because they were fans, because “I’m a promoter, I should be promoting this”, there might be a job opportunity here. Everyone’s looking at it for different reasons.
Before VCR’s became widespread, did you used to repeat major interviews?
If you missed it, that was it! We would maybe run a good interview twice, and we aired six times a week.
What were some other big events you recorded?
Another event that we did around ‘87 was Jive Records “Rap Label Release Party”. On the bill was Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, Steady B, KRS-One, Skinny Boys and Kool Moe Dee was the headliner. Nas album release party for Illmatic was pretty crazy. Nas and Biggie performing at another party, together. There’s some footage of that out there. Biggie and Jay [Z] at my birthday party, performing together. Biggie was hosting it and Jay just showed up at the party, then Biggie started performing his verse from “Get Money” and Jay just joined in with him. We used to do shows at this place called called The Ark in Brooklyn, a Jamaican/American club. One week you’d have Shabba Ranks there, and the next week Big Daddy Kane. We used to pack that club in, and one night we had Jay do almost the whole Reasonable Doubt album. Jay was hot, he brought Foxy Brown in, brought Jaz-O in, and the crowd was into it. The first time anyone saw Big Pun he was in our talent show.
Were you able to run many ads?
We didn’t do too much advertising, every once in while we might do a spot for an album that’s coming out. Our big thing was the parties, we would always have parties in our area with different areas. When Hammer came out, he did a big promotion with us. He was popular, they knew who who he was and he worked hard, even though he was getting no play in New York. We did a bunch of stuff with Nas, Wu-Tang, and Bad Boy Records – Biggie and Craig Mack. We did a lot of events in conjunction with the labels.
Do you have proper footage of the Juice Crew-All Stars World Tour show at the Apollo in 1988?
Yeah. That was a production we did for Cold Chillin’. Fly Ty was like, “Yo, I want to do a video of the tour that we do”. We taped the whole thing, but it never came out. Just recently I have a copy to Biz Markie, I gave some of it to Kane. Technically, Cold Chillin’ owns that, so it’s up to Fly Ty [to release it].
How much footage from Video Music Box still have?
We kept everything, from the shows to the masters to the original footage. We have over 20,000 hours of footage.
Have you considered starting a video museum?
We’d like to! Just recently the Smithsonian Institute has been talking to me, they’ve just started to get their hip-hop thing together. It’s great that some of these big institutions are starting to look at hip-hop and understand what it’s all about.
Part 2 covers his video production company, working on Juice, the Lifer’s Group and why Brooklyn rocks the best.
Uncle Ralph covers Fresh Fest 2:
Video Music Box covers Jive’s Rap Record Label Release Party:
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