In December, HIP HOP 50 launched its multi-year, cross-platform program initiative to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Hip Hop in partnership with entertainment company Mass Appeal. The first release of HIP HOP 50 is You are looking at a video game clock, a documentary film capturing the world’s longest-running music video show, Video Music Box. The film is directed by Emmy and Grammy Award winning music legend and Mass Appeal partner Nasir “Nas” Jones.
The documentary gives a glimpse into visionary DJ and MC Ralph McDaniels and the show, which has become a hip-hop mainstay since its launch in 1983. Serving as the leading hip hop influencer, flavor maker and documentary filmmaker, Uncle Ralph presents and debuts hip hop videos and introduces viewers to future stars like Nas, Jay Z, LL Cool J, Nicki Minaj and Fat Joe long before they became icons of the genre was .
In an interview with HipHopVision, Ralph McDaniels, affectionately known as Uncle Ralph, reflects on the development of Video Music Box and its impact on hip-hop over the past few decades.
Video Music Box was one of the first platforms to provide a route for hip hop music. Looking back, how does it feel to be part of the success and development of the genre over the last almost 50 years?
Ralph McDaniels: It doesn’t even seem to me after almost 50 years. It seems like we’ve just started so there’s so much to do in hip hop and documentaries. You know, You’re Watching Video Music Box is an educational aspect of what hip hop is all about. It’s super important. So we still have a long way to go, but I mean it’s humiliating. It’s humiliating to watch. So yeah, so that’s pretty awesome.
You have some iconic rap moments in store. What let you know this documentary was the right time to let them out?
For me, Video Music Box is the legacy. As you get older in hip-hop, you think about not missing out on the conversation. So let’s start bringing out some of this stuff. The people who really watch the show were aware of this, but the rest of the world doesn’t know that much. So we just felt that the time was right. We’ve been working on this project for almost three or four years now. And I’m glad it fell.
You worked with Nas on this and helped him introduce him to the world. So, in a way, this is kind of a full circle moment. How was this documentary connected to him and how did you bring your two creative geniuses together to tell a story?
I think spiritually we are in the same place. He’s the guy I first met in 1994 and there aren’t a lot of artists to stay in touch with over the years. It was very humiliating for him to tell me he wanted to direct because, to the extent that he’s gone in his career, it was incredible to me that we can still have the same type of conversation.
This energy shows up between you in the individual interview in the documentation. How does it feel to be on the other side, knowing that you’ve spoken to so many artists over time, or even in that conversation, how does it feel to be the focus of an interview?
Always uncomfortable for me to be interviewed, but being interviewed for a topic that has something to do with me, like my life and my video music box, is even worse. And then it’s difficult to sit down and listen to people ask questions when they don’t know me. For Nas he knows everything about me. He knows things that I forgot because he was a kid. So I made a big impression on him. I think that made it easy for me to talk to Nas because there was no motive behind it. I didn’t feel like anyone was trying to find out anything, but it was a purely cultural point of view.
At the beginning of Video juke box, You had no intention of being a personality, a celebrity in front of the camera, but you finally made it on screen. I know there is a transition period and it will make you more public. How did you prepare for it?
Adapting to the camera is not easy. I come from a place where I’ve been a DJ and worked in clubs. I just let the music do it, you know So I really just took what I was doing and put it on screen and I just didn’t want to be seen at all. But when the cameras started running and it was a bit awkward at first. I still walk around New York like a normal New Yorker with no security and you know I want to be free. I want to be able to touch people.
Up to this point, hip-hop characters in the documentary speak to you as a comforting personality and how you adapted Uncle Ralph’s personality. How did you manage that complete strangers or people you meet for the first time feel comfortable and arrive in front of the camera in the product?
Yeah, that’s the fun part, isn’t it? When I’m in the club at the beginning and we shout-outs and I don’t even know these people. I think that’s the hip hop spirituality thing. When we somehow connect and don’t even know each other, but in that moment we are together.
In the documentary, we see that you were attracted to television by your uncle who made James Bond films. You were drawn to music from shows like American bandstand and Soul trainbut no one thought hip hop would last. What made you get involved early on and basically push everything in?
I really saw the impact Russell Simmons had on the music industry. How Russell Simmons and I grew up not far apart when I moved to Queens. I went to a record company with him one day and saw him being accepted. People loved what he was doing and it was all about the music. I thought, wow, that’s pretty interesting. From then on I knew that hip hop was special. I’m a little older than the beginnings of hip hop. When he started in his pocket, he was probably two years younger than me. I was aware of this, but it wasn’t until I saw what Russell was doing that I thought, man, this thing was really, really crazy.
Today you can use YouTube, cameras are more accessible, social media are more prevalent. How did you find the specific contact person to put this into practice? And how did you get the resources and access to all of the places you’ve been?
When I graduated from college and moved around, I was a cameraman. They told us, look, if you want to use the camera on the weekend you can use it. I thought really? So we had access to this gear and we didn’t know what to do with it, you know? So we started going through these different spots and recording hip hop artists. Not just hip hop, but R&B whatever was hot in New York at the time. I grew up in Brooklyn, which is a strong Caribbean community, so I chased the reggae artists and the silk artists and whatever was going on. That’s how we got access to put these things on TV. We just spun it and then started playing around with the cut thinking, hey, this was going to be a show. And that’s how it started.
It’s another point in the documentary that people have been where they have been. Let’s say if there was a show on a Wednesday, you talk and hang out, interviewed, you heard what was going on and then you turn around and you can watch it on Friday, Saturday. But people weren’t there to see you behind the scenes preparing the show, how were those days?
It was hectic because I could shoot on a Friday and I had to get that out right away because it was still fresh in people’s minds and so we could beat everyone else. It wasn’t like now, like YouTube immediately on Instagram. So people say, how is it possible that they already have this on TV? Like three days later. Everyone wants to be the first. We wanted to hit if it was at a party or if I had a new Nas video.
You are a pioneer in hip hop journalism. In retrospect, have you seen that you are a leading figure in this form of media?
I think so. I remember when there was a black or latino person on tv that you would like to have, oh, i’m happy because someone looks like me. So they paid attention to everything they did because they must be really good. I followed in Don Cornelius’ footsteps and how people of that stature presented themselves so I knew what it would be.
For someone watching this documentary and which is the most dominant piece that you would like it to go away with?
I think the most dominant piece that I don’t want them to go away with is just staying true to the culture and being true to yourself. Be careful who is watching and understand that whatever you watch or stream on TV or on screen, or whatever it is, other people have to like it. I was really just presenting the other people, I kind of stayed out of the way. I didn’t want to disrupt communication between the message and the people.
Learn how to watch You’re Watching Video Music Box through Showtime.