*Dateline 1980s: Hordes of children in the New York tri-state area are stampeding toward the exits of their respective citadels of education. A quick stop at the store for a hoagie, a pack of Now & Laters and a Mystic, then it was straight home.
To do homework or chores perhaps? No sir! Into the living room, book bags and coats tossed wherever, and the search was on for the remote control, the pliers, a wire hanger or whatever their preferred channel changing method was. The TV would inevitably land on WNYC 31. It was 3:30pm. It was time for “Video Music Box.”
Whodini’s “Five Minutes of Funk” had your head rocking as you waited with bated breath for “Video Music Box” and VJ Ralph McDaniels to show you the hottest videos from the best Hip-Hop artists in the land. It was a half hour of Hip-Hop heaven. It would be a safe bet to wager that nearly 100 rap and soul artists owe there street credibility to the man now known as Uncle Ralph McDaniels, his new moniker coined by Kool DJ Red Alert, a legend in his own right.
Our Lee Bailey recently sat down with New York City radio station Hot 97’s resident pioneer to discuss his legacy and why he feels video’s have been taken for granted by the music industry. However, prior to that McDaniels dished out a few accolades of his own.
“I’ve used so much of your work when I’m on the radio,” adimitted McDaniels. “I’m always like ‘Where’s the Lee Bailey (Electronic Urban) Report? I need some information.’ Hot 97 in New York, I use it there. Yeah! I really need to know what’s happening man! When (they) ask me do I know you I say, ‘of course.’ I don’t know you, but I know your name and I know your work.”
If you never saw a grown ass black man blush you should have been there. It was a sight to see. But when asked about the oft-times overlooked importance of music videos Uncle Ralph got right down to business.
“It’s always been the stepchild in the music industry to radio, which is the medium that the record industry really focuses on.” said McDaniels of videos. “The impact of music video has always been kind of secondary because it’s like how’s it influencing (fans)? We know Michael Jackson’s videos were always big on MTV. We know BET has broken in several artists on the whole southern Hip-Hop thing but how do we figure out the whole influence of music video? (This) really affected me because I know all the DJs that watched my show and then there’s the people that work in the industry that’ll say ‘Oh, I saw this particular video on your show.’ It’s an unseen impact that’s not quantitative. It’s really not figured out. We have someone that says ‘Oh, we have 23 radio stations playing our record’. But the impact of video has always been in and out, which then affects me. (Execs) will say ‘I’ve gotta get Ralph McDaniels to play this video’ but once it happens they (act) like they don’t know why an artist is being successful in a particular city. They forget that music video. They forget the station that’s playing their music video that’s going out to millions of folks that watch television.”
Industry vets will tell you that some execs have selective memory regarding giving accolades of any sort to anyone but themselves, but the limited number of stations that produce music video shows is apparent. So, with fewer outlets, it should be easy to see who plays what, right? In the words of sports announcer Lee Corso ‘Not so fast my friend!’ In order to give props you have to at least know to whom you’re giving them.
“Music video, there’s a handful of people that are playing videos. There’s MTV, BET, VH-! and then you have the regional shows like mine. It’s like ‘Well, who are these people?’ The artists know because they watch shows like mine and the managers know us, but sometimes its people at the labels that don’t know. They send us their videos and stuff but they don’t really know us.”
And with the advent of modern, portable video technology the props have grown even thinner and it’s even harder to decide which medium is influencing the masses. Uncle Ralph believes good old fashion television still trumps all.
“I remember years ago when they would have the radio conventions and I’d watch people being honored and stuff and I would think ‘I’m not even on the radar for an honor’ which was fine with me, I never really had a problem with it. But there is a legacy there, especially in the New York area. All of the DJs in the 80s up through the 2000s would say that they had to have their videos played by Ralph McDaniels if they wanted to have a successful hit. Nowadays it’s Youtube and cell phones, but the impact of television is incredible. Once this thing pops up on your TV screen it’s real as far as people are concerned. It must be real. It’s an affect that’s ambient to a certain extent but it’s sublimal as well and makes a big impact.”
We know the state of music videos today, but many don’t know where it all began. Sure, it’s pretty easy to point to MTV, but for urban videos Ralph McDaniels’ Video Music Box was at the forefront.
“I started (Video Music Box) in 1983. People call me a Hip-Hop pioneer but I really consider myself a music video pioneer because music video was just starting around that time. A lot of people didn’t have cable at that time and we were broadcasting on a low-power frequency similar to Soul Beat in Oakland (California) and people found us because this was the only place where they could see this type of stuff. We started broadcasting after school and there were only a handful of Hip-Hop artsts doing this back then. Run DMC, Whodini, The Fat Boys, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and there was no advertising. It all happened from word of mouth and just took off from there.”
Street credibility is now just another phrase marketing directors use when trying to sell items to urban dwellers. In essence, it has to matter to people in the hood because they’re the trendsetters. If they don’t buy it then it’s not cool. Uncle Ralph has had ‘street cred’ from day one. But how did it all begin? What perfect storm of factors got the ball rolling for urban videos?
“I worked at a public TV station as an engineer and one day we got these clips of artists on Solar Records. It was video clips of them performing” McDaniels told our Lee Bailey. “Groups like The Whispers, Shalimar, Lakeside it was the beginning of music video. Somebody at Solar said lets get these clips and send them out just as a PR kind of thing. I took them to my program director and said maybe we can do a show just using these clips and I thought that if Solar has them maybe all the records labels have them. So we called up the record labels and it just so happened that a lot of them were doing this type of thing. Labels like Sony, which at that time was Columbia, and Warner Bros. We started putting this thing together, but there was no barometer and no one was doing this at the time. The station had fundraisers because it was a public television station and they decided to just use them during the fundraisers and the phone started ringing off the hook. And so the program director (told me) to put together a half-hour show and he would see if he could find a spot for it. That was back in 1982. In 1983 we put the show together and he asked me when I wanted to come on, and I told him I wanted to come on after-school. Just from word of mouth the show became one of the highest rated shows in (New York) public television broadcasting history.”
Though “Video Music Box” did not start out as a Hip-Hop show per se, it became successful by highlighting the hottest rappers, wearing the hottest clothing and jewelry. And, least we forget, the dances. How many of you New Yorkers taped the show so you could pause it and learn the Cabbage Patch, the Smurf, the Wop and heaven knows how many other sick moves you took to the playground with you the next day? If you missed the show you just didn’t know! Hip-Hop as a culture was delivered everyday at 3:30. But what about the current state of Hip-Hop? Who is more qualified to answer that question that Uncle Ralph?
“The state of Hip-Hop is kind like the state of the music industry. It’s all over the place to me. I think we have a lot of good music out, but it’s not selling because there’s no value on it. I think what’s happening is technology is kind of taking the value away from it. The 99 cent downloads, the YouTubes and people selling bootleg CDs on the streets for 5 dollars. (People are like) why should I go buy an album for 15 dollars?”
But, one might ask, why should the people buy hot trash? Which is exactly what much of the music being played on the radio today is. 15 bucks is a lot of money to flush down the drain. Uncle Ralph admits that the overall decline in album sales is partially the industry’s own fault.
“The music industry is now suffering the backlash because they were putting out albums that maybe weren’t worth 15 dollars When I was a kid and I knew a new Stevie Wonder or Earth, Wind and Fire album was coming out I couldn’t wait for the release date of that album so I could go to the store and buy that album. It’s not like that anymore. Now it’s all about a single. Kids don’t know if the entire album is going to be good. Kids say ‘I like the single they’re playing on the radio. I’ll go buy that or I’ll download that. (Matter of fact) I can sit in my house and download it illegally. The value has come down so far on the material that it hurts everybody. People don’t trust the music industry anymore so they just overlook it. There’s a lot of independent artists out there. Kids are putting out some good stuff, but if Jay-Z can’t sell a million records immediately how do you expect to sell a million records immediately? Being an independent artist you can’t even sell 100,000 records immediately. I think live music performances are very important to artists. If you could develop a really good live show and develop a following off that then you could sell your CDs right there at the show.”
A sobering conclusion. The music industry’s greed, coupled with advanced technology is nibbling away at music from a quality standpoint and financially as well.
Meanwhile, McDaniels is president of Uncle Ralph Productions, an on-air personality at New York’s Hot 97. His show airs every Saturday afternoon. Ralph is also one of the executive producers of “The Bridge,” which he also hosts and is co-owner of www.onfumes.com.
Check out this video documentary of Ralph Mcdaniels and ‘Video Music Box’: