Thirty years ago on August 6th, MTV changed the face of music for a second time. Yo! MTV Raps would bring rap and hip-hop culture to a mainstream (let’s face it: white) audience. Overnight, kids around the country became aware of acts and styles that they’d never heard of before, and that new reach reverberated in terms of record sales and an explosion in popularity for the music and its makers. The show became a platform that elevated artists and gave a new window into the culture of black America.
In the seven years since its debut in 1981, MTV had weathered criticism about the lack of airtime for black artists. While Michael Jackson helped facilitate a breakthrough with the success of “Thriller,” enabling his sister Janet, Prince, and others to follow, MTV was still slow to add much in the way of hip-hop to the regular rotation. The rise of Run DMC and their iconic team-up with Aerosmith on their 1985 cover of “Walk This Way” opened more doors, as did the success of acts like LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys. Yet, there was no consistent MTV house for rap and hip-hop culture like MTV had for metal with Heavy Metal Mania (which launched in 1985, segueing into Headbangers Ball in 1987) or “college rock” aka alternative with 120 Minutes (which debuted in 1986).
Run-DMC and Aerosmith made history with Walk This Way in 1985.
Strangely, Europe was ready for a rap program on MTV before the States. In 1987, Ted Demme and Peter Doughtery originally put the show together for MTV Europe. Demme, the nephew of Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme, had gotten his start as a production assistant for the network before moving up to producing and directing; his work included the network promos that helped make comedian Denis Leary famous. An avowed rap fan, Demme shepherded the pilot for MTV in the States, recruiting Run DMC as celebrity hosts for the initial episode. Yo! MTV Raps launched with a Saturday night time slot, and instantly became one the highest rated programs to ever air on the network (only behind episodes of the Video Music Awards and the Live-Aid broadcast).
Erik B. & Rakim’s Follow the Leader was the first video played in the pilot episode.
From the first episode, the regular Saturday night host was Fab 5 Freddy, the legendary artist who was famously name-checked in Blondie’s Rapture. Freddy lent credibility to the enterprise with his musical skill and vast knowledge of the form. When the show expanded to add a weekday component, hosting duties were taken on by Ed Lover (himself a performer as well as a high school friend of Demme’s) and Doctor Dré (the DJ Andre Brown, not to be confused with Dr. Dre of N.W.A.). Lover and Dré proved to be enormously popular as hosts due to their humor, ongoing bits like Lover’s “Ed Lover Dance,” and Lover’s catch-phrase “C’mon, son!” The duo would later star in the comedy film Who’s the Man?, directed by Demme.
An “Ed Lover Dance” montage from a Yo! MTV Raps highlights segment.
The impact of the show was immediate and obvious. Acts like Eric B. & Rakim, N.W.A., Wu-Tang Clan, Tupac, Public Enemy, and many more would receive widespread exposure, greatly contributing to the overall popularity of hip-hop. The show was also a primary source for live performances and occasionally frank interviews that wouldn’t have tackled issues like racism and violence in other places. When SoundScan technology was introduced to record stores in 1991, the more accurate sales tracking method had a huge impact of the recording industry, demonstrating that hip-hop was one of the genres that was much more popular in actual sales than what was being reported at the store level. Giant shifts in youth culture occurring that same year, including the alternative explosion led by Nirvana, the virtual death of “hair metal,” and N.W.A. taking their Efil4zaggin album to number one on the charts, cemented the notion that music overall had changed. There was now irrefutable proof that hip-hop was a permanent part of the landscape.
Ice Cube’s 1993 hit “It Was A Good Day” is one of many songs to directly reference Yo! MTV Raps in the lyrics.
While the show itself would suffer a perhaps inevitable decline in popularity, that was due in part to the fact that rap and hip-hop culture had thoroughly permeated popular music to a degree that specialty programs weren’t necessarily required to get the music in front of viewers. The original run of the show would sign off in 1995, though different permutations and descendents (like Sucker Free, running on MTV since 2006) would continue. Earlier this year, MTV announced that the Yo! brand would be returning to its digital platforms. As a wise man once said, “Don’t call it a comeback,” because, quite frankly, they’ve been here for years.
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