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“The Box That Rocks”

Video Music Box creator Ralph McDaniels talks about hip-hop history at a museum honoring his program.

By Amanda Angel

For the past 30 years, Ralph McDaniels has put little stock in the music industry’s predictions for hip-hop’s future. “Every five years, some advertising person would say, ‘Wow, this hip-hip thing is getting big,’ ” he recalls. “They said it in 1983; they said it in 1985; they said it in 1990 and then 1995. And I’d say, ‘It’s big already, forget about it.’ ”

If anyone would know, it’s McDaniels. The man whom MCs and rappers call Uncle Ralph has been helping cast hip-hop figures into the spotlight since he started the WNYC-TV show Video Music Box in 1983. McDaniels launched it as an outlet for rising rappers as well as minority voices, introducing acts like Run-D.M.C., the Notorious B.I.G. and Biz Markie to an NYC television audience, including influential music insiders. “Ted Demme told me Video Music Box inspired him to come up with a rap show when he finally got a job at MTV,” says McDaniels. The program was called Yo! MTV Raps, and it beamed urban culture from New York and Los Angeles to homes across America.

Three decades after the channel’s debut, the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Art has mounted a tribute to McDaniels and his small-screen creation with “The Box That Rocks: 30 Years of Video Music Box and the Rise of Hip Hop Music & Culture.” The exhibit displays paintings, photography and multimedia works by more than a dozen artists, including Jamel Shabazz and Fab Five Freddy, who were inspired by the long-running show. On Saturday 7, McDaniels will talk with several of the artists—including Malik Y. Cumbo, Delphine Fawundu, Tahir Hemphill and Ali Santana—who crafted works commemorating the show’s widespread influence. Visitors will also see clips from old VMB episodes featuring New York rappers like Big Daddy Kane and a young Jay-Z, who would drop by McDaniels’s studio with his Roc-A-Fella Records partner Damon Dash to deliver new independently produced music videos.

After so many years in the scene, McDaniels has built up an almost definitive archive chronicling the history of hip-hop. “People don’t realize that we were the only camera there” early on, says McDaniels. “When you watch a Behind the Music [episode], especially for the hip-hop artists, that’s a lot of our footage in there.” However, the show still maintains a beat on the future of NYC’s urban culture. McDaniels hits clubs like the Point in the Bronx and other showcases several times per week, in addition to listening to dozens of demos undiscovered artists send him, looking for original voices to highlight on air.

Over the next year, TV viewers will be able to watch Video Music Box’s classic moments as the show prepares for its 30th birthday celebration in August 2013. “Hip-hop has been one of the most influential things in culture over the last 20 years,” says McDaniels, who’s also working on a new coffee-table book and organizing a free city parks concert for the anniversary. “And we want to make sure that young people understand what the original idea was when we got involved in it.”

HIT IT! “The Box That Rocks: 30 Years of Video Music Box and the Rise of Hip Hop Music & Culture,” Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Art (MoCADA), 80 Hanson Pl at South Portland Ave, Fort Greene, Brooklyn (718-230-0492, Sat 7 at 6pm; $5, seniors and students $4, children under 13 free.


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