Ralph McDaniels, the creator of “Video Music Box,” reflects on his creation in an interview with Billboard. He talks about how he wanted to create a platform for musicians and viewers alike that would help them connect without gatekeepers.
Ralph McDaniels Reflects on the Creation of ‘Video Music Box’. Ralph McDaniels is a composer who has worked with many big names in the industry. He was the creator of Video Music Box, which was the first digital music box to use computer graphics.
In conjunction with entertainment business Mass Appeal, HIP HOP 50, a multiyear, cross-platform programming venture honoring the 50th anniversary of Hip Hop, began in December. You’re Watching Video Music Box is HIP HOP 50’s debut release, a documentary on the world’s longest-running music video program, Video Music Box. Nasir “Nas” Jones, an Emmy and Grammy Award-winning music icon and Mass Appeal partner, directed the film.
The film follows creative DJ and MC Ralph McDaniels and his program, which has been a Hip Hop fixture since its inception in 1983. Uncle Ralph is a renowned Hip Hop tastemaker, documentarian, and influencer, exhibiting and premiering Hip Hop videos and exposing fans to future performers such as Nas, Jay Z, LL Cool J, Nicki Minaj, and Fat Joe long before they became icons of the genre.
Ralph McDaniels, often known as Uncle Ralph, commented on the founding of Video Music Box and its effect on Hip-Hop over the previous two decades in an interview with The Source.
One of the earliest sites to give a platform for Hip-Hop music was Video Music Box. Looking back, how does it feel to have been a part of the genre’s popularity and evolution for over 50 years?
Ralph McDaniels (Ralph McDaniels): It doesn’t seem like almost 50 years have passed. There’s so much to accomplish in hip hop and documentaries, and it seems like we’ve just just begun. You’re Watching Video Music Box, as you may know, is an educational part of hip hop culture. It’s quite significant. So, there’s still a long way to go, but it’s humbling. It’s awe-inspiring to see. So, yes, this is really fantastic.
You’ve got some classic rap moments in your vault. What made you decide that this documentary was the right moment to release them?
It’s the legacy for me, Video Music Box. In hip hop, as you grow older, you start to worry about being left out of the discourse. So let’s get some of this information out there. People who are regular viewers of the program are aware of it, but the rest of the world is unaware. As a result, we just thought it was the perfect moment. This idea has been in the works for about three, four years. And I’m pleased it went down.
You collaborated with Nas on this and were instrumental in introducing him to the globe. So, in some ways, this is a full-circle moment. How did this documentary come about, and how did you combine both of your creative abilities to make a story?
Spiritually, I believe we are on the same page. He’s a person I originally met in 1994, and there aren’t many artists with whom you maintain communication over time. It was humbling for him to tell me that he wanted to direct this because, given where he’s been in his career, it’s amazing to me that we can still have the same type of discussion.
In the documentary’s one-on-one interview, that energy is visible between you. How does it feel to be on the other side of that, knowing that you’ve talked to so many musicians over the years, or even how does it feel to be the focus of an interview like this?
Being interviewed is always difficult for me, but being asked about anything that has to do with me, like my life and the Video Music Box, is much harder. It’s also tough to sit and listen to people’s queries if they are unfamiliar with me. Nas knows all there is to know about me. He remembers things I forgot because he was a child. As a result, I made a strong impact on him. That, I believe, is what made it so simple for me to sit and chat to Nas since there was no ulterior motivation. I didn’t get the impression that anybody was attempting to figure anything out, but it was entirely cultural.
You didn’t set out to be a personality, a celebrity on camera, or anything like that when you started Video Music Box, yet you finally made it on TV. I’m aware that there is a time of adjustment, and that it makes you more visible. How did you deal with it?
It’s not simple to get used to the camera. I used to be a DJ and worked at nightclubs. I simply let the music take care of everything, you know? So I was simply doing what I was doing and putting it on screen because I didn’t want to be seen. But it was a bit weird at first when the cameras began rolling. I still wander about New York like any other New Yorker, without protection, because I want to be free. I want to be able to make others feel something.
Hip-hop personalities appeal to you as a reassuring personality and how you developed the Uncle Ralph image at that time in the documentary. How did you manage to create a sense of ease in total strangers or folks you’re meeting for the first time in the on-camera product?
Isn’t that the most amusing part? When I first arrived to the club and we were giving shout-outs, I had no idea who these individuals were. That, I believe, is the essence of Hip Hop’s spirituality. When we connect with each other in some way, even if we don’t know one other, we are with each other at that time.
We see in the documentary that your uncle, who worked on James Bond films, drew you to television. Shows like American Bandstand and Soul Train drew you to music, but no one predicted that Hip Hop would survive. What prompted you decide to invest in it at such a young stage and simply throw everything in?
It was my first time experiencing Russell Simmons’ effect on the music business. When I went to Queens, Russell Simmons and I grew up not far from one other. I went to a record business with him one day to see how he was received. People adored him, and it was all because of his music. Wow, this is quite fascinating, I thought. From that point on, I realized there was something unique about Hip Hop. I’m a few years older than Hip Hop’s inception. He was probably two years younger than me when he began in his pocket. So, I was aware of it, but it wasn’t until I saw what Russell was doing that I realized, gosh, this thing has gone off like a rocket.
YouTube is now available, cameras are more widely available, and social media is widely used. How did you track out the right persons to contact in order to make this a reality? And how did you get the means and access to be able to go anywhere you wanted to go?
I worked as a cameraman after graduating from college and moved about. They assured us that we may use the camera on weekends if we wanted to. I was thinking to myself, “Really?” So we had access to this equipment and had no idea what to do with it, right? That’s how we began visiting these various locations and recording Hip Hop musicians. Not just Hip Hop, but also R&B and anything else was popular in New York at the time. I grew up in Brooklyn, which has a large Caribbean population, so I was always interested in reggae performers, silk artists, and anything else was going on. That’s how we were able to see these things on television. We were simply filming it and then tinkering with the editing when it occurred to us that this should be a show. That’s how it all began.
It’s another scene in the film when folks would be in your position. So, let’s say you chatted and hung out at a concert on Wednesday, you interviewed, you caught what was going on, and then they flip around and it’s accessible to watch on Friday and Saturday. But no one was there to observe you working on the program behind the scenes, so how were those days?
That was stressful because I was able to shoot on a Friday and I needed to get that out as soon as possible since it was still fresh in people’s thoughts and we wanted to beat everyone else to it. It wasn’t like it is today, with YouTube appearing on Instagram almost quickly. So, how is it possible that this has already aired on television? Three days later, to be exact. Everyone aspires to be the first. Whether it was at a party or if I had a new Nas video, we wanted to beat.
You’re a pioneer in hip-hop journalism. Did you picture yourself as a leader in this sort of media when you were younger?
Yes, I believe so. When you see a black or Latino person on television, you think to yourself, “Oh, I’m glad there’s someone who looks like me.” So you paid close attention to everything they did because they had to be exceptional. I followed in Don Cornelius’ footsteps and saw how individuals of his magnitude carried themselves, so I knew what to expect.
What do you want the most prominent aspect of this documentary to leave with someone who is seeing it?
I believe the most important thing I don’t want them to take away from this is to stay loyal to the culture and to themselves. Be aware of who is watching and realize that whatever you put on the TV, the screen, the streaming, or whatever it is, other people must like it. I was actually just there to introduce the other folks, so I remained out of the way. I didn’t want to obstruct the message’s communication with the audience.
Find out how to watch. Showtime’s Video Music Box is now playing.