MTV Memories: How YO! MTV Raps First Made Hip Hop Mainstream


With MTV officially celebrating its 30th birthday today, music nostalgia is in the air. But for each music fan, the initial introduction to MTV’s music programming was unique and personal, and likely rouses up flashbulb memories to this very day. Speaking only for myself, that initiation process started with YO! MTV Raps.

After being on the air for almost seven years, MTV first aired YO! in April of 1988. While other television outlets like BET were showcasing African-American culture at the time, MTV, quite frankly, wasn’t really in the business of having black artists’ videos on the channel. And hip hop, specifically, was certainly not yet used as a vehicle of pop culture; if it wasn’t an indisputable, mainstream force like Michael Jackson, you probably wouldn’t see African-American artists on-air besides an occasional crossover video from Run DMC and Jazzy Jeff. Unless you witnessed hip hop music and culture bubbling within New York City’s five boroughs or other domestic regional pockets first hand (or watched Video Music Box), the genre probably hadn’t really made its way into your world yet.

From it’s inception, YO! MTV Raps curated an balance of hip hop via in-the-moment self-exploration. Since hosts Fab 5 Freddy, Doctor Dré and Ed Lover didn’t have quite enough content to populate the show’s segments at first, videos from other genres like reggae, funk, R&B and soul were peppered-in to help hip hop’s still-developing definition expand its scope. From that fundamental, harmonious and educational coexistence came more of the same, and soon light-hearted videos like Digital Underground’s “Doowutchalike” and “Humpty Dance” were seamlessly airing beside Public Enemy’s political anthem “Fight The Power” and sonically dynamic “Passin’ Me By” from The Pharcyde, and the South’s sexually-charged posse 2 Live Crew were showcased just as much as funky artists from Queens like A Tribe Called Quest. Additionally, lyrically savvy Juice Crew member Big Daddy Kane would spin alongside the West Coast’s gangster juggernaut N.W.A., and strong female voices like Queen Latifah, MC Lyte and Roxanne Shanté: all women who didn’t need to sell sex to survive.

During its seven-year run on-air, YO! MTV Raps broadened the reach of hip hop exponentially. Still getting its sea legs before inevitably succumbing to hyper-categorization and suffocating brand alignment, hip hop was only starting to see glimmers of the critical and commercial success it generates today. Taking a chance with YO! at the time, MTV successfully used cable’s suburban influence to broker a new level of acceptance of black culture among mainstream audiences, and with it’s new and exciting nationwide jurisdiction, YO! helped achieve precedent-setting-and-exceeding increases in hip hop album sales that would ultimately crown the creativity-booming period of rap’s golden era. Finding their way as they navigated along a more pure path than what we see in contemporary rap marketing plans, the show’s hosts also helped cast a spotlight on future stars like Jennifer Lopez (when she appeared on the show with MC Hammer) and the late Tupac Shakur (when he accidentally acknowledged assaulting the Hughes Brothers during a YO! interview that would eventually cause him to serve jail time). The show’s innovative content allowed geographical regions to join together in celebration and support, and would continue to gather recruits and build endurance for hop hop until YO!’s last season in 1995.

For fans already following hip hop, YO! MTV Raps delivered the sweet smell of validation, and once they received nationwide access, new audiences across the country were met face-to-face with awakened intrigue as well. Growing up without cable, my older brother and I were eternally grateful when our college-age cousin gifted us with a six-hour VHS tape of the show, new to air and refreshingly abrasive to my then six-year-old senses. And since it was a main source of entertainment for us at the time, we watched that tape religiously. Like an exotic food that my brother and I managed to still find intrinsically familiar, the delicious aroma spread to our young noses and seeded an addictive hunger for the music and culture that is now a global phenomenon. Instantly tangible when I hear songs like Special Ed’s “The Mission,” the tug of hip hop reminds me why I wanted to work in the music industry in the first place, and leaves me no choice but to continue gabbing to you guys about something I’m conditioned to hold so dear. Sorry baby, but I gotta do what I gotta.

[Photo: Getty Images]

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