How ‘Yo! MTV Raps’ Launched Hip-Hop Into the Mainstream
It’s June 1, and Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav stands on Brooklyn’s Barclay Center stage, triumphant after bringing the house down with “I Can’t Do Nuttin’ For Ya Man” and “911 is a Joke.” He takes a moment to give some shout-outs to people, including his absent other half, Chuck D, his niece, and his goddaughter. Now, finally, he’s acknowledging the reason everyone is there, “Yo! MTV Raps was the launching pad for rap music, period. It’s how a lot of (rap) groups got discovered.” Fab 5 Freddy, Ed Lover, Doctor Drè, DJ Skribble and Charlie Settler (Ed and Drè’s former manager and a key figure behind early hip-hop tours including “Fresh Fest”) got the band back together for a night of full-on nostalgia and old-headness in celebration of Yo! MTV Raps’ 30th Anniversary. Artists from Yo!’s initial run from 1988 – 1995 including Special Ed, Das EFX, MC Lyte, EPMD, Big Daddy Kane, Kool Moe Dee, Nice & Smooth, The Beatnuts, Brand Nubian, Eric B & Rakim and KRS-One rocked the stage like it was still the early ‘90s. And all echoed Flav’s sentiments on the importance of Yo! for hip-hop. It’s easy to forget, with hip-hop now influencing and impacting every segment of pop culture, a time when it was niche. When it only existed in pockets for the people who were part of it. Yo! MTV Raps was the first national showcase for hip-hop and was pivotal in in pushing the genre and the culture mainstream and globally, opening the door for an era where hip-hop dominates the streaming and radio charts.
In the late ‘80s, MTV was the home of rock music, with some pop and a splash of black crossover (Michael Jackson, Prince). Rap was still considered by many to be a fad, and not only was MTV not checking for it, but it wasn’t getting love on mainstream radio either. Then a young hip-hop head named Ted Demme joined the on-air promotions team as a PA and immediately started lobbying the network to give hip-hop a look. The network's brass was resistant, but Demme’s immediate boss, Pete Dougherty, was a downtown club kid who was friends with The Beastie Boys and Rick Rubin. He saw the need to give rap a platform on the network but had given up on trying to make it happen. Demme reignited the spark. The idea wasn’t without precedent — MTV Europe was already having success with their iteration of Yo! that launched in 1987 — but despite seeing a positive reaction to the few hip-hop videos they would play (mostly RUN-DMC), the U.S. network heads still weren't with it. When DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s broadly appealing “Parents Just Don’t Understand” became one of the most popular videos on the network in the Summer of ‘88, Dougherty told Demme the timing was right to try again. This time, executives threw him a few thousand dollars to shoot a pilot. The episode was hosted by RUN-DMC directly from the Tougher Than Leather tour and featured the first on-air appearance from a young Will Smith and Jazzy Jeff. It aired on August 6, 1988, and was the highest rated non-special programming in MTV’s history at that point. Execs wondered if Nielsen had made a mistake. Once they realized it was real, they told Demme to have the show ready to air in two weeks, and Yo! MTV Raps as we know it was born.
There were regional shows showcasing hip hop, such as Ralph McDaniels’ legendary Video Music Box in NY, but there was nothing like Yo! nationally (Rap City came a year later, and yes there was beef between the two shows). In the latter half of ’88, Fab 5 Freddy brought real, uncut hip-hop into living rooms across the country every Saturday. Then from 1989 to 1992/93, kids across the country came home, dropped their book bags, maybe changed out of their good clothes and into their play clothes, and sat in front of the TV for Ed Lover and Doctor Drè. The show was light enough and funny enough for younger kids, but also had the content that the older and cooler kids were craving. Dan Charnas, author of The Big Payback (the definitive book about the growth of the hip-hop business) summed up part of the show’s overall influence: “Yo! created a generation of kids who grew up on [hip-hop]. That’s the generation that elects the first black president.”
“What set Yo! apart was the international factor and that this was many people’s first introduction to hip-hop,” Ed Lover explained to Billboard. “You have to remember that people didn’t have access to rap music on the radio or shows like Video Music Box. The introduction of this culture to the world was Yo!” The show was part of MTV Europe, MTV Asia and MTV Latino. Questlove shared in VH1’s Yo! documentary that when The Roots first toured in Europe, most of the English spoken to him was b-boy, hip-hop slang. “I’d be like ‘How do you speak so street?’ They all said unanimously that recording Yo! is how they learned English.”
The show debuted at a pivotal time for both hip-hop and music videos. The two were growing and expanding creatively simultaneously. Hip-hop was made to be paired with a visual because the genre is all about storytelling, braggadocio and lifestyle. Having a home for it on the self-defined network for youth culture had an immediate effect on the business; rap sales jumped from Yo!’s first year on the air. But the show also changed the TV business. For years, it was the rating leader for the MTV the and became the network’s anchor as it expanded into new global markets, helping to carry hip-hop across the world. It also opened the doors for hip-hop, and for hip-hop-influenced programming like In Living Color to come soon after.
At a time when music was still incredibly regional, Yo! bridged culture gaps among hip-hop fans in different cities. Kids in Atlanta didn’t know what was happening in Compton. New Yorkers had no idea how big Luke Skywalker and 2 Live Crew really were in Miami. White suburban kids were just having their minds blown, period. Instead of waiting for artists to pass through New York on a promo run and interview them in studio, Yo! went to the artists: to their hoods, their mama’s houses (LL Cool J’s mom made lemonade), to their studios, and the show had the perfect hosts to act as guides to the world of hip-hop.
Fred Brathwaite, better known as Fab 5 Freddy, was already a respected mainstay in New York’s hip-hop scene, which in the early years intersected with the downtown New York club scene — Freddy is held largely responsible for that intersection. His overall contributions to early hip-hop are too numerous to go through in detail, but here are a few highlights: He was part of the legendary graffiti group the Fabulous 5, eventually transitioning into the high art world and bringing graffiti artists along with him. He conceptualized and co-produced the first movie to focus on hip-hop culture, the iconic Wild Style. He’s the artist behind one of the most sampled rap records of all time, “Change the Beat.” He was on Europe’s first hip-hop tour ever, which included ten cities in France, where no other hip-hop music had ever been released. The “New York City Rap” tour sparked France’s hip-hop movement, and France continues to be the second biggest market for hip-hop in the world, behind America. Closer to the launch of Yo!, Freddy was directing rap music videos and had name recognition outside of his immediate circles due to Blondie name-checking him in “Rapture.” Dougherty knew Freddy well, and recognized he was the perfect hip-hop ambassador for the program. The artists knew him, trusted him and respected him, and he brought a journalistic and documentarian style to the show that led many to call it hip-hop’s 60 Minutes.
When MTV decided to add a daily 30-minute show on top of the two-hour Saturday program, Freddy didn’t want to host. Demme and Dougherty took the opportunity to go in a different direction with the style and energy; light and funny to balance Freddy’s hip hop news journalism. Andrè “Doctor Drè” Brown had been The Beastie Boys' tour DJ, and before that worked with Chuck D. and Flavor Flav at Adelphi University’s radio station. James Roberts, aka Ed Lover, grew up with Demme and had been stalking him since the inception of the show to let him do something, anything. From the moment Ed and Drè met to audition, the chemistry was instant. Hip-hop had its Laurel and Hardy. Both iterations of the show were unscripted and free flowing. Since it was uncharted territory for the higher-ups at MTV, they left the shows alone and allowed the hosts and crew could do basically whatever they wanted, which worked to their favor. Ed, Drè and sidekick T-Money made up skits on the fly; randomly created special show days, such as “Exercise Day” and, of course, “Ed Lover Dance” Wednesdays; programmed all the videos; and created a comfortable just-chillin’-in-the-basement-listening-to-music vibe that made the show a must for any hip hop-affiliated artist that wanted to get on. TLC’s first TV appearance? Yo!. Mary J Blige’s first TV performance? Yo!. You also couldn’t see live core hip-hop performances anywhere else. Talk shows would book Hammer, Heavy, Latifah and Tribe, but they weren’t going to book Cypress Hill — at least not until after Cypress Hill was on Yo!.
From the beginning, Yo! was committed to repping for the culture. Everyone on the show recognized it was a unique space and opportunity to educate people about hip hop. In 1989, the Grammy’s announced the first ever Best Rap Performance award. They also announced that the category wouldn’t be televised. Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff, along with fellow nominees Salt-N-Pepa and LL Cool J, plus a few hip-hop peers and Def Jam launched a boycott of the ceremony. Yo! threw a Grammy boycott party that ended up being one of the hottest tickets of the night, and gave the artists the only important TV platform to talk about the boycott. The show was hip-hop; Ed and Drè were on tour with NWA the night of the famous “F*ck the Police” concert riot. The show has been name-checked in multiple rap songs, Mark the 45 King’s iconic “The 900 Number” was re-released with a label titling it “The Ed Lover Dance" song and appearances on the show are part of the legend and canon for several artists, including Tupac.
By 1991, Yo! was arguably MTV’s centerpiece. The culture was shifting; rock was no longer the voice and energy of the youth movement, grunge and hip-hop were. Riffing on the massive success of “Down With OPP,” MTV cut a new set of promos centering the Yo! talent and key hip-hop artists, “Down With MTV,” and brought the show to the network’s annual Spring Break, where drunk white kids from De Moines screamed and rapped along to every word of the hip-hop songs performed on the Spring Break stage. But the show was more significant than MTV. Yo!’s t-shirts and merchandise were the hottest items on the street; they even had trading cards featuring show talent, producers, and key artists. Other networks had by now launched their own rap shows, and MTV also started expanding its hip-hop and urban programming beyond Yo!. MTV Jams began as a two-hour block in 1992 (eventually evolving into the network’s all urban channel in 2002, and now rebranded as BET Jams). Urban music was more prevalent in mainstream culture overall, and hip-hop culture was quickly becoming the mainstream. While Yo! was still unique in its style and familiarity and intimacy, it was no longer the only place you could go for your hip-hop fix, so ratings started slipping. The show had served its purpose in broadening hip hop's reach and appeal, and in doing so, made itself unnecessary.
Yo!’s final episode aired on August 17, 1995, which a proper hip-hop send-off comprised of one of the biggest and best rap freestyle ciphers ever. After the official finale, MTV ran a revamped version of the show with rotating guest hosts until 1998. With the resurgence of ‘90s culture and nostalgia, MTV announced earlier this year plans to relaunch a digital version of the show. However, Doctor Drè is skeptical of a successful revamp in this current era of music, “Yo! MTV Raps was a snapshot in time. It happened when it was most needed, when the music industry, the nation and the world needed something that would unite everybody to a 1-2-3-4 beat, to a boom and a bap to a zugga-zugga-zugga, to an MC getting down on a microphone. "It’s a difficult reboot," Dré said to Vulture. "Certain things were meant for a certain time. Kids aren’t gonna run home to watch Yo! MTV Raps. Kids are streaming. They make their own music, shoot their own videos, and don’t have to worry if some channel decides to play it… How do you compete against Youtube?”
Yo! left indelible marks on the culture, from the Ed Lover Dance to T-Money’s hilarious characters, memorable interviews and unforgettable performances. Ed and Drè continued to shape hip-hop culture, converting their partnership to a radio morning show at New York’s Hot 97 after they transitioned to an all-hip-hop format. Ted Demme continued directing, moving into film with Who’s the Man? (starring Ed and Drè), Life, and Blow. He died of a heart attack in 2002. Peter Dougherty eventually turned full control of Yo! over to Demme and continued to work within the MTV network, including MTV Europe. He died of a heart attack in 2015.
Billboard asked Fab 5 Freddy about the legacy of Yo!, and expressed his surprise, as nobody expected it to last in the beginning. “Once upon a time all we wanted was a color TV and a swimming pool. Now we have rappers running streaming services and are in big business.”