The Big Payback Presents: The 25 Biggest Business Moves in Hip-Hop History

#19: Yo! MTV Raps Conquers MTV and America

The grand experiment called Music Television may have been innovative, but the people who initially programmed the channel weren’t so enlightened. Modeled after “album-oriented rock” radio, the playlists of MTV throughout the early ’80s were almost exclusively white. Even when Motown rock-funk artist Rick James complained loudly about the station’s blatant racial segregation, MTV executives yielded little and admitted nothing. The musical color barrier was fractured by Michael Jackson’s undeniable Thriller, but black artists continued to be more the exception than the rule on the channel.

Hip-hop, viewed then as a subset of black music, was treated as an occasional oddity. A clever video commissioned by Profile Records for Run-DMC’s “Rock Box” brought the first rap clip to MTV in 1984. But the next breakthrough video wouldn’t come for another year, Run-DMC’s “King of Rock.” The “rap is rock” metaphor seemed to be the only way that hip-hop could make it onto MTV: Run-DMC’s remake of “Walk This Way” in 1986, the Beastie Boys’ “Fight For Your Right To Party” in early 1987.

It was around this time that a young production assistant in MTV’s promotions department began agitating his bosses to let him create a rap video show. Initially ridiculed, Ted Demme’s argument was helped by the ascendance of a new rap video, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” It was a perfect teen record that finally opened MTV executives’ minds and loosened their purse strings.

When Ted Demme and his boss Pete Dougherty finished their pilot in the summer of 1988, MTV programming chief Lee Masters tried to restrain Demme’s unrealistic expectations. The program would likely get low ratings, Masters said. It didn’t. In fact, the Yo! MTV Raps pilot was one of the highest rated shows in the history of the channel. Soon thereafter, MTV greenlit a weekly series hosted by Fab 5 Freddy. When that show shot to the top of MTV’s ratings, they ordered a weekday show, hosted by Dr. Dre and Ed Lover. By the early ’90s, the ascendance of Yo! MTV Raps had completely changed the complexion and musical inflection of the channel. By the time Yo! was cancelled in the mid-’90s, Black artists and Black music were no longer an exception, but an integral part of MTV’s programming.

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