HARLEM — In 1983, Ralph McDaniels, an engineer at a city-owned television station, began receiving videos from record companies of their artists performing songs in the studio.
"I said it should be a show. I wasn't clear on exactly what it was going to be, but I knew it was something," McDaniels said.
Executives were resistant. But when McDaniels played the videos during a fundraiser for the station, the phones began ringing off the hook. Video Music Box, an iconic New York show that helped promote the careers of hip-hop artists like Wu-Tang Clan, Nas and Jay-Z, was born.
Three decades later, the show and its theme music, Whodini's "Five Minutes of Funk," are still blaring over the city's airwaves and McDaniels, affectionately known as Uncle Ralph, still uses the show as a springboard for hungry new artists and to promote hip-hop culture.
"I tell people I am a hip-hop pioneer but also a music video pioneer. When I first started in 1983 it was new," said McDaniels, who also hosts the show, which plays Wednesdays at 11:30 p.m. on NYCTV. In the time since he began, he has amassed more than 20,000 hours of video footage in his library, to the point where now, "even the record companies are coming to me asking for copies of footage."
McDaniels is kicking off a year of celebrating Video Music Box's legacy Tuesday at 6 p.m. at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The event will feature a panel discussion with hip-hop pioneers Melle Mel and Afrika Bambaataa and rising artist Joey Bada$$ along with a screening of clips from the Video Music Box documentary that McDaniels is working on.
"I knew this was a passion but I didn't see that it would go this long," McDaniels admitted.
Martha Diaz, the Schomburg Center's hip-hop curator, said Video Music Box has left its mark over the last 30 years.
"Video Music Box was and still is a catalyst for hip-hop culture. For the last 30 years, Video Music Box has informed the community about the history of the pioneers, showcased and played music videos by emerging and established artists, supported activists and politicians, and highlighted businesses," said Diaz.
"We are proud to celebrate Ralph McDaniels' vision, tenacity, and love for the community."
Sometimes even McDaniels can underestimate the effect of the show, one of the first to feature hip-hop music.
Three years after Video Music Box began, McDaniels pitched the idea to MTV of doing a hip-hop music video show. MTV passed, saying the audience wasn't ready for a full show about hip-hop, McDaniels said. But just two years later "Yo! MTV Raps" was born.
Once, McDaniels was speaking on a panel with Gloria Carter, mother of Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter, who was promoting her son's foundation. McDaniels didn't know who Mrs. Carter was but she knew him.
"She said I knew who you were because my son watched you on television every day," McDaniels said.
Showing videos isn't all McDaniels has done over the last few decades. With his partner Lionel “Vid Kid” Martin, he has also produced more than 400 music videos, including classics such as Wu Tang Clan's "C.R.E.A.M." and Nas' "It Ain't Hard to Tell."
McDaniels said Nas tapped him for help putting out his first electronic press kit, because he wanted it to look just like Video Music Box. McDaniels recalls going to Queensbridge Houses where Nas grew up and meeting his mother while hanging in the courtyard and discussing the promotion.
"All the older guys from Queensbridge said 'This is the guy. We think this is the one,'" McDaniels said. "Nas was like Neo from the Matrix."
That '90s period, often described as hip-hop's golden era, was also his favorite, said McDaniels.
"You had a Wu-Tang, Nas or Biggie all coming onto the scene," said McDaniels. "Biggie was following Video Music Box, Jay-Z was following us. I hung out with and worked with Rza when he was still Prince Raheem. To watch that whole transition was amazing."
His was one of the only mostly black video-production companies around at the time, including Spike Lee's 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks. In addition to videos, McDaniels also shot commercials. Some future stars of the industry such as director Hype Williams passed through the Video Music Box camp.
McDaniels said while the heyday of music videos from the 1990s has died down, sites like YouTube have sparked a resurgence.
"We're in a good space right now because the record label entity is out of the way and technology has allowed a 15-year-old kid in Iowa to make a song and video and post it on a social network site and become popular," McDaniels said.
The theme of the show's 30th anniversary is "Bridging the Gap between the True Skool and New Skool,” he said, in a nod to making sure younger artists understand that one of hip-hop's early mantra's was "peace, unity, love and having fun."
"Then you understand where this music comes from. When I was growing up I knew who Earth, Wind and Fire and James Brown were. That's the music we sampled that made hip-hop what it is today," he added.
As for the future of Video Music Box, McDaniels feels like the show needs to be around to help the next generation of artists.
"We will continue until someone pulls the plug because there are new artists but no space for them on MTV or BET," said McDaniels. "We continue to be a place to break new music, so I think it will live forever."