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In 1984 a music video show began airing on WNYC-TV, a public television station owned by the city. It was the first TV show documenting hip-hop music and culture, and it's still on today.
In the '80s, hip-hop heads ran to a TV at 3:30 p.m. six days a week to catch the latest rap, R&B and pop videos on Video Music Box. MTV declined to air almost all of them and commercial radio wasn't playing hip-hop either, except on Friday in the middle of the night. So Video Music Box was the first and best place to hear and see the rapidly evolving hip-hop culture act out its dreams, its jokes and its dance moves. In between videos, the show aired live performances and conversations with hip-hop luminaries and movers and shakers in the community, all shot on the street and in New York City-area businesses.
Some people call the time when Video Music Box was at its height — about 10 years from the mid-'80s to the mid-'90s — the golden era of hip-hop. The period produced rap music and videos with a mostly East Coast sensibility that valued cool, heady lyricism and family, both honorary and blood.
The man who created and still hosts the show, Ralph McDaniels, was there for all of it, and he's got the footage to prove it. He broke legendary musicians and put young black entrepreneurs and entertainers on TV. Because McDaniels also worked with the giants of young hip-hop as a music video director and producer, he's earned enough affection and respect over the years to be widely known as Uncle Ralph.
McDaniels has stories we want to share, so every other Friday on The Record he'll pick a classic video and take us behind the scenes of the golden era of rap. We kick it off with Big Daddy Kane's 1988 hit "Ain't No Half-Steppin'."
Big Daddy Kane's rapidfire wordplay influenced a whole generation of MCs, including the Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, Nas, and Raekwon. Kane was a member of the Juice Crew, which was a loose collective of musicians that included Marley Marl, Kool G Rap and Biz Markie. The video for "Ain't No Half-Steppin'" was filmed in Soho, says McDaniels. The Manhattan neighborhood was the epicenter of the '80s downtown art scene that was co-mingling with and supporting early hip-hop music.
"We shot this video in the Puck Building on Lafayette street. A lot of videos were shot at that particular time in that building. The whole idea was to compare hip-hop to a sport, and in this case it was boxing and it was cards. The whole idea is that it's a game and Kane is the champion — he's the Muhammad Ali of hip-hop. You can't beat him.
"When [Kane] first came on the scene he was wearing fatigues and Timberlands. People wanted him to stay that type of guy, but he never wanted to be your typical rapper. Kane didn't wanna be typical anything. Kane would get fancy suits, button-down shirts and outfits from Dapper Dan, which was the designer of choice at that particular time."
Produced by Marley Marl, "Ain't No Half-Steppin'" prominently samples "Blind Alley" by Chicago girl group The Emotions. McDaniels says Kane's loverman persona was key to his appeal.
"The sample in it was a hip-hop classic — people used to play the original song. So it was a familiar-sounding song. Older people liked it because it sounded like the original record, and then Kane was smooth on it; it wasn't too hardcore. He was just smooth — that was the whole idea of Kane, and Kane's appeal to women. Women loved Kane, I mean, falling out on the floor. Forget about it. Everybody knows the Madonna stories. He's in her book, and they're in the pool. And it was known in hip-hop, you know, 'Kane's tapping Madonna.' It's all good.
"But Madonna was down. Funny thing about Madonna is that Madonna was down in the hood from day one. Because people thought, in the beginning, that Madonna was Puerto Rican. Madonna just fit into the whole scene, and then she became this great icon.
"People had no idea, but black people broke Madonna. Black radio broke Madonna. She wasn't on [New York's Top 40 station] Z100, that's for sure, but DJs in the clubs — you gotta look at it, the Lower East Side is where punk and hip-hop really got their jump off into mainstream. It came from the Bronx and it came from Brooklyn, but once you got downtown and you got in the Village, you started mixing it up with these corporate cats and people started recognizing. Next thing you know it was in the hands of somebody at Sony or Warner Bros.
"The same process that Madonna went through is the same process that Kane went through. There was a connection there. It's not that far-fetched. Madonna was in the original opening of Video Music Box — Prince, James Brown, Run-DMC, Bob Marley, A-ha — it all meshed together. It was all hip-hop to us."
McDaniels says that despite Kane's tough-guy rhymes, there was no way he was going to do a video without dancing.
"It was Kane and Scoob Lover and Scrap Lover — those were the two dancers, Scoob and Scrap — and Mr. Cee. Kane and his dance routines were totally different than what everybody else did.
"Salt 'n Pepa, Heavy D and Kid 'N Play — it wasn't gonna be anything like what they did. To me it was a lot more funky, a lot more James Brown-ish. It was very much that kind of vibe — they could break into a freestyle. It wasn't like a routine all the time, even though they knew what they were gonna do for each song when they got on stage. I joke with Kane; recently I said, 'I never thought that you were the greatest dancer, but you pulled it off.'
"The thing is, with Kane, he did things that you didn't expect. There was no guy that was talking that hardcore that was dancing; it just didn't make sense to everybody, like, 'He's too hardcore to dance.' But he understood the entertainment factor of it, and I believe that he liked to dance. He's like your uncle at a party — he loves to dance.
"His dancers were underrated, Scoob and Scrap. They were really good. I always say they were two of the most underrated dancers in the business."
The actors in the video include everyone from an Olympic gold medalist to street muscle.
"In this video Kane is playing cards with a known thug from Brooklyn. He was down with the Juice Crew, but when he wasn't doing videos he could probably stick you up somewhere. It was important sometimes — and still is — to have a known thug in your video — I'm sure Lil Wayne has 'em in his videos and Chris Brown probably has one. It's like, 'That guy is a real thug right there. So if Chris Brown is hanging out with him, or if Kane's hanging out with him, we better back off.'
"Because artists used to get ripped off on a regular basis. You see the jewelry that they wear. And they're not thugs. Most of them are not thugs. So it was good that you, every once in a while, showed some people that were thugs in your video. That's who that guy is that's playing cards with him, the guy that shows the Joker.
"And the rest were Juice Crew affiliates. The Juice Crew was originally started in Queens, which was MC Shan and Marley Marl. Kane represented the Brooklyn side of it, and he came with Biz Markie. He wanted to show the Juice Crew has some Brooklyn affiliates in it.
"So [Brooklyn-born] Mark Breland, who was an Olympic gold medalist boxer, is in this video. [He] went on to become a professional boxer, helps a number of boxers train, worked with Mike Tyson. There's a belt that they raise up, after [Kane] wins the card game — that's Mark Breland's championship belt, because at the time he was the welterweight champion.
"Boxers have always been part of hip-hop. It's kind of strange. I guess it's because it's a sport, and they're the probably same age and it's kind of aggressive, so it kind of fits. 50 Cent hangs out with Floyd Mayweather now. Rakim hung out with Mike Tyson. There always seems to be some kind of affiliation between boxers and hip-hop artists and basketball players. They're all kind of into the same thing.
"It's all about impressing the girls. It's all for the women, at the end of the day. To be honest with you. At least back then, it was all about, 'I want to impress this woman, so look, I've got Mike Tyson with me.' Mike Tyson's going, 'You see Kane is right here! Kane is here.' It's all the same."