MNR: Nostalgia Series #3 Uncle Ralph and Video Music Box
The rise of hip hop as a culture and rap as a formidable genre of music are both rooted in accessibility. Hip hop (rap included) has shown itself to be an irresistible force, rising from the ashes of ‘70s burned Bronx tenement buildings and fiscal decay. That very moxie and resilience are what make the music unique and the voice of popular culture. It progressed from park jams (word of mouth) to dub cassette to radio to record to video. Ahh, the video. Video now resides mainly on YouTube and other (smaller) apps, but it still has life on television. BET, MTV, their satellite networks, and other outlets still show videos, though cable stations seem to be an afterthought for the most part. This is inevitably a sign of the [digital] times, as the internet has altered the ways we as humans choose to entertain ourselves. But once upon a time, videos were everything for fans. There was no internet. No social media. The world seemed a lot bigger than it seems now. Quick example: there was no Bloods, no Crips on this side. The movie Colors was most of our formal introduction to west coast gang culture. But coverage of NWA by Fab 5 Freddy and Yo! MTV Raps gave us a candid visual of Compton and what the vibe was out South Central Los Angeles. It was monumental. But years, YEARS before Fab 5 & Yo!, years before Rap City on BET, years before any media outlet gave a flying (or crashing) Boeing 737 fvck about rap music or the culture...there was Uncle Ralph and Video Music Box.
If you’ve never heard of Uncle Ralph or Video Music Box, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not in tune with hip hop history. It probably means that you aren’t from NYC or had cousins from the city who mailed you (or your parents who tell you about these types of things) VHS tapes back when. Video Music Box dates back to 1983, when a young college student and Queens native Ralph McDaniel and co-founder Lionel Martin acted on a vision of where the music and culture were headed and felt compelled to display and document it all. They put the show on Manhattan Public Access (later on an independent NYC station) and presented rap videos AND hip hop culture to hungry audiences for the first time. The videos were huge, no doubt. Uncle Ralph had a five year run where he was the only outlet for rap videos. But in my opinion, the live shots were just as important. He introduced scores of artists to their fan bases from Run-DMC to Jay-Z. One of Eminem’s first appearances on a video show was on VMB. Uncle Ralph has PLENTY live footage of hip hop legends, from interviews to freestyles. He, Lionel, and whomever out the VMB squadron would pop up at diverse settings: concerts, video shoots, clubs, parties, wherever. They put the mic in err day folk face and let them give shout outs and speak their minds on various topics and issues pertaining to the hip hop community. Back to the videos...Uncle Ralph always seemed to get the earliest copy of an artist’s video. When RZA shopped the Wu demo and shot the Protect Ya Neck video he made sure Uncle Ralph had a copy. Early. To this very day, Uncle Ralph still gets the exclusives (yes, VMB is still going strong in year 36). He and the show are a treasure. I still remember the first video I ever saw on VMB: I Got It Made by the legend Special Ed. I’ve been hooked ever since.
I’d like to conclude this blog by petitioning Uncle Ralph himself for a great task. He follows me on twitter so I’m gonna @ him when this blog posts. Anyways...I watched an episode a year or so back when Uncle Ralph went back into his room of VHS archives. He had stuff going back to the ‘80s...still. He joked about it, but I immediately felt the undertone of the moment. Uncle needs someone or a team to convert that VHS footage to a more sustainable form of storage. Digital is ideal, and I’m sure the conversion is possible. But I have no idea how. But I do know an extraordinary young lady with an education and training in archiving who would be ideal to lead the project. Her name is Valerie Saldarriaga. You two should link Uncle Ralph. You and the culture need that footage preserved for future existence. Who else could properly present this hip hop story but Uncle Ralph? Also, I think it’s time for an extensive Ralph McDaniel and VMB documentary. I’m talking Ken Burns. Deadass. To the projects I’m ghost shorty wop, one love. Until next time.
MNR: Nostalgia Series Blog #2 Napster
2020 is three weeks away. Crazy, right? Time really is Illmatic. It really does fly. Another decade in the books. As a 41 year-old, I can truly say that I’ve watched four decades come to an end: I was 11 in ‘89, 21 in ‘99... you get the picture. I can recall being young world, riding around in something American, four doors with the couch in the back, eight track player for sounds. I remember a couple player-type cats who listened to music in their cribs on reel-to-reel. I owned tapes, CDs... then came the digital era. But I wonder if you remember that digital media didn’t exactly catch fire overnight. There was a good half a decade before the iPod dropped and another year or so after that before it caught fire and outshined other inferior mp3 players. Ahh...mp3. When it hit the masses, it might as well have been named C3PO. Fvck I need one of them for? I don’t e’en own a damn computer! Sadly, that was the case for a lotta Black folk just a decade and a half ago. Thank the Lord for the babies and their natural interaction with technology through birth and education. People my age were especially slow to the wave. Internet was introduced to me my senior year at HCHS (‘95-‘96). One kid in my classes had it in his home, and he told us he only had 12 hours worth (AOL) a week (yeah, you paid by the hour day one). Shit, I graduated VUU with a BA in Journalism and a Poly Sci focus having done every term paper on Robert T’s word processor. There were only so many computers on the yard. And honestly, I was comfortable with the word processor. Didn’t have to leave the dorm room. But back to the music. So yeah, I was slow to the iPod party. Ten introduced me to the Gen 1 when I lived in Highbridge. Jermil boothed it from some sucker on the train and gave it to him. But I wasn’t fvcking with it. Didn’t see the need. I loved my twin towers of CDs. But I did have plenty of prior mp3 experience. Just didn’t have a player. And nah, I’m talking way before mediashare or megaupload or any of those other (safe) file sharing (stealing) web sites (big ups to my bro Sean). I’m even talking way before limewire. I’m talmbout the OG of music sharing. I’m talmbout Napster.
I hear a lotta folk talk about Napster and how they rocked with it back when, but when they talk I can tell most were either lying about being on it or they were on it when it was lame, after Lars from Metallica sued the shit outta Napster (and won). But I really lived it. I was a half year removed from VUU, back at my mama crib. Beginning of ‘01. She’d just copped a PC so she could do her papers for her Masters classes. But I ended up dominating the computer. I even did her papers for her. But back to Napster. I don’t even remember how I found out about Napster. I just remember downloading it one day. Dial up era. Somebody call the crib and break the connection era. I had it for a minute but I decided to finally give it a try one evening watching 106 & Park. The first song was Lil Mo “Superwoman” feat Fabolous. That’s my shit. It definitely took over an hour but I got the track. That takes us to Napster memory #1: it took FOREVER TO DOWNLOAD A SONG. Dial up was a bitch. Some downloads were faster than others. And, of course, the bigger the file the longer the download. So needless to say there wasn’t any album downloading back then. You got it a track at a time. If you could find it. And that’s if the file is the whole track. And it was common for a song to be more than half downloaded and it just stop and be lost. Gotta start at 0% again. And the bitch on top of all that shit??? If you do manage to download the file after all those hurdles, the file may be corrupted in some sort of way. There was no way to guarantee you downloaded a clean file. The most common corruption was a piece of the song being sped or slowed or choppy. And the bitch on top of the bitch? If you downloaded another file of a corrupted song, there was a 99.9% chance that file came from the same source as the one you already had, and THAT MF WAS FVCKED UP TOO. Sheesh. Can a young nucca stealing music off the net in the earliest days of song stealing off the internet live? But hey, if you stayed loyal you had a nice lil playlist of songs on your PC. There was no internal CD burner or source to plug in any type mp3 on PCs because internal burners and mp3 players weren’t common yet. Some did it big and had hundreds of songs. I didn’t have the patience. But it was new. It was different. It was cool. But the irony is that music was only a part of the Napster lore. The true legend was in the chat rooms.
If I type a/s/l would you have any type idea what I’m talmbout? I’m showing my age with this one (as usual). A/s/l was the way to spark a conversation with one or everyone in the chatty. It was an acronym for age/sex/location. Needless to say, that answer could spark a whole other type of scenario (hook up scenarios). But that wasn’t my experience I’m real enough to admit. But I did have a ball in the Napster chats. Met plenty of cool ass folk from all over the states and the world on there. I’m talmbout on a random Saturday night there would be 2.6M MF in all the chats. Screen scrolling like crazy. MF maccing. MF talking crazy to other MF. MF battling (I was MF). MF making real connections. There were some real funny people in the chats. There were some really interesting people. I remember being in a chat with a twelve year-old kid from the Chi on house arrest. Couldn’t go outside. Some violent shit, so he said. Plenty freaky white girls. It was sorta like Twitter, just far less organized and no type stored memory. But you did have your chatty handle, which you created, and stayed the same if you let it be. And if you were a regular in a particular chat, you befriended other regulars and mobbed on lames in the room. It was cool. It was real cool. It was different. Internet was really starting to come into homes like that. The web was far less extensive than it is today. It was half a decade before the earliest social media. It was one of the first broad platforms where the world was able to interact. Who woulda known...
After Lars sued Napster and won it survived, but it was never the same. Most of us left it. It became somewhat of a premium site from what I recall. People weren’t quite ready to pay for music on the net. And limewire had taken off around that time. It became the new Napster until it suffered a similar fate. But it could never touch Napster in the ethos of popular culture. Napster was a whole vibe. Napster was a new generation saying fvck the world, the FCC, and the music industry. It was new age bootlegging, digital style. Only this time there was no middle man. There was no African on 2fifth or Haji dem out the 7-Eleven by Norfolk State bootlegging the product. It was a clean jux. I miss the vibe that being on Napster brought. It was the first time I looked at a computer as something other than a work tool. It’s my time y’all. Blessings.
.MNR: Nostalgia Series Blog #1- The Deuce (42nd Street/Times Square)
What comes to mind when I mention The Deuce? Dallas BBQ? Loews Theater? Port Authority? Word. I bet all that pops up in your mental. I’m sure you’ve heard all types of stories from your older NYC/Jerz family that’s true, but there’s so much more to the story. There’s an origin to everything. Much of it may surprise you. Example: I’m sure everyone’s familiar with the term gentrification (look out for my academic essay The Gentrification of East Harlem and America, an entry from my next book 100 Blocks Stories 2), but did you know that the gentrification of NYC actually has roots in Times Square or that the initiative began in the late ‘70s? Yup. But we’ll get to that later. Let’s begin with the crossroads of the world, Times Square.
Times Square actually used to be named Longacre Square. It was rechristened Times Square in 1904 when The New York Times moved its headquarters to the brand-new Times Building (now One Times Square). It grew as a performing arts mecca after World War II, becoming a hub for theater, music halls, and hotels. Its world-famous electric signs and marquees became part of Times Square in the ‘20s as advertising blew up. It became the location for New Years’ Eve and the iconic ball drop at midnight. Yadda, yadda, yadda…
42nd St began its decline in the ‘60s, but by the ‘70s its reputation as The Deuce was well earned as it became the scum bucket of the city. Fiscally, the city was dead broke, and when a city is dead broke, budgetary cuts to the public sector come first and they come heavy. With basically 30% of the NYPD lost to budget cuts and many of the pigs left being utterly fucking corrupt, The Deuce became the devil’s playground. Hookers openly turned tricks on The Deuce with little objection from the law, barely having to go a few steps to take a john to one of many short stay hotels that were established purely for hooker/john fuck sessions and transient stay. And when the squeeze did come, it was merely to take the sex trade indoors so that it was out of sight from the untrained eye. With this came the rise of indoor massage (sex) parlors and the evolution of XXX peep shops from just dirty magazines to reeled loops, the first XXX movies. Some unknown genius came up with the idea to make private stalls for dirty boys to shake one or more off in privacy. Private booths with windows that opened and shut were created to watch live naked ladies dance. Eventually the fiberglass shield was taken out the windows so men could touch the ladies for tips. Of course, the mob had its hands in it all, making money hand over fist. As the traditional pimp/whore relationship began to decline, the porn and sex industry began to explode. The Deuce was the east coast epicenter for it all. And Port Authority? Port Authority was absolutely disgusting. Many an out of town pilgrim cutie with hopes of big city fame and stardom fell victim to pimps before they made it from the basement to street level. The Deuce was absolutely out of control. But in the late ‘70s, along came an ambitious mayor named Edward Koch, a native New Yorker of Jewish descent. He was actually able to carry out the dream that began with mayors Lindsay and Beame. They realized that the key to getting NYC back on track was business and tourism. Business would inherently attract workers to move to the city seeking employment. More residents and big tourism feed and stimulate the city’s economy. So, in theory, economic redevelopment/revitalization led to the gentrification of cities. But they knew that a high crime area was a turnoff to tourists. So, they began to clean The Deuce slowly but surely. The groundwork had just begun but it would see itself through by the end of the millennium.
The ‘80s are now seen from a nostalgic standpoint. Most who are old enough to have frequented the Deuce during that era recall the kung-Fu and XXX theaters, sex shops like Playland and Show World, the Brooklyn wolf packs (groups of 10-40 kids who ran reckless through The Deuce) and the Lo Lifes (the BK crew that introduced the hood to Polo; they boosted from Macy’s and Bloomingdales in packs). Add them to all the aforementioned fuckery from the previous decade, and The Deuce was in its heyday. Port Authority was still shitty and dangerous, and the element of crime was still superfluous. But that change I spoke on? It was quietly making strides. Personally, I always look to one or two major changes when it comes to a city or an area of a city making its comeback. Many look at Magic bringing his movie theater to Harlem on 2fifth in spearheading Harlem’s comeback in the early ‘00s. It gives other businesses the green light of confidence to bring their industries into the mix. For The Deuce, it was the Marriott Marquis. The project began in the ‘70s as a Western International Hotels initiative but was abandoned for lack of cash flow. Marriott picked it up, it opened in ’85, and the rest is history. So back to this change that came to The Deuce. It came under the umbrella of economic redevelopment. The suits realized that Times Square was prime Manhattan real estate, ripe to explode. They also realized that they were bringing in little to no money in business taxation. As soon as they were able to dig through paperwork, they were able to identify the shady property owners throughout The Deuce and pressure them out in a variety of ways. Those more compliant would take buyouts. Massage parlors on The Deuce and gay bathhouses throughout the city were closed in the mid ‘80s amidst the AIDS scare (crisis). The initiative would come full circle in the ‘90s.
The ‘90s…that was my era. I was 16, 17 running wild through The Deuce during those unforgettable mid ‘90s summers. By then all of the theaters were shut down, from kung-Fu to XXX. But the sex shops were still in abundance, and I must admit, I was a dirty little boy. I can actually say that I’ve been in a booth with the raised window. I’ve touched plenty of titties for dollars. Window closed fast AF. But it was well worth it to a 16-year-old me. And the booths with the movies? Fuhgeddaboudit. By then they had evolved from a single loop to four screens at once with buttons to flip a channel at a time. And let me tell you: some of those channels had some utterly sick shit on ‘em. No problem. Just press the shit out that particular button. I had a time. Soon after, Giuliani got that law passed that a sex shop couldn’t be within 500 yards of a church or school. Try finding that shit in the city. So slowly but surely all the sex shops closed. Candy Land, NY began to take form. Fast forward to present time and The Deuce is absolutely nothing like it was. Now it’s Disney, Madam Toussaint’s, Dave & Busters. And that’s a good thing, culturally. And oh yeah, the hookers…you may wonder where they went. I mean, ain’t no business like hoe business. The game don’t stop. And you already know the answer to your question. They relocated to the X. Hunts Point. Pure facts. So, next time you’re upstairs at BBQ sipping on your Texas Size Famous Frozen Drink with the Coronita and shooter while you’re looking out the window waiting for your Hennessy wings, imagine it’s ’72 era outside downstairs and anything goes. That’s the MF Deuce. Peace y’all. It’s my time.