Hip Hop & MTV: A Cultural Symbiosis

In 1981, a revolution in music, television and mass media began. MTV (Music Television) was launched at 12:01AM on August 1, bringing with it innovations in television and music for years to come. Two years earlier, in October 1979, the Sugar Hill Gang released “Rapper’s Delight,” the first major mainstream rap album. Hip hop’s roots began about half a decade earlier than the birth of MTV, yet the events that have occurred between hip hop and MTV are reminiscent of centuries dedicated to socio-economic and racial segregation. Although much tension has existed between these two media entities, neither would have experienced such unbridled success without the other. In a world where the music industry expands every day, it is almost impossible for music and artists to remain independent of the marketing machine. MTV’s reluctant acceptance of this renegade genre helped propel the once fledgling network into media dominance.

This year, MTV was broadcast to approximately 2.1 million homes across 225 cable systems in the nation (Fry). It brought music videos and concerts to the masses 24 hours a day, interspersed with music news and interviews. The network aimed at a younger audience; the sets and lighting flourished under a small budget, and the majority of dialogue on the show was improvised. The play list consisted of approximately 120 videos at first, most of which were from European bands where video clips of artists were often used as promotional tools. American artists only began to embrace this medium with the advent of MTV, which gave the music clips a venue. MTV coined the term “vee-jays,” a spoof of the radio dee-jay (disc jockey). The original video jockeys included Alan Hunter, Martha Quinn, Mark Goodman, Nina Blackwood and J.J. Jackson. Four of which them were amicable, non-threatening young people.White peopleWhite people; J.J. Jackson was the only Black vee-jay. He was a recognized soul musician in the late 1960’s and thirty-years-old when he started working for MTV. This lack of racial diversity among the vee-jays is indicative of the limited musical styles played on the channel. MTV followed a whiteWhite rock format, broadcasting groups such as Duran Duran, the Eurhythmics and Journey.

At the birth of MTV, hip-hop was entering another level of maturity. All four elements were fully established by this time:, graffiti, djingDJing, mcingMCing, and break dancing were common sights to the New York City resident. It was clear that a subculture had formed in the South Bronx and surrounding areas. The music that was emerging from this subculture was infiltrating the New York ghettos, inspiring youth and giving young Bblack men and women a creative outlet that allowed them to remove themselves from the harsh life of the street for a brief moment. The power of this musical revolution was evident to anyone exposed to the culture. In the early eighties, the elements of hip-hop began to receive media notice. Graffiti had become a citywide issue, police constantly broke up subway battles, and break dancing was becoming a hard-to-miss street spectacle. In 1982, Charlie Ahern began to shoot Wild Style, “a vibrant little film (George 13)” (George 13) with such hip hop artists as Fab Five Freddie, Quinones, and more to capture what was happening across the city in the early eighties. Although the film focuses on graffiti, all elements are represented in an excellent time capsule of the emerging genre. Hip-hop was an established genre, but still remained excluded from MTV.

As MTV began to expand during the early eighties, a backlash hit in 1982, when the network met with criticism regarding its refusal to include different genres of music, especially music by minority artists, in its programming. The network hid behind the fact that it was a rock-oriented channel and non-rock music did not fit with their format. It was an issue of a music barrier, not a color barrier. Network executives, amazingly, also used the excuse that inner cities were not wired for cable and therefore could not receive the channel anyway (New York and Los Angeles cable systems did not carry MTV until the end of 1983). This dilemma finally received heavy media attention in early1983 when Rick James was interviewed for the Los Angeles Times (as quoted in Rolling Stone) saying,

“I’m just tired of the bullshit. I have sold over 10 million records in a four-year period… and I can’t get on the channel. I watch all these fluffed-up groups who don’t even sell four records on a program that I’m being excluded from. Me and every one of my peers – Earth, Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder, the Gap Band, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson – have great videos. Why doesn’t MTV show them? It’s like taking Bblack people back 400 years.” (Connelly)

In a study conducted in 1984 over a two-day period on MTV, 83% of the videos featured a whiteWhite male singer or bandleader, 11% featured whiteWhite females and only 5% featured non-whiteWhite musicians of either sex (Brown et al.).

The dam finally broke with Michael Jackson in 1983. Jackson was a major pop superstar by this point and had just released the album Thriller featuring the song “Billie Jean.” Jackson was a CBS recording artist and CBS executives wanted the video on MTV in order to promote the album. It is rumored that when MTV refused to air the video (claiming that it did not fit the format), CBS threatened to pull all of their other artists’ videos off of MTV’s rotation (Kaplan 74). CBS recording artists composed approximately 25% of the videos shown on the network including Pink Floyd and Journey. The tiny network had no other option but to air the video, which turned out to be one of the greatest things that ever happened for MTV. This forced a breakdown of MTV’s initial narrow structure, resultinged in both the explosion of MTV and Michael Jackson’s solo career. The video took Jackson into the homes of millions of Americans and his resulting popularity solidified MTV as a musical force.

Michael Jackson broke down MTV’s color barrier by utilizing rock melodies in his music, including guitar riffs and classic rock ‘n’ roll sounds to appeal to the MTV audience. But Jackson was never considered hip-hop; this genre of music still had many obstacles to overcome before being fully accepted by the network. Many music critics and record labels executives believed that rap was a passing fad and not worthy of media attention. This ignorant belief remained the standard until RunDMC exploded onto MTV with three hit videos over the course of two years: “Rock Box,” “King of Rock” and “Walk this Way” with Aerosmith in 1986.

RunDMC did for hip hop what Jackson did for minority artists on MTV, after they found an audience on the channel, other groups such as the Beastie Boys and LL Cool J were able to find their way onto MTV with relatively little hassle. The popularity of hip hop videos on MTV caused two producers to contemplate the idea of an one hour show dedicated to rap videos. Ted Demme and Peter Dougherty claimed that the show would combat and racism baggage that the network was still carrying by playing music that was “on the cutting edge” (McGrath 173). It’s hard to believe that rap’s roots started over a decade earlier and yet the music was still “on the cutting edge.” Although MTV has always been one step ahead of the mainstream, it has remained three steps behind the underground.

Demme and Dougherty created Yo! MTV Raps, it which followed a top ten format, which allowinged it to be aired at any hour of the day. The first episode aired on August 6, 1988. The producers had intended to see a rating value of .4 or .5 Nielsen points. One week after airing, the show jumped two points as it was quickly accepted by youth around the nation (McGrath 173). One year later, the show became a daily production with two vee-jays that would be forever famous for bringing rap to the fans every afternoon. Ed Lover and Dr. Dre dominated the afternoons. Countless hip hop artists that have emerged since the show, and have credited Yo! MTV Raps and its humorous vee-jays with exposing full hip hop culture to the masses. According to Ed Lover:

“Yo! MTV Raps was responsible for bringing hip-hop to the masses. If you were from Compton, CA, you could understand what was going on in New York via hip-hop and vice versa. We would go interview the late great Eazy E and Tupac Shakur and Biggie and show their videos and we’d go to where they came from and where they lived and shoot shows with them.” (Hoye 98)

Not only was Yo! MTV Raps influential within the rap community itself, it finally gave rap fans a show where they observe their artists’ style, walk, dance, flow and so forth. MTV had been playing the rolel of trendsetter since its inception. Unfortunately, due to its rock-oriented format, large portions of the population were left abandoned. There was no unifying style for rap fans nationwide. Eminem states:

“When Yo! MTV Raps first came out, I was in my early teens and waiting for something like that to come out. When it did, I was like, “this is dope!” because it gave me and my friends a chance to see the artists that we were buying. What they look like. Their style of dress. The way they move, the way they act.” (Hoye 98)

This increased exposure of rap to the mainstream audiences created a surge in record labels’ signing of rap groups. Success in the music world often depends on what will sell on MTV. When a new musical genre attracts this treasured demographic, the industry rushes to get in at the ground floor. It is an endless loop that most recently has caused American popular music to spiral downwards. Music that is popular on MTV is the music that is sought after by record companies, then the companies choose to endorse their MTV hopefuls and regurgitate more music that is guaranteed to be successful. The real detriment lies in the fact that good music that is not guaranteed to be a success on MTV never gets the chance to be successful since it is difficult to get a record contract without some proof of return.

Now that MTV had carved a place for itself in the rap world by bringing the genre to the masses it began to bring the masses to the genre. With the widespread success of Yo! MTV Raps combined with the national appeal of MTV in predominantly whiteWhite suburbs; the message of rap began to reach outside of a Black, inner city audience. White American youth were now being exposed to rap and hip hop, a phenomenon that did not sit well with White American suburban parents. At this time, rap seemed relatively harmless and was generally accepted by the American public. Rappers such as Vanilla Ice and Snow now had the ability to come out and embrace this style. These whiteWhite rappers made the music slightly more palatable for White suburban parents and the genre began to slip into the marketing machine. This trend was quickly halted with the onset of Gangster Rap.

The effects of gangster rap on America are innumerable. MTV was caught at a crossroads. Although there was more money to be had in continuing to support the rap genre, many critics blamed MTV for exposing the youth to the content of gangster rap. The early nineties were rife with controversies over music censorship, from Tipper Gore and the PMRC to Ice-T’s Cop Killer, and MTV found themselves in the middle of a war for the safety of our children.

As hip-hop became a popular accepted form of music, its audience expanded to include pre-teens and young adults, otherwise known as the MTV demographic. Suddenly, White kids from the suburbs were rapping along to NWA’s Straight Outta Compton, wearing baggy pants and talking about bitches and forties. “Kids just want to know,” claims Ice T., “Ttheir parents aren’t telling them things about Black people and they are going to go straight to the source” (Rushkoff 167). Parents were rendered powerless. Their only option was to protest the music itself. Freedom of expression was being questioned and MTV was forced to reconsider its rules regarding censorship.

MTV began as a network dedicated to bringing music to the masses, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It revolutionized the way music was marketed and consumed. The network was a driven by capitalist ethos. Everything on MTV could be sold right down to the clothes on the vee-jay. MTV marketed a style and an attitude from the beginning;, they areit is the ultimate word in what is cool. The toasting and boasting of hip-hop fused well with this attitude. Although there are many disagreements between the two entities, the visual addition to this toasting and boasting emphasized the artists’ desires. Now, not only were rap artists talking about how many pairs of shoes they had, they could show the shoes and the matching wardrobes. MTV did not force the commercialization of hip-hop; rather it only supported the drastic shift towards materialism.

The strange thing is that hip-hop was built on overturning the establishment, destroying the oppressors’ hold on the poor Bblack working manworkingman. By selling out, an artist only becomes part of the institution he/she tried so hard to destroy. Once someone has tasted money, his or her personal values seem a lot less valuable. If one chooses to remain separate from the establishment, the possibility of success quickly dies and the artist is left with a microphone and little else.

Hip-hop is no longer just a musical genre; it is an industry. There are millions of people who have no direct correlation association with the music who make money off of every hip hop album sold. These middlemen are often White and have very little involvement with the music itself. They fund the albums without ever really listening to themit and simply wait for the profits to roll in. Hip-hop is no longer a comprehension of the four elements; it is a style that can be marketed in endless ways. Hip-hop is used to sell cars, soda, clothes, drug-free messages and other manufactured pop stars (Rose 17). It has become the endless jingle of a new generation. The originators have lost a hold of the subculture and it has become its own entity in the public, desperately striving for the bigger better deal.

Although MTV is often derided for its trivial content and its frantic attempts to maintain its target demographic, MTV has offered hip hop something that it desperately needed: publicity. Hip-hop is a style of music that encourages community among individuals of a specific socio-economic class who are suffering on a daily basis to make ends meet. It is a way of reaching out to a demographic and informing them of things that are going on in the world to their people. Hip-hop artists are using MTV to pass their message onto others who are out of reach (see Ed Lover quote), even though the messenger often distorts and censors the meaning. MTV is a public political forum where ideas are expressed and deliberated. Sometimes the positions are set to music; sometimes they are spoken. In the case of Ice-T’s Cop Killer, President Clinton addressed the youth of America on MTV comparing Ice-T to David Duke for his comments regarding killing whiteWhite people (Bleep! 24). According to Goodwin, “rap is the television of Black America” (59). It is used as a news source, a talk show, a soap opera and a sitcom. Hip-hop discusses Black issues.

MTV has blurred this message by defining what will be successful and what should be invested in. It is clear that “message rap” is not popular in American youth culture, perhaps teens do not like it or perhaps because they do not hear it. Either way, the message in message rap is not reaching the masses. There is no way to make message rap popular because MTV executives do not believe that it will be popular. The trick seems to be to convince the executives that an artist is pop friendly and after being signed and in the TRL countdown, sneak in a meaningful track or two.

The music video has also come to define hip-hop. Due to the concurrent emergence of these two entities, they are deeply interwoven to the point that it is difficult to image hip-hop without music videos. Hip-hop is a culture whose meanings rise to the surface through music. This music is then reinforced by the images in the music videos. Topics such as dance, fashion, sexuality, misogyny, anarchy and consumerism, which go to the heart of hip-hop culture, manifest themselves in lyrics. This, combined with the industry’s reception use of the music video as a medium from the onset of MTV, forces the video into a level of importance that equals the song itself. A song like Rump shaker demands a video with women shaking their rumps while a song such as My Adidas requires a video with many shots of nice shoes. The message is not always as simplistic but the images are designed to reinforce the words.

The interlocking aspects of hip-hop and MTV are endless. By rising out of the same time period, there are parallel developments between the two, which often clash. Hip-hop is a musical phenomenon of the late seventies that has given a voice to those who never got the chance to speak. MTV makes those people millionaires .

About charisselpree

The Media Made Me Crazy
This entry was posted in Early Work in Media Studies, Research and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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