In the 1980s, MTV revolutionized the way people listened to music, and the channel was the place to see the latest and greatest videos -- so long as it was rock and pop. Because, by the end of its first decade on air, MTV was still an inhospitable outlet for black music.
The network had been famously called out by David Bowie and others for the lack of diversity in its playlists. Sure, a viewer could catch Michael Jackson's latest video on MTV, but for the most part, urban artists were ignored. Viewers knew way more about Winger than they did Whodini, and it seemed like that wasn't going to change anytime soon.
"MTV, musically, was run by a lot of people from the radio industry and they had parochial views on how to program the music," former MTV executive Doug Herzog said to TV Guide in a recent interview. "In 1988, we were probably closest to a cool [album-oriented rock] station. Michael Jackson broke some barriers, but we still weren't playing a lot of black music, so the channel was pretty conservative. That being said, MTV was filled with forward-thinking young people who were incredibly passionate about what was going on and [knew] that we needed to be there."
For MTV, one, it was an opportunity to be at the forefront of music that was starting to take off, and two, here was an opportunity to show people we're not a racist channel. Let's kill two birds with one stone.
Enter Ted Demme and Peter Dougherty. The two New York natives -- who were white and died, respectively, in 2002 and 2015 -- had been heavily involved with the city's burgeoning rap scene and urged the network to get in on the ground floor of the booming genre. In response to their pleas, the reluctant network gave the pair permission to do a rap weekend on the network, where MTV played videos and shot wraparounds with several artists. The popularity of that weekend convinced executives that rap would work on MTV.
The next step would be finding a host for the fledgling program, which was scheduled to run once a week. Dougherty, a veteran of the downtown scene, had the perfect person in mind -- the artist, rapper and filmmaker Fred Brathwaite, better known as Fab 5 Freddy. (Ironically, Fab appeared in the first-ever "rap" video played on MTV, Blondie's "Rapture," in which he is named in the song.)
"I never imagined I'd end up on the channel but Peter, a good friend from the East Village scene who I knew well, knew my history with Blondie and making hip hop's first film, Wild Style. He became a producer and campaigned to get a rap music show on the air and got me to host it," Fab 5 Freddy said in an email to TV Guide. "And right away became the highest rated show on MTV."Run-DMC hosted the pilot episode, which featured appearances from DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince in August 6, 1988." data-image-credit="MTV" data-image-alt-text="Yo! MTV Raps" data-image-credit-url="" data-image-target-url="" data-image-title="_Yo! MTV Raps_" data-image-filename="190224-yo-mtv-raps-pilot.jpg" data-image-date-created="2019/02/25" data-image-crop="" data-image-crop-gravity="" data-image-aspect-ratio="" data-image-height="1380" data-image-width="2070" data-image-do-not-crop="" data-image-do-not-resize="" data-image-watermark="" data-lightbox="">
Yo! MTV Raps premiered on Aug. 6, 1988. Run-DMC actually hosted the pilot episode, which featured appearances from DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince. The first video in the show's history was Eric B. & Rakim's "Follow The Leader," and other clips from the Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Doug E. Fresh and J.J. Fad were part of the half-hour program.
"The impact was immediate and massive," said Herzog, who would later rise to President of Viacom's Music and Entertainment Group. "It changed everything. It was a gigantic cultural shift."
The ratings for Yo! were through the roof, rivaling the numbers for special events like the MTV Music Awards. Fab 5 Freddy took the hour-long show across the country, broadcasting unheard corners of the rap world to America and the globe. He memorably interviewed a bulletproof-vest wearing N.W.A. in the streets of Compton, introduced viewers to the Geto Boys in Houston and aided in getting Queen Latifah a record contract.Fab 5 Freddy interviewing a bulletproof-vest wearing N.W.A. in the streets of Compton." data-image-credit="MTV" data-image-alt-text="Fab 5 Freddie, N.W.A, Yo! MTV Raps" data-image-credit-url="" data-image-target-url="" data-image-title="Fab 5 Freddie, N.W.A, _Yo! MTV Raps_" data-image-filename="190224-yo-mtv-raps-nwa.jpg" data-image-date-created="2019/02/25" data-image-crop="" data-image-crop-gravity="" data-image-aspect-ratio="" data-image-height="1380" data-image-width="2070" data-image-do-not-crop="" data-image-do-not-resize="" data-image-watermark="" data-lightbox="">
"I had no idea it would today be the world's biggest popular music but the big factor then in the fall of '88 when Yo! began is hip hop was not played on mainstream radio nearly at all," Fab said.
The formula was so popular that MTV wanted more, hoping to expand Yo! Into a daily show. Fab 5 Freddy declined to host, but this time Demme stepped in with a suggestion, turning to an old connection.
"Ted and I had been friends since we were kids," recalled Ed Lover to TV Guide. "I knew he was heavily into hip hop, and when I saw his name on the pilot, I just started bugging him about being on the show."
For the daily show, MTV went with a different approach, leaning into the comedic talents of Ed Lover and his co-host, former Beastie Boys DJ Dr. Dre, to create a vibe akin to hanging out at someone's house. Yo! MTV Raps Today debuted on March 13, 1989, and instantly became appointment viewing for rap fans looking to get 30 minutes (and later an hour) of the latest rap videos.Ted Demme, producer of 'Yo! MTV Raps' with hosts Ed Lover and Dr. Dre at the MTV Studios in 1988." data-image-credit="Frank Micelotta/Getty Images" data-image-alt-text="Ed Lover, Ted Demme, Dr. Dre, Yo! MTV Raps" data-image-credit-url="" data-image-target-url="" data-image-title="Ed Lover, Ted Demme, Dr. Dre, _Yo! MTV Raps_" data-image-filename="190224-yo-mtv-raps-ed-lover-dr-dre.jpg" data-image-date-created="2019/02/25" data-image-crop="" data-image-crop-gravity="" data-image-aspect-ratio="" data-image-height="1380" data-image-width="2070" data-image-do-not-crop="" data-image-do-not-resize="" data-image-watermark="" data-lightbox="">
"Ted and Peter both had the foresight to say, 'This is something that bubbling, that's really going to be big,'" Ed Lover said. "For MTV, one, it was an opportunity to be at the forefront of music that was starting to take off, and two, there was an opportunity to show people we're not a racist channel. Let's kill two birds with one stone."
The whole Yo! crew -- Demme, Dougherty, Fab 5 Freddy, Ed Lover and Dr. Dre -- would program the videos that would air on the shows, which meant viewers could see not only what was popular on the charts, but also an eclectic group of acts ranging from Too $hort to X-Clan to UGK -- artists people would never hear on the average radio station. In addition, the Yo! set became a hangout for some of the biggest rap stars, emerging new talents and Hollywood royalty.
Yo! helped rap become a major player on the music charts, as suburban youths began exploring the genre in earnest and buying records from artists they saw. In addition, it was beginning to permeate into pop culture, with references on hit shows of the time like Doogie Howser, M.D. and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. But not even the hosts knew the true impact.
Yo! MTV Raps' impact affected everything that came after. That's why the popular music of today is hip hop.
"You gotta understand, in Queens and those neighborhoods, we didn't have cable," Ed Lover said. "Somebody had to tape it for me. I didn't have cable, and I'm not sure Dre had cable. The first time I recognized that Yo! as a whole was huge was when Dre and I got hired to host a concert in Detroit - the same one where N.W.A. did 'F*ck The Police' and the cops threw M80s on the stage like in 'Straight Outta Compton'. We hosted that."
"We were so nervous to come on stage, thinking, nobody knows who we are. We came out and people lost it. That's when I know people were watching Yo!"
The show remained strong for years, but by 1995, with rap a dominant force and MTV cutting down on actual music content, Yo! MTV Raps ended its run with a huge freestyle session featuring a who's who in rap. The network has brought various permutations of the brand back in the ensuing years, but for rap fans, the real Yo! signed off then.
More than 30 years later, the show's impact is still felt in music, television and culture, where hip-hop is an essential part of the fabric. Demme and Dougherty were ahead of the game in realizing how important and vital rap music could be.
"My kids grew up with hip hop because of Yo!" Herzog said. "They were too young to have watched it, but its impact affected everything that came after. That's why the popular music of today is hip hop. And Yo! was done out of real passion, which is the right way."
"I'm super proud of it," said Ed Lover. "I was in Atlanta at a radio station and Migos is sitting in the lobby. I come out and they lose their minds. For them to acknowledge me is to know that we made a mark. To know that we were trailblazers and helped change things is a great feeling."