where it started at

An Oral History of the Very First Episode of Yo! MTV Raps

Will Smith (a.k.a. the Fresh Prince), Run-D.M.C., DJ Jazzy Jeff, and Ready Rock C in the first episode of Yo! MTV Raps. Photo-Illustration: Vulture and MTV

“We want to let everybody know where it’s at / It’s right here: Yo! MTV Raps.”

Those words, rapped in unison by DJ Jazzy Jeff, the Fresh Prince (a.k.a. Will Smith), and Ready Rock C on August 6, 1988, served as the official welcome to Yo! MTV Raps, the network’s first show dedicated entirely to rap music. Part of a weekend of MTV programming devoted to hip-hop music videos, the episode was technically the pilot for what would quickly become one of MTV’s most popular original shows, spawning weekly installments hosted by hip-hop legend Fab 5 Freddy and, soon after, daily episodes presided over by the beloved New York comedic duo Ed Lover and Doctor Dré. But when that very first episode of Yo! MTV Raps debuted, it wasn’t really a pilot yet — it was more like an experiment.

Rap music and hip-hop culture had been coming of age in New York for well over a decade before Yo! MTV Raps arrived. Even though the music channel and arbiter of youth culture was headquartered in New York City, it was slow to incorporate rap into its programming. The first rap video to make its way into MTV’s rotation was Run-D.M.C.’s “Rock Box” in 1984, after the cable network had been on the air for three years. While certain artists, including Run-D.M.C., Beastie Boys, the Fat Boys, and DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, got some play from MTV in the years that followed, Yo! MTV Raps was what finally flung the doors to the genre wide open, expanding upon the mainstream success that hip-hop had already started to achieve elsewhere.

Ultimately, two white guys who worked in the promotions department at the network — Peter Dougherty, who was famous for being plugged in to emerging music scenes, and Ted Demme, a production assistant who would later become the director of films like The Ref, Life, and Blow — were responsible for creating Yo! MTV Raps. They’d envisioned it as the hip-hop version of 120 Minutes, MTV’s alternative-music show, and Headbanger’s Ball, its heavy-metal offering. (Ironically, they first had success with the concept at MTV Europe, where a pilot debuted in 1987, before American MTV got onboard.)

Sadly, neither of them is still with us; Demme died of a heart attack in 2002 at age 38, and Dougherty also had a fatal heart attack in 2015 at the age of 59. But others who knew and worked with them were available to revisit the days leading up to that summer 1988 debut and the revolution it kicked off: Doug Herzog, the head of the then-new original-programming division at MTV; Judy McGrath, who oversaw the promotions department in the late ’80s before going on to be MTV’s CEO; Fab 5 Freddy, the pioneering hip-hop artist, filmmaker, and first host of Yo! MTV Raps; and DJ Jazzy Jeff, the hitmaker who appeared in that pilot/experimental episode.

The Genesis: “Man, we got to get a show on the air”

Fab 5 Freddy: Peter [Dougherty] was this guy that I met through friends. He was a quiet but very studious and observant guy that was a voracious fan of all kinds of alternative music cultures. We actually lived around the corner from each other [on Manhattan’s Lower East Side]. I lived on Ludlow; he lived on Orchard. We would get together on Sundays and nosh. We’d go down to Yonah Schimmel and get bagels, and we’d do the whole thing up.

Working with Peter was this guy Ted Demme from Long Island, who grew up loving hip-hop — super, super-hard-core fan. They were both doing the little promo pieces in between videos that really gave MTV its personality and were like, “Man, we got to get a show on the air.”

Doug Herzog: Ted and Peter had been big in-house cheerleaders for rap music. And my boss [at the time] was a guy named Lee Masters, now known as Jarl Mohn. Like many people from MTV in those days, he had come from the world of radio. MTV was programmed musically like a hip AOR [album-oriented rock] radio station, which was code for: We play rock music and not Black music.

The first video shown on ‘Yo! MTV Raps’

Judy McGrath: Many of us were upset that we weren’t playing more Black musicians. Even though people will say we always played Prince and this and that, and we did, but not to the extent that we should have. 

DJ Jazzy Jeff: We had two strikes against us. We’re doing Black music, and we’re doing hip-hop. So if you are shying away from Black artists, you’re definitely shying away from hip-hop artists because once the Black artists started to get on MTV, there still wasn’t any hip-hop.

Hip-hop was the bastard of the music industry for a very long time until someone realized they could make money off of it.

Fab 5 Freddy: Especially in this moment, where we’re looking at what racism is really about and the different levels that it works at, this is how systemic racism works. The people that are actually implementing this are not overtly racist, but they’re following what they feel are these norms. Radio in America was primarily segregated. “Pop” meant white. R&B — they’d have other names that meant “Black” — and those stations were separated. You go to England and other places, and they didn’t have that type of distinct racial separation in the charts. It was a blend, and it was great. It was how it should be.

Herzog: There were a bunch of guys from radio who programmed the videos. I think they looked at rap at first like a fad, like something that was going to be here and gone.

Fab 5 Freddy: I remember the first press I would get, that was the obligatory question: “How long do you think this trend is going to last?” I totally understood trends, and I knew that there were so many kids in the hood that was down with this that people knew nothing about. It was like an army. I knew [they] were behind this, and I would just watch them ask [about the trend] and I’d go, “Yeah, look at these dummies. They don’t know. They don’t know.”

DJ Jazzy Jeff: When Run-D.M.C. got “Rock Box” [on MTV], we were like, Okay, that’s cool. But it was just Run-D.M.C. and then the Beastie Boys. It was a very slow trickle to get videos on MTV.

Herzog: Ted and Peter were incredibly passionate about [doing a show]. They said, “You’ve got to give us a shot to do this.”

McGrath: Look, we were living in New York City. We were all down on the Lower East Side all the time. It was kind of obvious that there was a scene and it was changing and it would be great to get on it.

Herzog: Ted was relentless with everything he did. So when Ted had an idea he was excited about, he would go work the hall. He’d go into my office, he’d go into Judy’s office — he just was selling, selling, selling.

That was the beautiful thing. Peter and Ted were producers in the promo department  — Ted was actually a junior guy — but if you were passionate enough, you had a good enough idea and a decent enough idea on how to maybe execute it, we’d give you a shot.

McGrath: Ted could talk you into doing anything.

‘Mind Blown’

The pilot for Yo! MTV Raps that aired on August 6, 1988, is 49 minutes long, minus commercial breaks. There is no official host, but the introductions of videos and interstitial segments were shot backstage during the Run’s House tour, a national concert tour headlined by Run-D.M.C. and featuring artists like DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, Public Enemy, EPMD, and the all-women trio J.J. Fad of “Supersonic” fame. Many of those performers appear in the episode, shouting out videos that were already being played on MTV, like “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and LL Cool J’s “Goin’ Back to Cali,” along with others that weren’t in the regular rotation: “Follow the Leader,” by Eric B. & Rakim, the first video shown in the episode; “My Philosophy,” by Boogie Down Productions, featuring KRS-One and directed by Fab 5 Freddy; and Biz Markie’s “Vapors.” Some segments have a “Hip-Hop 101” feel — at one point, Chuck D and Flava Flav set up a montage devoted to “up-and-coming” rap artists, which included the already-established acts Salt-N-Pepa, Kool Moe Dee, Biz Markie, Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock, 2 Live Crew, and MC Lyte.

McGrath: It was an experiment, and I think we did a lot of things quickly and on the fly.

DJ Jazzy Jeff: We just knew that we’re on this Run–D.M.C. tour for about four or five months. And [MTV] had cameras, and we walked on and we did the interview, and Run and them were there. We talked, and that was it. It was really just: roll the cameras.

Herzog: I’m sure it was all Ted and Peter [who planned the episode]. I’m going to guess that we wanted to make it a little bit of a primer for people who didn’t really know what was going on and introduce them to artists and videos. That’s how we tended to program those kinds of thematic weekends.

DJ Jazzy Jeff: It’s funny because the hip-hop audience knew exactly who they were. It’s almost like someone on MTV is like, “Hey, I’m about to expose you guys to something really great. Here’s Biz Markie.” And everybody’s like, “We knew who Biz Markie was. You didn’t.”

Fab 5 Freddy:  I had just directed “My Philosophy,” my first video. I remember somebody on the crew asking did I think this had a chance to be on MTV? I knew MTV wasn’t playing anybody besides Michael Jackson and maybe Prince. I said, “Man, I’m sure MTV would not play this. I’m trying to make this video so it needs to be so Black, in terms of what KRS-One is doing and talking about, [that] I’m sure they wouldn’t want to play this video. So don’t even ask me that anymore.”

I was shocked when [Dougherty] told me they had done that pilot. I’m like, “What is he talking about?” I never thought any of this was going to happen. I remember him telling me, “We played the video.” I was like, “What are you talking about, Peter?” “Yes. We played your video. Get somewhere and watch it.” I can’t remember where I went. I don’t know who I had to call that had cable. I do remember watching that, and literally, at the very end of the show … that video: mind blown.

Herzog: The biggest needle-mover was doing that Yo! MTV Raps weekend, and those weekend ratings jumping off the charts.

McGrath: I do believe that the Yo! weekend ranked third behind the Video Music Awards and Live-Aid, which means it was likely a double-digit rating, a 9.0 or a 10.0 [point]. The baseline of the network was probably a 2.0. For reference, today a cable series routinely earns a .2 or even a .06, so that Yo! pilot was a big win for us.

Herzog: I could remember Lee Masters/Jarl Mohn being absolutely dumbfounded, like, “Wow! Did not see that coming.”

Fab 5 Freddy: In essence, it pretty much was a pilot special that did incredibly well. And at that point, they were like, “We got to get a show on the air.” Then Peter’s like, “They want to get a show on the air, and you’re the guy [to host it].”

The idea was they’ll see how it does, and the numbers continually were bangin’, bangin’, bangin’. They had something in that. We shot the first shows in late summer and by that fall, it was rolling every week.

Herzog: It started as a regular weekend show on MTV, and pretty quickly it became a big deal. You could see the ratings pop when that show was on.

Fab 5 Freddy: MTV got it wrong [about hip-hop]. I’m the guy that got the call when they made the attempt to begin to fix that ideology. Peter respected my creativity and my insights. He said, “Man, what would work good for you? What do you think would be a good way to do it?” I said, “I don’t want to be cooped up in that studio like those other VJs.” It felt more interesting and engaging to have you immersed in the world where the music’s coming from. Then what we would do to further that, once we got our feet under us, was, when an artist had a unique idea, we would try to shoot it in a way that reflected that. One time, we had a show with Das EFX, which was this cool group that had a real great style of rhyming, and they had this underground, straight-from-the-sewer vibe. We were like, “Yo, how do we capture that?”

We went in an underground railroad along the Upper West Side, where the Metro North runs, but it had this underground-railroad field. That’s where we interviewed Das EFX. We would do things like that, that would bring you close to the realities of where these guys are from.

Herzog: Then, of course, in the whatever’s-worth-doing-is-worth-overdoing category, it wasn’t long before we decided, “Well, we need to do this every day.” That’s when the Ed Lover and Doctor Dré daily version came in.

Leveling Up: ‘It Went Right to the Moon’

Unlike Fab 5 Freddy, who took his Yo! episodes out of the studio and on location, Ed Lover and Doctor Dré hosted in-studio, injecting their own personality and comedy to the gig, including regular bits like the famous Ed Lover Dance. Yo! MTV Raps also ceased to be the baby of two white dudes. In the book I Want My MTV, published in 2011, Dougherty says, “I was very insistent that we get black people to work on Yo!, and I was met with, “Why? You think that’s necessary?” And I was like, “Yeah. I don’t think it should be run indefinitely by a couple white people.” Producer Jac Benson and producer-director Moses Edinborough became integral parts of the team. Meanwhile, hip-hop continued to grow in popularity, to the point where a show devoted to the genre seemed redundant, since rap videos were then dominating MTV. Yo! ended its run in 1995. 

Fab 5 Freddy: It was a half an hour in the beginning, and it went right to the moon.

McGrath: Ted and Peter, once they opened the doors on this, all this talent and many of the musicians hung out in their offices all the time. Doug just sent me a great picture he found of Adam Yauch just sitting in the news department even before we were in business with the Beastie Boys. It became fun, like, overnight. All of a sudden, Ted’s blasting music. There’s four people stuck in a cubicle together, and Freddy’s in there and Ed and Dré are in there and Darryl [McDaniels from Run-D.M.C.] comes by. It became like a clubhouse.

DJ Jazzy Jeff: You were excited when you were on Yo! MTV Raps, because by the time they got really big, it was a badge of honor. That was our show. I also feel like the growth of hip-hop, and hip-hop pretty much being in every commercial on every show, starts to happen when the powers that be realize there’s money to be made. Once they started to realize hip-hop is probably the largest money-making music of this time is when advertisers jumped on it.

Herzog: Yo! MTV Raps actually hit the air before Arsenio [Hall] entered late night. Yo! MTV Raps actually hit the air before In Living Color went on Fox. And I would say Yo! MTV Raps probably had a little bit to do with that. TV continues to be pretty white. But you can’t even imagine how white TV was back then.

Fab 5 Freddy: And the Black movie thing was beginning: Spike Lee’s films, Robert Townsend, John Singleton. On a daily basis, the imagery of what Black folks are doing, living, saying — this constant stream had never happened before. I was very aware of the significance to that.

DJ Jazzy Jeff: Yo! MTV Raps put hip-hop in every home. That was the thing that solidified it. That was the thing, that a little kid growing up in Idaho could hear EPMD. That helped with the sales. That helped with the fan base. That helped everything grow.

That was it. That was the time that I could sigh and say, “I think hip-hop is here to stay.”

Lee Masters was Mohn’s radio name, which he used for much of his career until going back to his given name. A ratings point represents the percentage of the total population that has tuned in to a program. For example, the September 14, 2020, premiere of Dancing With the Stars did a 1.3 among adults 18 to 49, according to The Hollywood Reporter, while that night’s episode of Love Island did a 0.4 in the same demo.
An Oral History of the Very First Episode of Yo! MTV Raps