Yo! MTV Raps And The Gospel Of The Rap Video

Hanif Willis Abdurraqib on the vitality of black storytelling in early rap videos

There was cable television in my home growing up. It was a luxury for a family that was just getting by, but the type of luxury I imagine two parents found immensely useful in a house with four children in the late ’80s and early ’90s, before the arrival of the internet boom. It was a small and often forgettable thing, something I would usually ignore in favor of whatever the outside had to offer — that is, until Saturday nights, when, if I was lucky, one of my parents would let me stay up until an unreasonable hour to gather around the television with my siblings and tune into Yo! MTV Raps.

Depending on how my parents were feeling about rap in their home at the time, we might have to watch with the volume low, huddled together, changing the channel when our mother or father began to make their way down the steps. Or, in better, freer times, we could kick up the volume, invite our father to watch a video or two with us. He’d try, shake his head halfway through one, and walk off. I would watch, week after week, wide-eyed and eager, fighting to stay awake until the show’s final sign-off. My oldest brother recorded the episodes, nearly all of them, for years, in a time before DVR was a thing. There is a box in my father’s house of old VHS tapes, recordings of a time that I once thought would exist forever as it was in that moment. The visual of rap, unfolding on television, touchable and accessible to kids, even many miles away from its epicenter.

When the black adults of my generation, who were the black children of the ’90s, speak in defense of disgraced black sitcom fathers, saying that they first felt represented through the eyes of shows about successful and respectable black families, I truly can’t relate. I first saw myself, or the dream for my potential self, in Yo! MTV Raps. Which isn’t to say that I wanted to be a rapper, but I did want, more than anything, to be cool, and I had such a limited frame for what that could mean. I knew, in real life, that I could never be as endearing and entertaining as the spastic, perfectly timed Ed Lover. But that seemed more touchable to me than a brownstone on a tree-lined street.

Rap music is a visual genre, due not only to its heavy reliance on storytelling but also to the fact that it was born to the mainstream directly into a visual era, born through its visual aesthetics or the myth of the visual experience: Graffiti stretched across a building’s face is rap, the breakdancing that must be seen to be believed is rap, the DJ as an artist unto himself is rap. The gold chains, drowning a body that once couldn’t afford them, is also rap, and also something that must be seen to be believed. I first saw Slick Rick on Yo! MTV Raps with Fab 5 Freddy in 1991, while he was out on bail and rushing through recording his album The Ruler’s Back before being sentenced for attempted murder. He was draped in countless chains and rings of all sizes. He didn’t seem real; he was more gold than human being. I did not understand Slick Rick until I saw him, and since he was one of the first rappers I was able to pin a visual on, I don’t think I understood the performance of rap either until I saw him, wrecked by anxiety but still prideful, adorned in gold.

The importance of the rap video rests in this, as well. The visuals, or the idea of pulling the lens back and getting the idea of the artist as a character, as a true performer. During the golden era of rap, which Yo! MTV Raps sat firmly in, the rap video was vital. To have enough rap videos that would not only fill an entire show dedicated to them, but to in fact have so many that there were nights I went to bed lamenting the fact that none of my favorite videos had been shown. For a kid who didn’t have his own money to buy albums, it was like watching a visual mixtape every week, videos that were varied and spreading across an entire spectrum: The frantic and gritty feel of Das EFX with torches in a sewer for the “They Want EFX” video, the documentary-like feel of Warren G’s “Regulate” video, the deeply personal and paranoid feel of the Geto Boys “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” video, the comedic feel of Snoop and Dr. Dre’s “Dre Day” video. All of this, having a platform and an audience hungry for visuals, first gave a window into the artist as a full person, with a vision that lived beyond our speakers, touching a wide range of what rap was and could be.

Looking back, the interviews were also vital. Few people of our generation have been better with a microphone in their hand than Fab 5 Freddy was on Yo! MTV Raps. The respect and ease he was able to pull out of everyone he spoke to was truly brilliant, especially when watching an interview today, where a rapper might appear to be on edge, waiting for the trick question or the trap door to open. But I am speaking about the interviews solely in hindsight, knowing that I didn’t fully understand them as a child in the ’90s, and knowing that I returned each week for the music videos.

I would not have loved rap if I hadn’t been able to visualize it in the way that Yo! MTV Raps allowed me to visualize it. I would not understand the vastness of it, how weird it can be, how nuanced the humans who make the music are, if I hadn’t been able to watch them essentially act out a version of themselves with their own songs as a soundtrack. I was born of this era, the music video era. Which means that I first fell in love with music I could see. Which means that if I could hear you but not touch you, not imagine how you would visually present what I was hearing, that I could make it up in my head, or in a dream. Which means that on rainy days in the ’90s, I would push a tape into the VCR and watch an episode of Yo! MTV Raps from just a year or two earlier and convince myself it had been a lifetime ago. Rap videos were the first stories I knew. I would sit at the feet of Yo! MTV Raps and allow myself to be carried away.

The visual element of music has shifted now, and I think that is also important. I don’t approach this from the logic of strictly pining for the days of the past. The music video can live in our palms now, and I think that is also great. Instead of drinking in hours of them on a weekend night, people can flip open their computer to show their friends the single video that means the most to them at that moment and then move on to something else. As delicious as I find nostalgia, I have to believe that there is value in the idea of the big music video being so rare that it is almost always an event.

Some of us from the Yo! MTV Raps generation talk and talk about how we would love to see a show like that exist again, but I don’t know how often we would truly watch it if it did. I don’t know if the depth and range of rap videos today is what it was then, though many of the ones that do exist now are indeed pushing the boundaries of artistic expression beyond the music. But I don’t know if I miss the show because I believe it could exist now but doesn’t; I think I miss it because I know that it couldn’t, at least not as it did in its prime. It’s easy to mourn something when its return would be unsatisfying at best and impossible at worst.

The last episode of Yo! MTV Raps, in 1995, is particularly memorable. It was an event, one that included a two-part, nearly 10-minute freestyle cipher. It was kicked off by Rakim, of course, and featuring Redman, Erick Sermon, Grand Puba, MC Serch, Large Professor, and a handful of others, everyone passing the mic to a peer when they were done. It’s a beautiful moment in rap history — one of the best. Everyone truly in awe of the person on the mic, a chorus of “ooooohhhhh” rising up from the circle after every hot line. It was enough to make you forget the clock, that it was getting late, that soon it would all be over. I think, again, of Slick Rick, out on bail and buried in so much gold that it became easy to ignore the fear that sat heavy on his face. I think, again, of rap and its best videos, rap as something that is at its best when it is visual. When the video gives us a party to sink into, or a beach to lounge on, or an adventure to take. When it gives us something to pull our eyes away from what we should really be seeing, if only for a moment.