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Ralph McDaniels on Video Music Box and Documenting Hip-Hop History

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Ralph McDaniels

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Ralph McDaniels—or “Uncle Ralph”—is the co-creator of Video Music Box, a popular video show that is dedicated to airing hip-hop music videos and showing a side of hip-hop specifically from New York and the tri-state area. In this episode, he talks about the documentary that he recently released in collaboration with Mass Appeal and Showtime, the artists that he has worked with, and his nonprofit organization. He also shares how he was able to leverage his platform into directing hip-hop videos and hosting parties.

Listen and learn from a pioneer for hip-hop media personalities!

Episode Highlights:

[03:58] The process of getting “You’re Watching Video Music Box” off the ground

[09:28] Some memorable sections from the documentary

[12:45] Ralph’s transition from being behind the camera to talking on the radio

[14:42] About his business model, his mindset about money, and the parties he hosted

[19:12] What the music industry was like when he first got into directing videos 

[26:02] On bridging the gap between generations, staying resilient, and the importance of being present during cultural shifts 

[31:38] About Video Music Box Collection and how the documentary has helped its goals

[38:12] Ralph’s plan to bring his documentary to universities and shows

Listen: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | SoundCloud | Stitcher | Overcast | Amazon | Google Podcasts | Pocket Casts | RSS

Host: Dan Runcie, @RuncieDan, trapital.co

Guest: Ralph McDaniels, @VideoMusicBox, Video Music Box

Links:

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Transcript

Ralph: All money is not good money. I was told that, long time before that, all money is not good money, so be careful what you do.

 

Introduction

 

Dan: Hey, welcome to the Trapital Podcast. I’m your host and the founder of Trapital, Dan Runcie. This podcast is your place to gain insights from executives in music, media, entertainment, and more who are taking hip hop culture to the next level. You can check out Trapital’s deep back catalogue of past interviews, deep-dive essays on companies in music, media, and entertainment, and a weekly newsletter that is read by tens of thousands of people, go to trapital.co to learn more. This podcast is for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon for investment decisions. 

 

Hey, welcome to the Trapital Podcast, I’m your host and the founder of Trapital, Dan Runcie. This podcast is your place for insights from hip hop’s business leaders, music executives, and heavy hitters. 

 

And in today’s podcast, we’ve got a special guest, Uncle Ralph himself, Mr. Ralph McDaniels. Ralph is the co-creator of Video Music Box, the popular video show that was dedicated to airing hip hop music videos and showing a side of hip hop, specifically from New York and in the tri state area. 

 

And in this episode, we talk about Ralph because he recently released a documentary in collaboration with Mass Appeal and Showtime called You’re Watching Video Music Box and it’s available, as I mentioned, on Showtime and Hulu, and it is a snapshot into what Ralph was able to create.

 

For those that may be a little too young to remember, Video Music Box was a staple, especially for New York hip hop. If you’re an artist trying to get exposure, Ralph would show that music videos, they would integrate other things as well with the broadcast, and this was a good conversation because I think that Ralph, in a lot of ways, was a pioneer for the hip hop media personality and he himself didn’t want to be on camera at first but then I think you see the evolution of that and how he paved the way for people that are doing many things, and in some ways, similar to the type of work that I’m able to do right now with Trapital. 

 

We talked about Ralph’s business model and even though he wasn’t paid directly for Video Music Box, how he was able to leverage his platform into directing music videos, hosting parties, and how there’s so many similarities between that and how today’s content creators form an audience and then build a business on that. 

 

We also talked about Video Music Box Collection, which is a nonprofit that Ralph is running, some of the different artists that he’s worked with, having Nas direct this and what that process is like, trends in hip hop, and a whole lot more. 

 

Hope you enjoy this one. Here’s my chat with Ralph McDaniels. 

 

Interview

 

Dan: All right, we got Ralph McDaniels here with us today, Uncle Ralph, from Video Music Box. First off, Ralph, congrats, this documentary is out and it’s everywhere. How does it feel to finally have it hit the streets and see people react to it?

 

Ralph: Oh, man. Well, thanks for having me, bro, and this has been crazy because, you know, like everybody in the tri-state and New York area knows but like people outside of the area, like, “What is this? How come we don’t know about this?” So that’s the opportunity that You’re Watching Video Music Box is giving is now that people say well, you know, “Now we’re sharing Ralph with the rest of the world,” so it’s pretty interesting.

 

Dan: No, that’s what’s up. That’s what’s up. So I saw the interview that you did on the Breakfast Club and you were talking about the steps that were involved to get this off the ground and it definitely felt like there was a lot of work on your end, but it’d be great to hear a little bit more in depth. 

 

Walk me through the process of you have the idea of wanting to get this and sharing with everyone to getting in with Showtime and Mass Appeal to then it actually releasing.

 

Ralph: Yeah, so we’ve really been on this journey, I would say like maybe 10 years almost. I had an idea to do this documentary. I didn’t know what it looked like, I was just trying to thinking about it, kinda thinking about it, and then like five years ago, we started pursuing some other options that came about and those didn’t work out 

 

and I brought Sacha Jenkins into that situation that I was working on and so after the situation that we were in didn’t work out, Sacha said, “Look, I might have something going on at Showtime. Let’s see what happens.” I mean, he’s already done, you know, Wu Tang, he’s done. The LA riot joint. You know, he’s done a bunch of stuff over at Showtime so, you know, he has a good relationship with them. 

 

So I said, “I’m down. Let’s do it.” I wanna just get the story out at this point. It’s important for me to get the story out. And so he connected with Nas and he said, “Hey, me and Nas are going in to pitch the Video Music Box,” and I was like, “Really?”

 

You know, Nas is a partner with Mass Appeal and so I said okay and they came out and they said, “Look, Showtime loves the Video Music Box, we think that that’s gonna be the first one of this whole hip hop 50 initiative” and, you know, and Peter came in and said, “Hey, look, I have some ideas from a marketing standpoint, this is what we’re thinking about, Ralph,” and I said, “All right, well, let’s run with it.” 

 

And Nas wasn’t the director at first, he was just executive producer and then like, I don’t know, maybe like a month or so in, Nas said, “Look, you know, I’m thinking about directing it.” And I was like, “Really?” You know, like, this shocked me and I was like, you know, “Do you really have time to do this, man?” and he was like, “I’m gonna make time because this story is too important to me and too important to hip hop that we not get it right and make sure that the world knows about who Ralph McDaniels is and Video Music Box’s TV show.”

 

Dan: That’s what’s up. And the Nas piece especially stuck out to me, of course, the Mass Appeal relationship but for him as the director to step into this must have been pretty cool to see, and it’d be good to hear what your vision for it was and then how you feel like Nas was able to put his spin on it, because, clearly, as a director, you’re able to take some liberties there. Were there certain things that Nas was able to pull out of it?

 

Ralph: Yeah, absolutely. I think, for me, just from knowing people always ask me about the old performances from the 80s and the old performances from the 90s, like first time you saw Busta Rhymes or the first time you saw Jay-Z, or even the first time you saw Nas, people just wanna see that kind of raw stuff, but there’s a story there, you know? 

 

There’s a story behind how even those performances came about and there’s a story behind each one of these things so I think for Nas, he always thinks about — like the documentary opens up with some raw footage of me that I shot of him, of Nas and Biggie, and they’re performing together and they go in the Goodfellas, it’s like a chorus and they sang the Goodfellas,

 

and so for years, I never knew and most people didn’t know, “What are y’all talking about the Goodfellas?” And so it starts off like that and Nas says, “Me and Big were gonna start a crew together, a duo called the Goodfellas.” 

 

So those kinds of stories are amazing because nobody knew that and we didn’t know if they were just saying it just to be saying it, but it was really something. Oh, so, now, like was there a recording of that, like did something — is there more to this than what we see? And he knew a lot about different things that happened throughout the history of hip hop and stuff that we cover so he had a little bit more insight on some things that I didn’t know.

 

Dan: Yeah, that beginning piece was so intriguing. Because, (a), you just didn’t see that much footage in general of Nas and Biggie doing whether it’s performances or being like that close on that much of a stage the way they were, but then, additionally, just thinking about now how big music documentaries and hip hop content is, the fact that someone had the insights and thoughts to be like, “No, make sure that the camera is always rolling at these moments,” because you never know where things could go and you just see how valuable that content is now and how much people want to see it. That’s what makes it unique and that’s what makes it stand out.

 

Ralph: Absolutely. You know, I used to tell my camera guys, they were like, “So how much should we roll?” I said, “Just roll, don’t stop.” Because you don’t know. Like in that same footage with Biggie and Nas, like Common is like maybe two feet away from me, a young Common, and Method Man, I can see him kinda in the shadows and O. C. from Diggin’ in the Crates Crew is right here, just performed right before that. Doug E. Fresh is there. 

 

Like all these people are right in five feet parameter of that whole Nas and Biggie performance because even at that moment, people were like, “What’s about to happen? Nas and Biggie are performing together, like is it gonna be a battle, like what’s about to happen?” but they didn’t know that they were friends.

 

Dan: Yeah, it’s cool and it’s good that you were able to get those moments in there because I know that for a project like this, there’s so much content that you could put in there but you had 90 minutes and that was roughly the timeframe that you had to put this out. 

 

And I know that, because you mentioned it in another interview, that you would have loved to have this longer, potentially have a multi series thing where there are certain things that you wish could have made the cut but didn’t in this one or anything that stands out that you’re like, “Okay, this is definitely for part two,” or, “This is what’s gonna come if we are able to get a follow-on for this.”

 

Ralph: Yeah, there’s like a whole section that we did on — like I feel like since the pandemic, young people have been really going through tough times with mental illness. We see a lot of violence. We see a lot of things happening in the street. And there’s like a whole thing that we did on how people came home to watch Video Music Box or we were doing events that kept young people active and they had something to do and weren’t out hurting themselves. 

 

And I felt like that was super important to me because we’re in the middle of that now. We see shootings in Atlanta, in New York, in Los Angeles. We see just this outburst of energy. We used to be like bring the energy to the stage, bring the energy to the parties, to whatever we were doing, fashion, whatever it was, and people say like, “Video Music Box, probably the crime rate went down when Video Music Box was on because people wanted to see what was going on,” you know?

 

I mean, that was back in the days. I don’t know if that would have the same effect now. But I thought that was a great section that ended up getting cut out.

 

Dan: Yeah. You touched on this a little bit because there was that one part you were talking about how you were on a subway train and these guys were pressing you and they’re pressing you for like 10 stops and it wasn’t until the end and they were like, “Hey, you the dude from Video Music Box? Respect. We got you,” and you’re just like, “Why didn’t y’all say that before? We could have cut through all of this.”

 

Ralph: I remember that day clearly, you know, ’cause it was like I sit in the dark, like you could easily get jumped, for no reason. You’re doing nothing. You’re just minding your own business. And so I thought that was what was about to happen and I was just like, “Do I get off and do I look like a punk or whatever and get off early before my stop?” I don’t wanna get back. I don’t wanna wait for that train, that next train. 

 

I stayed on and when they said what they said, I was like, “Yo, I’m hot. These dues know because these are the thugged out dudes,” so that was it. That told me a lot.

 

Dan: Right. It’s funny, right? Because I know that people can use numbers or metrics in order to measure success but I think for most people, it’s those moments like that when something comes around and you’re like, “Okay, that was the sign that I was on to something,” or, “That was the sign that this was going to reach some different level.”

 

Ralph: The streets don’t lie. If you hot in the street, it’s gonna work its way up. That’s been my barometer for a long time.

 

Dan: Definitely, definitely. One of the things too that I liked and you talked about a lot was just how you ran your business and how you were able to run thing because, obviously, you weren’t paid for the work of Video Music Box itself but you were able to leverage your platform to direct music videos, to host parties, and, in a lot of ways, it reminds me of what we see now with people posting things on social or building some type of audience, they’re not necessarily getting paid, at least at the outset for that audience but they then leverage that and leverage their platform to do other things where they can do that. 

 

And that definitely stuck out to me, because I think, in a lot of ways, you have been a pioneer in so much of this, especially with hip hop media personalities. And then now, decades later, that same business model, that same mentality is still what we’re seeing today.

 

Ralph: You know what’s funny is like I remember, I was talking to someone and I said that when I first got into radio, like I didn’t really wanna do radio, like one of the jocks in New York at Hot 97, Funkmaster Flex, said, “How come we don’t have you on the radio?” and I was like, “I don’t know, I never thought about it. I was just doing my local TV show and directing videos and stuff,” and he was like, “Nah, man, we need you on the radio.” 

 

So when I went to the radio, I just didn’t know like how radio ran and then when I got there, you know, I was excited, it’s a great brand, Hot 97, and then I hated it because I felt like you can only play so many songs, you have to repeat the same songs because when people get on the radio, they wanna hear familiar music so you can’t play something that nobody knows. 

 

So I was like, “Oh, this is not what I thought it was gonna be,” and I didn’t like the radio thing. It’s always been an interesting journey for me to jump into things like, you know, like you think it’s one thing. I always wanted to talk but in the beginning, I didn’t. I mean, well, I didn’t wanna be seen. That’s it. I didn’t mind talking but I didn’t want to be seen. 

 

And radio became like a music thing, “Don’t talk too much. You only got 10 seconds to talk, fit as much as you can in there.” But now, with what we’re doing right now, podcast is the most popular thing and I said, “This is what I was talking about, If you got something to say, this is what people will listen to.” And that’s why these things are very successful right now, you know, and I’m like, I was saying that 20 years ago, corporate was like, “No, no, no, no. No talking, no talking.”

 

Dan: Wow, that’s something. The radio piece is interesting too because now it’s making me think another aspect of radio, especially in those days was payola and the artists that were either trying to pay something or try to, you know, put off to try to get some type of placement or airtime. Did that ever come up with you, I mean, with artists trying to be like, “Hey, Ralph, here’s a little something. Can we make sure that you get this video up on?”

 

Ralph: Back in the days, like I would say, the drug dealers would come because they all wanted to — either they wanted to rap or their mans would rap or you would have the kids who had money and they were like, you know, “How much does it cost?” you know, and I’m like, “Can we hear the music? Like can like at least hear what you have first?” and, “It doesn’t matter, I’m gonna pay for it,” you know? And I’m like, “No, we’re not rolling like that.”

 

And I’m sure they were, that was going on in a big way. The 90s was a lot of money. There was a lot, big difference than the 80s. And so I always, from a street perspective, didn’t take people’s money and I always felt like all money is not good money. I was told that long time before that, all money is not good money so be careful what you do.

 

Dan: I hear that, I hear that. Yeah. Well, that makes sense. And I think too, especially with how you were able to monetize, that was much more aligned with the audience that you’re attracting and the things there so we’re going to talk about that a little bit. Let’s talk about the parties themselves, because I’m sure even with that, you were able to see a few things in terms of, “Oh, parties in this neighborhood, the crowd’s better or Video Music Box hits a little different in this part.” What were some of those insights and what were some of those places that gave you the best parties?

 

Ralph: I think the college parties were the best just because there was freedom, you know? The kids were there, they just couldn’t wait to go to the parties, and those weren’t necessarily our parties but they just were the best parties. The parties that we gave were in, you know, in the tri-state area, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, and, you know, it could be like straight up like 90s like Tribe Called Quest, you know, X Clan, Wu-Tang, or it could be on some like R&B, hard bottom, collar shirt-type parties, you know?

 

And either way and any way they went, it was always fun and we would bring some of the artists. After a while, our parties were so hot, the artist would just come and just get on stage, like, you know? Now, you can’t do that with artists. You have to pay them, you know, $10,000 or whatever, maybe more, probably a lot more, but back then, the party was so hot that the artists would be coming just to party. 

 

And then they would be like, they see the party’ jumping, they would go, “Yo, y’all got a mic?” and you know, so you can see Busta Rhymes on stage or you can see, you know, Q-Tip on stage, which, nowadays, you could never do that with the artists. 

 

Dan: Yeah, the footage of that was really cool to see. I mean, just seeing Q-Tip and seeing the Tribe and everyone that was there. And, yeah, to your point, that that would never happen now. I mean, I think especially now, these days when everyone wants $100,000 for a feature, it will be hard to pull something like that off. 

 

You got good coverage, though. I’m curious about the Connecticut piece of it, because I’m from right outside of Hartford. And how far in Connecticut were you going with those? Like were you going to Stanford, were you go to New Haven?

 

Ralph: We definitely were going to New Haven. Stanford is further or was it before New Haven?

 

Dan: Oh, so it’s like right — it’s like the one of the last cities before New York.

 

Ralph: Right. So we didn’t go to the first one you mentioned, the first city you mentioned, Hartford. We didn’t go to Hartford. 

 

Dan: Okay. 

 

Ralph: Yeah, but like middle Connecticut so one of them cities is tough, though. It was kind of thugged out. Which one is that?

 

Dan: Probably New Haven. Or maybe Bridgeport. Maybe you went to Bridgeport.

 

Ralph: Bridgeport.

 

Dan: Okay.

 

Ralph: Bridgeport is thugged out. I remember going to Bridgeport and we were like, “Yo, we gotta get out of here fast.” But, you know, still to this day, like a lot of love out of Bridgeport. There was a group that we used to play their videos all the time called Skinny Boys and they were from Connecticut and real conscious, you know, conscious group for the 80s, they were pretty conscious and we still keep in contact with some of the guys from that group ’til this day,

 

Dan: That’s what’s up. That’s what’s up. Let’s talk about the directing side. So you had directed music videos, you directed Nas’s first music video as well. What was that piece of it like?

 

Ralph: When we first got into directing videos, my partner and I, Lionel C. Martin, Lionel and I grew up together and we were trying to figure out how we could get the music videos to look better, like we were looking at videos and be like, “That didn’t even tell a story. Who directed this?” 

 

You know, even though we were playing, we just felt like music videos for hip hop artists could be better. And then one day we got involved in it and, you know, our first hip hop video was Roxanne, Roxanne Shanté, “Roxanne’s Revenge,” and so we got a taste of what it was to make a hip hop video with an incredible artist, this young little 16-year-old girl who had something to say, you know? 

 

And so we were like, “Okay, now we understand how to make a music video.” Then we started doing all these other stuff. We did all the Biz Markie, MC Shan, a lot stuff that was part of Cold Chillin’ Records because Fly Ty was like, “Look, man, you guys can do all the videos. I don’t know nothing about videos so I’m gonna put that in you guys’ hands. So they’re gonna give me a budget on the record label and that’s going to be you guys to do it.”

 

So we did all of Biz Markie’s stuff, the early Big Daddy Kane, then came Kool G Rap, you know it, just went on and on. And then we started working with, you know, some of the R&B groups like Bell Biv DeVoe, TLC, Boys to Men, you know, Whitney Houston, they got like huge after a while. We were like to go-to company, Classic Concert Productions, to go to and get this stuff out there. 

 

So, from there, you know, we realized that we could change the look of what music videos looked like, we could come up with ideas that make people think and look at different — look at things different and that was important just to have a different look and a different narrative with what music videos have been prior to us.

 

Dan: And I also feel like from your work too, you can also tell the story of New York. You can have New York featured more prominently as a character for a lot of these New York artists and I feel like that is something that likely was missing. So, it wasn’t just your understanding of the artist but you had all this other domain expertise that helped elevate the art.

 

Ralph: Yeah. You know, I tell people — one of the things that we got to do when we started doing music videos is we traveled so we saw what New York looked like to other people, or we got an idea, because, you know, if you’re just in your city, you don’t really think about it, you know, yeah, all right, whatever, New York, you know, 

 

but when you go to, you know, San Francisco and then you — when they’re telling you about your city, or you go to, you know, New Mexico or West Virginia, and we were going to all these cities and shooting videos and we realized that, okay, people look at us in a different way, you know, like we have advantages that a lot of people don’t have, you know, and we just take it for granted, you know? Like we just go right down the block. That’s not that easy for somebody that lives in, you know, in Ohio or in Montana. 

 

So, the traveling, and I always tell, you know, folks, travel, you know, even if you’re not in this business, because you’ll learn so much about the world, and you’ll learn a lot about yourself when you go different places because your perspective now is worldly, you know? And hip hop has taken me everywhere, you know, to all these countries that, you know, I touched down, nobody speaks English but as soon as you put that beat on, everybody’s rocking, you know?

 

Dan: Definitely. And I think one of the cool things about music videos, especially the time that you were doing this as well, this was in the 90s and the industry was booming, CD sales were booming, and there was just more and more money that was being put into music video budgets, which I’m sure also gave you a bit of leeway as well with being able to pursue a lot of that. 

 

What was that like? Especially that like late-90s moment when there were all these futuristic and out-of-this-world type of music videos that were happening probably right before Napster and everything else turned things the other way?

 

Ralph: Yeah, no, it was good. We flew first class a couple of times. So you saw the difference, you know, like, “I think we’re gonna pay for first class on this one right here.” So you saw the difference, you know, in how we were moving, the amount of cameras, the amount of dancers, the amount of lights, everything that went along with it, the amount of locations.

 

I think that my partner and I, Lionel, I would say like our intern really got the brunt of that, which was Hype Williams, and he became the next guy that came out through our crew that really got all the fruit of all of that what we did, because he’s doing like million-dollar videos and I’m like, “What are y’all spending the million dollars on?” I was like, “What’s going on?” 

 

But he really, you know, all those Missy videos and the Busta videos and ODB and all these different artists that he worked with and that was what, you know, everything that we did led up to that. And I feel like that’s what it was for. That’s what it was all about. And the same thing goes for now. Like, you know, you talked about Napster, you know, like we used to go to record stores back in the days, you know, and buy vinyl. And, you know, if the vinyl ran out, that was it. You’d have to wait for the next shipment to come in, hopefully it came the next day and you’d go back to that store however far away it was from your house to look, “Did they get it back yet?” “Nope. Didn’t come in today.” And you’d have to wait. 

 

Now, you just download it in your phone and it’s in your phone and you’re good. Or if you’re a recording artist, you record something, possibly on your phone, and just hit Upload and it’s uploaded just like that. 

 

So, that’s why we did everything that we did, you know? That’s why the industry was what it was back in the days to lead up to a kid right now or whoever it is just hitting Send and they’re sending their art out to the world.

 

Dan: Right. Yeah, it’s so wild how different it is, right? Like, to your point, people would — there’s this one story, you know, I’m sure it happens to plenty of artists, I think it was Dr. Dre with some big type of release he had and there was some private jet that went to like send something out so that it got there at midnight. 

 

And now we’re in this era where, you know, through retransfer, you can just get that thing sent through immediately, right? Like it’s just a different game.

 

Ralph: It’s a different game, yeah. And that’s okay. And the whole idea, even of the film of You’re Watching Video Music Box and I’ve been saying this for a long time, even before I started working on the documentary, was I wanna try to bridge the gap so that this generation can see what it was like, 

 

and I don’t wanna tell them, you know, like, “Oh, y’all know about this,” or whatever, I just want them to see it. So, you know, I’m a visual person, like, you know, people would go, “Yo, Ralph, you’re a pioneer.” I wasn’t doing what Bam was doing, I wasn’t doing what Kuharic was doing, but, in my own way, I brought all of that into the world so they could see it. 

 

Now, you know, because there was no cameras in all of these little basement parties or outside jams, we opened that window so people could see it. So I’ll be a pioneer in that sense. And I think that that’s what it was all about. It was to open this window up so now you can see it and hopefully people when they watch the documentary, they see things that like, who knew, you know? Like they didn’t know. They had no idea.

 

Dan: Yeah, definitely. One of the things that stuck out to me, not just in the documentary but hearing you tell the story as well is how you were able to stay resilient, especially if things weren’t always on the up and up the way that the industry was, because if we fast forward a bit to the early 2000s, one, at this point, the public funding that had broadcasted Video Music Box, the New York City government had pulled it, 

 

but then on the other side, the budgets that went to these music videos weren’t hit in the same way that they were in the post-Napster days. But you were still there, whether it was making sure that you could find other forms of distribution and still being there with the artists that were big at that time, whether it was you interviewing 50 Cent at the height of everything that he was doing or some of the other artists.

 

What were your feelings like at that moment? Because I’m sure that there, as I mentioned, the resiliency was there, but like how did it feel knowing that things are shifting but you still have this vision and this goal that you wanna be able to continue to bring to light?

 

Ralph: I think that it was always — the culture was there, like when we first started doing — before I even started doing Video Music Box, but when hip hop, you know, doing it and DJ-ing out in the park and, you know, going to jams, like I tell people, it was like maybe 500 of us and so somebody said to me like not too long ago, “There’s still only 500 of us,” 

 

and so I was like that’s an interesting perspective. Is that so? You know, we used to go to the jams and, whatever it was, we’d hang out there, we all went to the same diner, we all went to the same roller skating rinks, we all went to the same, you know, whatever it was, parties, music videos, you knew everyone, it was all the same people. 

 

And so, in going through those times, those same people were there, you know? That same, you know, you knew, like KRS-One would go, like if I went to something and it might not even have anything to do with music, it might have been some talk at a university and I would show up, and KRS was, “I knew you’d be here,” you know? He’d say something like that. 

 

We just knew, you know, who was gonna show up, so, yeah, and that’s all it was. It was just, you know, it was shifting and we knew it but we were just present and that’s the thing too is that, sometimes, people are not present, you know? By default, just because I showed up, I learned a lot and I understood things.

 

Dan: Right, yeah. Having that presence is key. Even today, I think, when it’s easy for people to assume that they can do everything digitally or online. I’m especially thinking about a lot of the people that have followed in your footsteps that are the hip hop media personalities that are doing their respective things on Instagram or on TikTok or any of these other platforms, right? 

 

Having those in-person connections still makes a difference because, to your point, there’s still 500 people or so. There may be some turnover in who those people are but it’s still a pretty concentrated power circle.

 

Ralph: Yeah, you know, like you know when you’re looking for certain, some music or fashion or whatever, you know, you have a small group of places that you visit, that you go to first, you know? 

 

Maybe you’ll find it somewhere else but, usually, you won’t and you’ll go to those, let me see, you know, let’s go to this side, this guy’s playlist, let’s see what he’s playing or let’s go to this girl’s playlist and see what she’s playing. Let’s see what she’s talking about today. And, you know, and like you said, it changes but, you know, it’s still, you know, very narrow because, you know, it is what it is.

 

Dan: Yeah, no, for sure. So, talk to me a bit about the Video Music Box Collection. So, this is a nonprofit organization that you started and, in a lot of ways, the goal of this is similar to the goal of the documentary, you’re trying to share the footage, but this is different, you’re not trying to cut this 90-minute piece of artwork, you’re trying to find a way to broadcast the tens of thousands of hours that you have created in those archives because as we saw from the doc, we know how powerful that could be. 

 

What’s the process for that — well, how’s the process for that been going and how has the airing of the documentary been able to help with some of the goals you have for the nonprofit?

 

Ralph: So we started the Video Music Box Collection, nonprofit organization, VideoMusicBoxCollection.org. The reason why we started it is we have 30,000 hours, really 20,000 hours of original content and then 10,000 hours of like music videos and stuff and so we said, “Let’s focus on the 20,000 hours of our content,” which is interviews and performances and just stuff that we shot, you know? 

 

And so, these are all on analog tapes, nobody even says the word “tape” anymore. So we have to take those tapes and make them into digital files and then get the data and really go through what was on these files and what was on these — some stuff was from 1983, literally when we started. 

 

And it’s an expensive process because you wanna get it at the best quality so you don’t have to do it over again. You wanna get it at the best you can get it now. So we use the same people like NFL films uses. 

 

And I said, look, you know, if I just did it myself and I went to, you know, some store and bought some gadget and, you know, I could probably hook it up and, you know, hook it up to my laptop and do it. But I was like, “Nah, that’s not the best quality. We have to do it like at a high end so we need help, you know? We can’t afford to do this. This is a million-dollar project, you know?” 

 

And just the storage alone, you know? Like that’s always the part that I forget, you know, when you’re doing these things, it’s like, yeah, no, it’s gonna be on a file, but they’re huge video files and it takes so much storage to keep these things and so I always miscalculate the storage part.

 

If you’re ever doing a project like this, don’t forget about the storage part. And it’s important because now we have this data, it’s being archived, we have a great archivist who’s going through each thing and looking at it from what it says on — what I wrote on a physical tape, you know, 30 years ago or 35 years ago to what she actually really sees in the tape in 2021. 

 

And that may be totally different. Her eyes may see something that I didn’t write down, you know? And I might have used it for, you know, I might have shot an hour concert with Jay-Z and I only talked about one particular song so maybe I had only used three minutes of that whole 60 minutes. 

 

So there’s all of this stuff. Who was in the crowd? What were they talking about? Just stuff that I’ve never aired before. So, the process has been great. Some of those things you see in the documentary, especially the crowd stuff, and people love the idea when we started doing the shout-outs and there’s a lot of that that came from this process that we’ve been doing of digitizing. A lot of that footage was just recently digitized to the Video Music Box Collection.

 

So I’m always amazed, like I see stuff on there that I’m like, “I don’t even remember doing this, like when did we do this?” And it’s important to preserve culture, it’s important to preserve our history because so much of our history in the past was thrown away. 

 

One of the things I said when I first started Video Music Box is like, I don’t want that to happen to my stuff nor do I want it to happen to anybody else that I know. But, you know, footage from James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone and all these different artists were lost, you know, just because, you know, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. Either way, it was not thought about in the right way. 

 

And I’m a nutcase that kept this stuff in the right temperature and kept it, you know, in a good place and we’ve lost a few things over the years but majority of the stuff we have.

 

Dan: Yeah, that’s good insight there and I like that you broke down just how much work is put into making sure this is the highest quality, because we’ve seen so many music documentaries lately and some of the things I often hear from people is like, “Wow, the footage from that looks amazing. Like how were they able to maintain that from decades ago?” and it’s like, well, you realize how much money it costs and how much work needs to be put in place to get it to that level and that’s exactly what you’re trying to do with this on the, you know, longer scale much more so, so, yeah, makes perfect sense.

 

Ralph: Yeah, absolutely. I’m happy, you know, with that part, because it’s like just reliving your past, and people that have been watching the documentary who are maybe over 30 years old have been like, “This is my life.” Like they said things like, “That’s me,” like, you know, like, “I wasn’t at that party but this is still my life. I know exactly what this is,” 

 

and, you know, in tears, literally in tears, you know? So I knew it felt good. I didn’t know how good it felt when we first finished it but I think the power of Nas, Mass Appeal, you know, people that really care about the culture, you know, and everybody doesn’t know, documentaries, you start working on ’em and as I think as the process progressed, the crew was like, “This is something special right here.”

 

Like, you know, they didn’t know, you know? They didn’t know. Some of the guys didn’t know. And they were like, “We’re working on something, that’s something that’s really special right now.” I knew that but, you know, every guy who comes up with an idea says, “Yeah, my idea is the best.” 

 

But, by the end, they were like, “Yo, thank you, man. Thank you for taking us on this journey with you, man.” I was like, “Thank you for being here. Thank you for your expertise,” because everybody was great.

 

Dan: Yeah, definitely, I think that you being able to have someone like Nas and just all of the other people that you had involved with it helps not just — kinda like we were saying before, right? Not just like bring the clarity of the vision and you can bring their insights together, but it shows that this project, in a lot of ways, is bigger than you and it’s a reminder of the fact to anyone realizing that, yes, you may be the face of Video Music Box but what you’re trying to achieve is much bigger than anything, you know? And you want something that can last and that people can go back and reference because it’s a time capsule. You’re essentially bringing the time capsule to life.

 

Ralph: Absolutely, absolutely. And I love the idea that, you know, people will ask about, you know, different conversations now and one of the things too with the foundation is to take this to universities. One of my ideas was I gotta take this out to universities and show it so when I did the deal with Showtime, I said, you know, in the contract, “Can I have the film to use it to go to different schools?” and they said no problem. 

 

And so, you know, that’s what will happen in 2022, we’ll start going to different colleges and museums and libraries and, you know, and just make it available, you know, and do that as well as make some of the content that we have in the collection available as well.

 

Dan: Oh, yeah. I mean, this belongs in the Smithsonian Museum, the National African American one in DC, the music focused one in Nashville, the one that they’re building up in the Bronx, like all of those needs some element of this.

 

Ralph: Yes, yes. 

 

Dan: Yeah. Well, Uncle Ralph, this was great. Thanks so much for coming on and I know that for anyone listening, if you haven’t checked out the documentary yet, make sure you go check it out. It’s on Showtime. You can get it through Hulu. That’s how I was able to see it. 

 

But if anyone wants to learn a little bit more about the nonprofit work and specifically Video Music Box Collection, where can they go or where can they go to donate or check out to learn a little bit more about the project?

 

Ralph: Yes, you can go to videomusicboxcollection.org. I’m on Facebook, I’m on Instagram, @videomusicbox. There’s usually a Donate button on my pages on there. And give what you can because it’s important like, you know, it just helps, you know? It helps tell the story. 

 

And I think that our hip hop history is super important and history in general is important and it’s for everybody. You know, when I did the doc, I wanted not just people in hip hop to like it but people that might like a good story and that’s why, you know, I think it’s been taken so well. 

 

Dan: Well done. Thanks again. No, couldn’t have said it any better. This was great. Thanks for coming on, Ralph. 

 

Ralph: Thanks, Dan.

 

Dan: Great job with the doc.

 

Ralph: Awesome, thank you. 

 

Dan Runcie

Dan Runcie

Founder of Trapital

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