In the ’80s, Ralph McDaniels helped young rappers like Notorious B.I.G. and Jay Z make their names. Today he’s teaching hip-hop history to a new generation of youth.
When Ralph McDaniels wanders around the first-floor atrium of the Queens Central Library, his hearty laugh and approachable nature jibe with the sociable character of the space. Older men watch the news together and teenagers chase each other. A woman looks McDaniels up and down and says, “Looking good as usual.” A young man, maybe in his twenties, wearing a beanie and backpack, runs up to him and grabs his hand like he’s bumping into an old friend.
“I been watching that for like 25 years,” he says about McDaniels’ revolutionary television show, “Video Music Box,” which first aired in 1983 on WNYC-TV as a means to document the bourgeoning hip-hop scene in Queens, New York.
The boy raises his hand to his brow. “Salute to you, brother.”
The cropped afro McDaniels sported in the opening segment of “Video Music Box” is long gone, and he walks with a slow gait and a slight limp. He just celebrated his 58th birthday, and though he can’t understand half of what the young artists rap these days, he retains his relevancy and has become a key asset to keeping hip-hop alive in Queens as the library’s first-ever hip-hop coordinator, where he oversees all 65 branches.
The position has been over a decade in the making. In the past fifteen years, the library has added programs to teach kids about the deep roots hip-hop has in this borough, though the music and lifestyle originated in the South Bronx. Over the years, McDaniels has hosted several events, like a talk with Run-D.M.C.’s Darryl McDaniels (no relation). Recently, the library moved to carve out a part-time job dedicated to hip-hop programming, and McDaniels’ application appeared in the crop. His longstanding credentials and extensive connections to the hip-hop community made him an obvious choice.
“When I met him, I was star struck,” says Nick Buron, the chairman of Queens Library. “You see someone on TV who’s seen all these people… Very quickly he personalizes his conversation with you and he gets the job done. He has a vision.”
Institutional life isn’t exactly McDaniels’ forte though, and he’s still finding ways to navigate it. As the affable host of “Video Music Box,” he trekked to clubs with his video camera and microphone – an iconic prop now on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture – to tape emerging artists like Notorious B.I.G. He filmed in backyards and on the streets. He has produced over four hundred music videos, some of which are quite famous, like Nas’s “It Ain’t Hard to Tell.” KRS-One’s first television appearance was on “Video Music Box.” When Jay-Z was “just a skinny kid from Brooklyn,” he asked McDaniels to play his song on the show and later gifted him with a gold record. McDaniels produced Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend” alongside his co-founder, Lionel C. Martin, who directed the video. They shot the single-camera footage for fourteen-year-old Roxanne Shante’s “Roxanne’s Revenge” in a basement. That 1985 song spurred a rap battle called the Roxanne Wars and made huge waves as a woman’s response to male advances.
“Ralph has been a mentor to the whole industry,” says Beast, a filmmaker, who became an apprentice under McDaniels in the early days of “Video Music Box.” “A lot of us feed our families because of Ralph, have careers because of Ralph and are empowered because of Ralph.”
“Video Music Box” gave young rappers a platform to express themselves, especially those with little or no money. They went from hauling boom boxes to the park to appearing on cable television. Kids rushed home to watch the program and take fashion cues from L.L. Cool J in his red Kangol hat. Now, 34 years later, McDaniels views his role in the library as similarly providing that opportunity for young people.
“These kids have brilliant ideas, but no one is listening to them,” he says. “It’s okay to try something that’s not in the textbook.”
McDaniels grew up in Hollis, Queens, but likes to note that, counter to stereotypes, he came from an intact, two-parent family and lived in a nice house, not the projects. Still, he represented the neighborhood. He began DJing at clubs as a teenager and frequented one local haunt called Encore, adjacent to the Queens Central Library on Merrick Boulevard, which was torn down and is now the kid’s section of the library, below his office.
In 2012, Ian Lewis, the manuscript and archivist for Queens Library, wanted to use grant money to start a hip-hop archive. The library went a different route, but Lewis pursued the idea anyway and the project became his brainchild. Since then, he has struggled to convince people to donate t-shirts or other memorabilia. He’s grateful to have even a few scans of party flyers. McDaniels proved integral to securing these documents.
“We knew him and the show was the bridge-way to getting these,” says Lewis, about McDaniels as he scrolls through digital files, like a poster for The Force MDs and audio tracks by DJ Divine. “You’re walking through these streets of history and many people aren’t aware of it.”
Aside from helping the archivist, McDaniels has orchestrated a number of programs, including a graffiti workshop with the artist Chief69, a listening session for kids and a discussion with Keith Perrin, who co-founded the clothing line FUBU in 1992 (his partner is a panelist on the show “Shark Tank”). McDaniels’s latest project is a photography tribute to the pioneers of hip-hop. Along the wall that once served as the foundation for Encore, McDaniels installed Styrofoam poster boards of people like Fred Buggs (a.k.a. Bugsy) smiling in a 107.5 FM sweatshirt, and Rahzel smirking from underneath a Yankees hat and a fur zip-up. There’s also a shot of himself.
Though his wife and daughter urged him to accept the coordinator position for its change of pace from Video Music Box, this cultural hub in Queens suits McDaniels. He makes another round downstairs before leaving to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award from Melinda Katz, the Queens Borough President. Dennis Walcott, the president and CEO of the Queens Library, whistles and says, “Woo, look at you!” in response to the jacket and tie that McDaniels doesn’t typically wear.
Then, a different man approaches him with a salute and asks for a selfie. He holds his arm out while the two pose, then checks out the picture. He approves, and promptly posts it on Facebook with the caption, “Guess who I bumped into.”