Early 1980s... hip-hop is still living its prehistory, the first rap hit ("Rapper's delight", 1979) of the Sugarhill Gang has just won the airwaves. DJ, video producer, and now coordinator of hip-hop activities for libraries in Queens, New York, "Uncle Ralph" ("Uncle Ralph") -- his nickname in the industry -- remembers it like it was yesterday.
"We were with Russell Simmons (the future founder of the famous hip-hop label Def Jam). You couldn't get a contract for an artist. You couldn't put a (hip-hop) record in a shop. They told you they wouldn't sell it," the pioneer said.
"And then there was Run-DMC," the first big band in rap history. "Really, we were talking with them, around the corner, and the next day they were on stage at Madison Square Garden," recalls the Brooklyn native of Trinidad and Tobago, in the Caribbean.
From that time, and the years that followed, Ralph McDaniels, 61, retains rare visual and sound remains, captured wherever he hung out -- often with his only crew --, camera and microphone.
Images from the hip-hop show "Video Music Box" shown during the exhibition "Hip Hop Til Infinity" at the Hall of Lights in New York, August 1, 2023 © ANGELA WEISS / AFP
"Video Music Box" was launched in 1983 on a local New York channel (WNYC-TV) to give voice to a rap scene still burgeoning and full of energy.
Nas, The Notorious B.I.G., Busta Rhymes, Roxanne Shanté, Mary J. Blige, Jay-Z..., "Uncle Ralph" filmed them all in their early days, in concert in front of excited crowds, or on confidential stages.
In a studio in the basement of his house in Elmont, a suburb of New York, he scrolls through archival footage: a very young LL Cool J giving his very first filmed interview, or DJ Grandmaster Flash, dark glasses, sparkling outfit more disco than rap backstage at a show in 1985.
Thirty to forty years later, the big names in the genre are grateful to "Video Music Box" for having been there at the very beginning.
"We had Ralph McDaniels, that's all we had," Jay-Z sums up in a documentary Nas dedicated to the show ("You're watching Video Music Box," on Showtime, 2021).
Today, Ralph McDaniels wants to protect this heritage, by digitizing the 20,000 hours of footage contained in the mountains of old videotapes piled up all over the iron shelves of his studio.
Inside the tribute exhibition to rapper Jay-Z, in the Brooklyn Great Library, July 17, 2023 © ANGELA WEISS / AFP
His dream? "Forty or a hundred years from now, it will all be in an archive somewhere, and you can say +Tell me about Mary J. Blige+, and you'll find Mary J. Blige in her time," he says.
"It's important because it's what tells the story of our culture, and you can't throw it away like that," he insists. Already, the small box-shaped microphone he used for "Video Music Box" has entered the collections of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.
Ralph McDaniels also fed his memory with the music videos he produced with stars of the golden age of New York rap. Among them, "It Ain't Hard to Tell" by Nas (1994), or the very famous C.R.E.A.M. (1994) by Wu-Tang Clan, a raw chronicle of a New York youth, between drugs, violence and prison, where the acronym C.R.E.A.M. stands for "Cash rules everything around me".
"It was minus 15 when we shot," he recalls, nostalgic for that time of hip-hop when "the words we said really corresponded to what was happening in the street".
American hip hop documentarian Ralph McDaniels in his studio filled with videotapes of 40 years of rap archives, in Elmont, near New York, July 28, 2023. © Maggy DONALDSON / AFP
- Safe space -
"A lot of hip-hop's biggest artists have been through tough times," he adds, citing Jay-Z, The Notorious B.I.G. or Nas, all of whom grew up in poor New York City neighborhoods.
"They knew and they understood the people, the families, the smells and everything that happens in the elevators that smell of urine and everything you go through there every day. And they took it all and put it in their records," McDaniels said.
Now, he is trying to pass on the legacy within libraries, "a safe space, especially for teenagers".
"There are kids who need help, or opportunities, or just to be there, to see us do an interview and see how it works," Uncle Ralph said. "Here they are safe, nothing will happen to them."
© 2023 AFP