For many years, hip-hop was the sound of New York City. But in the ’80s, it started to become the sound of young America at large. A big reason for that spread was the highly influential show Yo! MTV Raps. The show debuted on the erstwhile Music Television in 1988, airing hip-hop videos and interviews with rappers and showcasing its cool hosts. It quickly became a surprise national hit.
“People thought it was a passing fad,” says original host Fab 5 Freddy, now 63. “Nobody was thinking it would be around for 50 years.”
In the early ’80s, Freddy (born Fred Brathwaite) recorded the rap single “Change the Beat” and starred in Wild Style, a 1982 film about the emergence of rap and graffiti. When MTV introduced Yo! MTV Raps in 1988, the fashionable Freddy was the obvious choice to host. As the show expanded from a weekly to daily schedule, more hosts were brought on. Ed Lover, a former school safety officer from Queens who loved rap, and Doctor Dré (not the N.W.A. member) enjoyed comedic chemistry and made Yo! appointment viewing for a generation of music lovers.
And because by this time MTV operated networks internationally, Yo! became “the catalyst to spread the gospel of hip-hop around the globe,” says Lover, now 60. “I feel a sense of pride from that.”
The show became so popular that celebrities would recognize the hosts, including that time Robert De Niro approached Lover at Bill Clinton’s inauguration in January 1993. “My kids being able to graduate college and get master’s degrees,” Lover says, “all of that is because of hip-hop.”
Yo! ran through 1995 on MTV, and the hosts still marvel at the musical and cultural revolution they were part of. “The music survives and continues to renew itself, and people still put new twists on it,” Freddy says. “It still has a fresh energy and life, and it’s still throbbing on. It looks like there could be another 50 years to come.”
Listen to AARP's Pandora station featuring a multicultural mix of hip-hop artists.