This Oral History of ‘Rap City’ Follows The Show From The Basement To The Top Floor
For nearly 20 years, Rap City brought Hip-Hop in its various forms into the lives of millions, helping elevate the once-fledgling culture into the mainstream. Easily the longest-running Hip-Hop show in television history, it lived on BET from 1989 to 2008 and showcased music videos Rap fans couldn’t see anywhere else and eventually became a place for live interviews, freestyle sessions, and comedy. Created by Alvin “The Unseen VJ” Jones, Rap City spawned several iterations featuring different hosts along the way, but the ethos of the program always remained the same: provide fans with an authentic, unfiltered reflection of Rap culture and, by extension, Black America.
The show’s creation, backstory, and influence is the subject of a sprawling oral history published by Rolling Stone and featuring its hosts and executives responsible for getting the iconic series on TV. As Jones (who served as producer from 1989 through 1991) explains, the show was born out of complaints he was hearing from rappers, who said “BET’s not playing our videos.” His response was to devote an entire week of programming to Rap music (“Rap Week”), which would prove to be the then-highest rated show to air in the network’s history. “We decided we were going to do another one,” recounts Jones, who recalls some of the artists who became involved. “Q-Tip was with the Jungle Brothers when we did these interviews. We had the Fat Boys, Kid ‘N Play, Eric B. – Rakim wasn’t there. We had MC Lyte,” he says. Again, Rap Week proved to be a ratings win, and Rap City was born. “I went on vacation and came back and [BET was] like, ‘We’re going to do a rap show.’ This young lady Jeanie Brown, she thought of ‘Rhapsody.’ Her idea became Rap City.”
Chris “The Mayor” Thomas was the show’s inaugural host, and he says Will Smith (known widely as The Fresh Prince) played an integral role in the show’s earliest format. Smith was already familiar with Thomas due to Thomas’ work as a touring comedian who often toured with and opened for some of Hip-Hop’s earliest superstars. “Will Smith, one time, he saw me reading a teleprompter. On the teleprompter [Rap City staffers] would write stuff like, ‘What’s up homies and hom-ettes?’ He said, ‘What are you doing to Chris? The Mayor has been touring with us, he knows what to say, just let him go.’ That was the birth of Rap City. That’s how Rap City evolved. They would say, ‘Go ahead and freestyle. You do what you do, Chris,'” he recalls.
From 1990 to 1993, Hans “Prime” Dobson hosted the show and remembers that, at the time, he was BET’s youngest employee. His young age meant he had his finger on the pulse of the youth culture known as Hip-Hop, which made him the suitable choice for the hosting gig. “I knew Hip-Hop more than anyone else there. Rap videos started coming around and they were a little bit shaky about it,” he says of some of the network’s executives. In fact, he says BET’s creator, Bob Johnson, “didn’t respect Hip-Hop at all. He thought it was a passing fad.” That sentiment changed, Dobson says, when Yo! MTV Raps became a cultural juggernaut. As Jones recalls, “We had to create a show because [Rap] grew.”
As the 1990s progressed and Rap music continued to grow in influence, Rap City became a place for serious fans to turn to for the acknowledgment and celebration the culture deserved. As Joe Clair (host from 1994-1999) shares, he wanted to expand on the show’s music-video format to something more forward-thinking. “Hip-Hop was something that I knew a lot of people lived and breathed every day. I really wanted that one shot to be the person to say, ‘Take this serious because this is going to be the language that you hear for the next 30, 40 years.'” Through Hip-Hop’s growing pains – namely the East Coast versus West Coast beef, Rap City managed to remain thoughtful and relevant. As producer Keith Paschell recalls, “After everything happened with the whole East Coast/West Coast, that’s when “unifying a Hip-Hop nation” came in and we were just trying to really bring everybody together. Let everybody see that there’s real Hip-Hop happening in every region, not just in your region, so we need to respect and love each other.”
But it wasn’t always upbeat and positive. Clair remembers some of the show’s most intense moments of the era, saying “I’m sitting in the Rap City seat in the middle of the East Coast/West Coast beef. When it’s raging, I’m hosting. One day, we would have Fat Joe. The next week it’d be Mack 10. I got the last televised interview of Biggie and two days later, he got killed. Tupac played Makaveli for me off of a cassette he had just gotten out the studio. It was just he and I listening to it.”
As the millennium came to a close, Rap City continued to reinvent itself, and in 1999, Darian “Big Tigger” Morgan came on board as host. According to Clair, the timing was perfect. “The regime changed. This is the time when the big Viacom deal is going down, and everything is changing at BET,” he says before adding “I was out and I was happy to see someone I knew was the replacement, someone I knew cared about the culture and gave two shits. They did something that the next generation could call their own.” Durik “Prince” Dajour, who hosted the show from 1991-1994, echoes Clair’s sentiment, saying “Tigger took it to the next level. The brand became much bigger and it grew.”
Heads will likely recall that Tigger was involved with the show prior to his role as host, leading the weekly “Hip-Hop News” segment. But Paschell says he knew the up-and-comer had more to offer and says that when he left the show, he went to the network’s legal department and said “give this dude a contract.” Give him a contract they did, but BET’s placement of faith in Big Tigger involved an entire restructuring of the show’s format. Stephen Hill, then Vice President of Programming, recalls “At the time, Rap City had three hosts. We made the decision to keep one host and Tigger was the choice: funny, vibrant, great on air, really about the music.” It then became Rap City: Tha Basement, with Tigger as the main host. “When people think of Rap City, they think of Tigger. Tigger was just one of the better interviewers that you’d have anywhere. Tigger could be on the Today show if he wanted to,” he says.
Morgan himself credits his success as the show’s most beloved host on timing, arguing that Rap’s flourishing diversity made his job easy. “I was on at a really great time in Hip-Hop, where lots of different places was blowing up. We had the St. Louis thing, we had the Atlanta thing, the Houston thing, the Midwest. It was so many different flavors in the pot.” In fact, he seemed to love his job so much that it became a point of criticism. “One of the things I was chastised about was, ‘Oh, you happy,’ like I was supposed to be angry in Hip-Hop,” he says. “It wasn’t my show to be like ‘I don’t like you, I don’t like your style or your music.’ I just think it was an honest show; it was an authentic show.”
Perhaps the most popular iteration of the show was Tha Basement, which featured a set designed to look like the average Hip-Hop listener’s home basement. Tigger himself related to it personally, saying “I literally grew up in one of my best friend’s basement; his basement was the hangout. This is so authentic to me, because this is really what I did.” But the authenticity, he says, was found well beyond the aesthetic look of the show. “I think format-ically, outside of a whole lot of dancing, we had the main pillars of Hip-Hop. We had DJ-ing, we had MC-ing; later on, we also incorporated the art portion of it. It really felt like Hip-Hop. It wasn’t watered down; it wasn’t cheapened.”
The booth became one of the show’s signature elements, in which artists would perform classic material and their newest singles, and it served to embrace the artform of rapping as not only an important part of Hip-Hop culture, but one fans wanted to see happen live. But as Heads likely recall, it wasn’t just artists who stepped into the booth to drop rhymes. “The booth part was going to happen whether or not I got in the booth or not,” says Tigger. “I think when they offered me the position, no one had an idea I was as good as I was at it. It was really set up for the artist – I just kept going in there. If you watch some of the early episodes, I would always go last so they could cut it. Most of the time they kept it.”
But of course, the most memorable booth moments for him are the ones shared with visiting guests. “I got to go in the booth with people I consider icons of the game. I went in with Rakim, Jay Z, Snoop, Eminem. I went in with LL [Cool J]. Those would be the moments when my brain was on fire,” he says. Hill also has fond memories of the booth and the performances it inspired. “Kanye came through the booth, Hov came through the booth. We retired one mic when Hov came through the booth,” he remembers. “Kanye came in fresh. I really think him coming on Rap City and doing that, I think people started to realize he’s really serious about this.”
With the 21st century came the advent of an explosion in options for Rap content; platforms like YouTube were making tuning into TV to see a music video obsolete. As such, Rap City‘s ratings began to decline. Hill says “Hip-Hop was getting to a place where it was hard to play some of the videos coming out,” while Tigger once again emphasizes the role of timing. “Traditionally, most television shows have a six-and-a-half-[year] shelf life,” he says, speaking to Rap City‘s impressive run, despite its eventual end. As Dajour rightfully argues, “Rap City, we did it first and we did it the biggest. MTV had their show, but we were the first Black show…We were the only two Hip-Hop shows in the country and internationally. There was no other competition around, just the two of us. BET was big because we had the whole African-American community on lockdown.”
As we celebrate Black History Month during a time of great political unrest, remembering the invaluable contributions Rap City made to the preservation of African-American culture seems in perfect timing.