It’s been more than 30 years since Yo! MTV Raps brought hip hop to MTV and the world at large. It was the place to be. The American Bandstand of the late 1980s. It was happy chaos surrounded by music videos that weren’t getting play anywhere else on the network.
The show blazed a trail to bring rap and hip hop into the mainstream. Through its two main incarnations—the intimate artist focus of host Fab 5 Freddy and the crazy, silly, cool of hosts Doctor Dré and Ed Lover—Yo! MTV Raps changed the landscape not just of music television, but of the culture itself. There’s no way to measure its full influence because the generation that grew up on it is still changing the world. Here are 10 things you might not know about the revolutionary show, which is making a comeback via Paramount+ on May 24, 2022.
1. Run-DMC hosted the pilot episode.
When Ted Demme started as a production assistant at MTV in the mid-1980s, he pestered his bosses about the lack of Black artists on the growing network. After developing Yo! MTV Raps for MTV Europe, MTV tossed a few thousand bucks to Demme and producer Peter Dougherty to create a pilot, which featured Run-DMC hosting a flurry of videos (the first ever was Eric B. & Rakim’s “Follow the Leader”). It was one of MTV's highest rated single episodes at the time.
2. It took MTV outside the studio.
The original idea for the show was simply to showcase the best hip hop videos, since MTV wasn’t doing that in their regular rotation. When Yo! MTV Raps moved beyond the pilot concept with rap pioneer Fab 5 Freddy at the helm, the vibe of the show expanded to spend more time with the artists. But Fab 5 Freddy wanted to take the show on the road. “I did not wanna be cooped up in that MTV studio where all those previous VJs would be,” he said. His first episode was taped in Salt-N-Pepa’s rehearsal space; he walked the streets of New York City with the Beastie Boys; and he even hung out with LL Cool J and LL Cool J’s mom on their couch.
3. Carole King was randomly the first guest of the new incarnation.
Yo! essentially had three starts: the pilot, the year of Fab 5 Freddy, and the daily insanity hosted by Doctor Dré and Ed Lover. That freewheeling celebration pumped into households every day after school is how most viewers remember the show. It was improvisational from the beginning. They spotted Carole King in the studio on their first day of filming, asked if she would join them, and she agreed, making the gentle-voiced singer/songwriter the first official guest of the raucous hip hop-focused show under its new stewardship.
4. T-Money invented the Ed Lover Dance.
If you’re looking to properly credit the inventor of the Ed Lover Dance, it’s Yo!’s resident sidekick. T-Money was in Original Concept with Doctor Dré, who brought him into the production. “T-Money showed me the dance and told me, ‘Do this every week,’” Lover told Vulture. “We picked Wednesdays because most Wednesdays we didn’t have nothing else happening. It was hump day. Dré picked 'The 900 Number' and it took on a life of its own.” T-Money also made a mark on the show with a series of outlandish, hilarious characters that fit in perfectly with Yo!’s super-loose style.
5. They shot all five weekly episodes in one day.
Since they didn’t have a lot of money (and a lot of what they did have was allocated toward oversized props and silly costumes), Lover and Doctor Dré filmed a bunch of episodes in a few hours. “We didn’t shoot the week like Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday,” Doctor Dré explained to Vibe. “We shot on one day, and all five shows, and we changed clothes on set ‘cause we didn’t have a budget. We just did everything that we wanted to do.”
6. The show helped launch hip hop globally.
Hip hop is one of the United States’s biggest exports, and Yo! was a big part of making that a reality. The success of the show led MTV to use it as an anchor in dozens of other countries where it was building an incipient global empire. The show helped spread the music to a worldwide audience hungry for it. As a testament to its reach, Fab 5 Freddy once met a woman from Russia who had relatives in Europe tape the show on VHS and mail it to her so that her whole block could gather around their TV to watch it.
7. Chuck D described it as "Black CNN."
In standing at the center of mainstreaming rap and hip hop culture, Yo! also has a hand in commodifying image and attitude alongside the music to a predominantly white audience. Public Enemy’s Chuck D called it “the Black CNN,” recognizing the series as a rare space on television for Black Americans to share their perspectives. Fab 5 Freddy was optimistic about white youth’s interest in the culture. “They won’t be as narrow-minded as their parents were,” he said in 1991. “See, Black people do it all the time. We know how whites live. We don’t have to think about it. Motion pictures, television, they’re all full of how white people live, act, how they kiss. Now things are swinging around a little bit.”
8. Salt-n-Pepa were featured on both the first and last episode.
Yo! fueled a lot of careers (the pilot was the first time anyone had seen a young rapper named Will Smith on TV) and relied on star power within the hip hop community. Name a major rap group or hip hop artist of the era, and they were on it. Yet Salt-n-Pepa have the unique distinction of having bookended the series. It all started with Fab 5 Freddy hanging out in their rehearsal space, and they were there when it ended August 17, 1995.
9. The final freestyle was unplanned.
The last episode of Yo! featured a now-legendary freestyle session where Rakim, KRS-One, Chubb Rock, Erick Sermon, MC Serch, Method Man, Redman, Special Ed, Extra P, and Craig Mack all passed the mic around. Like most everything in the show, it was off the cuff. “That was the whole beauty of it all,” Doctor Dré said. “They all came in to say thank you and goodbye, we love you guys, the whole thing, and it just started.” Chubb Rock saw it as a way to remind everyone of what they’d be missing.
10. Doctor Dré thinks it will be difficult to reboot.
In 2018, MTV announced they’d be rebooting the show, but there’s almost zero chance that it will be anything like the the Fab 5 Freddy or Doctor Dré and Ed Lover years, which represent zeitgeist lightning in a bottle. “Yo! MTV Raps was a snapshot in time,” Doctor Dré told Vulture in 2018. “It happened when it was most needed, when the music industry, the nation, and the world needed something that would unite everybody to a 1-2-3-4 beat, to a boom and a bap to a zugga-zugga-zugga, to an MC getting down on the microphone.” Maybe we need it rebooted after all.
A version of this story ran in 2018; it has been updated for 2022.