Yo: The Story Of Yo! MTV Raps

Yo: The Story Of Yo! MTV Raps

Yo: The Story Of Yo! MTV Raps debuts tonight on VH1 at 10 p.m. Eastern.

The best thing going for Yo: The Story of Yo! MTV Raps is its emphasis on how Music Television’s signature hip-hop show evolved over a period—namely, 1988 to 1995—during which the genre went from mainstream afterthought to commercial no-brainer. Questlove (apparently now opting for the statelier “Q” over the more esoteric “?”), Big Boi, Def Jam exec Bill Adler and various Yo! personnel, among others, all effectively sentimentalize that unlikely trajectory. Naughty By Nature MC Treach synopsizes it best when smirking and reflecting that white America ostensibly decided, “Ya know what? We do love ya little ghetto bastards.”

On the flipside—and perhaps as an inevitable result of being produced for MTV’s sister network, VH1—the hour-long special suffers from more than a bit of self-love. There’s absolutely no doubt that Yo! was instrumental in hip-hop’s eminent crossover explosion, and that the network as a whole was almost singularly influential at that time. Not to mention that, for members of Generations X and Y, it was indeed what Questlove describes as “the perfect after-school remedy.” It also provided those audiences with initial exposure to the lifestyles of rappers like N.W.A and Geto Boys. 

Still, the documentary falls short at serviceably acknowledging how hip-hop even arrived at the point where a white rap aficionado from Long Island named Ted Demme (RIP) created Yo! in ’88, or how Michael Jackson smashed color boundaries with his video for “Billie Jean” five years earlier. Nor does it offer any kind of post-mortem for Yo!’s legacy since signing off the air, or whether MTV’s own contribution to the watering-down of rap and R&B in the ensuing 17 years has ironically inspired all this cuddlyYo! nostalgia. 

In that respect, The Story of Yo! struggles with the opposite problem that befell recent (and far superior) “Rock Doc,” Uprising: Hip-Hop & The L.A. Riots. Where the latter softened a compelling discussion about contemporary racial politics by framing it inside a flimsy musical narrative, The Story Of Yo! lacks any kind of real purpose other than narrow self-aggrandizing, and hardly merits having been considered for release beyond extras on a future Yo! DVD.

It’s too bad there weren’t more buzzworthy insights like Ed Lover recollecting when Flavor Flav dropped a vial of crack (hilarious!), or that Yo! turning points like Fab 5 Freddy’s decision not to host the daily show weren’t explored with some incisive candor. Some more never-seen footage or live performances might have been nice too (no Wu-Tang doing “Method Man”circa ’93?!).

But this flick isn’t really aspiring toward anything meatier than what amounts to quick, inexpensive brand-maintenance. Story of Yo!, for all its justified boasts, is less documentary than sponsored message to remind viewers who originally paid to produce all those old-school viral vids, and who continues to set the trends today. Except without a larger context, it’s unlikely anybody under 30 will tunnel out from their YouTube/Spotify holes long enough to see that light.

Stray observations:

  • It is remarkable to think that, 24 years ago, Yo! probably had more black people behind and in front of the camera than any show on TV.
  • Dan Charnas, author of The Big Payback and Paul Scheer lookalike, may be slightly overstating Yo!’s impact by observing that its viewers became “the generation that elects America’s first black president.” 
  • Seeing Will Smith’s involvement in the Yo! Grammy broadcast was fascinating. And his absence from the special was telling.
  • Man, that LL home visit went nowhere, huh?
  • Sad Beasties footage. Wonder if they edited some of that down after Adam Yauch’s passing.
  • There’s not a better moment than Freddy interviewing Bushwick Bill about how “Mind Playing Tricks On Me” articulated a “paranoid, schizophrenic, manic-depressive point of view”—while a baby doll hung around his neck.
  • I definitely remember all those N.W.A episodes as must-see TV, and was glad Questlove found them equally unsettling.
  • Michael Jordan uncomfortably describing to Freddy how he’s learning more about hip-hop was cringe-tastic, but also underscores just how much things have changed in 20 years.
  • I totally had those Yo! trading cards. You?
  • Man, Queen Latifah was so good. Actually not shocking she’d be talented as an all-around performer.
  • Seriously, just go to YouTube.
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