Rap City: An Oral History of TV's Longest-Running Hip-Hop Show

Freestyles, fashion and the final Biggie interview: Hosts look back at nearly two decades of BET's home for rhymes

Spanning the 19 years between 1989 and 2008, BET's Rap City was the longest running hip-hop TV show in history. It helped rap grow from urban shout to suburban obsession in the late Eighties, documented the initial reigns of Los Angeles and Atlanta in the Nineties and, most famously, helped make freestyling fashionable in the image-conscious Aughts.

The show outlasted rival Yo! MTV Raps and practically helped raise a generation of kids marveling at the music, the culture and the occasional mayhem. At one point, in the pre-YouTube era, it was the only show streaming a constant flow of rap music videos. From the candid interviews to the frivolous dances, off-the-cuff rhymes and fashion, Rap City exposed all avenues of the flourishing culture it was created to showcase. When BET embraced hip-hop, cable television would never be the same.

"Bob Johnson Didn't Respect Hip-Hop"

Alvin "The Unseen VJ" Jones, creator/producer, 1989-1991: I started working with BET September 17th, 1984. At that time, BET was on the air six, eight hours a day. They had an idea for a four-hour daily music-video show. It was going to be called Video Vibrations and they asked me if I wanted to be the host. October 1st, 1984, 8 p.m., Video Vibrations was launched. A lot of the rap music that was played, was playing on Video Vibrations, reggae, pop, rap, everything.

We were at New Music Seminar, a lot of the rappers felt they were not getting airplay. The rappers were saying, "BET's not playing our videos," and I'm like, "What are you talking about? I play everything." I told them, "I'll tell you what I'm going to do: I'm going to do a whole week of rap. If it ain't rap, it'll be a commercial." That's how Rap Week got started. We didn't even promote it. Ratings came out and it was the highest ratings in the history of BET.

We decided we were going to do another one. BET had just moved the show department into its own building. We had a small room with a mini TV. 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. It was the craziest thing, you could walk in the door and sitting on the floor, was all these different rappers eating pizza. That show aired between Christmas and New Year's. During that break, that was the highest rated show on BET. I went on vacation and came back and they're like, "We're going to do a rap show." This young lady Jeanie Brown, she thought of "Rhapsody." Her idea became Rap City.

There was a guy, Hans Dobson, known by "Prime." He came in as an intern in the sports department but all Hans talked about was rap. He was my hip-hop advisor. I had someone I could go to and make decisions and create ideas. When it came down to it, I wanted to have him host the show.

Hans "Prime" Dobson, host, 1990-1991: At the time, I was the youngest person working at BET. I was trying to make my way from being a video-tape librarian to getting up into full production. I knew hip-hop more than anyone else there. Rap videos started coming around and they were a little bit shaky about it.

Jones: We had to create a show because [rap] grew. People would get on [BET creator] Bob Johnson because of the videos. Bob didn't like rap. Jeff Lee [BET vice president of network operations] didn't like rap either. Jeff and Bob were very, very concerned about the look and to them, they didn't understand it. It was a tremendous big day when I sat there and watched it on a monitor when Kid N' Play got on Video Soul. Bob would say, "We're not putting this on Video Soul, put it on Video Vibrations." Video Soul was the good china; we were like the Chinet or paper plates.

Dobson: Bob Johnson didn't respect hip-hop at all. He thought it was a passing fad. The way they saw it was you can get your thing on Rap City, but unless you're signed to Def Jam, the biggest goal here is to sit on the couch with Donnie Simpson. Then one day, Bam! Our archrival makes [Yo!] MTV Raps. The powers that be were like, "What was that idea that young boy had?"

I took a stab at [hosting], man. I didn't know what I was doing. After three shows, my mentor Chuck D came around and he gave me basically the whole equivalent of Animal Farm: "With great power comes great responsibility."

The Mayor and the Prince

Chris "The Mayor" Thomas, host, 1989-1993: I was the first comedian to host a rap tour. I toured with Run D.M.C., the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy. I had a video with Public Enemy called "Night of the Living Baseheads." My job was to keep peace in these auditoriums. I went and auditioned and I guess I won the job. I think everybody who was auditioning that day, they wore ties and suits, and I wore tore jeans. That time it was hip to wear that.

I was already on a game show on BET called Tell Me Something Good. Rap City was one of the shows that showed that hip-hop and comedy could work together as a team. We would come up with skits on Rap City and I would do some impressions to give the show a little more entertainment base.

Dobson: Guess who I had to audition against? They didn't have any concept: Alfonso Ribeiro, Carl Payne. I ended up getting the show technically. I was telling Rap City if we're going to do this, let's do it in the streets, not indoors.

Thomas: The nickname "The Mayor" came in with the show. They said Chris Thomas, "the Mayor of Rap City." The dance came in, I would move one shoulder and I would just move to the beat. Later on, they came out with the "Bankhead bounce," people would tell me, "They're doing your dance."

Dobson: I came in three shows after Chris started, '90 going into '91. I was like, "Chris you can handle the pop people. Give me the deeper people. Give me Kool G Rap."

Thomas: One day, they just told me that he wasn't going to be there anymore. I knew that he was outspoken but I never knew what happened.

Dobson: It was around the time when they were trying to get the [Martin Luther] King holiday recognized everywhere and Arizona was holding out. I spent the whole show dissing Arizona. It was me and Chris on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. I was bombing them out. When I did that, I got called into the office and they told me I had to apologize on the show. I was talking about a state not celebrating Martin Luther King Day and we're not trying to push that?

Thomas: My show, when I was on, was the number-one show. My hosting style was a little bit different. Let's go out and do something. Let's pretend I'm a pizza guy making pizzas and all the sudden Big Daddy Kane walks through. People got to see them out of their element, not always onstage.

Will Smith, one time, he saw me reading a teleprompter. On the teleprompter they 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." That was one of the best moments. He was basically on his way to doing The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. He just spoke up.

Dobson: My most memorable interview was with Big Daddy Kane. He had another guy that came on and did a freestyle; his name is Jay Z. That was the first time Jay Z was ever on TV. There was a rumor about Big Daddy Kane having HIV. I was the only person brave enough to ask him and he answered. He was like, "I'm glad you asked me. No I don't."

Thomas: We didn't have a big budget. My producers would always make sure I did several different shows a week. We would do this thing called "ins and outs." I would change clothes and go, "Yo, this is Chris Thomas and we got more videos on the way." They didn't put that much into it. I did a lot of traveling. Got a few keys to the city from different other mayors.

Durik "Prince" Dajour, host, 1991-1994: I originally started on BET on Teen Summit. Back when I was in high school, I was one of the Teen Summit posse members. We were in the studio adjacent to Rap City.

Thomas: I had basically walked away when Prince Dajour came. I was about to do a special with Whoopi Goldberg after she had won an Academy Award. I was ready to move on.

Dajour: When my time was done on Teen Summit – we could only stay until we were in high school – I was trying to find another job, so I could stay on television. At the time, I was at my regular little job. They called me at my job. It was raining outside. They asked, "Would you be interested in filling in on Rap City? We want to give you a shot." I ran all the way to the subway. I didn't have anything hip-hop on. I was wearing casual clothes.

I realized that the guest was going to be DJ Kool. What was cool about that is DJ Kool was a friend of mine. I was in DJ Kool's video. I took a chance on leaving my job. When I did the show that day they said they really liked how I came off. One of the producers said they just didn't know if I was hip-hop enough.

Big Lez and the Last B.I.G. Interview

Keith Paschall, producer: I took over Rap City after Camille [York] and Deidre Leak. Initially, I wanted to have four hosts.

Leslie "Big Lez" Segar, host, 1994-1999: Prince Dajour kind of escorted me on to the show. I was brought on to the Video LP show by Madeline Woods as a guest choreographer. By that time, I had worked for Bobby Brown, Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige, most of them. … Initially, they weren't comfortable with having a woman on the mic.

Paschall: I actually got a lot of flak when I brought Leslie on. I knew that she was a large part of hip-hop. She was a dancer for Heavy [D]; she was a dancer for a lot of different people. She was Mary J. Blige's choreographer; she actually did fitness for her and training for her. It was obvious she was very feminine but she didn't take no stuff.

Segar: They kind of weren't feeling me. Bob Johnson, he wasn't feeling me because I didn't look like his type. They had to make it more about the fact that I know the music, I know the artists, I'm in the clubs. My résumé was more important than what I look like. They gave me a shot and seven years later, I was still on the show.

Joe Clair, host, 1994-1999: I was a new comic living in D.C. I'm fresh out of college, I had gotten on The Ricki Lake Show. I called 1-800 Go-Ricki and I'm like. "I wonder if I can get on Rap City." I called 411 and got the number to BET. I kept calling and never got an answer. What ends up happening is: I would call this guy every two weeks. He called me back and was like, "Yo, we'll be at your house tomorrow." Next thing you know, BET comes to my crib. Dude comes in, he's the associate producer, he's like, "You're a comedian right? I saw you at this [Paul Mooney] show." Ten minutes later, the dude I had been calling comes in. I'm like, "I'm Joe Clair." He was like, "Ahh, I know that name. This is the dude that's been calling my phone for a year. Remember, I told you this comedian we need to sign? That's him."

I watched Rap City every day and I respect what Ed [Lover] and [Dr.] Dre did on Yo!, but for Rap City it was mostly videos and I just saw Chris Thomas there. I wanted to talk about where hip-hop culture was at today. I felt like I was watching a cat who was from the generation before and telling me about today. 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."

Paschall: When Chicago started jumping, we were on the scene with Common and Twista.

Segar: The shows that I did, we actually got to go to their hood. We were in Houston with Scarface and Lil Jay. We were in Jamaica with Buju Banton. W.C. popped my low-rider cherry.

Clair: Jay Z flying me in a helicopter to do an interview, getting changed at Redman mother's house – I changed in the bathroom. I remember meeting Snoop at Daz's house. They in there playing Nintendo and the whole house is blue: blue toilet paper, blue bathroom, blue water in the toilet.

Paschall: 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.

Clair: 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.

Tigger Takes Over

Paschall: Every Thursday we would do WRP radio and sit down and act like we was at a radio station. … Common did our first WRP. It was our way of introducing freestyle rap on the show.

Jones: Big Tigger was a phenomenon here in D.C. starting off as an intern at WPGC. He just had this energy where people just responded to him. It was kind of cool, friendly, but at the same time a certain panache to it. One of the things in this business is being around people who have it. With Tigger, I just saw how that audience reacted to him. In a world where everyone is trying to have rough names, his name was "Big Tigger" and it still worked because of his personality.

Paschall: Tigger was the intern around the building. He would come to my desk and say, "When you gonna put me on? When you gonna put me on?" He would come to me every day with that. So initially, I gave him hip-hop news. Chris Thomas was fucking up, wasn't showing up. So, he started doing hip-hop news. Actually, when I left, he probably doesn't know this, I knew I was leaving and I went to legal, I said give this dude a contract.

Darian "Big Tigger" Morgan: I got a segment doing hip-hop news once a week. It was only one day a week, and it was only 30 seconds to a minute. They needed a local host in D.C., so they made me the third host. I was boosted because KRS-One shouted us out. I could've died right there; I was good. The following year, '99-ish, they wanted to flip the whole format.

Clair: The regime changed. This is the time when the big Viacom deal is going down, and everything is changing at BET. 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.

Dajour: Tigger took it to the next level. The brand became much bigger and it grew.

Stephen Hill, Vice President of Programming, 1999- : Professionally, I came on board spring of '99. 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. I admit to being partial to people who had been on radio regularly. They're great interviewers. Rap City became Rap City: Tha Basement and Tigger became the main host.

Morgan: The only thing I ever told my friends from high school is, "I am going to host Rap City." That's the only thing I ever said. I never said I'm going to be in a movie or make a record. Of course everybody was like, "Whatever." By no means, did I ever think I was ever going to be the only host. By no means, did I imagine the success of Tha Basement and its impact on hip-hop.

Hill: 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.

Morgan: 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

One of the things I was chastised about was, "Oh, you happy," like I was supposed to be angry in hip-hop. 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.

Hill: Craig Henry is the person who came with the idea. We were thinking what would the atmosphere be? Is it a room? Is it a record store? Craig Henry was like, "He should just be in the basement."

Morgan: 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.

Hill: It's a credit to the people who built the set. Bob Johnson came through and took a tour of the facility. Bob said, "I'll be honest with you, I really thought this was shot in somebody's basement."

Morgan: 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..

Segar: Initially, when they brought him in and they had the Tigger [mascot] running around, I was like, "What is this bullshit?" And he was screaming upstairs, "Mom make me this …" Once they got rid of that and then they brought on the booth and Tigger got to show his freestyle. Finally, it became this place, like the basement became the barbershop. I still, however, miss us going into their backyard instead of just four walls.

Morgan: The booth part was going to happen whether or not I got in the booth or not. 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.

Hill: Kanye came through the booth, Hov came through the booth. We retired one mic when Hov came through the booth. I'm the executive in the office and when days would go badly I would love to go down there and watch someone go in the booth. I would never get tired watching someone in the booth. 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.

Morgan: There were a lot of artists that were like, "I don't go in the booth," and that's cool. Go ahead and do what you do to make you look cool to sell records.

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 L.L. [Cool J]. Those would be the moments when my brain was on fire. Destiny's Child came to the booth. They're still talking about what I call Rap City: Tha Bashment: Me, Elephant Man, Buju Banton and Bobby Konders was DJing.

The Rap Up

Hill: Nothing runs forever. Hip-hop was getting to a place where it was hard to play some of the videos coming out.

Morgan: Traditionally, most television shows have a six-and-a-half-[year] shelf life. I remember Ludacris didn't want to go in the booth. He felt like there's nothing me and you can do that could be better than the first two. That started the thinking we need to freshen up. At the time, I didn't want to be pigeonholed as the rap guy. Some conversations were had and it was a mutual agreement that we were going to end Tha Basement.

DJ Mad Linx, DJ/host, 2005-2006: We never took away the booth, it's just that I don't rap. I'm a DJ, I provide the beats. If anything, it was better for the MCs because I wasn't taking away their mic time. I didn't really have much choice because I wasn't going to turn into a rapper overnight. It was only going to mess up the show if I went in there and tried to rap. Trust me!

J-Nicks, host, 2005-2006: They kind of started to fade out the booth at the time. A lot of Southern artists weren't into freestyling. All the Southern artists were like, "We ain't bout to freestyle, we making money with our bars. You gotta pay us to freestyle."

Morgan: Kid Capri was on the last show I hosted. It was him and Mama Tigger.

Hill: Tigger would always talk about Mama Tigger and it turns out to be Patti LaBelle. I just love it. We pitched it to her and she was with it. … Once Rap City was off the air, Eminem is the only person who got the door opened again – 2009 Rap City: Relapse and [we] brought Tigger back.

DJ Mad Linx: Tigger was wildly popular. He came at a great time in the show's history. Hip-hop was really beginning to be on the upswing, in regards to being accepted in mainstream culture. To follow that, there was some challenges.

Kenneth "Q45" Williams, host, 2006-2008: When they switched to Mad Linx as the new host, people were flipping about that.

Morgan: What should have happened was, I should have moved into the new crib and handed it over to the new host. Me not having the opportunity to hand it over, instantly hurt the new host. It just set him up as a person for failure.

DJ Mad Linx: At the time I started, YouTube really came about. Rap City wasn't the only place to get the content. It's hard to compete with an infrastructure that says, "Here's whatever video you want to watch, whenever." It's very difficult to compete with that. I'll never forget the first time I saw YouTube. I said, "This is going to be a problem." Look at MTV: The "M" ain't stand for music in decades.

Hill: It happened to all music video shows. Sixteen years ago, there was a number of music-video shows on the air and then YouTube made it so you didn't have to wait for your video. It was just another opportunity and competition for young folks' energy and time and attention. That mixed with every show in time runs its course.

J-Nicks: They never really explained it to me. You know how them corporate companies go. They was like, "We got two more weeks and then Rap City is being taken off the air." Now that I'm older, it makes sense. Evolution of the producers fucked up the show, not the Internet. A lot of these older cats get stuck in their ways and don't want to evolve.

Williams: They kept it kind of tight-lipped about what was going on. I remember the show ended in October '08 at the [BET] Hip-Hop Awards. Earlier in that year, like July, there were rumors that the show was supposed to be ending on the blog sites. They told me, "We're going to have the Hip-Hop Awards in Atlanta, and it's going to be the last show of Rap City." Stephen came out and gave an official press release about it. They kept saying, "It's not that Rap City is ending; we're doing the new show The Deal." They wanted to make it look like SportsCenter is what they were telling me. When we got to the set for the last day in Atlanta, they brought back all the hosts. Joe Clair, Chris Thomas. Prince Dajour, I was there. It was odd just to see it go away.

Thomas: I don't know how long Yo! MTV Raps lasted but they still come back and revisit it. BET is the only network that hasn't come back to revisit it.

Dajour: Rap City, we did it first and we did it the biggest. MTV had their show, but we were the first black show. I personally was not competing with them. I was having fun in my own lane. There was enough girls, enough money. There was enough for all of us. They would say stuff about us on MTV. They would say things about us just to boost up their ratings. 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.