Gen Z and even most Millennials are too young to remember when MTV played music. They came up in the YouTube era, where you can find any artist any time with a quick search instead of having to wait for your favorite to pop up in rotation.
But the younger generation is now getting a taste of what growing up was like for music fans in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Paramount+, the streaming network that’s home to Paramount Media Networks shows, recently revived one of MTV’s seminal shows, YO! MTV Raps. It’s a throwback to a time when people were introduced to new music through videos, and you couldn’t just find an artist’s YouTube channel to see their latest release.
The reboot has several executive producers, including Warren Oliver and Kurt Williamson through their production company, HollandWest Productions. They say the program represents both an homage and a new direction, but most of all, it’s a salute to the unique genre of music.
“MTV and Paramount have been trying to bring back a lot of the nostalgia and the hype that was around MTV and its glory days back then,” says Williamson, noting the new version of Jersey Shore, one of the network’s most popular shows ever. “I heard they worked on [YO!] trying to bring it back for a few years now. And luckily we got the call to get it executed.”
Oliver says the show fills a void. “You can go to YouTube and see music videos, but there wasn’t really a place on a major network where you could see that in a long time. I think this was the right time to bring that back,” he says.
In 1988, when YO! MTV Raps debuted on MTV, rap was still in its infancy. Though it had been around since the 1970s, and breakout hit Rapper’s Delight helped launch the genre onto radio, it didn’t become a cultural phenomenon until the 1980s, when artists such as Run-DMC, Public Enemy, Queen Latifah and Rakim rose to prominence during the golden age of hip-hop.
Fab 5 Freddy hosted the original YO! MTV Raps, later succeeded by Doctor Dre and Ed Lover. The show went off the air in 1995, though MTV continued to air somewhat different versions of the program under the name YO!.
The new show, with hosts Conceited and DJ Diamond Kuts, bowed in late May and runs through July 19, with new episodes coming out on Tuesdays. Williamson and Oliver say they tried to preserve the same aesthetic as the original while adding elements of their own. “It’s like a hip-hop museum, basically,” Williamson says. The approach includes a single-camera feel (though a few have been added) and reimagines the original’s rap cypher in the form of a dance cypher.
The show features new artists through a segment called YO! Originals, which the producers say is key to the program. “We’re breaking a lot of these artists, they are new and a lot of them are on the younger side,” Williamson says. Oliver believes the interviews with the new artists are just as important as highlighting their music. “We see them on Instagram, but what’s going on in their lives?” he says.
Getting the famed set just right presented another piece of the puzzle. “We literally took pictures of the old set and said to our production designer, ‘Hey, let’s reimagine it like it’s two floors, but can you add a little flair to it?’” Oliver says. “He did a great job. When some of the artists came on, the first thing some of them said was that this feels like the old set.”
MTV executive Jennifer Demme, the sister of Ted Demme, one of the original YO!’s creators, gave Oliver and Williamson the ultimate vote of confidence. “She said, ‘you know, Ted would love this. I feel like he’s here,” Williamson said. “I think out of anybody who could have said anything from the old YO!, her words are most important.”
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