The ‘unseen VJ’ describes how BET’s ‘Rap City’ got off the ground — Andscape
Alvin Jones discovered his status as the creator of BET’s Rap City in the most fitting way. It was from a rap song.
“I remember when MC Hammer did the video for ‘Have You Seen Her’ and he rapped, ‘The girl is hard to see like an unseen VJ.’ I’m thinking, “Oh, wow. That’s kind of cool. I’m an icon.”
Jones earned the moniker the unseen VJ (video jockey) after BET founder Robert Johnson hired him in 1984. Jones had just dropped out of college and was working three part-time jobs. “I was somewhere between employee 21 and 40 because BET had just doubled its staff on the day I was hired.”
But Rap City didn’t start in 1984. Hip-hop was in its earliest stages of development. “We would take the rap videos and just stick them into Video Vibrations,” he said. “In the beginning, there were not enough videos to do a two-hour show.”
BET recently honored Jones at the BET Hip Hop Awards 2023, and a documentary, Welcome to Rap City, debuted Tuesday on BET. He spoke with Andscape about what led to the creation of Rap City, how Johnson supported Jones’ vision, and some of the unseen VJ’s favorite moments.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you get your start at BET?
I remember my first day at BET when I was 25. It was Sept. 17, 1984, my mother’s birthday. My birthday present for my mom was for me to have a job so I could get an apartment or house and move out.
In high school, I always wanted to have the first Black television network. I didn’t have the first Black television network, but I got a chance to work for the first Black television network. Bob Johnson offered me a job. When I came in, I’d just dropped out of school.
But I’d been working public access since getting kicked out and working on my craft. So, I was originally just going to be the host for Video Vibrations. Bob says no, we’re going to hire you full time and make you a staff announcer. And then they said, oh, you can produce. You’ll be a producer.
What were some of the first steps that led to Rap City?
I went to New York for this new music seminar. At that time, there was a [show called] Video Music Box. And it was banging because it was on in the afternoon. At that time, BET was sharing a channel, so we didn’t come on until like 8 o’clock. Video Vibrations repeated at midnight, so most people didn’t see us. So everybody’s like, ‘BET doesn’t play any rap’ because they didn’t see it in videos.
I go back to the promotions department. ‘Look, I’m doing this rap week, I want to promote it.’ They’re like, ‘Yeah, and we don’t care.’
So, Hank Shocklee [founding member of rap group Public Enemy] and I are going back and forth. And I said, ‘You guys say we don’t play musical rap videos. I know we do.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, I don’t play rap videos? I will tell you what I’m going to do. I’m gonna play some rap videos. I’ll do a whole week. If it ain’t a commercial. It’s a rap video. Boom.’
So how did you pull it off?
Back in the day, you went back to school after Labor Day. I knew that last week before Labor Day, that’s the grand hurrah. I wanted the biggest audience possible. If we come on at 4 o’clock with Rap Week in New York and D.C., in Seattle, San Francisco, San Diego, it’s 1 o’clock, and people are in class. I said let me do this before students go back to school.
So, we do it. No promotion. Just raw, ‘Check us out.’ No promotions from other big shows. Come back in a couple of weeks. Find out that Rap Week, which did not get promoted on Video Vibrations, was the highest-rated show in the history of BET.
Impressive. What was the next step?
I wanted to do another one. I’m thinking this time we’ll take the time when kids are out from school between Christmas and New Year’s. We had a little more support. Again, we broke records.
When New Edition did their Heart Break album, we did a special on that. For that, Johnny Gill came in. We do that special, and it breaks the records of Rap Week 1 and Rap Week 2. The next Rap Week happened during the Easter holiday because the whole thing is to make it work while everybody’s home so they can watch it.
We did a third Rap Week and it’s another record-breaking scenario. We’re just going up in the ratings. People are starting to catch on to BET. I went on vacation because it was tiring putting all this stuff together. I come back, and it’s like, ‘Oh, we’re going to do a rap show.’ That’s how Rap City happened.
Rap City was on the air for 19 years. Yo! MTV Raps was only on for seven. What do you think contributed to Rap City’s longevity?
We had an intern in the sports department, not even in the video department, named Hans Dobson, aka Prime. He always talked about rap, and people didn’t want to hear it. I was like, ‘Wow, what is this rap? Tell me more about it.’ Prime kind of guided me through it. He gave me Rap for Dummies.
But there were so many people like him and Chris Thomas [the show’s first host]. And all of the hosts and the producers kept changing things around. And Tigger. That’s what gave it longevity. The show wasn’t stale. It evolved.
I thought about it the other night because we were all together for the [documentary] screening. And we learned so much about each other that we didn’t know. But I thought about it. [Rap City] is what happens when Black folks work together. It’s about each one teaching one. Teamwork makes the dream work.
How did you get Bob Johnson on board? Was the success of the Rap Weeks all it took?
Bob appreciated me. I had Video Vibrations stuff, which was well before Rap City, and he realized I was the producer and the host of three shows. I was a one-man band.
Bob looked at it like I was getting this done. He was always supportive, and he was practical.
What’s your fondest memory of your time during Rap City?
That Christmas special at Children’s Hospital? I’ll never forget that. People looked at rappers and rap music, where we were all cast as hoodlums or drug dealers and I wanted to humanize humans.
When Public Enemy first came out, there was all this about them being militant, and this and that, and so forth. We interviewed them backstage at a concert, and I see Chuck D with his daughter Danielle. She’s maybe 9 months old. Chuck’s holding his daughter. He’s next to his wife. And I’m like, ‘This is a family man. This is a husband. This is a father.’ And I’m seeing the energy and the love of Chuck D as a father and a husband. I’m like, no, we have to make sure our young Black people are looked at as human beings.
I wanted to make sure we preserve the humanity and promote the humanity of young Black men and women. I thought we should set a narrative that shows that they care. I’m like, ‘What can be sadder than a child in my hospital … oh, a child in the hospital during Christmas.’
I made the move to do a Christmas special at the Children’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. We had seven acts: The Fat Boys, Chuck Chillout, MC Lyte, Kwame, De La Soul, LL Cool J and Run-D.M.C.
Buffy from The Fat Boys gets in a Santa Claus costume. He’s going around to the rooms, and the kids are just losing their minds. You would have thought Barney and whoever else was the most favorite person with kids was there. So not only were the rappers on TV, but the kids were also on TV. And so it gave a spotlight to these kids. But it also showed the humanity of the rappers.
What went into picking some of those early hosts? How did you determine who got to be the face of Rap City?
I wanted Prime because he was the one that helped develop it. He knew [rap music and culture] like the back of his hand. Chris Thomas had been on the road with the rappers, and he was also a comedian. He’d done HBO and a bunch of things. He had the marquee name, so we went with Chris.
Would you bring Rap City back, and if so, what changes would you make?
Yeah, but it has to be mature. We now have to take this music and do something with it. I went to the BET Hip-Hop Awards, and everybody was having fun. Good. Okay, now it’s time to get down to business.
And I know this: I know hip-hop saved the music industry. Without rap and country music, the music industry would’ve died. Okay, so now let’s do something with this.
You got your Jay Zs. You got your masters. You got people who have grown up and taken it to the next level.
So, let’s do that with hip-hop.