Wednesday, June 18, 2014

TMFW 41 - The Low-Power UHF Network That Made Hip Hop Careers


Four weeks ago, TMFW 37 told the story of how Spuds MacKenzie inspired Sir Mix-a-Lot to record "Baby Got Back."  Last week, the song made new headlines when a video of Mix-a-Lot performing the song with the Seattle Symphony (!) went viral. 
One of the write-ups on the unlikely collaboration between Mix-a-Lot and the orchestra focused on the similarly-unlikely vehicle that helped launch "Baby Got Back" when it was released in 1992: a network of "interactive video services" known as "The Box." 
Essentially, The Box was a video jukebox that was broadcast on television.  The production value was decidedly low-fi, and primarily consisted of video names and number codes flashing across the screen, with a 1-900 number to call to order up a selection.  Each call cost between $.99 and $3.99, and typically it took around 20 minutes from the initial call for the video selection to appear on screen.  In the early '90s, The Box was broadcast on obscure (and cheap) UHF stations; at its height there were over 150 different "Boxes" which were customized to serve up videos that were popular in each local broadcast area. 
What seems positively quaint now was revolutionary in its time.  A 1992 New York Times article on "The Box" network of channels noted that video requests skewed heavily toward rap and hip hop artists.  At a time when MTV relegated hip hop videos to a two-hour show, and applied an opaque set of rules to determine which videos were approved for broadcast and which were not, "The Box" offered viewers uncensored, on demand music.  People could hear and see what they wanted, when they wanted to.  As the Times article notes, its popularity "influenc[ed] the careers of dozens of artists, including Hammer, Ice Cube, Color Me Badd, Vanilla Ice, Queen Latifah, En Vogue, Soundgarden [??], Kris Kross and Shabba Ranks."  The article also specifically notes the success of "Baby Got Back," describing the song (as only the New York Times can) as "a paean to black women's posteriors" and reporting that Def American Recordings turned to The Box when its efforts to get mainstream airplay failed.  Within a week of its introduction to The Box, "Baby Got Back" was in the Top 10 on the channel.  A few months later, it was #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.            
The Box's success was relatively short lived.  After it spread from UHF broadcasts to basic cable, The Box was bought by MTV in 1999.  In 2001, it was replaced by MTV 2.  It's no matter, though: "The Box" now lives on every smartphone and computer and tablet and internet television device, for free.  It's called "YouTube."
BONUS FACT:  I had completely forgotten about "The Box" until I read the story that inspired today's post.  But once I saw the logo, the memories came flooding back.  In St. Louis in the early '90s, "The Box" was a low-power UHF station that broadcasted at channel 58.  The low-quality graphics, low-power broadcast, and my 13" television with rabbit ears made the experience of watching seem particularly enthralling.  I remember distinctly tuning in to watch Madonna's banned-on-MTV "Justify My Love" video
BONUS FACT 2:  YouTube has little of "The Box" to offer, but this recording of the top 20 requests of 1993 from Lubbock, Texas is a delight.

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