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Ahead of the BET Awards, a look back at how the work helped hip-hop grow and thrive

The network known as Black Entertainment Television took up the mantle to showcase a misunderstood rap culture decades before it became today’s most popular music genre

BET president Scott Mills arrives at the BET Awards
BET president Scott Mills arrives at the BET Awards on Sunday, June 27, 2021, at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles.Jordan Strauss (Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

Rap City. 106 & Park. And even, Uncut.

From innovative to provocative, BET has played a crucial role in creating several influential programs that helped spread hip-hop to millions of homes across the globe. Other than its rival show Yo! MTV Raps, the network known as Black Entertainment Television took up the mantle — despite some reluctance — to showcase a misunderstood rap culture decades before it became today’s most popular music genre.

For many, BET became a safe place for those within hip-hop to express their artistry, although not without criticism. Through it all, the network has been a mainstay for established and emerging rap artists.

It will all come together during the BET Awards on Sunday. Show officials plan to celebrate the genre’s 50th anniversary during the telecast dubbed as a “non-stop Hip-Hop Party.” It also comes at a pivotal time for the network, which will be soon be sold. Several Black entrepreneurs and celebrities, including Tyler Perry, media executive Byron Allen and rapper-entrepreneur Diddy, are interested in purchasing the network.

The new owner will acquire an important cultural fixture, one whose success was partially built on how it elevated hip-hop.

“BET was a big platform for hip-hop and urban music overall,” said E-40. His song Tired of Being Stepped On with the rap group The Click appeared on BET’s Video Soul, which was created in 1981 at a time when MTV refused to play videos by most African Americans. The rapper recalled how guest host Jamie Foxx dissed The Click’s song but the comedian’s critical words didn’t faze him. He felt his group gained important exposure to promote their “unorthodox” West Coast rap style.

“The network really stepped up. We needed that,” said E-40, who also made a few appearances on another BET show called Rap City, which featured hip-hop music videos, interviews and freestyles booth sessions with big names including Jay-Z, Lil Wayne and MC Lyte. The show, which highlighted popular and up-and-coming rappers, became the longest-running hip-hop TV show in history.

E-40 credited BET founder Robert Johnson for giving hip-hop a chance. Johnson built the brand into the leading TV network for Black Americans in hopes of creating content geared toward jazz, comedy and gospel. But at the time, he and other founders were unsure about featuring a rap show, believing the genre would be short lived.

Rival MTV’s Yo! MTV Raps, however, showed that hip-hop had staying power.

“After kind of a brief initial hesitancy, the founders of BET really understood how hip-hop was transforming culture overall and specifically Black entertainment,” said Scott M. Mills, BET’s president and CEO.

“They rapidly embraced hip-hop as part of the mission of BET,” he said. “You went from BET having shows with no hip-hop artists or music to artists and music starting to trickle through shows to this full evolution of creating dedicated shows, celebrating hip-hop music, artists and culture.”

BET’s decision to embrace hip-hop literally paid off: Johnson and his then-wife, Sheila, sold the network to Viacom in 2000 for $3 billion — which made them the nation’s first Black billionaires. He remained CEO until 2006.

After the sale, BET continued to beef up its content with reality shows and the network’s flagship program 106 & Park, a weekday show that started in 2000 and lasted for more than a decade. The show thrived with a video countdown, interviews and performances. A year later, the network started the BET Awards then the BET Hip-Hop Awards.

For Lil Jon, he certainly benefitted from appearing on 106 & Park. One day, the rapper-producer joined the show’s audience during the time when he had a hard time getting music on BET.

Lil Jon had no clue 106 & Park co-host A.J. Calloway would notice him sitting in the crowd before he shouted out his name. The exposure helped him become more recognizable, particularly to the BET brass — who he says initially struggled to grasp the concept of his crunk music, which eventually gained mainstream appeal.

“We strived to be on Rap City. We strived to be on 106 & Park,” Lil Jon said. “A.J. knew who I was, because he would go to the South and host things. He knew the power of my music. … They would show me in the audience throughout the whole show. It was what they call an impression in the advertising world. It was a way for me to be around people at BET. They started to see and get familiar with me, and they wanted to look out for me. BET was just a place where we would get support from our community.”

Like Lil Jon, other hip-hop artists took advantage of the exposure from BET — which often highlighted positive images of Black people through shows such as Teen Summit and 106 & Park. But in the early-2000s, the network started to take an odd turn as several popular figures — from filmmaker Spike Lee to Public Enemy’s Chuck D — heavily criticized the channel’s content for depicting African Americans in a negative light.

Many took aim at the now-defunct BET: Uncut, a late-night mature program that contained highly sexual content such as Ludacris’ Booty Poppin music video. The tipping point came after Nelly’s Tip Drill video featured women simulating sex acts with themselves while men grabbed their bodies.

Uncut normally finished airing early Sunday just hours before the network’s faith-based programs began.

At the time, Big Boi of Outkast was taken aback by some of the raunchy content, calling it “distasteful” and “soft porn.” Other political figures and activists showed their displeasure. Co-founder Sheila Johnson even said in a 2010 interview that she was ashamed of BET, suggesting that no one, including her own children, should watch the channel.

After the backlash, BET took a new approach. The company researched what their viewers wanted to see and created a lineup of more family-oriented shows such as Reed Between the Lines and Let’s Stay Together.

“If you look at it, hip-hop is like a huge family,” said Roxanne Shante. “You’re going to have family members that do things that’s necessarily not my thing.”

“But who am I to criticize what they go through? It’s a form of expression,” said the “Roxanne’s Revenge” rapper. “I think BET has shown its ability to go with that form of expression. Now, people are expressing themselves in a different way. And now, they cater to a different audience and started to show different programming.”

Despite controversy, Mills said a symbolic relationship was kept between BET and the hip-hop community. He said the network has a chance to break new artists through the BET Hip-Hop Awards while showcasing the more popular ones at the BET Awards. He shouted out veteran rapper and Oscar-nominated actor Queen Latifah, who recently hosted the NAACP Image Awards this year.

“When you look at artists today, they’re profoundly talented,” he said. “The evolution of people deciding how they want to show up to the world is something that ultimately, I think we have to embrace. One thing about hip-hop, it’s always changing. We’re in the moment today, and that moment will evolve to whatever comes next.”

Mills said BET is exploring ways to bring back “106 & Park” as a possible residency live show.

With a new buyer looking to purchase BET soon, the network’s future focus and how much it emphasizes hip-hop will be closely watched.

Rapper Too Short said BET should continue to serve the Black community’s needs.

“‘Teen Summit’ was the best show ever,” he said. “Just for kids to sit there and have an intellectual conversation every Saturday morning. That was amazing to see Black kids thinking intelligently and debating with each other and an audience tapping in.

“I don’t know why anybody doesn’t think that kind of programming is needed right now. I think BET just needs to be the community. Don’t show me an aspect. The whole thing. Be Black entertainment.”

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