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

Jun 23, 2023, 9:12 AM

LOS ANGELES (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 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.”

United States News

Associated Press

Bill allowing doctor-assisted suicide in Delaware fails in Senate

DOVER, Del. (AP) — A bill allowing doctor-assisted suicide in Delaware failed to win approval in the state Senate on Thursday after narrowly clearing the House earlier this year, but it could come back next week. The legislation failed in the Democrat-led Senate in a 9-9 tie after three members of the Democratic caucus spoke […]

56 minutes ago

Associated Press

Amtrak trains suspended from Philadelphia to New Haven by circuit breaker malfunction

NEW YORK (AP) — Amtrak trains were temporarily suspended Thursday afternoon from Philadelphia to New Haven, Connecticut, by a circuit breaker malfunction, the national rail service said. The technical issue led to a widespread loss of power on the tracks between Penn Station in New York City and Union Station in Newark, New Jersey at […]

2 hours ago

Associated Press

Witnesses say Ohio man demanded Jeep before he stabbed couple at a Nebraska interstate rest area

GRAND ISLAND, Neb. (AP) — Witnesses say they heard an Ohio man demand the keys to a Jeep that was being towed behind a Missouri couple’s RV before he brutally stabbed them both and killed the man at an Interstate 80 rest area. James Thompson Jr., 22, was formally charged with first-degree murder and 10 […]

3 hours ago

Associated Press

FBI raids homes in Oakland, California, including one belonging to the city’s mayor

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Federal authorities raided a home belonging to Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao early Thursday as part of a California investigation that included a search of at least two other houses, officials said. FBI agents carried boxes out of 80 Maiden Lane, a four-bedroom home that property records link to the first-term mayor, […]

3 hours ago

Associated Press

Roller coaster strikes and critically injures man in restricted area of Ohio theme park

CINCINNATI (AP) — A man who apparently entered a restricted area to retrieve his lost keys at a theme park in Ohio was critically injured when he was struck by a steel roller coaster, police and park officials said. The 38-year-old man appeared to have entered a fenced area at Kings Island Wednesday night, according […]

3 hours ago

Associated Press

FBI identifies serial rapist as person responsible for 1996 Shenandoah National Park killings

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Nearly three decades after two young women were found with their throats slashed in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, federal authorities announced Thursday that they have identified a convicted serial rapist from Ohio as the person they believe was responsible for the killings. The bodies of Julianne “Julie” Williams, 24, and her […]

3 hours ago

Sponsored Articles


Midwestern University

Midwestern University Clinic visits boost student training & community health

Going to a Midwestern University Clinic can help make you feel good in more ways than one.


Sanderson Ford

3 new rides for 3 new road trips in Arizona

It's time for the Sanderson Ford Memorial Day sale with the Mighty Fine 69 Anniversary, as Sanderson Ford turned 69 years old in May.


Condor Airlines

Condor Airlines can get you smoothly from Phoenix to Frankfurt on new A330-900neo airplane

Adventure Awaits! And there's no better way to experience the vacation of your dreams than traveling with Condor Airlines.

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