From ‘Fresh Prince’ To ‘The Vince Staples Show,’ How Hip-Hop Has Pushed The Boundaries Of Black TV

In a recent interview about his new Netflix series, The Vince Staples Show, the Long Beach rapper gave a profound answer to what seemed on the surface to be a relatively straightforward question. “Every character is you,” he said. “I think that’s what gives us nuance.”

Now, he was responding to a question about how his show character — who is ostensibly a fictionalized version of himself — differs from the genuine article. But the thing is, his answer could be applied more broadly — not just to Vince Staples, or even to any actor/character combination, but to the very idea of representation itself.

We love TV because we see ourselves in the characters and situations onscreen. This is what gives those depictions their authenticity, what pulls us in, what engages us. This goes doubly for Black folks, who so rarely see ourselves and our lives onscreen that practically any representation can feel like a breath of fresh air.

Hip-hop, which marked its “official” 50th birthday last year, has had a profound effect on that representation. These days, Black audiences see themselves most clearly in boundary-pushing shows like The Vince Staples Show and Atlanta, but those shows are only the latest in a proud lineage of Black TV shows that wear their hip-hop influences on their sleeves.

Shows like The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air and Living Single proved our favorite musicians could transition to screen stardom, while shows like Empire and The Breaks followed the behind-the-scenes inner workings of the business of hip-hop music (with an engrossing helping of drama to help them along), as shows like The Rap Game and Rhythm + Flow offered a path to stardom for real-life aspirants. A few years ago, I wrote about the hip-hop sketch comedy shows that also gave the culture a greater platform.

From Fresh Prince to Vince Staples, here’s a look at how hip-hop has pushed the boundaries of Black TV.

Sitcoms

In many ways, hip-hop’s legacy of extending the boundaries of television started with sitcoms (there’s a reason the title of this piece marks those two shows as bookends). Will Smith, the titular Fresh Prince of Bel Air, was the first rapper with a regular role in a scripted TV series, let alone a starring one. While it was the existing stardom from his and DJ Jazzy Jeff’s first album Rock The House that got his foot in the door, it was his acting chops that proved he belonged in Hollywood — and helped open the door for future rappers turned sitcom stars like Queen Latifah (Living Single), LL Cool J (In The House), Eve (who had her own eponymous show in 2003), Kid Cudi (How To Make It In America), and even Method Man and Redman (Method & Red, which ran for one truncated season on Fox in 2004).

The groundwork these shows laid allowed for the newer, more experimental approaches of shows like Atlanta and The Vince Staples Show, which drew inspiration from more offbeat shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm, but paired them with hip-hop sensibilities. Atlanta, for instance, takes sharp detours in format and setting, sometimes opting for documentary-style episodes or standalone anthologies, which have been praised for moving not just Black TV but television as a whole forward.

Drama

The golden laurels for putting hip-hop on TV in a drama format almost certainly go to Empire, which took the dysfunctional family workings of classic soap operas like Dynasty and updated them to suit the trappings and lifestyle of a successful entertainment family, complete with a patriarch with a lengthy rap sheet. You can see shades of Succession, as well as star turns from both aspiring and established rappers. No doubt, the show’s success (including a slew of primetime Emmy Award nominations) opened the door for future network TV swings such as Queens. The theme of sisterhood from the latter carries over to Rap Sh!t, which chronicled the rags-to-riches story of a Miami rap duo inspired by City Girls.

Meanwhile, hip-hop’s fertile 50-year history offers a wealth of fascinating stories about its birth (The Get Down), development (The Breaks), and the biographies of some of his biggest stars (Wu-Tang: An American Saga). Meanwhile, rapper-turned-mogul 50 Cent has built an entire cinematic universe, Power, filling it with rappers like Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, Freddie Gibbs, and Joey Badass.

Competition

Naturally, with the popularity of musical competitions like American Idol and The Voice, similar competition shows would focus on hip-hop, as the odds of succeeding on other shows can be slim (The X Factor eliminated teen rapper Astro, who nevertheless went on to have a solid film and TV career himself, including initially being cast on Euphoria, although he later turned the role down). One of the first rap-focused shows was 2003’s The Next Episode, which was produced by Showtime and Interscope Records to take advantage of the fervor surrounding Eminem’s film debut 8 Mile.

And while that show’s results would prove less than satisfactory, future efforts have produced genuine stars. Jermaine Dupri’s The Rap Game, which aired on Lifetime from 2016-2019, is notable for launching the career of Latto, as well as featuring future standouts like Flau’Jae. Meanwhile, Netflix’s Rhythm+Flow saw the rise and breakout of D Smoke, who went on to receive a Grammy nomination for his debut album Black Habits. The show is set to return in 2024.

Reality

As much as reality shows are looked down on as “trash TV,” there’s no denying their popularity — or their ability to share details of our favorite entertainers’ lives. Growing Up Hip Hop chronicles the lives of second-generation hip-hop stars, while a whole bunch of stars, from Snoop Dogg to Rev Run, have their own shows about their respective family lives and the often wholesome bonds that maintain them throughout their hectic lives.

Of course, no hip-hop reality show is better known or more engrossing than Love & Hip-Hop, the long-running series chronicling the ins and outs of romance in the rap scenes of several major cities. While many come for the mess, the show is responsible — at least in part — for the rise of one of the most notable names in rap: Cardi B, who spent several seasons in the cast of Love & Hip Hop: New York, becoming a breakout fan favorite and giving her the launching platform for one of the most successful careers in rap for a woman ever.

Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.

×