I Co-Founded MTV In the 1980s. And No, We Never ‘Refused to Air Black Artists’

Still from Herbie Hancock's 'Rock It,' a popular video on MTV in the 80s. A famous DJ cited this video as an example of MTV's racism in the era.
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Still from Herbie Hancock's 'Rock It,' a popular video on MTV in the 80s. A famous DJ cited this video as an example of MTV's racism in the era.
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Still from Herbie Hancock’s ‘Rock It,’ a popular video on MTV in the 80s. A famous DJ cited this video as an example of the channel’s racism during the era.

Earlier this month, a prominent DJ blasted MTV for being racist against black artists in the 1980s.  Now, an executive who co-founded the channel is disputing those claims.

We’ve heard it a million times before: MTV in the 1980s was racist against black artists.  They rarely aired black musicians, viewing them as bad for business.  In fact, it wasn’t until Michael Jackson smashed the color barrier that things really started to change.

There’s ample evidence to back those claims: the programming itself.  Quite simply, it rarely included black artists in the early 1980s.  Whether that was based on active discrimination is subject to debate, however.

Either way, the festering wound returned earlier this month, thanks to hard-hitting accusations from Grandmixer DXT.  Grandmixer is an important DJ in early hip-hop, and was the guy scratching on Herbie Hancock’s groundbreaking release, ‘Rock It’.  He was also featured in other seminal productions of the era, including the rap film, Wild Style.

+ July 12th: Did MTV Refuse to Air Black Musicians in the 80s?

Despite putting ‘Rock It’ into rotation, DXT alleges that MTV refused to prominently feature Hancock because he was black.  Instead, they relegated him to a TV within the video itself, largely featuring just his black hands on the piano (see above).  Here’s what DXT told the Murder Master Music Show:

“The truth is MTV at the time didn’t play black people.  In 1983, they did not play black people.  Rick James had to sue them.  Let’s think about that for a minute and the insanity and how it affects progress.  You didn’t see me and the most you seen Herbie was on a little screen that you could barely see and that happened because of racism.”

Now, an executive from MTV in the 1980s is responding.

Here’s what MTV co-founder Les Garland wrote Digital Music News in response (we didn’t alter any of the text):

“To whom it concerns:

I am responding to the piece that appeared in your July 12th  editon written by Daniel Adrian Sanchez.  “Did MTV refuse to air black musicians in the 80’s?” The answer to this rhetorical headline is “NO, MTV did NOT refuse to air black musicicans”.  That’s a serious and non-factual accusation that’s been refuted for decades.  Simple fact-checking would reveal that Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” was a huge award winning song AND music video recognized with five MTVvideo music awards along with a Grammy. Another thing, my friend Rick James did NOT sue MTV.  Lastly, Viacom had NOTHING to do with MTV in 1983. Using today’s jargon, Mr. Sanchez, I’d have say your article is ‘fake news’.  I’m sorry Mr. Grandmaster DXT, your allegations are NOT accurate or truthful.

Warm regards,

Les Garland (MTV Co-Founder / Senior Executive)”

At the end of the email, Garland attached an old picture of him with Rick James.  The picture (from 1984) features Garland in the middle and executive John Sykes on the right.

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35 Responses

  1. Nat Turner

    He can deny it all he wants, but the proof is in the programming. When you can name the black artists on one hand for an entire decade (especially given the rich musical contributions of blacks to Amerikkka), but can name hundreds of white artists on the channel, that’s evidence of discrimination. He can deny it all he wants but that doesn’t mean black people are obligated to believe him. And while he can only be suspected as a racist, it is not unfair to continue to suspect him as such.

    Context of white supremacy.

    • Nat Turner

      And slavemasters took pics with thier slaves too. So don’t expect me to believe after 400 years of institutionalized slavery that the power dynamic between blacks and whites just totally vanished, especially 10 years after legalized Jim Crow segregation. Posting a picture with Rick James proves nothing. That sad reply is fake news as far as I’m concerned.

      Context of white supremacy

      • Brian Murphy

        When someone deliberately misspells America, and when someone acts as if nothing has changed despite over 150 years of progress in the United States, both institutionalized and culturally, in eliminating racism towards African Americans…than that someone is guilty of racism himself.

        Context of black racism towards whites.

        • Nat Turner

          That was just about the dumbest reply I’ve read all this year, especially the current political climate.

          400 years of slavery, 100 years of Jim Crow….you do realize Black people have only been considered legit citizens of Amerikkka for 47 years right? And in reality that’s just on paper.

          Black racism? Lmao, you better be glad blacks don’t have the power to enforce racism.

          Context of white supremacy.

        • IKE

          Man get real. Things are done covertly now. Racism is still inherent in the rubric of America. You’re blind if you can’t see this especially in the camera age of the 21st century.
          Be realistic and note the incarceration rate in this country and how many poor and minorities are locked away in the. Ew slavery called prison. Have things gotten better? In some ways yes but in most ways no.

        • Tom.

          150 of progress…??? To whom??? Have you ever lived in a ghetto or experienced any of those experiences in a ghetto? Is banning Bill Cosby’s show from TV but airing pedophile from 7th Heaven and that degenerate Charlie Sheen is still on TV? People always talk about slavery ending 150 years ago. Mind you 150 years is a drop in a bucket in the timeline of history. Racism is not about just simply calling somebody out of their name. I love Rick James but he was doped up anyway so what does that matter? There are still a good number of the bad police officers just like there was for the past 150 years in this country, progress? I know a good number of white people who do not ever want to discuss or admit to the wrongdoings of the past because it interrupts their lily white apple pie American life that exist at the moment. Silly. SMH. LOL.

        • Jay

          Umm no one said nothing has changed, but a lot of people’s thinking clearly hasn’t. People don’t want to face the reality of the industry and more importantly the country’s history. We must not forget the past unless we repeat it

      • Anonymous

        That’s funny… You think Rick James let someone have power over him… What a laugh…

      • Darius

        That’s funny! You think Rick James allowed himself to be controlled… Hilarious… “HE’S RICK JAMES, BITCH!!!” (Quote from either Saturday Night Live or In Living Color)

    • Music supremacist

      MTV promoted teen pregnancy, juvenile sex and drugs, and edgy material in order to remain relevant. Recently they took the liberty to release a racist/sexist propaganda video “Resolutions for white guys 2017″. This video generalizes an entire race/gender and paints white males in a evil light. It says blue live do not matter and that movement is not a thing. It also makes the assumption only white males care about our law enforcement which is entirely false. The most terrible aspect of the video says”because you have a black friend doesn’t mean you are not racist”. This assumes that all white men are racists. Since they are making an assumption about race/gender they are inherently racist/sexist. They also want us to “keep” Kanye West is a massive narcissist. FUCK MTV and YOU for your RACIST ant-white B.S.

    • Obese Person

      There are more white people than black people so more white artists kinda makes sense

    • Nadine Morgan

      MTV was prejudice in the 1980’s. No doubt sbout it. It was there loss.

  2. Joey C.

    as a viewer back in the second and third year of MTV (I got cable July 1982), my recollection is that MTv also played videos by Billy Ocean, Lionel Richie, Rick James, Irene Cara, Run DMC, The Fat Boys, etc. Usually the folks that repeat this nonsense were not viewers.

    The Box in NYC edited out MC Hammer dancing with the white woman at the end of the “Can’t Touch This Video” btw.

    • IKE

      Sorry you came to the party late. I saw the first broadcasts and there was not a black face in sight.
      Rick Kames complained heavily when MTV wouldn’t play “Super Freak”. Google it. Read my comments below. It is what it is and it was what it was.

  3. human


  4. Tricky Downbeat

    I was an artist who had my video played on MTV a few times. Then they stopped playing it. Why? Because the song didn’t become a hit. And the video wasn’t that great either for that matter. And those were the two basic things required to get rotation. —Hit song. —Great video. (Yes, in some cases MTV helped make it a hit)
    So…if someone can specifically point to black artists who had hit songs and/or a great videos…but didn’t get played?! I’d love to hear about it. Otherwise, it sounds like more empty accusations.

    • IKE

      Be glad to answer that question. Heard of RICK JAMES?! “Super Freak” was one of the biggest hits in 1981 and MTV refussd to play it.
      MYV actually refused to play Michael Jackson at first until Walter, the head of Columbia Records said he would pull all his artists’ videos if MTV would not play MJ’s videos.

      Does that help to answer your question? MTV was racist as was many radio stations and formats back then. That’s one of the reasons why disco died. Google it…

      • Tricky Downbeat

        One artist?! That’s all you have to paint an entire network as racist??While you may be right about MTV being hesitant to play black artists in its EARLY days. There were more reasons than supposed racism at play. Namely money. And ratings. And even content that may be considered to “trashy” or lewd. (Ironic- considering where MTV ended up). But I googled it as you requested and Here’s this –from Songfacts.com

        [Even though the network didn’t play this video, Rick James eventually made peace with MTV and put their co-founder, Les Garland, in the video for Eddie Murphy’s song “Party All the Time,” which James produced. As for exactly why MTV passed on “Super Freak,” their director of acquisitions, Carolyn Baker, explained in the book I Want My MTV: “It wasn’t MTV that turned down ‘Super Freak.’ It was me. I tuned it down. You know why? Because there were half-naked women in it, and it was a piece of crap. As a black woman, I did not want that representing my people as the first black video on MTV.” ]

        So…again…if someone can specifically point to black artists
        (plural-more than one)
        who had hit songs and/or a great videos..

        • IKE

          I stated in other posts that Michael Jackson was also denied entry into MTV-dom. Only after the head of Columbia Recirds threatened to pull all his artists’ videos did MTV comply.

          Whereas Rick James’ video may have been deemed “crap”, Billy Ocean, Eddy Grant, Prince, MJ and numerous black artists and their videos were not of that ilk.

      • Tom.

        Amen sir. Now don’t you start delivering true facts and proving yourself right because you know what happens after you do that? White people start backpedaling and tell you that you’re taking it too seriously and we should just drop it now. Just like most white dominated platforms, if they play a black artist that artist has to sound and act a little more like them. If it sounds to “urban” or “ghetto”, you know the stuff that they steal and try to use themselves but can’t do it as well? Then they won’t play it. When it comes to the arts a lot of them have always tried to borrow and turn it into something that they can call acceptable, most of the time it’s just a watered-down version of the real thing. So of course they would think that way, they cannot keep up.

  5. Music Specialist

    If anyone cares to remember Les Garland also started the VIDEO JUKEBOX which played Black music predominately. My label was one of his largest money makers and I got many chances to see how programming worked. This became MTV 2 and Black music was dismissed.

    MTV was and is a very racist oriented system. Playing only what they desire to play if the price is right or the tactics are not to severe.

    How many of you label owners and indie artist from the 1980’s remember what you had to pay to get your song on TV? Do you also remember what Billboard charged for you to get charted? I certainly do and no amount of writing or speaking is going to change real history.

  6. Max

    MTV was a big pop station and back then, pop stations would play poppy R&B that crossed over, such as the Pointer Sisters or Kool and the Gang. It’s not racism, it’s the way music formatting worked in those days. When they figured out they could mix genres (in a way that no radio station could) they did it. They only cared about attracting viewers and advertisers and getting on more cable systems. Not everything is a conspiracy.

    • Music Specialist


      This was a calculated move to keep the airwaves “Lilly White” and to give more onair time (think sync revenue) to major label “pop & rock” departments.

      It wasn’t slavery during the 1800’s only the corporate movement of labor.

      • Max

        OK so you’re sticking with the conspiracy story. Meanwhile, MTV was not created to serve the public good. It’s a business. In serving a mostly white population they “calculated” that the cute (white) hair bands and boy bands would get ratings. And again, radio formats at the time were musically segmented – notice they didn’t play Country videos either.

        • The guy down the hall

          You claimed it wasn’t racist then you go on to explain why they were racists. Regardless of the reason racism is racism.

  7. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

    I can corroborate this story. For years I tried to get MTV to play my music — and there are tons of of videos, check them out on YouTube. But they refused. And they gave me the same b.s. story all those racist rock radio stations told me: it’s not our format.

  8. Malcolm FleX


    Best thing we can do for ourselves is to stop trying to convince white people that racism has always been at play.



    This is a country founded by white people for the benefit of white people.

    Proof is in the pudding.

    Best thing we can do for ourselves is to stop looking for their acceptance.

    Stop trying to prove that what we know exists, really does.


    Let’s focus on working together as a community and boxing our enemies out.

    Same way the Jewish community does.

    Save your breath and sanity. No more arguing with closet white supremacists.

    • 80s Guy

      First of all, Herbie Hancock’s Rock it video was a conceptual video featuring robot-like movable sculptures. Hancock only appears for a few seconds as he plays keyboard on an analog television monitor. He was not prominently featured in the lead.

  9. Dusty Rhodes

    BS. i was working at motown/hitsville, and westlake studios in LA, back in those days. i knew columbia records a&r guys who were going to hold other artists, because mtv would not play billy jean video. there was that original black vj, but mtv wasnt going to show any ‘black music’, at that time.

    • Dusty Rhodes

      p.s., the eddie van halen solo made the difference to mtv, to finally show the video. in fact, that solo broke that album.

    • 80's Music Exec

      You are completely false on stating that columbia record guys were going to hold artists. I was there and that’s BS. As a matter of fact, I personally was there when Les Garland called everyone into his office and played billy jean through his huge monitor speakers in his office, and couldn’t believe the sound coming out of those speakers… and I also I recall him saying we need to put this on immediately. Hear-say is hear-say… facts are F’N facts!

  10. Ole Filbert

    MTV is an anti-White, hate propaganda machine that is owned and operated by Jewish Supremacists who hate America and despise a White America.
    Turn this crap (MTV) on anytime of the day and see the multiculturalism they enforce on there viewers. MTV should be named Liberal TV. It is seriously disgusting to even watch. On EVERY show there is an inter-racial couple, a very proud jew, a few thugged out negros, 1 intellectual negro to counter it, a Latino, and a gay of course. All of them hanging out together and getting along perfectly. This garbage that is supposed to be “reality” is actually acted and rehearsed.

  11. Darius

    Proof? Hey! How old were you in the 80’s anyway? We’re you even alive? Rap was a brand new thing in the 80’s, so NO…you just didn’t see much of it at first. But I remember RUN DMC playing every hour upon the hour. I even remember the Christmas song “Christmas in Hollis” getting HEAVY rotation. I heard it on MTV so much, I memorized the lyrics even though I never owned this album personally. But eventually, there were enough rap artists for MTV to have a show named “YO’ MTV RAPS”… WHICH WAS HUGE!!!
    I also learned the words to other songs by black artists I saw on MTV. James Ingram, Lionel Richie (both with and without The Commodores), Michael Jackson, Jermaine Jackson, Janet Jackson, Rockwell, Ray Parker Jr., El DeBarge, New Edition, Kris Kross, Bobby Brown, Eddie Murphy, Kool And The Gang, Rick James, Luther Vandross, Patti LaBelle, Herbie Hancock, and Stevie Wonder… JUST TO NAME A FEW!!! I was born and raised in a poor white household in the middle of nowhere in Southern West Virginia and MTV was all I ever watched in the 80’s (When I wasn’t playing Atari or Nintendo). The only radio I ever listened to was Casey Kasem’s Weekly Top 40 on Sundays, and country stations my mom would force us to listen to in her car. So the only way I could have learned all these artists and their songs is FROM MTV!!! I remember getting a small Casio keyboard for Christmas one year and the first song I ever learned on it was “I Just Called To Say I Love You” by Stevie Wonder which I heard on…That’s Right! You Guessed It, MTV!!! And let’s not forget one of the original VJ’s from MTV… J.J. Jackson (God rest his soul). A kind and humble black man. Everybody loved him.
    But let’s not forget all the other acts of other ethnicities that MTV played on a regular basis in the 80’s also. For instance, Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine, John Secada, Meneudo, Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, Santana, among others. STOP THE DIVIDING!!! YOU ARE NOT A SLAVE. If you were, your master would beat the hell out of you for using his phone or computer to scream racism! You are as blessed with opportunity as any other American. Don’t believe me? Then get off your ass and go make it happen for yourself and stop helping fake news media to divide this country…which is making us weak as a nation which means making us vulnerable to those who hate our freedoms and want to rule over us and kill us all! Black and white alike!!! Stand together… Or die together. We are together whether you like it or not!