For Us, by Us: How Fox’s Answer to ‘Must See TV’ Validated Hip-Hop Culture
Throughout the ‘80s and into the late ‘90s, NBC owned Thursday nights. From the days when the Huxtables were part of America’s collective extended family until five Friends hung out in Central Perk, the network’s “Must See TV” was the undisputed TV ratings king — except with black and Latino viewers.
While viewership in white and black households was consistent in the '80s with shows such as The Jeffersons and The Cosby Show popular across multiple demographics, by the mid-'90s the disparity was so great, the only programming that was Top 10 for both viewing audiences was NFL Monday Night Football, according to the Chicago Tribune.
We had our own answer to Must See TV — programming tailored not only for black viewers, but for young black viewers — courtesy of Fox. For four years, Fox’s Thursday night lineup owned black and Latino households, translating hip-hop and new jack swing culture into characters and stories with sitcoms Martin and Living Single and drama New York Undercover. This kicked off a resurgence of black TV programming for the ‘90s and put hip-hop culture in a real-world context the mainstream hadn’t before seen.
Establishing an Identity
In 1992, The Cosby Show ended its eight-season run, with A Different World following after its sixth season in 1993. After more than a decade of ground-breaking black-centered sitcoms — which started with Norman Lear creations Sanford & Son, The Jeffersons and Good Times and built up to Cosby, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, etc. — the Big Three networks (NBC, ABC, CBS) reverted back to a focus on the white working class, white middle class and young white urban professionals - white viewers.
Fox was still an upstart looking to establish its identity, and could afford to take risks. Executives saw the hole in programming and a growing niche market. In Living Color and The Arsenio Hall Show, both of which targeted young urban viewers, were already proving successful. Hip-hop and new jack swing weren’t just music genres anymore; they were permeating into the larger American culture — fashion, movies and, eventually, TV -- as the hip-hop generation was coming of age, getting jobs and exercising spending power.
Fox encapsulated a large part of the mid-‘90s black experience with three shows created by and centered on hip-hop influence. Martin starred Martin Lawrence, hit comedian and host of the widely successful HBO’s Def Comedy Jam, as a DJ in Detroit. Living Single starred pioneer MC-turned-actress Queen Latifah as the founder and publisher of an urban lifestyle magazine in Brooklyn. New York Undercover, the brainchild of Uptown records founder Andre Harrell, was hip-hop’s answer to Miami Vice and the first police drama to feature two people of color in the lead roles.
The network originally placed Martin and Living Single in their Sunday night lineup, anchored by In Living Color. At the time, 8PM to 9PM on Sunday was the most competitive block in prime-time, and mainstream TV and cultural critics didn’t expect much of either sitcom, but they were quickly surprised. Living Single — the first show to focus on a group of black women — bested Martin to become Fox’s fourth most popular show overall. The sitcoms were only moderately successful in overall TV ratings, but they were leading in black viewership. Fox moved them to Thursday night, adding New York Undercover to round out the lineup, and created an urban inverse to NBC’s now ultra-white programming on the same night, which featured Friends and Seinfeld.
These three shows stood apart from anything else on TV because, for the first time, they put hip-hop in the context of everyday life. The hip-hop generation could fully see itself — its slang, its fashion, its interests and experiences — not just a watered-down, family-friendly version. These shows weren’t for the entire family to sit around and watch together. They were for us.
Growing Up and 'Getting It'
They also illustrated that the hip-hop generation wasn’t one-dimensional. The mainstream still associated hip-hop with street thugs, drug dealers and "hoochie mamas," not media entrepreneurs, young professionals and police detectives. These characters were climbing the corporate ladder, chasing their dreams, co-parenting their children and dealing with ailing parents. Hip-hop was growing up, navigating adulthood, working, getting married and building a life.
Mainstream media didn’t get it, and didn’t know how to process it. In Living Color, Martin and Living Single all came under heavy criticism for “lowbrow” comedy and perpetuating stereotypes. A particularly scathing 1993 Newsweek article accused the shows of portraying “young black men as oversexed, wha’s-up, man buffoons, and young women as booty-shaking sugar mamas.” The criticism for Living Single especially harsh, suggesting the comedy was meant to be “a black Designing Women” but with “none of the smarts.” Adding that the characters “behave like man-crazed Fly Girls.”
It wasn't that the programs were above any criticism but the Designing Women comparison alone proves the writer didn’t understand Living Single; if there was a comparison to be made to a show featuring a group of white women, it was The Golden Girls. The older black entertainment guard didn’t help matters; actor and activist Tim Reid criticized Fox specifically for its hip-hop centered programming, "By depicting African-American culture solely through hip-hop generation, Fox is making a tiny segment of us drive our entire TV image. Calling that ‘cutting edge' is comical. It's more of a tragedy."
Newsweek’s article did praise one Fox show for its realness: South Central. The short-lived sitcom starring young Larenz Tate was about a struggling family led by an unemployed single mom dealing with drugs and gang violence as part of day-to-day life in South Central Los Angeles. “What I took away from that story is that the images of young, upwardly mobile people who can pay their bills are not real,” Living Single creator Yvette Lee Bowser told the Los Angeles Times a week later, “but images of a black family who can’t pay their bills are living in poverty are real. It’s very disheartening.”
"The critics were clearly wrong"
Even once the shows were officially hits, the media didn’t know how to approach them. Entertainment Weekly started a 1994 interview with the actresses of Living Single by stating, “the critics were clearly wrong about this show.” But then the piece launched into a series of questions about how rap music depicts black women, Martin Lawrence’s stand-up and whether the women had given any thought to what life would be like as a man, or as a white person. There was almost nothing about the heart of the show or the characters. (Hilariously, EW also translated the ladies’ slang for its readers).
Entertainment Weekly didn’t know what to do with this "For Us, By Us" programming, in part because it wasn’t for them. Fox’s Thursday night lineup worked because all three shows had key elements of cultural authenticity: young black creators, actors and writers; real, relevant language, fashion and references; and most importantly, the heavy incorporation of music and artist cameos.
Hip-hop Fashion and Music on TV
On all three of these shows, the characters dressed like us. You’d see Fubu, Karl Kani, The African-American College Alliance, Polo, Timberland — the same gear you’d see on the street, in the club and on your favorite artists, worn with the same flair. New York Undercover’s costume designer Richard Owings used to literally watch the streets, traveling all over New York City and New Jersey to make sure characters J.C. Williams and Eddie Torres were properly attired. Owings told the New York Times in 1996, “Clothes are a key part of the show, just as is the music… You can’t fool this audience.”
In New York Undercover especially, music was as big a part of the show as the characters. The cold opens were legendary, always featuring a jam — “Return of the Mack”, “Luchini”, “Runnin’”, “Around the Way Girl” — over a music video-style montage.
Then there were the performances at Natalie’s nightclub, whose owner was portrayed by Gladys Knight. Each episode wrapped up with Williams and Torres kicking it at the lounge, enjoying soul classics revamped with a '90s twist. Aaliyah performed the Isley Brothers' “Choosy Lover," Mary J. Blige did “I’m Going Down." K-Ci and JoJo put some Hailey brothers stank on LTD’s “Love Ballad.” It was such a popular segment, an album, A Night at Natalie’s, was released as the second original soundtrack for the series.
Undercover also incorporated hip-hop not just through performances but acting cameos and story lines. Ice-T portrayed Torres’ arch nemesis; Biggie, Treach, MC Lyte, Sticky Fingaz, and Yo-Yo all appeared in an episode during the first season tackling violence in hip-hop; and in classic Dick Wolf form, the show ripped a page from the headlines to put a controversial spin on Tupac’s death.
With Martin and Living Single, seeing your favorite artists pop up in an episode was the norm, from Biggie, Snoop and Jodeci on Martin, to Naughty by Nature, TLC and Heavy D (in a recurring role) on Living Single.
Where It all Led
From 1994 to 1997, Fox’s three Thursday night hits remained in the Top 5 for black viewers, with Martin and Living Single often alternating in the No.1 spot. The formula helped Fox grow into a major network, at which point they abandoned the blackness and started targeting young white male viewers.
New networks UPN and the WB adopted the template, also using black programming to grow their early viewership. In 1997, there were over 20 black TV shows across networks, including The Jamie Foxx Show; Smart Guy; The Wayans Bros; Sister, Sister; Moesha and The Steve Harvey Show. Unfortunately, the TV tide changed shortly after, with most of UPN and the WB’s black shows getting lost in the merger of the two networks, as the newly formed the CW pivoted to white tween and teen programming.
It took almost 15 years for network executives to recognize the value in black representation — again. We saw a shift with ABC’s TGIT (the new iteration of Must See TV) anchored by Scandal, which features Kerry Washington as the first black female lead in a network drama since the ‘70s, and the hip-hop generation’s version of The Cosby Show, Black-ish, which again incorporates the music, vernacular, fashion and cultural references we recognize in a real and authentic way, at a time when doing so is a rarity.
Thanks to cable and streaming services, we’re able to find our stories told more frequently than we have in years with Insecure, The Chi, Atlanta, She’s Gotta Have It, Dear White People and more, but while the media hype this up as a brand new, never-before-seen era of blackness in TV, we’re still not even touching those glorious years in the '90s. We can simply look at syndication programming and know that the era wasn’t a fluke; you can watch Martin and Living Single on TV One every night if you want to.
Still, we’re thankful to young, scrappy Fox for providing us with those two solid, groundbreaking hours of young black realness every Thursday night. The impact was immeasurable.