Ron Hernandez's video show built the hip-hop radio stars
"Of everything that has affected the evolution of hip hop — cash, corporations, crack, sampling, crime, violence — nothing is more important than music video."
Growing up on the streets of San Antonio's West Side, Ron Hernandez had no idea how hip-hop music would impact his life. Unlike many contemporary devotees, the fortysomething Hernandez came of age before hip-hop was a ubiquitous cultural presence in America, and he wasn't among the first to pick up on the phenomenon. But when he connected with it, the bond was a deep one.
The year was 1991, and Hernandez was a student at San Antonio College pursuing his burgeoning interest in film and video production. While at SAC, he began to mesh with a crew that ushered him into the world of hip-hop, and later that year, he joined fellow student Miki Jam to create Drop the Beat, SA's longest-running public-access show devoted to music videos.
Public-access television has played a key role in hip-hop since the mid-'80s, when New York's WNYE first aired Video Music Box on UHF. On first listen, the phrase "Drop the Beat" may sound like an inspired attempt to exile San Antonio's often out-of-touch urban radio station. But for Hernandez - known to viewers as "Rocketron" - it represents a 13-year commitment to bringing the illest rap videos to the youth of San Antonio.
Hernandez fondly recalls the early days of the show when he served as cameraman and editor while Miki Jam took care of on-camera duties. The duo worked primarily on antique Beta equipment and often edited the show in Hernandez's garage, using a pair of tape decks and a busted mixer. By 1996, his host had moved to the East Coast and rather than searching for a replacement and risk putting the show on hiatus, Hernandez continued alone.
Recalling his first solo interview, he says, "I set the camera on the tripod and framed my shot. I pressed 'Record' and got into position, then took a deep breath. I thought to myself, 'You've seen Miki do it a hundred times. You can do this.' I exhaled and just went for it: 'This is Rocketron and you're watching Drop the Beat.' That's how Rocketron was born."
As Rocketron, Hernandez has interviewed and come into contact with a veritable who's-who of hip-hop including A Tribe Called Quest, Naughty By Nature, NWA, Juvenile, Lighter Shade of Brown, DJ Red Alert, Yo-Yo, Mack 10, the Notorious B.I.G., and Cypress Hill. From 1999 to 2001, Drop the Beat was nominated for a Billboard Music Video Award for Best Local/Regional Show, and Hernandez parlayed the show's success into marketing and promotion gigs with labels such as Def Jam, Rap-A-Lot, No Limit, and Jive. Crucial to the show's cult popularity was Hernandez's policy of ceasing to air a video once it reached MTV or BET.
"My philosophy was basically, a person has a choice between 24 hours of all types of videos on these other channels and one hour of my show," Hernandez says. "In order to draw that person in, I have to make sure that my one hour is as tight as possible. I used to laugh when MTV would make a big deal about airing the 'world premiere' of a certain music video because most of the time I had already shown that video a month before."
Drop the Beat's 13-year weekly run on San Antonio airwaves ended in April and a look at the show's most recent playlist reveals a slant toward major-label artists like Snoop Dogg, Nelly, and LL Cool J, and smaller regional acts like Romey Rome and Chingo Bling. Starting in January 2005, Hernandez plans to re-air classic Drop the Beat episodes on public access Wednesday nights at 11:30. He is also shopping a revamped version of the show to local stations and various satellite networks.
Looking back on the show's run, Hernandez recalls several highlights: traveling first class on Tommy Mottola's private jet, interviewing Eazy-E a mere month before his death from AIDS, and a brief encounter with industry heavyweight Clive Davis, who'd never met Hernandez but instantly recognized him and his show. Along the way, he has witnessed first-hand the record game's contempt for its own artists, the continued setbacks Latino artists often impose on their own people, and attacks on a genre he has grown to respect.
While still supporting his daughter Jasmine and son Ronald, Hernandez has persevered. "I find ways to make this work because I'm not doing it for the money, I'm doing it because I love to do it," he says. "I just feel that I've been blessed to be able to come up from the streets and meet the people I've met and lived the experiences I've had." •
By M. Solis