Even more than 20 years after the fact, people all over the Bay Area still recognize Chuck Johnson from his time on Soul Beat Television, a pioneer of Black-owned cable television stations in the United States — Channel 37 to be exact.
Founded and run out of a mosaic of rented studio (and non-studio) spaces by an older man also named Chuck Johnson (the jokes were never ending) from 1978 to 2003, Soul Beat was a beacon of Black Bay Area voices, culture and business.
After learning the ropes as an intern, this Chuck Johnson’s initial endeavor, “The Rap Show,” ran from fall 1994 to 1996 — when he was in his early 20s — as a platform for young people interested in the emerging hip-hop scene. By virtue of growing up in Oakland, Johnson knew people in the same circles as local icons like Too $hort, and conducted interviews with the likes of Jay-Z and The Fugees.
“Even in times in life I wasn’t thinking of Soul Beat, I was part of that legacy,” Johnson says. “It’s one of those things that doesn’t leave people’s minds. I’m 46, and I’m still remembered in that hip-hop space.”
But after he stopped hosting “The Rap Show,” Johnson wanted to diversify his skill set. He and John “Fade” Burnett started a new, more mature show, “OnOne TV,” at a different station but eventually brought it back to Soul Beat TV before the closing of the station in November 2003 and the elder Chuck Johnson’s passing in July 2004. For 10 years afterward, Johnson would use those skills imbued to him at Soul Beat working in media, behind the scenes. He helped arrange football game productions with the 49ers and Raiders, and even produced content for BET.
“I do things with the lens of hip-hop,” he says. “Hip-hop gives you the entrepreneurial spirit to make something out of nothing.”
Venturing into esports
This lens would also help Johnson as he ventured out of media and into a new realm: esports tournament gaming. At a glance, these worlds may appear disparate, but the same connections that put him in recording studios with the likes of Snoop Dogg, he found, could be used to recruit those same names to gaming communities. In fact, Snoop’s Gangsta Gaming League just edged out a victory against Johnson’s team (there’s no hard feelings).
“Within hip-hop culture, gaming has been right there, just like with what you drink and the clothes you wear. We kept up with shooting games, mystery games, but sports was the fast game you could go with,” he says. “As we got older, I was good enough and went to the tournaments. And I started thinking of hosting tournaments, and bringing my culture into it.”
It was an opportunity. After nailing down investors and business partners like co-founders Brad Flewellen and NFL quarterback Josh Johnson, as Chuck puts it, “We formed like Voltron, and opened the Ultimate Gaming League” in 2016.
The league facilitated matches for Madden, FIFA, NBA and Call of Duty, typically held in Oakland venues and bars. The pandemic made this impossible, but the transition to online tournaments and ESPN’s platforming of esports in lieu of live games have given Johnson a lot to be grateful for, including time to ruminate on Soul Beat.
“I did so many shows before I realized, ‘This isn’t being recorded.’ There was no syndication or route to recording every episode. If you saw it you saw it, if not, oh well.”Chuck Johnson, on Soul Beat Television
Rynell “Showbiz” Williams, a seasoned radio DJ, started the archival Instagram @soulbeattv in an act of quarantine nostalgia, a social-media time capsule of photos, corny commercials and interviews with baby-faced versions of Bay Area stars like Too $hort and Keak da Sneak.
Johnson amassed a plethora of footage that has yet to see the light of day, approximately 30 hours of shows he recorded onto VHS tapes. The renewed interest in Soul Beat over the last year is limited by lack of recorded material.
“I did so many shows before I realized, ‘This isn’t being recorded,’” Johnson says. “There was no syndication or route to recording every episode. If you saw it you saw it, if not, oh well.”
But he’s ready to share his archives with the next generation, and impart why it’s so important to remember what came before. A retrospective “The Rap Show 2.0” is in the works as a mix of then and now, with cuts from his favorite preserved interviews and context from Johnson 25 years later.
“Ironically, in the midst of doing that for me (was time) to again tell my story,” he says. “They got to see the roadmap, the legacy. And then, here’s how you can continue it.”