Screen Time is Slate’s pop-up blog about children’s TV, everywhere kids see it.
I grew up in a mostly white suburb, and my musical taste as a child reflected that: I enjoyed Disney singalongs and Ace of Base and obsessed over the Baby-Sitters Club movie soundtrack with my friends. But my musical taste also reflected my parents’ strictness. MTV was definitely not allowed, and neither was hip-hop. (That doesn’t mean that when I got a little older, I didn’t find ways to sneak them in.) A few contemporary R&B artists were played in my home, but by and large it was lots of oldies: Motown, Aretha, and—for reasons I still don’t quite understand—Rod Stewart.
So the 1994 premiere of Nickelodeon’s sketch comedy show All That changed my life. A hybrid of Saturday Night Live and In Living Color, but starring fresh-faced tweens and teens (including future SNL star Kenan Thompson), the show instantly set itself apart from other kids’ fare not named Sesame Street for its urban set décor and genuinely inclusive casting. There was no token member, no Lisa Turtle or Susie Carmichael—four out of seven of the performers were people of color, and the girls outnumbered the boys. And—even more strikingly—it embraced the growing influence that R&B and hip-hop had on the charts and the radio. It was the hippest kids’ show on television fresh out the box: Its infectious theme song was performed by TLC, who were just months away from releasing their blockbuster second album, CrazySexyCool. Each episode ended with a performance by a musical guest; For the first three seasons, those performers were overwhelmingly black.
I was 6 years old when All That premiered, and almost immediately it became appointment viewing every Saturday night, staying that way until I hit middle school. I didn’t recognize it then, but I’ve realized the show was the beginning of my education in the black music of the ’90s. To this day, I still associate “Candy Rain,” the classic jam from boy group Soul 4 Real, with their performance on Season 1. I first heard Monica and LL Cool J on All That. Ditto Aaliyah. These songs and artists were taking over the world, and they were what contemporary black cool was all about. For much of my early adolescence, I struggled with embracing my blackness as I lived and learned in overwhelmingly white environments, but All That planted the seeds for me to inhabit full-on pride later in life.
Looking back on the performances now, I’m surprised my parents didn’t call a moratorium on the show—perhaps they figured that it was a show on a children’s network clearly made for kids, so it couldn’t be too inappropriate. Honestly, a lot of it definitely went over my head. During Da Brat’s performance in the second episode, she sings her single “Fa All Y’all,” which includes the chorus “It’s the Brat-tat-tat-tat bustin’ out on tha-t’ass …” and a line about being “quick to pull the trigger.” (She did clean up the third verse’s lyrics significantly for the kids’ audience, though—no “fine-ass dank” or “bitches.”)
And rewatching then–15-year-old Aaliyah’s early performance of the R. Kelly–produced “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number” now makes me feel more than a bit uncomfortable. But it’s also a really cool blast from the past to see her a few years later and a much more polished performer, singing her enduring “One in a Million.” In 1997, she hadn’t yet reached the mainstream success of “Try Again,” but to many people in the black community at the time, she was everything. Once I saw her on All That, I knew what everyone was talking about.
Who else did I meet in those early years? Nas, rapping a cleaned-up version of the “Street Dreams” remix; the OG Destiny’s Child lineup, singing “No, No, No.” All That even managed to get Outkast, in their prime, to perform “Rosa Parks.”
I was still a devoted watcher in Season 4, when a perceptible shift began. Sprinkled in with Dru Hill, Missy Elliott, and Busta Rhymes were Robyn (in her teen-pop years), the Spice Girls, and the Backstreet Boys. And just as the show had cannily understood a few years earlier that hip-hop and R&B were what the kids were craving, All That seemed to anticipate the late-’90s girl group/boy group era. Over time, the lineup slowly swung more heavily in this direction—“Oops”-era Britney, NSYNC, and even Celine Dion(!). I was not immune to the trend, and I listened to all of these artists at one point or another. But I would have encountered NSYNC anyway in the sixth grade, considering everyone at my elementary school was obsessed with them. I wouldn’t have met Busta or Missy, though, without All That. And though I doubt this was the intent of the two white guys who created the show, the chance to sit my booty on the ground or in a chair every week soaking up a landmark era in black music laid the foundation for the deep connection and affinity I now feel every time I’m amongst a crowd of black people, and we’re all singing and dancing along to the same beloved songs.