Riki Rachtman: “I Want People to See That There Are Bands From Any Decade That They’ll Like”

For a generation of fans, Riki Rachtman owned metal. As the host of MTV’s heavy metal show Headbangers Ball from 1990 t0 1995, Rachtman was the cultural curator of the hard rock and metal world, interviewing everyone from Poison to Pantera while showing off some of the world’s loudest, most outrageous music videos. Now, as a syndicated radio host of 20 years, the owner of an apparel company, a veteran supporter and promoter of the professional racing circuit, and the man behind two podcasts, Rachtman is continuing to live the hard rock dream — he’s just doing it on his own, without a big TV network behind him.

“I told my girlfriend, ‘I’d really like to take a day off, maybe I’ll take the day off.’ But…what am I going to do?'” laughs Rachtman. “For those people that don’t want nine to five and don’t want to sit behind a desk, start your own business…because then you’ll be behind a desk from seven in the morning until eight at night!”

This doesn’t mean that Rachtman isn’t still keeping the metal faith. In March, he hosted The Ball, a video show via Gimme Radio‘s new Gimme TV, that allowed him to show off some of the best metal videos out there, both classic and contemporary. For Riki, that opportunity was an important one, a chance to both reprise the role he was once known for  without the pressure of a major network behind him. This way, he figured, he could not only honor the classic bands he loved, but support the ones who would’ve never gotten airplay on MTV.

“I was very adamant on the first video I ever played,” says Rachtman. “And for the first video, I picked Power Trip, because I think Power Trip is a great band, and I think they would’ve been an even greater band. And it’s a band where, if you used to listen to Pantera or Testament or Prong, and then you hear them of the first time, you’re going to like ‘em!”

How’d The Ball come about?

It’s funny, because it’s not like I just said, ‘Hey, I want to do this show!’ It’s something I’ve always wanted to do! People have told me every single day since ‘95, ‘Dude, bring back the Ball,’ and it’s like, Dude, I did want to do it! I always wanted to do the show! I went in different directions and started doing talk radio for a while, but even though I am part of the entertainment industry, I’ve never thought of myself as a reporter, or an actor. I don’t have a team of people who work with me. I didn’t have anyone teaching out to a network, helping me get a gig — and I don’t know anybody! I really wanted to do The Ball, but if I did it on YouTube and just showed videos, it’d get taken down, and I didn’t want it to get taken down.

I saw a Megadeth car at a NASCAR race, and it said Gimme Radio on the side. I reached out to the Gimme Radio, and those guys said they were going to try this beta, Gimme TV. And I said, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing, but here’s what I want to do.’ And they said, ‘Okay, what videos do you wanna play?’ And I told them, and they said, ‘Okay! Let’s get Knotfest involved.’ And suddenly, it was these entities coming together with something in common that was not money — it was to do a really cool heavy music show.

Were there any issues with MTV, in regards to using the name ‘The Ball?”‘

Believe me, I did have an attorney trying to buy back the name Headbangers Ball. I wish I owned the name Headbangers Ball. Viacom isn’t going to give it to me or sell it to me. And I thought that The Ball was far enough from Headbangers Ball — they don’t own The Ball. But the logo Gimme Radio made sure looks like Headbangers Ball! I don’t think it’ll be a problem, they’re cool — but if this becomes a big show, who knows?What’s important is that people know it’s NOT Headbangers Ball, that there are differences.

What would you say those differences are?

The music. If this was Riki Rachtman’s show, it’d be different music. If it was the Cathouse Hour, it’d be different; if it was Headbangers Ball, it’d be different. But it’s not, it’s The Ball, and in my opinion, it needs to be more outlaw, more underground, and play heavier songs. That’s not to say there’s not a ‘hit’ — we have a video dedication part on The Ball, where we got a fan request. But for the most part, I wanted to play aggressive music that’s old and that’s new, from bands that people are not familiar with from my generation to get turned onto, and for kids to say, ‘Woah, I was never into Obituary, this is really cool!’ I’ve said this before, but if I was a kid watching [Headbangers Ball], I’d be a big-time Riki Rachtman hater.

Who are some bands who people might not remember as Headbangers Ball bands, or who started on Headbangers Ball and got bigger than you could’ve ever imagine?

There were bands who transcended Headbangers Ball. The obvious one that everyone says, whether you like it or not, is Nirvana. Nirvana was on Headbangers Ball, and that was the start of them becoming the biggest band in the world.

Right! Kurt Cobain wore a ball gown!

Exactly. But there were bands like Pantera and White Zombie, who I don’t think would’ve gotten as big as they did without Headbangers Ball — God, that’s really cocky of me to say, but they were both mainstays on Headbangers Ball, and those are bands where people have said to me over and over, ‘You turned me on to Pantera.’ I think they’re a perfect example of a band that masses knew through the show. And if you look at bands who are mainstream, you’ve got your Guns N Roses, you’ve got your Metallica and Mötley Crüe and Poison and Alice In Chains — and Soundgarden! These were all Headbangers Ball bands! I’m not saying they all should’ve been on the Headbangers Ball. I think if a band was played on the afternoon on MTV, they shouldn’t have been on Headbangers Ball. But remember, I had no say in anything at Headbangers Ball. 

It’s funny, I definitely think of Poison and Mötley Crüe as Headbangers Ball bands, but not Soundgarden.

Pearl Jam were on Headbangers Ball! There’s a pretty big list of bands who were on Headbangers Ball before they became bigger bands. The Soundgarden episodes of Headbangers Ball were some of my favorite, especially the bowling episode. They started on Headbangers because there wasn’t a place to put them!

Did you ever find it weird to showcase a band like, say, Napalm Death alongside a band like Poison?

No, because I wanted there to be more of that! Let’s be completely honest, what Headbangers Ball wanted was to get as many people to watch as possible. While I prefer the heavier stuff, it was a broad stroke that we painted. For everyone who loved that we played the Cro-Mags, there’d be even more people who loved that we played Warrant — and the fans of each genre would be furious that we played the other one, and they all took it out on me! That’s what separatec The Ball from other stuff — you can blame me this time! You can’t blame MTV!

Are there bands you championed on both shows? Bands who stood the test of time?

There are a couple who aren’t huge but still playing who I put on. There’s nothing I’d like more than a kid saying, ‘I listen to Code Orange or Spiritbox, and I wasn’t familiar with Testament, and I learned them from The Ball.’ Just as much as I’d like a kid who loves Killer Be Killed telling me, ‘Now I love Death Angel!’ I want people to see bands they like, but if they’re tuning in to see Slaughter or Warrant, I gotta tell you, you’re not going to see it. And that’s not me putting down that genre. 

Along those lines, are there bands who you feel like got lumped into the hair metal genre who didn’t deserve it?

You never hear me say ‘hair metal,’ because I think it was a stupid term. It was degrading, and there was not one band playing at the Cathouse who said, ‘We’re a hair metal band.’ I think ‘Slave to the Grind’ by Skid Row is super heavy, and I look at Cinderella as like an Aerosmith. They were a great, bluesy rock and roll band. I hate it when I see Faster Pussycat playing with all these ‘80s bands, because I would have loved to have seen them open up for Avenged Sevenfold. There’s a lot of bands back then who got lumped into that who were really, really good. Jackyl is goofy — I’m not gonna lie, Jackyl’s a goofy band! But I’ve seen Jackyl in the past three years more than any other band, because you know what you’re going to get, and it’s rock and roll! It’s tongue-in-cheek, it’s a lot of fun. But I’d never say Jackyl was a hair band. They’re just a fun rock band. 

Let’s say I’m a young fan just getting into metal. What would you like me to take away from The Ball?

The thing is, if I tell a kid, ‘You gotta listen to Anthrax or Obituary,’ a kid isn’t gonna wanna hear that from me! There are a lot of newer bands that we didn’t play early on, and if we do another, longer show, I can throw them all in. I want people to see that there are bands in any decade that they’ll like. You can like Death Angel, one of the originals, or you can like Municipal Waste from the 2000s, or you can enjoy a Metallica video between them! There’s so much separation — we’re a generation who wants to complain instead of compliment. Look for something you love instead of criticizing.

Follow Riki Rachtman on Twitter.

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Words by Chris Krovatin