March 22, 2012

Old School Hip Hop… On the Radio… Why Not?

From Guest Blogger: AKIEM BAILUM

A debate is unfolding: Why Don't You Hear Old-School Hip Hop on the Radio?

I say this because when it comes to radio formats, Hip-Hop radio (Mainstream Urban/Urban Contemporary) is almost as bad as the Country music format is when it comes to giving the artists of the “past” a platform for their music to still be remembered.

Most Classic Country formats are on AM radio which is said to be an out-of-date band for radio. More and more radio formats and programmers are putting emphasis of the “crystal clear” FM band. This leads some to believe the Classic Country format could die out all together except in certain areas unless it migrates to FM.

The CHR/Top 40 and Rock formats do a tremendous job of remembering their greats of the past. Just for the record…so does R&B. That’s the reason we have Urban AC stations.

But what about Classic Hip-Hop?

Many folks outside of the cities of Phoenix and Los Angeles don’t know this, but those are the only two cities that currently have a full-time station that plays Sugarhill Gang, Run DMC, Tupac, Biggie, Method Man & Redman, MC Lyte, etc. In Arizona, there’s a station on 3 frequencies that airs such a format. Its branding is 101.1 The Beat. This is also a switch from when they originally debuted when they were plugging the 92.7 and 99.3 frequencies from its previous incarnation as a Dance CHR .

The other station playing Classic Hip Hop is in Los Angeles at 93.5 KDAY. How that station arrived at playing, presumably, West Coast-leaning Old School Hip-Hop (NWA, Death Row Records, etc.) is a story upon itself. The station actually began on AM at 1580 as KDAY-AM. Their 93.5 signal out of Redondo Beach, California is so inferior that it needs to broadcast to eastern portions of the Southland on another 93.5…KDEY-FM in Ontario, California.

During KDAY’s time on FM, it once became Los Angeles’ affiliate for the Steve Harvey Morning Show. It remained this throughout its last days as an Urban Contemporary station until the bottom began dropping out in 2008.

It was during 2008, that KDAY began shifting away from Hip-Hop and more toward an older Urban AC format. After Radio One sold KRBV “V-100” 100.3 to Bonneville (who in turn changed it to Classic Hits/AAA 100.3 The Sound KSWD), they struck a deal with KDAY. V-100 was the LA affiliate for the Michael Baisden Show which airs afternoons in LA from 12p-4p if heard for the full 4 hours.

KDAY adopted the former “Beat” logo of heritage Radio One LA hip-hop station KKBT-FM 92.3 the Beat. The Beat later (in the 92.3 incarnation) moved to 100.3. 93.5 The Beat even used the old “No Color Lines” slogan to represent the Beat’s former status as a hip-hop station targeted as the diverse cultures of Southern California (blacks & Latinos/Latinas in particular).

The decision to put the Beat’s logo and slogan on a station that was NOTHING like the old 92.3/100.3 was controversial, and what many claim sullied the legacies of the Beat as well as KDAY. In late 2009, KDAY started running liners that they were “dropping the Beat” and were bringing back the KDAY of old—the station that played the music that made KDAY a household name in LA hip-hop circles to begin with.

But this isn’t just about one station, it’s about the overall status of Classic Hip-Hop on the radio. This would not have been anywhere close to a question even in 1990 because in relation to other musical genres, Hip Hop (or as radio nerds call it, Mainstream Urban) was is in its infancy. Now with almost 40 years under its belt, there’s a whole library of rhymes and beats from MCs of previous eras to fill a playlist for a radio station.

Plenty of questions have to be asked. Is old-school Hip-Hop not radio friendly? I think it is and can be. One city stands out in this debate.

New York.

NYC is known far and wide for being the city that pioneered the Hip-Hop genre. From DJ Kool Herc to KRS-One to Jay-Z. To say that the Big Apple’s connection to Hip-Hop is rich in tradition is an understatement. But radio in 2012 reflects more of a desire to make money for those at the top, not reflect the diversity of a community.

Believe it or not, there actually was a Classic Hip-Hop station occupying the HD2 of WQHT-FM Hot 97. Emmis recently decided to move the former format of currently-Merlin owned WRXP 101.9 (The New York Rock Experience—hence RXP’s calls) onto the HD2 of 97.1. 98.7 Kiss FM WRKS (Emmis’ other station) is still airing an Asian format on its HD2.

The failure to launch of an Old-School Hip-Hop outlet in NYC brings me back to the station I mentioned earlier in Phoenix—92.7/99.3/101.1 The Beat. I listened to the station when it was transitioning out of the Dance/Club format. It made a reference to the fact that no radio station to the right of 92.1 (not just in Phoenix or Arizona, but in the USA) had given hip-hop artists of the past a platform for their music to be heard once again on the radio. In a sense, it was an embarrassment for NYC radio that Phoenix (whose black population is less than 10% and yet has a multitude of black-targeted stations—perhaps due to the fact that it’s full of Chicago retirees) had beaten Gotham to the punch.

For the record, I’ve even heard Tupac’s “Changes” on 98.7 Kiss before…and it wasn’t on a mixshow.

So now that there’s an extensive history of Classic Hip Hop to play, one would think that more Urbans would be thrilled to play EPMD alongside Young Money the same way Rock stations mix in the Foo Fighters alongside U2. Not entirely the case except for a few outliers like CBS’s WVEE V-103 in Atlanta. That station plays a mainly-current based Urban format with a substantial amount of Classics—likely the reason why they’re the top dog for radio in all of the ATL…not just with black radio.

The debate hasn’t been Classic Hip Hop on the Mainstream Urbans, it’s been Classic Hip Hop on the Urban ACs. On one hand, it’s very hard to listen to any Urban AC or Urban Oldies mixshow on the weekends and not have the DJ’s playlist be at least 80% Old-School Hip Hop. On another, Mainstream Urbans like Hot 107.9 in Atlanta, Hot 107.9 in Philadelphia (complete clones of each other since they have the same owner—Radio One) and 97.9 The Box in Houston (also R1) throw in at least throwback from the past.

But at most they may do this only once every 6 hours since a current hip-hop station’s playlist is razor thin. College radio stations have played more Old-School Hip Hop on many occasions, particularly on HBCU-operated radio stations. The internet is also taking notice.

A Dallas/Fort Worth Urban AC—105.7 KRNB, received some attention from radio pundits for being one station playing Old-School Hip Hop. But I was questioning the decision from an overall radio standpoint. If Urban ACs are latching on to the Old-School Hip Hop train, does this threaten its future as a viable full-time, full-service format, especially in cities like New York and Houston where it can do at least marginally well.

There can be one main reason why radio station owners feel it is much safer to start droppin’ throwback beats on Urban ACs—demographics. Even as much as today’s 20-somethings still feel a gravitational pull towards 90’s music, the truth of the matter is more and more 90’s R&B is being/has been added on to Urban ACs just like more 90’s rock is being added to Classic Rock playlists. Heck, even full-time 90’s-pop centric formats have sprung up on the radio (to be fair, most of them have failed.).

The thinking could be that since the older demographics are the ones now listening to the Urban ACs, it’s these older age groups now (especially those between 35-50 years old) that were listening to more hip-hop on their Walkmans than R&B when they were in their teens. Hence the reason why these classics are spun in heavy rotation during the mixshows.

On the younger side of the coin, one can say that younger generations naturally will gravitate more towards music that was released “during their high school years” or “during their college years”. This is true especially when you look at ratings demos for Hip-Hop and Top 40 stations (and always has been true).

But the issue with this is what kind of response that Urban ACs will get by incorporating more Old-School Hip-Hop in their regular playlists outside of mixshows on the weekends. Many already have certain artists like Doug E. Fresh and Big Daddy Kane in rotation and they get more promotion for concerts from the Urban ACs such as WBLS than they do many Mainstream Hip-Hop stations like Power 105.1. That is a shame because it makes the hip-hop stations ignorant of the history of their musical genre.

I know this is an extremely long post but I’ll close out with this: Hip Hop artists of today aren’t the problem. Current hip-hop artists sample those & R&B tunes from the past all the time in their songs whether it be via lyrics or beats. Hip-Hop radio stations of today are the problem. There are two reasons why an increasing number of young demos are gravitating towards music like Classic Hip-Hop. #1—childhood nostalgia. #2—a growing opinion that today’s music is based more so on just about everything except talent. It’s those same interests that are keeping radio in a bubble and why formats like the Classic Hip-Hop one of KDAY may never expand and see the light of DAY.

“Almost 40 years. No respect. Money over history. Radio’s gone defect. Can’t get a station of their own, but getting played next to R&B Soul. Hot 97…you cold.” –me.

-Akiem Bailum can be reached on Twitter @Li495Akiem

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