Gays and Hip Hop

Who is the Gay Rapper?

That’s a question that obsessed people after the Connecticut
publication One Nut set off a firestorm of speculation a few years ago
by publishing a series of interviews with an anonymous well-known
rapper who claimed to be gay. Hip-hop fans and industry insiders went
on a witch hunt, analyzing lyrics and theorizing about various
artists’ offstage behavior. Stars ranging from LL Cool J to Dr. Dre
to Jay-Z to Method Man found their sexual orientation being called
into question.

Sadly, the fascination was fueled by prevalent gay stereotypes. Far
too many people seem to think that being gay would somehow prevent a
rapper from busting a mind-altering dance move or kicking a dope
freestyle. But such notions are ridiculous. After all, there are gay
policemen, accountants and doctors who are as good at their jobs or
better than their straight colleagues. So why couldn’t the Gay Rapper
be a superstar?

A listen to the tracks “Straight Trippin’ ” or “Fam Biz Edit,” put
out by Bay Area rappers Tim’m T West and Juba Kalamka with their crew,
D/DC (Deep Dick Collective), lays to rest any idea that gay rappers
lack the necessary skills.Over the past couple of years, D/DC has
built a strong reputation at its frequent shows for both gay and
straight crowds. The D/DC group is best known for its innovations —
fusing spoken-word, as well as straight-up rap, with the music. Their
current CD has a title that’s hard to confuse with any other,
“Bourgiebohopostpomoafro Homo,” and they’re working on a new disc,
“The Famous Outlaw League of Proto-Negroes,” due out in the fall on
the Sugartruck/Agitprop/Cellular label. Check out the Web site to sample D/DC’s music.

Another Bay Area artist who is openly gay and has forged an awesome
reputation as an innovative rhymer is Hanifah Walidah. She first hit
the scene in 1994 using the name Sha-Key, having released the
impressive album “A Headnodda’s Journey.” Her single “Soulsville
was ahead of its time because it fused rap with spoken-word years
before that would become common. Walidah is featured on the new
compilation album “Shame the Devil” (Freedom Fighter Records) which
deals with the prison industrial complex. She’s currently at work on
a hip-hop opera.

Hanifah and D/DC are just a few of the gay artists taking their
rightful places in the world of hip-hop, and these artists are
building upon the trailblazing spirit of earlier gay hip-hoppers.The
Bay Area owes a debt of gratitude to people such as Page Hodell, one
of the first women to do a live mix show on commercial radio, working
the turntables on KSOL in the mid-’80s. She rivaled, and often
surpassed, her male counterparts. Hodell also deejayed and produced
one of the country’s longest-running hip-hop clubs. The Box, as it
was called, ran for more then 10 years in San Francisco, attracted
thousands of clubgoers, mostly gay, and became a Bay Area institution.

Props are also due for Dave Moss, who was on KSOL’s up-and-coming
rival station, KMEL, at the same time as Hodell. KMEL was then known
primarily as a dance station, but on Saturday nights Moss would put
together incredible East Coast-style break beat/hip-hop mixes that are
still talked about today.

DJ Neon Leon, well-known in London and among house music fans
everywhere, started in the mid-’80s as a hip-hop DJ on KALX, the
University of California-Berkeley station. He later earned his
stripes as a Hip Hop club DJ at the now-defunct I-Beam.

We could go on and on naming gay artists who have made an impact on
hip-hop. Gays have always been down with hip-hop. Many have embraced
the culture from day one….The question is: Do we accept our gay
brothers and sistas?

So who is the Gay Rapper? He or she might be the victor of a fierce
rhyme battle or the artist whose record you dance to every time it’s
played on the radio or at a club. So what difference does it make?

written by Davey D for San Jose Mercury News.. please send emails to

July 14 2002

Did KMEL Kill the Hyphy Movement?

The Demise of Hyphy
Thizzle, bling, and blunts may have helped bring down
the overhyped hyphy movement. But KMEL pulled the trigger.

By Eric K. Arnold

After breaking through to mainstream pop-culture awareness in 2006, the Bay Area’s youthful, party-oriented hyphy movement seemed poised to become the next big thing. Fueled by cannabis, thizz pills, and top-shelf tequila, hyphy’s uptempo, feverish sound put a psychedelic tint on turf rap. “Go dumb” became the rallying cry for an attention-deficit culture that spread like wildfire, taking over clubs and commercial radio. As silly as it seemed to outsiders, hyphy created an economy whose main selling point was regional pride, built around stunna shades, Bay Area–themed T-shirts, rims, mixtapes, and Mac Dre bobblehead dolls. Despite its ghetto origins, hyphy had surprising suburban appeal. Rebellious, rambunctious, and not a little subversive, its infectious energy was a shot in the arm to a moribund rap industry.

The Bay Area’s answer to Atlanta’s crunk, hyphy validated the efforts of the independent-label-saturated local scene, which had long struggled to gain a national toehold. Media coverage extended to such nontraditional rap outlets as NPR, Newsweek, and The New York Times. Hyphy’s potential seemed limitless; once it hit middle America, there was no telling what it might do.

Yet by last summer, it had all but disappeared from the music industry’s collective radar screens.

Many factors may have contributed to hyphy’s demise. Contractual snafus and bad business practices by some artists resulted in missed opportunities; major labels signed local artists, then delayed releasing their albums. National media made a big fuss over the controversial practice of “ghost-riding the whip” (putting a car in neutral and dancing on its hood or roof while the vehicle kept rolling). Additionally, hyphy was frequently linked to illegal sideshows, and there were reports of violence at concerts and clubs. Subsequently, overall sales figures never quite caught up with the hype.

Even so, the largest single factor in hyphy’s decline may have been the withdrawal of support for local music by KMEL 106.1FM, the Bay Area’s top urban radio station and a powerful industry tastemaker.

A year and a half ago, it wasn’t uncommon to find at least four or five songs by locally based indie rap artists in rotation at the San Francisco–based station. These days, however, you won’t find a current local rap release in KMEL’s top 50, or its top 100 for that matter. In fact, the highest-ranking recent single by a Bay Area rap artist the week of February 4 was the Federation‘s “Happy I Met You,” way back at number 187.

At present, KMEL is playing “a lot of Down South music … anything but the Bay,” according to Hannah Wagner, a publicist at SF indie digital music label INgrooves and a regular listener.

Author Jeff Chang, who has written extensively about commercial radio, feels the station has returned to standard programming: “You don’t hear a lot of [new] music breaking. You didn’t get a sense of excitement like you had a couple of years ago. It’s gone back.”

A closer look into the absence of hyphy from the airwaves found that while local artists bear a degree of responsibility for the decline of the homegrown art form, KMEL is far from blameless.

Specifically, the station

• yanked local rappers with buzzworthy records from rotation over petty personal beefs

• made it difficult, if not impossible, for artists not aligned with favored promoters to get access to station personnel

• ignored the advice of its own DJs on potential hit records by local artists

• put the kibosh on efforts to spread hyphy in other regions

• engaged in blatant favoritism toward certain artists, alongside other activities that contributed to the fragmentation of the local hip-hop community

• employed a two-tiered promotion system for major-label and independent acts

KMEL’s provincial attitude toward local rap artists is perhaps best exemplified by the station’s treatment of Mistah F.A.B., a charismatic Oaklander sometimes referred to as “hyphy’s crown prince.” According to F.A.B., a “personal situation” with current music director Big Von Johnson has existed for years. The rapper speculates that jealousy might be the cause: “Von wanted to be an artist.” Still, “It’s no bad blood, it’s no hatred from me,” he now emphasizes. (At press time, Johnson hadn’t responded to several requests for an interview.)

In 2005, the hyphy phenomenon was beginning to create a tangible buzz, and F.A.B. had the hottest song in the streets in “Super Sic wit It.” When it was initially played on KMEL, presenters announced it as a new song by E-40, one of the few major-label artists from the Bay, who appeared on the record.

Yet after E-40 invited F.A.B. onstage at the 2005 KMEL Summer Jam, the audience reaction was so overwhelming that even Johnson had to give F.A.B. his props. Soon after that, other F.A.B. songs were added to the station’s rotation. But his increased profile didn’t last long.

In March 2006, MTV aired a segment of the show My Block that focused on the Bay Area. Though other artists were featured, F.A.B.’s charming personality nearly stole the show; he appeared to be a safe bet to be the next rapper from the region to blow up nationally. With a hot album, numerous guest appearances, and several songs on the radio, F.A.B. suddenly found himself weighing deals from major labels.

Not long after that, F.A.B. pitched Johnson with an idea for a new, locally oriented show, to be called Yellow Bus Radio. But KMEL already had a similar show in E-40’s E-Feezy Radio, so F.A.B. took the concept to Jazzy Jim Archer, the program director at KYLD-FM (94.9) — located in the same building as KMEL. Archer green-lighted the show, which aired directly opposite Johnson’s on KMEL.

That, F.A.B. says, “really made it seem I was going after [Johnson’s] timeslot. I became his archenemy.”

By all accounts, Yellow Bus Radio was a success. The program garnered high ratings on KYLD and was syndicated by other stations across California and podcast by Web sites worldwide. In addition to playing his own music alongside songs by lower-profile locals, F.A.B. used his airtime as a vehicle for community interaction, conducting interviews, and, in keeping with hyphy’s special-education theme, reading book reports.

“I don’t necessarily want to use the word ‘movement,'” F.A.B. says, “but we actually started a big deal with Yellow Bus Radio, which was to give people a chance and an opportunity.” However, he adds, “I didn’t know it would stir up that much controversy.”

The show’s run ended because of the rapper’s busy tour schedule and because, Archer says, it was “causing F.A.B. some problems in other areas of his career.”

In retaliation for F.A.B.’s perceived disloyalty, sources say, someone at KMEL apparently deleted all of his music from the playlist; in addition, his verses began to be omitted from songs by other artists he had appeared on. “Once I started noticing that, I was like, ‘Goddamn,'” the rapper says. “That’s what made it look like it was an individualized effort to stop me.”

F.A.B. loudly blamed Johnson for the deletion of his music from KMEL. “I was real bitter about it,” he says now. “There might have been some things said out of spite.”

Without hometown radio trumpeting his buzzworthiness, F.A.B. says, major labels started to get cold feet. Atlantic eventually signed him in late 2006, but being persona non grata at KMEL “affected what their whole staff would be able to do promotionally” as far as breaking him, he claims.

Being blacklisted from KMEL also affected the rapper’s other major sources of income: money for “features” (appearances on other artists’ songs) and concert revenue. When he traveled outside the Bay, F.A.B. says that he was often asked, “Why you ain’t getting play in your own town?”

KMEL program director Stacy Cunningham confirms there was an “unofficial” ban on F.A.B., but says the station stopped playing his music not out of spite, but because he was “our competition in the ratings.” She claims to have “nothing but love” for F.A.B., but advises, “Don’t play the ‘Cry me a river’ card.”

Cunningham says the station never received a copy of F.A.B.’s latest album, Da Baydestrian, adding that even after Yellow Bus Radio went off the air, “there was no real follow-up by the artist.”

However, F.A.B.’s issues with KMEL may have had a domino-like effect on the entire Bay Area rap scene. Few of the artists signed to majors in hyphy’s wake saw their records released, and those that did come out were often significantly delayed. “Once they canceled my airplay, it put a big halt to the movement,” F.A.B. says.

According to former KMEL DJ BackSide, F.A.B.’s conflict with the station was “a very big part of why the hyphy shit stopped.”

The Bay Area has long had a love/hate relationship with KMEL. At 69,000 watts, the station casts a sizable shadow over the entire region, from Santa Rosa to San Jose. For many local rap artists, the perception is that the path to commercial success goes through KMEL.

In the late 1980s and early ’90s, KMEL earned a reputation for innovative programming, creating the blueprint for the “hot urban” format, a mix of hip-hop and R&B later adopted by New York’s Hot 97 and Los Angeles’ Power 106. Its annual all-star concert, Summer Jam, was widely copied. The station was the original home of The Wake Up Show, the first hip-hop program to be syndicated nationally. To this day, fans have fond memories of Wake Up Show exclusives like the 1995 Saafir vs. Casual battle, a defining moment in Bay Area hip-hop. KMEL is often credited with being the first commercial station to play the likes of Too $hort, MC Hammer, Digital Underground, Tony! Toni! Toné!, En Vogue, Tupac Shakur, E-40, Souls of Mischief, the Luniz, Mac Mall, Goapele, and the Federation.

Unfortunately, the station hasn’t always supported local artists. Following a backstage altercation at the 1995 Summer Jam, Too $hort was temporarily banned from the airwaves, as was Tupac just before his death in 1996 (“At least I’m in good company,” F.A.B. jokes).

In 1996, KMEL’s parent company, Evergreen, was purchased by Chancellor Media. In 1999, amid an industrywide consolidation trend, Chancellor’s Bay Area stations were bought by Texas-based media conglomerate Clear Channel Communications, becoming part of a national chain which at its peak had more than 1,200 stations, including several in the Bay Area. Even before the Clear Channel takeover, KMEL’s programming had become more mainstream. As former KMEL air personality Davey D recalls, “The playlist suddenly shrunk. We had to follow dictates. That was a rude awakening with respect to the local stuff.”

In 2000, Michael Martin, KYLD’s program director, became the overseer of both KMEL and KYLD, its sister station and onetime rival. Over the next year, Martin methodically cleaned house at KMEL, slowly but surely replacing the station’s core staff, who had forged key relationships with the local hip-hop community.

In 1998, Oakland’s Delinquents sold 30,000 copies of their album, Bosses Will Be Bosses. The group felt its single, “That Man,” had the potential to be a big commercial hit on KMEL. “We had a current record with a current single,” rapper G-Stack recalls. “We had a street buzz.” The Delinquents also had decent sales figures, moving 2,000 copies a week. Despite sending their music to the station, “they still wasn’t playing our stuff,” he says.

Out of frustration, the Delinquents and a large number of thuggy street dudes confronted former KMEL DJs Trace and Franzen at a club one night, demanding that they receive airplay; rumor has it that someone in the group’s entourage pulled a gun on one of the DJs. Urban legend or not, this incident led to a meeting at the station with the DJs and then-program director Joey Arbagey.

G-Stack remembers the meeting well: “We got up in there. They weren’t trying to let us in. We told them, ‘It ain’t gon’ be okay to ride your vans through the ‘hood.'”

Faced with the threat of retaliation against its marketing street team, KMEL grudgingly conceded a modicum of airplay to the Delinquents. But by then, their album had been out for six months, and the group’s momentum fizzled. “We never really had that radio support again,” G-Stack says.

The Delinquents’ experience wasn’t uncommon. In a 2001 interview, E-40 wondered aloud about KMEL, “If you’re ‘the people’s station,’ why aren’t you playing the people’s music?” And in 2003, producer EA-Ski complained that other regional scenes benefited from radio play: “Everybody else is supporting their music, but KMEL isn’t doing it.”

Rappers haven’t been the only ones upset with KMEL. Over the years, community activists have frequently targeted the station. One flashpoint came when Davey D, host of the popular public affairs show Street Knowledge, was fired three weeks after the 9/11 attacks when he hosted interviews with Rep. Barbara Lee and Boots Riley of the Coup that ran afoul of Clear Channel’s pro-Bush agenda.

In 2002, Malkia Cyril, executive director of Youth Media Council, formed the Community Coalition for Media Accountability, which studied KMEL’s social impact on young people in the Bay Area. Cyril says the station allowed local artists little airtime, and promoted music that tended to criminalize its primary listeners: young people of color.

In January 2003, the coalition met with Johnson, then-community affairs director Cunningham, and a Clear Channel executive who flew in from Texas, to discuss their concerns. Cyril says KMEL didn’t share the view that the station should be a public resource: “Big Von’s stance was — I’ll never forget him saying this — ‘This is my radio station.'”

Possibly as a result of the public pressure, KMEL added “Closer,” a jazz-tinged R&B single by then-unsigned Oakland singer Goapele, to its playlist. The song ended up being the most-played song on KMEL that year.

“Closer” may well have opened the station’s eyes to the fact that there were local records out there that could compete with national hits. Still, KMEL resisted opening up its playlist – until its hand was forced by the emergence of an unlikely rival that threatened its market dominance.

In April 2004, Power 92 (92.7 FM), an upstart station that branded itself “The Beat of the Bay,” began its existence by playing 48 straight hours of Tupac Shakur. Its playlist quickly evolved into a locally oriented version of the “hot urban” format. For perhaps the first time, KMEL was suddenly faced with real competition.

The battle for supremacy of the airwaves and the loyalty of the 18–34 urban listening bloc set the stage for what became known as the hyphy movement. Practically overnight, the radio was flooded with local rap music. If, prior to Power 92’s arrival, one or two Bay Area rap groups at a time broke through to KMEL’s or KYLD’s rotation, listeners now had a choice of hearing their music on three stations.

Though owned by the same company, KMEL and KYLD catered to slightly different demographics: KYLD skewed younger and more Hispanic, while KMEL’s core audience is older and more African American. By targeting the same demographic as KMEL, Power 92 represented a viable threat to the station’s hegemony. Once Power 92 emerged, artists could leverage their radio play by deciding to which station they would first take their music.

KMEL responded to Power 92 with what Davey D characterizes as a “corporate thuggin’ mentality.” He says labels, artists, and advertisers were allegedly told in no uncertain terms not to do business with Power 92. The new station’s street teams were harassed by what the East Bay Express called “Clear Channel shock troops,” who piled out of KMEL- and WYLD-branded vans and slapped bumper stickers advertising their stations on Power’s vehicles.

DJ BackSide had been a Power 92 street team member for just a week when she was offered a slot on KMEL. In July 2004, she started hosting The Hot Spot, a late-Friday, early-Saturday show. It quickly found an audience among hyphyites eager to keep their buzz going as they headed home after a night of clubbing.

BackSide rapidly became one of hyphy’s most visible proponents. In addition to her KMEL show, she hosted an online show at Warner Brothers-sponsored Web site; produced mixtapes hosted by such luminaries as Too $hort, San Quinn, and E-40; sold her own “Got Bay?” T-shirts; held residencies at non-KMEL-promoted clubs; and received exposure from national outlets like BET. There was a perception, she says, among longtime KMEL staffers that she was doing too much.

BackSide soon found herself an outsider among KMEL’s predominantly male DJ roster. She says she experienced some resentment because she was new and because she had come over from Power 92 (which has since changed owners and become LGBT-friendly dance station Energy 92). Cunningham says she respected BackSide’s hustle, but adds, “She was young. She didn’t know how to handle situations.”

BackSide alleges that certain individuals at the station did everything they could to get her fired or removed from the air, including accusing her of taking payola. On May 3, 2005, she remembers, she had just left the New York City offices of Bad Boy Records, where label owner P. Diddy thanked her personally for breaking one of his records on the air.

Not 20 minutes later, she says, she received an instant message from Scotty Fox, 3,000 miles away at KMEL. In a transcript of the conversation provided by BackSide, Fox takes an aggressive tone, accusing her of taking credit for breaking a record other KMEL DJs played on the air first. She denies it, but Fox berates her repeatedly. “U stay in your lane,” he warns.

Several times, Fox invokes the name of the station’s music director. “This is from Von,” he says at one point. After some more back-and-forth, he curtly states, “There’s nothing to talk about.”

A month and a half later, BackSide was told of a letter sent to the editor of RPM (an industry trade publication) accusing her of taking payola and requesting that she not attend the Mixshow Power Summit, a high-profile conference of the nation’s best radio mixers.

At first glance, the letter (which SF Weekly has reviewed, along with other documents supplied by BackSide) looks like an official document on letterhead from Clear Channel’s corporate HQ in San Antonio. It claims that the DJ was under internal investigation for accepting plane flights and other forms of payola from Universal and Bad Boy.

Curiously, though, the letter is unsigned, and has no return address. Furthermore, it seems odd that an internal investigation into illegal payola by a KMEL DJ would have originated not at the station, but at its parent company’s corporate offices.

After receiving a copy of the letter from RPM, BackSide says she met with Cunningham and Johnson. When asked who could have written it, BackSide gave a copy of her IM communications with Fox to Cunningham. She was then told she was suspended pending an investigation.

After consulting a lawyer, BackSide returned to the station the next day and handed a letter to the HR director detailing the conversation among her, Cunningham, and Johnson. A half-hour later, she says, Clear Channel honcho Michael Martin personally informed her that her show was reinstated, effective immediately.

From that time on, she says, she received a chilly reception at KMEL: “You could cut the tension with a knife.” Johnson, she says, “wouldn’t even look me in the eye.”

BackSide says there was no internal investigation into the letter’s authorship, although Cunningham told her the station had looked into her NYC trip and found she had paid for her own ticket. Cunningham says the station confirmed no one from the corporate office initiated any investigation: “Honestly, we don’t know who sent it.”

In February 2006, BackSide was fired from the station. Cunningham says the DJ didn’t help her own cause by falling asleep in her car when she was supposed to be doing her show, resulting in “dead air.” But BackSide says she played prerecorded music during that time, adding that she dozed off because her show was moved to 4 a.m. In any event, Cunningham says, “at that point, she knew she was not on the good side.”

BackSide’s departure from KMEL deprived the hyphy movement of one of its loudest supporters. By silencing her voice, the station closed a door which had allowed the artists community access to otherwise-impenetrable airwaves.

Currently living in Los Angeles, BackSide likens working at KMEL to working at a restaurant: “On the outside, it was great,” she recalls. “You go into the back and it’s a whole different story. Behind closed doors, [there] was a lot of stuff going on.”

Much of the dissatisfaction with KMEL’s support of local rap in recent years has centered on Johnson’s perceived attitude toward the homegrown scene. As the public face of the station, he is in the difficult position of having to balance the corporate agenda with community needs, while his boss remains behind the scenes. “Von gets the blame because he has allowed himself to be the go-to person,” says Davey D, who adds, “You’re not seeing Michael Martin; you’re seeing Von.”

In a 2004 interview, Johnson argued that commercial radio can’t placate everyone. “For the records that we do play, I could name 100 people that’s still upset,” he said, adding that he looks for “good records,” not necessarily because an artist is from “this clique or that clique.”

However, more than one local artist has found out the hard way that Johnson holds grudges for perceived slights — sometimes for years. “Big Von, he’s the biggest hater there could be,” says Sean Kennedy, CEO of ILL Trendz Productions, an Oakland street promotions company.

Frank Herrera, an independent promoter for several local labels, says that Johnson has done some positive things for the Bay Area, but “always seemed like he was unhappy with [local] music.” Herrera claims Johnson has “played God” with artists’ careers and says he often ignored the advice of DJs who advocated for local records they felt were deserving — most notably in the case of the late Mac Dre, often considered hyphy’s founding father. After Herrera brought Dre’s now-classic “Thizzle Dance” to the station in 2003, “his DJs had to tell him it was a requested song. Von was holding out on the record.”

Herrera also says that Johnson was nowhere to be found the day he brought Dre to the station for a prescheduled interview on Johnson’s show. Instead, the interview was conducted by another DJ. Although Dre’s 2004 hit, “Feelin’ Myself,” is currently in rotation, Herrera says KMEL “really didn’t start playing him until after he passed away” in late 2004.

In the July 2005 issue of Ruckus magazine, Johnson appears to take credit for breaking hyphy artists: “Name someone you knew of before I played them,” he boasts.

Yet Johnson may also have held the movement back. Davey D says he was present at a meeting with prominent Los Angeles radio DJs who had been supporting Bay Area artists. During the course of the meeting, it emerged that Johnson was asked by a well-respected veteran DJ whether L.A. musicians could get some KMEL love in return. Johnson reportedly denied the request; as a result, Davey D says, L.A. stations “stopped playing a lot of that hyphy stuff, almost overnight.” Reached by phone, the L.A. DJ (who asked not to be named) confirmed Von’s refusal.

According to Herrera, KMEL’s internal power dynamic shifted in 2005, when Jazzy Jim Archer left the station and Johnson took on a greater role in programming. “Jazzy fought for Bay Area music. I know that for a fact,” Herrera says.

The week after Archer’s departure, Herrera remembers going to the station and being made to wait for an hour and a half in the lobby of Clear Channel’s Townsend Street office as major-label reps paraded past. Eventually, the receptionist told Herrera that Johnson was unable to see him. He asked to speak with Cunningham, who reportedly told him, “Right now we’re not seeing any independent people.”

“It was a new regime. Things change,” Cunningham says when asked about the incident. But Herrera says other local promoters favored by Johnson were allowed access. Cunningham says the new policy allowed indie-label reps to make monthly appointments at the station, while reps from national companies were granted weekly access. “We have major-label Mondays,” she explains.

A similar thing happened to Kennedy, who says he had a personal and business relationship with Johnson dating back to the mid-’90s. But in 2005, the two had a falling-out. “That’s when he decided to roll with Rob Reyes,” he says, referring to the San Francisco DJ whose promotional company, M1, now handles the majority of major-label accounts as well as a significant portion of indie-label accounts for the Bay Area market.

When he was tight with Johnson, Kennedy was able to come into the station and give records to DJs personally, but after their disagreement, he says he was told to drop off the records at the front desk. With his access curtailed, Kennedy says the labels hired M1 instead, “because they can get radio.”

Now that he has fallen from favor with Johnson, Kennedy is willing to talk about the nature of their business dealings. Kennedy says he executive-produced five volumes of Big Von’s Chop Shop mixtape series, which didn’t do as well as other mixes by the Demolition Men, DJ Juice, or DJ BackSide. Kennedy says he ended up giving most of them away, but he still paid Johnson several thousand dollars per mixtape, with the unspoken understanding that Johnson would give special consideration to the label accounts Kennedy was working.

“I was coming back and giving [Johnson] money for records he never sold,” Kennedy says. However, he adds, “I never just outright gave him dough and said, ‘Play this record.’ I should have, though.”

Kennedy’s account appears to contradict what Johnson told Ruckus: “If you’re in the house thinking I take money, I never took a dime.”

Allegations of quid pro quo and backdoor arrangements might seem titillating, but the larger point is that KMEL’s machinations effectively limited station access to hand-picked local promoters and major-label employees. The end result has been a narrowing of diversity on the airwaves due to what appears to be widespread favoritism on the part of KMEL executives. This extended not only to major-label acts, but to local indies: Artists like the Team (for whom Big Von was the DJ) received considerable airplay, as did rappers with financial ties to M1, including Keak da Sneak and Kafani.

In 2005, KMEL appeared more than happy to go along for the ghost-ride. Yet both Malkia Cyril and Davey D contend the station had ulterior motives. They believe its support of local music at that time was a way to defuse activist efforts to challenge the station’s FCC license (which is renewed every eight years) during the public comment period that ended in November 2005. According to Davey D, “The KMEL that played local music did so begrudgingly, under pressure.”

In spring 2006, E-40‘s hit “Tell Me When to Go” made hyphy a national catchphrase. Davey D says KMEL responded by doing what he calls “superserving” local stuff, to the point where he started to feel that the station might be “trying to burn the audience out on the material.” Intentional or not, that’s just what happened.

According to Johnson, local music was outperforming national hits in 2004. Cunningham says Bay Area artists tested well in KMEL’s market research as late as 2006. But by March of 2007, she claims, “they slid down.” To the station, this showed that the “local stuff was no longer as relevant,” she says. “Everything has a shelf life … there’s only so much hyphy you can take.”

Asked why listeners aren’t hearing as much local music on KMEL anymore, morning drivetime DJ Chuy Gomez remarks, “There is not a lot of hot stuff out there. … It all starts to sound the same. Everybody wanted to sound like F.A.B. or sound like Keak. It got kinda stagnant.”

Archer says KYLD began to back away from hyphy because of concerns over violence. “The culture that was developing was, unfortunately, not a healthy one,” he says. Additionally, he says, KYLD’s programming became more focused on “core” artists like Justin Timberlake, which made hyphy less than a perfect fit.

It may be closer to the truth to say that once KMEL’s license was renewed, hyphy ultimately didn’t fit Clear Channel’s agenda. It’s well known that commercial radio has longstanding arrangements with major labels, such as artists who perform for free at Summer Jam for “promotional considerations.” By killing hyphy, the station could return to business as usual: playing national hits.

According to Cunningham, localism isn’t good for commercial radio’s image: “You can be a local artist and play up to where you’re from, but if every song is about where you’re from, there’s a problem.”

Ironically, she notes, San Quinn, Big Rich, and Boo Banga‘s “Frisco Anthem” is currently being spun on mix shows (though it appears on KMEL’s playlist as “Scotty Fox’s 6 O’Clock Chop Shop Mix“). In all fairness, local artists do show up frequently in mixshow airplay — which, coincidentally, happens at peak listening hours — but the artists don’t get name recognition for it on that all-important industry barometer of hotness: the playlist.

Even if hyphy has run its course, a larger question remains of why hyphy artists were the only local rappers KMEL was playing. The Bay Area, after all, doesn’t produce just one type of rap; nationally respected hip-hop artists like Lyrics Born, Blackalicious, and Hieroglyphics make music with socially responsible lyrics, yet were ignored by the station as hyphy scraped across the intersection of pop culture, leaving behind it a trail of empty Patrón bottles, half-smoked blunts, discarded pillboxes, and reckless-driving citations.

In a 2006 appearance at the Commonwealth Club, F.A.B. — who is clean and sober — told a sold-out house that he purposely “dumbed down” the lyrical content of his music in order to fit the popular radio formula and gain airplay. To a certain extent, the same could be said of KMEL, which stupefied the creative expression of a vibrant local culture — narrowcasting it to the point of redundancy and, ultimately, irrelevance.

Is Hip Hop’s Audience Really 80% White?


Is Hip Hop’s Audience Really 80% White?

By Davey D

original article-July 15, 2006

daveyd-raider2In recent days a debate has ensued on my website, around one of Hip Hop’s biggest myths. It started in 1991 when Newsweek Magazine did a cover story on Gangsta Rap and in their article they put out an un-researched statistic that said 80% of Hip Hop’s audience is white and that its reflected in record sales. That stat has been bantered about ever since as an undisputable stone cold fact.

Adding to this myth was a conversation that took place at the Gavin Convention in San Francisco around the same time when Ice T during a panel discussion stated that anything above his average 750 thousand record sales was attributed to white kids.

But is this really true? Granted if one goes to a Mos Def show or even a Wu-Tang concert you will see a majority white audience in many cities, but does that translate to that 80% white audience? How does an all white Wu-Tang show in Northern Cali compare to a sold out predominantly Black T.I. or Yung Joc show in Atlanta or in Oakland? How does that compare to a sold out predominantly Latino Psycho Realm or Sick Symphony show in East LA?

Back in 91 when this 80% first surfaced, there was no study or methodology that that kept track of race when it came to album sales. About the closest one could come was by estimating based upon record stores in a particular area, but that would yield far from accurate results. To start in many areas, folks from different ethnic backgrounds would frequent stores that were in sections of a city dominated by one race. For example, if you came to Berkeley in Northern Cali,  you found three main record stores up near the UC campus in an area that was statistically majority white. Folks from all over including predominantly Black South Berkeley and majority Black Oakland shopped at those stores. How were statistics based on purchases by race kept?

The truth of the matter is that this 80% white Hip Hop fan myth has long been a nice marketing tool used by media corporations to justify ad revenues for Top 40 radio stations. Here’s a little background on this.

Back in the late 80s and early 90s, many rap artists complained how the urban (Black) radio stations did not play rap except on the weekends and even then it was only in the mix late at night. Chuck D highlighted this concern in his song ‘Don’t Believe the Hype’. He goes into further detail about this lack of support by Black urban programmers in a song called ‘How to Kill a Radio Consultant’.

According to Black radio programmers they avoided playing rap, because it was affecting their advertising. In spite of Hip Hop’s cross over success with groups like Run DMC and the ‘positive, vibe that existed within rap at that time-(it was the Golden Era), many companies associated Hip Hop with violence done by Black people. Hence a Black radio station playing Hip Hop was likely to have difficult time getting money.

The Showdown Between Urban & Top 40 Radio Over Hip Hop

Around this time several prominent Top 40 radio stations were starting to aggressively play Hip Hop. Most notably was KMEL in San Francisco which became very successful and quickly moved into the number one spot over its urban competition KSOL which had been number one for years.

This sparked a lot of controversy and resulted in a big face off in 1992 at the Gavin Convention in San Francisco between Black urban programmers and white Top 40 stations that were starting to play Hip Hop. The packed panel discussion was hosted by Lee Michaels an African American editor at Gavin who interestingly had laid down the groundwork and started Top 40 giant KMEL which went on to win Best Rap Station in the country 5 years in a row. He posed the question as to weather or not Top 40 stations should be playing Rap or were they exploiting it?

The argument put forth by Black programmers was that they were playing the music but not getting both the ad dollars and promotions benefits from record companies. They talked about how the industry had a dirty secret which two sets of rules and budgets, one for Black urban stations which were small and one for Top 40 stations which in some cases were 3 to 4 times bigger. These budget disparities were also reflected in the Black music departments of and the Crossover and Pop music departments of the record labels

They went on to talk about how major labels would come to town and show support to these urban stations by giving them a bunch of tapes and later CDs for giveaway to the audience while across town these new pop stations playing rap were given huge prizes like tickets and all expense paid flyaways to music awards and album release parties.

Black programmers contended that they were responsible for breaking a lot of the urban music into the market place only to see their cross town Top 40 rivals reap the benefits.

The biggest point of contention was that these Top 40 stations were being allowed to keep their Top40/ CHR classification in popular industry trades like Gavin, Billboard and R&R which kept them in a higher budget class. 

Hence Top 40 stations could walk into an ad agency and even though their playlist was 90% identical to their urban counterparts they could walk away with a higher ad rate even if they were not number one in the marketplace. Plus they wouldn’t have any negative stigma attached to them for playing rap. A white Top 40 station playing rap weighed differently in the minds of ad buyers compared to a Black station playing rap.

The top 40 programmers countered by saying that many of the urban stations were missing the boat by not playing rap. I remember it being said that the urban stations were not staying close to the streets and paying attention to what was going on with their own kids who no longer wanted to hear slow jamz and sappy R&B songs.

They also insisted that they keep their Top 40 classification. What they emphasized was that Hip Hop was the new Top 40 and that was what was being reflected in the playlists was what the mainstream (white audience) now wanted to hear. The compromise to this particular point was the creation of a new classification called Churban which meant Crossover-urban. However it got applied to the Top 40 stations playing rap and not to the urban stations so in many people’s mind they were still seen as Top 40 crossover entities

They also pointed out that like their urban counterparts their sales departments had a difficult time convincing ad buyers to purchase time on a station playing rap. One of the Top 40 programmers pointed out that this was a competitive field no matter how you sliced it and that it was up to the urban programmers not only to put together a strong programming team, but to also have a strong sales team as well that could successful convince skeptical advertiser to purchase air time.

What wasn’t stated and this is where this 80% myth comes in, is the fact that the Top 40 stations had this Newsweek quote along with their CHR status that they could present to ad buyers. Essentially they were able to say, ‘yes we’re playing Public Enemy, NWA and 2 Live Crew’ which we (KMEL) was doing at that time, ‘but this is what the mainstream (white audience wants). Look at this Newsweek article. It’s proof positive that 80% of the people who like this aggressive music are the main ones purchasing it. I recall specifically seeing sales kits with that page and quote highlighted.

The bottom line whether we like it or not is that many advertisers have a hierarchy of who they want as consumers. It may be as follows depending on the product; White males between 18-34, White males 25-54, White women 25-34. Women of color 25-34, white teens etc. Last on the list is often time Black males. The pervasive belief is that white males have the most disposable income and can afford to purchase expensive appliances, cars and computers.

Women are desirable because they not only have income of their own, but usually influence the purchasing in households if they are married.

Black men, especially young males are seen in many instances as unwelcome. We all got a glimpse of this several weeks ago with the Cristal debacle where their spokesperson dissed Hip Hop artists for supporting them. He said all the mentions by artists like Jay-Z and P-Diddy was ‘unwelcome attention’. Author and former ad agency executive Hadji Williams in his book ‘Don’t Knock the Hustle’ underscores a lot of what I’ve written and goes into greater depth about all this in his book.

So it’s with all this in mind that we can better understand how and why this 80% myth was sold over and over again.  It was if people’s lives depended on it or in this case, people’s livelihoods depended upon it.

Now the real question was weather or not Top 40 stations KMEL and later stations like Hot 97 in New York and Power 106 in Los Angeles which followed suit a couple of years later really had large white listening audiences.

Asians, White Folks, Arbitron and Hip Hop

Well as I mentioned earlier one of the first and more successful Top 40 stations to embrace rap was KMEL who’s sale staff definitely flipped that Newsweek quote their advantage. They had another thing to help them out, and that was Arbitron Ratings to show large white listener-ship.

If I remember correctly we were boosting a number one rating with half our audience being white.  However, you wouldn’t have known that from the large numbers of people of color who would show up at our events. You never saw like 50% of our crowds being white. It was always explained that many of our white listeners weren’t our ‘active’ P1 listeners who would enthusiastically show up at station functions. I later learned something different.

What wasn’t really publicly known or even taken into account was how Asians were classified when it came to radio ratings. They were always counted as white people. You see in the Bay Area where KMEL is based there is a huge Asian/Pacific Islander population. In San Francisco more then 50% of the population is Asian with Chinese followed by Filipino being the largest ethnic groups.  Outside of their respective countries, the largest concentration of Filipinos, Tongans and Cambodians live in the Bay Area. There’s a sizeable Vietnamese, Korean Samoan and Laotian populations. Many of the people within these Asian groups have grown up and listen primarily to urban music.  Many of the younger people went from listening to Latin Freestyle to Hip Hop as stations like KMEL evolved.

I recall when the Arbitron people came to our station to talk about ratings and this fact about Asians being counted as whites was made clear one of our Asian deejays damn near hit the roof and went off. She wanted to know why Asians did not have their own category and she said she found it offensive that they would put an entire population down as whites. She noted that it played into the model minority myth that was impacting a lot of Asian communities and it also added to this pervasive perception of them being an invisible group of people.

The Arbitron rep said he understood the concerns and acknowledged that although the Asian population was growing, it would be a while before they would count Asians as a separate group away from whites. Nevertheless the large amount of ‘white listeners’ enjoyed by Top 40 urban leaning stations in California was touted to advertisers and helped rake in a substantial amount of ad dollars. It was later estimated that the actual percentage of white listeners was more like 20% when we subtracted the Asian count, but we never really knew for certain.

But lets suppose for the moment many of these Top 40 Hip Hop radio stations have large white audiences as asserted with the 80% myth, why is that we rarely hear many of the artists being played in regular rotation that we know for fact have a large white audience?

When was the last time we heard Living Legends, Del, Sage Francis, Atmosphere etc etc? We might hear an Eminem song, but hardly a Mos Def, Public Enemy or even Talib Kweli. The aforementioned artists seem to always have packed houses at their shows. Some of those groups do pretty well in record sales as independent artists, but dont hear them now and we didnt in the past-why is that? Shouldnt they be getting airplay to satisfy the tastes of this 80% white audience?

Who is Hip Hop’s Biggest Ethnic Supporter?

So now that we understand how and why the 80% myth came about lets look at the results of an actual study that was done.In January 2003 Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow Push organization held their 6th Annual Wall Street project conference.  In the past Jackson had not put together panels focusing on the entertainment industry and its impact on Wall Street, but that year he did. He put together is memorable standing room only panel which included some very distinguished guests including; former Vibe Magazine CEO Keith Clinkscales of Vanguarde Media, Carol H Williams of Carol H Williams Advertising, Thomas Burrell of Burrell Communications, Samuel Chisholm of the Chisholm Group, James L Winston of the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters and Daisy Exposito-Ulla of the Bravo Group

The Bravo Group is part of the powerful Young and Rubicam company is considered the third largest multicultural agency in the US. The panel discussion talked about market share and leveraging dollars. During the discussion Daisy Exposito Ulla was making her remarks and while it wasn’t the main focus she mentioned that her company had done a study and come to find that the Latinos are the biggest purchasers of Rap music. They buy more rap music than both African Americans and whites.

Because this wasn’t a Hip Hop specific panel her remarks were made in the context of talking about some other issues, what she was not met with any big gasp from the audience or anything like that. But for me I took special note as she continued her presentation, because it basically coincided with the push in broadcast media to target Latinos as a primary audience.

Yes, Hip Hop is large and everybody enjoys it. And yes, a large part of that audience are white folks. But 80%? No way.  Unfortunately white Hip Hop fans were used to validate to skittish advertisers and even venue owners that Hip Hop is safe and non threatening. To me its no different and just as bad as those programmers and industry experts who hawk Black gangsterism and stereotypes and make it appear as if its a vital part of Black culture and a true representation of Hip Hop.

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