Editorials on Hip Hop and Race
RACE AND THE POLITICS OF DIVIDE AND CONQUER
Over the past few weeks there has been a lot of discussion around Hip Hop and Race. The popularity of Eminem has been a catalyst for the impassioned exchanges that have been a long time coming. The most visible debate centers around Benzino and the Source Magazine and their claim that Eminem is a tool for the white power structure [machine]...But this has been a discussion that has surfaced and resurfaced ever since the Beastie Boys hit the scene back in the mid 80s. The discussion of Hip Hop and Race emerged during Hip Hop's Golden Age/Afrocentric era... when groups like 3rd Bass the Young Black Teenagers hit the scene. The introduction of Vanilla Ice also sparked a lot of discussion around the issue of race in the early 90s. Unfortunately we never fully addressed all the issues and concerns that arose out of those earlier conversations.Now that Eminem is blowing up the spot and Hip Hop is a multi-billion dollar a year business, the discussions around race are in full swing again..Three or four years ago I spoke at the Critical Resistance conference that was being held on the UC Berkeley Campus for a standing room only multi-racial Hip Hop Activism panel section. One of the things I spoke earnestly about was how powerful and influential Hip Hop had become since its humble beginnings...I told the crowd that Hip Hop had gone through many battles ranging from the then recent East-West Coast saga to the commercial vs underground drama and that it's next big battle will be along the lines of race.
I noted that Hip Hop was at a strange crossroads where lots of white kids are passionate and identify with so much that Hip Hop offers... At the same time it has always been an important vehicle for Blacks and Latinos which provided a platform, gave a voice to the disenfranchised and offered a way to economically escape the harsh conditions of the ghetto. More importantly the divisive racial politics of past generations began to rear its ugly head. In other words, as Hip Hop started to go mainstream some of the same social, economic and even political conditions that gave rise to Hip Hop in its infancy were reappearing.
What made things so hard to swallow was that for a lot of people, Hip Hop had taken on the appearance of being an inclusive unifying force that would elevate us all. There were many examples that seemed to suggest that...People dressed the same, danced the same, listened to the same music, used the same slang and could even party in the same night club. Hip Hop had evolved to the point that you could go damn near anywhere in the world and say 'Hip Hop' and people would know what you're talking about.
Unfortunately, as outside forces-mainly white owned corporations began to to catch wind of this phenomenon they began to apply exploitive marketing schemes that were designed to capture a huge market share. Translation: As major corporations saw lots of white kids getting down with Hip Hop, they decided to do whatever it took to appeal to what is considered a lucrative demographic. One place where this was clearly manifested was in the music biz. Those of us who have been in radio and the music business long enough may recall the friction that existed in the late 80s and early 90s when pop/Top 40 radio stations like Hot 97 in NY and KMEL in SF started playing Hip Hop.It ruffled the feathers of many urban/traditional Black music radio station program directors because suddenly all sorts of resources and attention were being re-directed to the pop stations and pop departments at record labels. At that time there was a lot of criticism launched against many Black/urban stations from the emerging Hip Hop community because they they appeared to be way too conservative and afraid to play Rap. For the most part that was true. Hip Hop reflected a huge generation divide where many of the older industry gate keepers simply did not like rap and seemed to have a reluctance to touching it.
I recall going to numerous music conferences like the New Music Seminar in NY and would listen as all sorts of artists like Latifah-before she added the title 'Queen' to her name, to Chuck D who was just emerging on the scene, to Daddy O of Stetsasonic and even MC Serch of 3rd Bass, would heat up on the representatives of the popular urban Black radio stations. They were angry that these PDs would not play Rap. They resented the fact that you could not hear Hip Hop except late on weekend nights for 2 or 3 hours or during a designated 1-2 hour rap specialty show. There were a few exceptions around the country that seemed to wholeheartly embrace rap. WGOK in Mobile, Alabama with the Madhatter, WZAK in Cleveland and KDAY in LA which was the country's only 24 hour day rap station, are a few that come to mind.
Many of the urban radio program directors stated that they did not play Rap music because advertisers would not support their station if they did. That always seemed to be a constant concern as many of these stations felt they were already getting an unfair shake. For those who don't know what was going on was that advertisers would not pay 'high' rates for urban stations even if that station was number 1 in the market place. If your station was labeled or categorized by music industry trades as urban it would be offered one advertising rate while stations classified as CHR [Contemporary Hits Radio] or Top 40 would be given a different-usually higher rate. Anybody who worked in urban radio will tell you how car companies, manufacturers of large appliances, banks and later computer companies would simply not do business with urban formatted stations.
What this all boiled down to was there was a premium placed on white/ more affluent listeners. Many corporations simply did want to attract a young African American clientele. Of course they weren't going to come right out and say this, so they usually cited the 'type of music' a station played as a reason for not wanting to do business. The harsher or harder the music the less likely they were to do business.Folks have to remember from day one Rap and Hip Hop had a bad image that was loaded with stereotypes of Black males wearing fat gold chains, using foul language and ready to commit violence. It left many people, in particular corporate advertisers afraid. Hip Hop wasn't exactly seen as this huge multi-cultural phenomenom that could be enjoyed by all. At least, it wasn't publicly stated as such. What was so ironic was this foul image was really prevalent during Hip Hop's Afrocentric/ socially conscious golden days of the late 80s-mid 90s.
So for Black radio, it was a constant struggle to stay a float. In fact the term 'urban' [urban contemporary] as it applied to radio was developed to help some radio stations downplay the fact that they were a black music outlet. Urban contemporary when it was first coined suggested that 'everyone from all hues and background listened to the station-not just Blacks. To just have 'Black' listeners in many circles was perceived as the economic 'kiss of death'. For a time the new term urban helped a station sound more hip and appealing. Eventually all the key players, record labels, advertisers and industry trades came to know that urban was a code word for Black which meant less resources.
Music critic and author Nelson George breaks down this scenario in his landmark book, 'The Death of Rhythm and Blues'. The only way for a lot of urban stations to stay economically competitive with their CHR counterparts was to play more 'adult music' in hopes of attracting an older 30+ female audience. This broke down to many urban stations adapting a policy of playing more R&B and No Rap. That is why some urban formatted stations adapted the slogan We Do Not Play Rap'. They wanted to make it clear to advertisers that they were an adult station.
During the late 80s and early 90s Hip Hop began to explode primarily because of video outlets and TV shows like 'Yo MTV Raps'. While many urban/Black stations proceeded with caution in approaching Hip Hop, [again they could not afford to take an economic hit for being too 'ghetto'], their Top 40 counterparts were discovering that Rap had multi-cultural appeal and began to play it in earnest. Radio stations like KMEL in San Francisco were one of the first Top 40 stations in a major market to aggressively abandon it's pop format and wholeheartly embrace rap. Folks in NY may recall in early 90s when Hot 97 began to switch up and move away from its Latin Freestyle dance format when they added Funkmaster Flex to their line up to do weekend Hip Hop mixes.It was soon discovered that these station's Top 40 audience didn't leave, but in fact their ratings increased. It wasn't long before these Top 40 stations began to out draw or tie their urban rivals which included KSOL and KBLX in SF and WBLS and Kiss in NY. The ratings success inspired other Top 40 stations to follow suit. All this eventually led to conflict between the urban and Top 40 stations.
The main point of contention was the fact that Urban stations were still being handicapped and economically penalized for playing rap. They felt that there was a double standard. Many large advertisers who used ad agencies still felt their affiliation with this 'Black' urban art form called rap would harm or dilute the image of their product. But they didn't seem to mind spending their money with their Top 40 counterparts who had now started playing rap outside of the traditional rap specialty shows or weekend 2-3 hour mix shows, where rap records were introduced, and nurtured on urban stations. Yes, there were malt liquor ads and maybe a McDonald's commercial here and there which created the illusion that everything was all good, but behind the scenes it really wasn't. One could not adequately sustain themselves on malt liquor and McDonald ads alone.
I recall attending a huge contentious panel discussion at the prestigious Gavin Seminar in SF during the early 90s. On one side of the stage you had all these African American urban program directors and on the other side you had all these white Top 40 program directors including my boss Keith Naftly from KMEL. The Black programmers explained that they felt that the Top 40 stations were coming in and basically 'stealing the music' and then getting credit and financial reward for doing what the Black stations had been doing or trying to do for years. The Black PDs broke it down and explained that for years their stations had to struggle just to get a 'fair' piece of the economic pie which was controlled by white folks in both big business as well as with the major record labels. This was happening even though many of the Black stations were 'breaking' the music first and obtaining superior ratings to their Top 40 counterparts.
They also pointed out the fact that many of the record labels were turning their backs on these urban stations and rewarding their Top 40 rivals with expensive, enticing and prestigious promotions that could help boost the ratings. For example, you might have one of the major record companies come along and offer a Top 40 station an all expenses paid trip for their listeners to go to the Grammy Awards to see an urban artist. Or the labels would come along and take a hot act and offer them up for free to a radio station to do a huge concert. Many of the Black programmers felt this was a huge slap in the face because for the most part many of these urban artists were initially introduced and broken in the market place by their stations. It was like the urban station would play the song, stick with it and if it was rap take the financial risk and then watch as the labels and advertisers would come along and do business with the Top 40 stations who came on a project afterwards. They felt like they were being undermined.
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