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Rap Radio Relevance

ON THE RADIO

There’s a lot to chew on in the little write-up Complex did last week on the state of Hot 97 and Power 105’s on-going battle for New York rap radio supremacy.  Long story short, Hot 97 and Funk Flex are the bomb-dropping thought leaders who have history on their side.  Rappers talk about Hot 97 way more and give Flex way more records to premiere on air.  But Power 105 and DJ Clue are matching them in ratings right now.

Let’s talk about radio for a second.  The hip-hop world loves to complain about it, but compared to other genres, rap radio is amazing.  You go to any city in America, you’ll hear the exact same shit on the exact same five flavors of station.  Rap stations, however, maintain way more control over their playlists.  They’re still shady and corrupt, but they also play local music and have way more freedom to break national songs than the rock or top 40 stations do.

Basically rap radio is relevant in a way that radio isn’t for other genres.  This was the result of the major labels first ignoring and then being scared of rap for like twenty years, which meant rap had to create its own industry.  And even while New York and LA flourished, they in turn ignored other markets, boosting the local power of those stations.  No matter where you live, Hot 97 is central to the mythology; Funk Flex has earned the right to swing his dick around live on air for ten minutes and play new tracks he really likes for 15 minutes straight and maybe even jack his competitor’s e-mail for an exclusive.

(BREAK TO APPRECIATE THE FUNK FLEX DRIVING SHOE.)

But history is in the past and Hot 97’s legacy won’t sustain it forever.  The article doesn’t explain the ratings slide very much, but Power 105’s program director makes it about age: it’s hard to respect Hot 97’s history if you weren’t there for it.  It’s been over a decade since the “Takeover” saga, way too long for a lot of the station’s listening audience to feel a way about Hot 97’s role in it.

So why does this matter at all to you, the savvy rap listener who gets all his music off the internet and may not give two shits about New York?  Because times are changing.  Rap is finally rolling over to pop status, led by Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller’s Talib Kweli-by-way-of-Sublime friendly raps that play nice with top 40 stations.  And while it’s cool to see rap’s three decade struggle with “legitimacy” finally paying off, it’s less cool to see the pop stations with micromanaged playlists get a foothold in the scene.

New York is lucky to have two radio presences (and a massive audience) to choose from, but stations in smaller markets are in danger of losing listeners to top 40 stations if they can’t find a way to stay relevant.  Power 105 catching up to Hot 97 indicates how little listeners care about decades-old rap history.  This doesn’t necessarily mean Funk Flex needs to be reaching super hard to break, like, T. Mills singles, but it should be a heads-up to program directors.

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