He is J-Nicks, the Young One in Charge. He runs on Nicks time, which is an hour later than Central Standard, but you'll forgive this and any other indiscretion when he smiles. A carny would lose a stuffed animal trying to guess his age. He could be fifteen or he could be twenty-three. And that's fine with Nicks. He doesn't like talking about his age, other than to say he's "young." Teenagers are the target demographic in the evenings on WFUN-FM, a.k.a. Q-95.5, and they like listening to one of their own. His age, though, is one of few closed topics, a truth he'll admit when he stops himself midsentence while discussing his upbringing as the elder son of two engineers (one electrical, one chemical) to say, "I can talk forever."
Then he continues on. He got a 30 on his ACT. He was going to be an engineer too, until U. City High kicked him out during his junior year. His mom drives a Q45. He's always had strong opinions, and he was the pied piper at school. "My mom always used to tell me -- my parents are Baptists -- that I'd either lead people to great things or I'll lead them to Hell. As a young guy growing up, I used to always get in trouble, because if I did something, the rest of the kids are going to do it, and I put a lot of stuff in people's heads. That was always my thing. I was always a leader -- hold on a sec...."
Time to go back on the air: He swings around on his stool, grabs the headphones and drops them over his ears and, bam! lets loose a barrage of stream-of-consciousness poetry. "Black people can't go to haunted houses. Some dude pop out of a dark corner and scare you, black people will fight you back -- boom! -- swingin'." J-Nicks is fluent in three English dialects: the King's, the pimp's and the clown's, and on the air he flip-flops between them. At his most frantic, he sounds like he's hanging upside down on a jungle gym speaking in tongues while juggling dictionaries. His favorite non-word is "Yo-day!" He uses it all the time as a verbal exclamation point, and when he's not saying it, he's dropping in a sample of a darling little girl saying it: "J-Nicks yo-day!"
Big Sexy Kooool DJ Kaos, who competes with Nicks for the ears of a generation on rival hip-hop station 100.3 the Beat (KATZ-FM), won't tell you his age, either, other than to acknowledge that he's older than Nicks. Kaos, too, is extroverted, cherubic, ageless. But where Nicks seems perpetually to exude coolness, Kaos is just, well, (assume falsetto) Cooool! He drives a pimped-out royal-blue mid-'70s Chevy Caprice. The ride's so slick that strobes pump out of the front grille even when it sits parked while its jockey is inside the Beat's headquarters on North Lindbergh. Kaos is cool because he's so genuinely friendly. He won't forget you when his hip-hop act Da Hol' 9 finally lands a spot on the Billboard charts. He'll still greet you with a combo handshake/half-hug, a warm smile covering his round face. He's got a beard, which he keeps neatly trimmed, and he wears his hair braided under a baby blue do-rag. The braids are much easier to manage than his alternate hairdo, a monster Afro. In the Da Hol' 9 poster that hangs in the Beat's air studio, he's wearing a baseball cap pulled low over his brow, with the 'fro exploding from the sides like a capped Roman candle.
Born and reared in St. Louis, Kaos (given name: Kriss Kringle) is a DJ in the purest sense of the word. He got his start watching his uncle, the father figure in his life, spin basement and backyard parties. The young Big Sexy stood in the back sipping orange drink. "I just thought it was so cool. They were playing Parliament, and everybody was there kicking it, girls coming up there giving me kisses on the cheek," he recalls. "I fell in love with it." A few years later he was doing mixes during Dr. Jockenstein's legendary shows on the Beat's predecessor, Z-100.
That was back in the day, when hip-hop was rap and relegated to the ghetto hours. Back when DJs were disc jockeys and they spun records on turntables. Back when the idea of eight of the Top 10 records in the nation being rap songs was as foreign as the idea that none of them would be by Bon Jovi. Back when Nelly was a name for a horse and Chingy was the sound nickels and dimes made rattling in the pockets of your parachute pants. Back when a hit record coming out of St. Louis was about as likely as one coming out of France.
In the here-and-now, though, St. Louis matters. In case you missed it, this very week marks a landmark moment in St. Louis music history. No fewer than four songs (featuring three different St. Louis artists) hold spots in the Top 40 of Billboard magazine's national singles chart. This has never happened before. Not when Chuck Berry was chasing sweet little sixteens, nor when Ike was beating Tina, have this many St. Louis-based artists cracked the charts simultaneously.
This historic moment has gone unnoticed by the St. Louis media, to say nothing of the RCGA and the mayor's office. No ticker-tapes down Washington Avenue. No front-page photo of Mayor Slay handing a golden key to the St. Louis Three. Nothing. Except, of course, 23 million units sold worldwide (the majority, of course, by Nelly). If you're listening to hip-hop radio anywhere in America right now, you can't escape Chingy's tandem smashes "Right Thurr" and "Holidae In"; or "Shake Ya Tailfeather," courtesy of Nelly, Murphy Lee and P. Diddy. All are entrenched in the Top 10. And now Murphy Lee's debut single, "Wat Da Hook Gon Be," is at Number 31 with a bullet. Give it a few weeks and a fifth song, Nelly's new single, "Iz U," will be up there, as well.
Nelly, Chingy and Murphy Lee all got their first radio play in the twentieth-largest market in America, on the Beat and on relative upstart Q-95.5, which debuted in 2000. The two stations square off against one another 24/7 in an attempt to lure the same demographic: hip-hop and R&B listeners aged 18 to 34. Amid a music-radio landscape in which four companies control the top fifteen stations in the area, consolidation and niches are the rule, and battles like this one are rare. But night after night, request by request, Big Sexy Kooool DJ Kaos and J-Nicks duke it out, teeter-tottering back and forth in the ratings, with big money at stake for corporate parents Clear Channel Communications (the Beat) and Radio One (Q-95.5), and -- for the time being, anyway -- big exposure for the city's blossoming hip-hop scene.
You can tell just by looking at J-Nicks that he could beat you in a sprint. He's got two notches shaved out of his left eyebrow, and he wears a diamond-shaped earring on the same side. If you squint from across the Q-95.5 studio to where he sits perched on a stool Monday through Thursday from 6 to 10 p.m., he could maybe be a skinny Todd Bridges. That scrawny, scrappy look carries over onto the radio. When he's talking -- make that screaming -- on the air, funny phrases spin out like a dragster down a quarter-mile track; you half expect a parachute to fly out of the back of a sentence. "This is your Jickety-J-Nicks, yo-day! I want you to see me everywhere! You're gonna see my face on the side of a bus! It's gonna be on billboards, in magazines. I'm gonna put my smile in your bathroom above the tub!"
He played soccer player at U. City High before he got expelled. "I used to do stuff," he says evasively. "I made my teacher cry. I have a thing where if you talk to me like I'm stupid, I'm going to talk like you're stupid -- and I'm going to win. I'm not really loud, but my personality -- I can really, like, be an ass. She started talking to me like I was stupid, and I talked back to her stupid, not necessarily disrespecting her. She might have been like, 'Well, go sit in the corner.' 'Well, I don't want to go sit in the corner.' And after a while it gets frustrating.
"People say I'm blessed," Nicks says quietly. "I think entertainment is my life. It's something I was meant to do, because I don't think I think like anybody else.
"Hold on," he says, and pulls on his headphones again.
"Yeeeaaah, Q-95.5, blazin' nine in a row hip-hop and R&B! This is your boy Jickety-J-Nicks taking requests right now! Where you at? A big shout-out to all my black folks, my white folks, my Mexican folks, my Chinese folks, and hopefully all you fit right in there in the middle of all that! Q-95.5, yo-day!"
"He's got the young face, you know?" says program director Craig Blac. "The teens cling to him. The little girls, they love him to death. They follow him. They breathe off his words. It's a lot of power when you open that mic and start talking. Anybody has a lot of power in that situation, but when you deal with the young minds, it's even stronger, you feel me? They're looking for someone to roll with, looking for that guy. And once they have someone, and they see that he's young like them, they equate to him. And they listen. Radio is a powerful thing."
Because that power is what sells ads and CDs, it's kept shrewdly harnessed. The days of free-form radio, when a jock could waltz in with his box of records and wing it, are long gone. The top 40 songs in regular rotation on both local hip-hop stations have been thoroughly analyzed; audiences are polled regularly to reveal which songs are getting tired. During the period between October 19 and October 25, the two local hip-hop stations spun Chingy's "Holidae In" 174 times. Chingy's "Right Thurr," released in June, recently passed the 200,000-spin mark nationally.
Stations play the same songs over and over because, they say, that's what their listeners want.
"I never turn on my radio and hear a song that I've never heard before. Never," says Chuck Atkins, operations manager for the Beat and Clear Channel's two other urban-formatted stations in the St. Louis market, Magic 105 and Gospel 1600 AM. If that were to occur, says Atkins, the DJ would "get popped right out of a job, like that. This is big-time radio, man. You don't want to do that."
"People don't want to hear a new record," agrees DJ Kaos. He sees it when he spins records out in the clubs. "You could be playing the hottest jam out right now, and you follow the hottest jam with the song that you think is going to be the next hottest jam. But they still don't know it, and they clear the floor. They clear the floor. In radio, they switch the dial."
Kaos is having a ball tonight on the radio. It's 8:30, and for the past two hours he has been stumping his listeners with a word problem. He's trying to give away some cash -- both stations are always bribing their listeners to keep their fingers in the holster -- and he's funneled through dozens of callers, none of whom has cracked the code. The overhead fluorescents are turned down low so most of the light emanates from computer screens, the glowing buttons on the control board and the phones, and a TV set broadcasting the World Series. His face, reflecting the light sources, beams red, white and bronze.
Kaos loves the phone, and when he's not barking into the mic or singing along with the music, he's on the phones live. He could tape the calls -- Nicks does, for the most part -- and air them later, to prevent random cussing, but he prefers the immediacy of live radio. His headphones perched on his head like a low-flying halo, he flirts with the ladies and barks at the men, who he calls, each and every one, his Dawgs. He'd half-hug them all if he could.
"How old are you?" he asks one female listener.
"You seventeen!? Girl, you sound every bit of 27."
Kaos's voice turns sweet: "Yes you do, yes you do. You're strong in the voice -- hold on, beautiful....."
With that, Kaos opens the mic and gets to romancing the lot of his ladies over the airwaves.
Kaos, a.k.a. Your Cousin, doesn't consider J-Nicks to be the competition, even though they run neck-and-neck in the ratings. Sitting in the 100.3 studio, he can see his competition through the glass partition at the station's sister station, Z107.7, which features the city's top-rated evening show among the coveted 18-to-34 demographic: the Sid Radio Network. "The [other] radio station can say it's competition," he says in reference to Q-95.5, "but to me, I look at the top dog. Doing radio 18 to 24, which is our demo, it's them guys," he says, gesturing across the partition. "They're in the same building, they're right across the hall, I can see him; he can see me. Everybody's like, 'Q this, Q that.' I'm like, 'Dude, you're stooping to their level.'"
The most recent Arbitron ratings book, which covers the summer, shows Kaos trailing Nicks by a slim margin: From 7 p.m. until midnight, when the two are going mano a mano, 12.5 percent of local radio listeners were tuned to the Q and J-Nicks; 12.2 percent had locked in the Beat and Big Sexy. (The Beat, however, has come out on top in the overall ratings battle for the past year and a half.)
Like Nicks, Kaos is after the teenagers. Right now he's hosting the "Hottest High School Conference Call," a variation on a theme that's been a mainstay on the radio since the 1950s: teens calling in to represent their schools. The same institutions they despise when they're in class are the ones that they adore in the evenings.
"What's the high school?!" Kaos screams to yet another caller.
"Who's this on the line?!"
"Representing the class of...?!"
"What station you listen to?!"
"You know I keep it locked on 100.3 the Beat, Cuz!"
(J-Nicks has a similar nightly segment, the "High School Check In": "City schools, county schools, country schools, private schools! Gimme a call! Represent your funky little booty-ass school!")
"Television, Internet, CD players, XBox, you name it," Kaos observes during an off-air moment. "I'm going against everything. It's extremely hard. You're going to lose people. The thing is to try and keep them for as long as you can. It's not that you're doing a bad job; it's that people have options. It's not like it used to be, when radio was the dominant thing. What you have to do is to get out here and work your magic."
St. Louis is in the midst of a record-label boom the likes of which it has never seen. Cheap recording technology, coupled with the buzz of hit records and the deep pockets of major labels looking to find the next Nelly or Chingy in a heretofore-overlooked market, has resulted in a gold rush.
"St. Louis has a really strong local base," says Koa Koa Thai, the Chicago-based Midwest regional promotions manager for Universal-owned Def Jam, the world's leading purveyor of hip-hop. "There are over 250 record labels there. It's crazy. But you have those that are genuine about it, and you have those that really don't know the game, so they're not that educated, and they're assuming that just because they give you a CD they're going to hear it on the air."
Even amid all the heavy Top 40 formatting, the two local hip-hop stations do manage to allow more free-form programming than their brethren in other commercial formats. Mix shows, scheduled three or four times daily, provide DJs the opportunity to dabble with new, unproven tracks or drop in a touch of classic hip-hop. Kaos hosts a nightly segment called "St. Louis Heat," in which he spins a local track and asks his listeners to respond whether the song is "hot" or "not."
And on Tuesday nights at 8, J-Nicks and producer She Nyce present "St. Louis Love," a segment in which the two interview St. Louis artists and play their songs. On this October night, local rapper Lil Mont and his posse at Prezidential Records are here to witness the radio debut of Mont's new single, "Big Thangs." Handshakes and hugs are traded, but when Nicks opens the mic, all goes silent. Then the music starts. All heads nod to the beat in unison, and a tiny smile crawls onto Mont's face as he hears his song float out into the city. He closes his eyes, whispering along to the rhymes he wrote. His song is on the radio.
This by no means guarantees a hit, but it is, at least, the proverbial foot in the door. "With the record business, there's a new business model, and they're looking for records that already have legs before they give you a deal," says Mark Williams, owner of the local Ragdoll Records label. Williams cracked Billboard's hip-hop Top 40 last year with Paybak's "Things U Do," and this year with "Trust Nobody." He promises that the artist's new single, "Got Mine," will be released by a major label and "will be in the Top 10, guaranteed."
Before generating airplay, a potential hip-hop hit nearly always gets its start, in the immortal words of 50 Cent, in da club.
"In order for you to win, you have to tackle the streets and have the streets behind you," says DJ Kaos, who plays whatever he pleases every Saturday night at the Monastery in East St. Louis. "Because if I go to the clubs, and I hear my guy playing something at Club Casino, and then I go over to Club Rio, then to the Palace, then to the Royal Palace, and the DJ's playing this new record from some local guy, I'm like, 'What's that? Who's that?' Especially if I see the crowd into it. That means that this DJ has been playing the record in the clubs and the club is on it, and I'll take it one step further and play it on the radio." (Kaos' weekly gig at the Monastery was the subject of "Crunk and Disorderly," a January 22 Riverfront Times cover story.)
The best way to get into regular rotation on the stations, all agree, is to work the mix shows -- extended daily music shows that are the closest things to free-form radio on the dial. Mixers work the old-school way, with turntables and twelve-inches, spinning the hits and mixing in new cuts. Mixers have much more leeway to push something new or obscure, and they can launch a hit. If you can get Q-95.5's C-Note, Charlie Chan or DJ Snow or the Beat's DJ AJ, DJ Cue or DJ Cutty to take a chance, a song's on its way. If it gets response, the program director will take note. The Allstars, a local crew that's hitting right now with "So Serious," did it this way, as did Ragdoll's Paybak.
"You gotta work the mixers, the programmers, you gotta work everybody," says Ragdoll's Williams. "And a lot of these guys are out in the streets every day seeing what record is working, and evaluating. You have to go from a mix-show list to a programming list. Phone calls, stopping by, making sure when they're in the clubs they realize your record is playing, your record is working. No programmer's going to take a chance on something just to take a chance. Everybody wants to be the first to say, 'Hey, I was the first one playing the new Chingy record and now this Chingy record is number-one in America.' Everybody wants to say they were the first person playing the record when nobody else played it."
Chingy, actually, was an exception to the rule. Contrary to popular assumption, St. Louis' newest number one didn't land his deal with Atlanta rapper Ludacris's Disturbing tha Peace label based on local radio exposure. "It didn't happen the way that most records hit, which come in from the street level and we start spinning it and the next thing you know one or two stations are playing it. This was already a done deal," says the Beat's Chuck Atkins. Chingy, Atkins explains, impressed DTP label heads when he opened for Nelly during a national tour. "I've never seen it happen that way before," Atkins says. "It breaks that old rule that, 'Oh, you gotta play it here first.'"
Regardless, for local rappers, having two hip-hop stations in one market is a definite plus, says Ragdoll's Williams. "I think the healthy competition has opened the doors for a lot of people in St. Louis right now, because in competing with each other, the only real edge is who breaks a new record. It also makes the opportunity for independents bigger, because when it's just one station, a lot of times if they don't mess with you, you don't have a chance. If there are multiple stations and one breaks it out and the other one may not have liked it, if it's researching well you get a shot of both."
J.D. Hate, CEO of local label Mo Dirty Records, concurs. Hate achieved moderate success with Hard Knox, which landed in rotation on both stations, and he continues to work to keep the group on local playlists. "The independent scene here is really, really hard," he says. "Everybody and their mama rap, so it ain't like it's an open hole and you're just going to get in."
Tony J. is cruising down Delmar, top down on his convertible Geo Metro. Every few hundred yards, somebody bellows "Hey, Tony J.!" and he hollers back. He's got a Jerry Lewis kind of scream (if Lewis had been born black), which you'd recognize if you've heard him on the radio during his "Traffic" segment on Q-95.5.
Once you've heard Tony J., all other traffic updates pale. Sometimes he sings it -- "Car's got a flat tire/At 270 and Page/And there's a big slowdown/Across the Poplar Street Bridge!" Sometimes he raps it. He's done it completely in falsetto. He's stretched the word traffic across fifteen seconds: "Tra-ah-aaah-yah-yah-yaaah-fih-fih-fuh-fuh-fick!"
And if you've seen him cruising recently, you wouldn't forget that, either. His Geo rides low, with chrome hubcaps, thick tires and a swank paint job, and it's wrapped in advertisements for his various endeavors. Tony J. (given name: Johnson) got local label No Loot Records to pony up for the wrap; that logo, along with one of No Loot's acts, decorates the Metro's hood. Most prominent, however, are the words "Traffic with Tony J.," which stretch along both sides. That and the "Traffic with Tony J." old-school trucker's hat he's wearing (and marketing).
On the streets Tony J. is a celebrity. "These communities, man, they love the radio. They love the media," says Tony, who, in addition to his "Traffic" duties, localizes the syndicated Russ Parr Morning Show and is also one-third of an afternoon drive-time trio rounded out by Craig Blac and Charlie Chan. "It ain't nothing to go to the city of Wellston if I've got this little car, and they love 'Traffic.' The chief of police loves the 'Traffic' report! That's crazy. That's crazy to me!"
Out on the streets is where Q-95.5 and the Beat work overtime to get in the faces of as many potential listeners as possible. Both stations cruise their vans around the city as driving billboards, sponsor endless functions and face off against one another at neutral events like record-release parties.
Wes Allmond runs the St. Louis office of Ch'rewd Marketing, a promotions company that works to get music played on Q-95.5 and the Beat. Allmond, who often accompanies artists when they come to town for promotional events, witnesses the competition firsthand. "You won't hear the competitiveness on the air," he observes. "But the people that really take it to the next level are the promotions departments. It gets ugly."
As an example, Allmond cites Nelly's record release party for Nellyville, held at Streetside Records on Delmar. "Last year at that Nelly thing, oh my God. I've seen the stations' promotions departments get into -- never physical, but yelling matches. I've seen both promotions departments tear each other's banners down. It's ridiculous on the street. Because they're both fighting for that street credibility."
The rivalry reached a fever pitch the last time 50 Cent, currently hip-hop's most popular artist, came to town. Immediately after the appearance was announced this past winter, Allmond's phone lit up. "'Hey, what's going on with 50 Cent? Are we going to get him?' Both stations want to know: 'Is 50 Cent going to come in and do an interview on my station? Is he coming to my station first?' Both stations want the artist first, if it's a big name. 'Come to my station first. If you're not coming to my station first, we're going to drop your record.'"
Q-95.5 and the Beat each claim to be on top, with the other self-consciously close behind. "We notice when we add records, the records get added over there," crows Q-95.5 general manager Dave Ervin. "We're impressed that they assume that we're right. But at the end of the day, we don't want to follow. We want to lead. We think that that's one of the keys to Q-95.5's virtual overnight success. We notice that if we tune in to the competitor, they spend a good deal of time copying what we do, so if we monitor them, we find that we're not learning anything new."
Chuck Atkins of the Beat one-ups his adversary's bravado with a taunt of his own. "To be honest, technically there's only room for one," he declares. "You can look at it and say, 'Yeah, we have competition,' and two stations playing hip-hop music do exist right now. But only one of them is making money. This is about business. Radio, and music, and all the stuff we get into is entertainment, it's fun, it's show business, but at the same time, it's somebody else's business. This is Clear Channel, you know? And there ain't no room being the third urban in any market, there's no money there," Atkins concludes, relegating Q-95.5 to bronze status behind Clear Channel's Magic 105 FM, which offers a less hip-hop-centric format called adult urban.
"I'm rather shocked at Chuck's lack of confidence in the hip-hop format. I admit to being surprised that his station is not making money," Ervin retorts. "Q-95.5 is delivering a handsome profit to Radio One. Hip-hop is now bigger than rock & roll, and as such is supporting two, if not three, stations in markets all over the country. Perhaps Q-95.5's personality approach to hip-hop is more attractive to advertisers."
Neither honcho will get specific about his station's bottom line, but revenue information the stations supplied earlier this year to the St. Louis Business Journal put Q-95.5's 2002 gross revenues at $2.45 million and the Beat's at $4 million, although those numbers don't indicate the stations' profitability. (The local FM station with the largest estimated 2002 gross revenue was adult-contemporary KEZK, with $13.5 million, according to the Business Journal's published figures.)
The dollars and cents and the word bombs lobbed by the businessmen mean squat to J-Nicks and DJ Kaos. Each claims to respect the other; Kaos says he and Nicks talk on the phone and occasionally meet for dinner. "People think him and I have some kind of vendetta against one another, but it's not like that," Kaos says. "Jay is my boy, Jay is cool people. He looks to me like an older brother sometimes. I just talked to him last night."
Says Nicks: "I don't really look at it as competition, and it's not that serious to me. Even though it's good, and I like to compete, there's more things I want to do. And so I'm not going to base my life on what they're doing over there. I'm going to do it to the best of my ability and I think, overall, the best man is going to shine. And it's like, we're fighting for ratings or whatnot, but people have their favorite radio personalities that might necessarily carry the station. You might like Craig Blac, so you don't listen to any other station, you only listen when Craig Blac's on. You might love J-Nicks, and just listen to the radio when J-Nicks is on."