Thirty some years ago, James Gates Sr. (a.k.a. "Gentleman" Jim Gates) dropped the needle on Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" and became one of the first DJs in the world to play hip-hop on the radio. Today, he's still pulling in listeners to his evening show on WFUN (95.5 FM) by keeping old-school radio alive, playing what the people want and trusting his well-trained ear. This month, he'll be inducted into the St. Louis Radio Hall of Fame. He took a few minutes to talk about this honor, how radio has changed and knowing a hit when he hears one.
B-Sides: You're often credited as being the first DJ to ever play hip-hop on the radio. Was this a conscious decision?
Gates: Hip-hop wasn't even labeled as hip-hop. I think the people in New York City labeled it as hip-hop. That type of music — a lot of copying of old tracks but putting new lyrics over it — was [eventually called] hip-hop.
We didn't make any conscious decision; it was just a new record that everybody liked.
What radio station were you working at at the time?
WESL East St. Louis, the Sister Sound.
What made you want to be a DJ?
Back in the late '50s I was in high school, and I was a music buff. Radio used to go off at certain times at night, usually at twelve o'clock. And I would be the only one in the house up listening to the radio when it went off the air. Every night I'd do that. I heard music, and a lot of times I knew what the hit records were [before they were hits]. When I was listening, I would wait for those. It just stuck with me.
Having been a DJ for so many years, how have you witnessed radio change? In what ways has it gotten better, worse?
Radio really hasn't changed, because the audience basically is what drives radio. There are a lot of folks who think they can control it. The audience stops that. They'll try to manipulate the sound and try to confuse the audience. You can't force a sound on them. They used to try to do that in the old payola days. You can't pay for a hit. You're not gonna go buy a record because you keep hearing it over and over.
I've had people ask me, "How come your ratings are always high?" I say, "Well, my folks aren't dead. Good is good." But also, you have to kinda grow with your audience. You have to know what they're into. You have to know how to balance that, especially in radio. I listen to about twenty radio stations every two weeks around the country on the computer. You'll hear some that have gone completely mad about Facebook. They can't give you the weather without saying, "Will you please hit me on Facebook and tell me what you think about the temperature?" That's ridiculous. You see it every day, people begging you to call them or Facebook them about something that's average. Something that you should know the answer to. Me, I don't wanna ruin your listening to my radio show by incurring into your brain every day about Facebook. I can't kill it, because that's what's happening today. But I'm not gonna make my show the Facebook show. I won't deal with it.
By the way, my numbers are [highest] at my radio station, Foxy 95.5, and I'm the oldest guy there. [RFT was unable to verify this with the station before press time.]
You'll be inducted into the St. Louis Radio Hall of Fame this May, solidifying your status as a St. Louis radio legend. What would you like your legacy to be?
You can't buy awards, right? I always tell people you'll never find out in my history that I stepped on somebody's neck to get taller. I can't do that. I won't do that. I always make sure that every December 31, I can look over my shoulder and know that if anybody called my name in public, I would stop what I was doing and say, "Can I help you?" I will never say, "Hey, I ain't got time."
I want to acknowledge that this is the first time in my career that I've gotten four awards since January. I've never done that before, and it's crazy. I appreciate that. I've got to thank the people at Radio One who allowed me to work there 34 years ago: Cathy Hughes, Alfred Liggins [formerly of Radio One] and Chris [Wegmann, general manager at 95.5].