Buried within last week's feature on Nelly (who, by the by, debuted in the awe-inspiring No. 3 position on the Billboard album charts last week, just behind perennial chart-toppers Eminem and Britney Spears [!]), was an unexplored little nugget that deserves closer examination: "Unlike St. Louis rock radio, the fare on the two local hip-hop stations (100.3 FM, The Beat, and the new Q95 FM) is a goddamn hoot."
It may surprise some that there are now two local hip-hop stations when, just a few years ago, there wasn't really even one. With the arrival of Q95 (95.5 FM) and the existence of the Beat, the race for the almighty hip-hop dollar is on.
Seldom do we think about commercial radio around here, because it's usually so uniformly predictable and boring. But something magical's happening right now in the hip-hop world, and it's being reflected on the dial. As a result, the hip-hop stations are shining (if only they'd lay off the "quiet storm" R&B crap).
For a few years there, the Beat had it made. They were manning the engine of a gravy train. With no competitors save sister station Majic 105 (both are owned by the nation's largest radio-station conglomerate, Clear Channel Communications, which recently purchased SFX Corp., owner of this city's biggest music promoter, Contemporary Productions, owner of Riverport Amphitheater and the American Theatre -- you got all that?), the Beat could coast along with virtually no competition -- and did, which was fine because the station was, and still is, a decent reflection of the hip-hop and R&B marketplace. The Beat uses a combination of local and national talent, programming great mix shows that allow the mixologists freedom to go out on a limb and spin the good stuff (especially DJ Needles' phenomenal Saturday-night mix show and DJ Kut's great afternoon vibes) and play some choice music. And until a few months ago, The Beat was the only game in town.
A few years back, though, a company based in Washington, D.C., called Radio One bought 95.5 and moved its antenna to Fairmont, Ill., a choice spot from which to beam the station's signal straight into North St. Louis and North County. After a two-year process, the newly christened Q95 started broadcasting R&B and hip-hop. All of a sudden, there was competition.
Chuck Atkins, The Beat's program director, seems calm about the impending battle: "It's not a surprise; we anticipated that it would happen one day. It looks as if we had the market cornered, but that's not true. It's a free country. You can flip a format at any time, day or night. We have enjoyed competing with ourselves for a number of years, but it's boring doing it like that. It's like when Michael Jackson did Thriller. The only thing you can do now is beat your last project. And that's the way it's been with our ratings and numbers. We've done extremely well, but you don't know how good you are until you have somebody right in your face doing it. It makes you listen to your radio station more; it gets me in to work earlier; I stay later; it charges up the staff. For the most part, my staff's got a spark up their butts. They're ready to rock and roll."
So now there are two. Who cares? It's commercial radio, and these stations go to where the cash flows.
It is interesting, for one simple reason: Clear Channel's a monster corporation, huge and all-consuming; it owns hundreds of stations nationwide. Radio One is, relatively speaking, a tiny company, owning just 13 stations across the country. It is, however, an African-American-owned company, a fact that can't hurt the station when rap and R&B listeners are punching in presets. "Somebody else told me that that would be a huge plus for the St. Louis market," says Q95 program director Mike Fox. "I haven't figured out totally how to market it, because, of course, I don't want to alienate the white and Hispanic listeners. I had the same scenario in Philadelphia, where we had a great percentage of white and Hispanic listeners, and you wonder, if you say that, do they take offense? Some do, some don't, some don't care. It's about being very practical, figuring out ways of saying that in a practical way."
For his part, Atkins is unfazed by the ownership. "The only thing that's important is what's coming out of the speaker. That's the bottom line. The consumer is going to look at that and make an evaluation as to whether it can be their favorite station or not."
Q95 is still in its formative phase; they've yet to begin broadcasting commercials or introduce on-air personalities (and would that they'd never have to!), so it's pretty much a nonstop mix peppered with station IDs and a few teasers. The Beat is running smoothly, ignoring the competition and programming what it always has. ("We don't have a competitor," jabs Atkins, "we have a jukebox over there. We'll have a competitor when they equal the playing field by getting announcers and commercials. That's a real radio station. You can't fight a jukebox -- but even a jukebox gets old after a while, too.") At this early stage, it's nearly impossible to tell any difference between the two stations during regular programming hours; you'll still hear Nelly, Common, Aaliyah and Destiny's Child nearly every hour, on the hour, and in this sense we're hoping to see more adventure, though we're not holding our breath. All indications are that, like every damned commercial-radio station in America, like The Beat, Q95 will strictly follow a playlist dictated by national trade magazines and consultants, pound great songs into the ground by overplaying them and seldom surprise listeners. That said, a few things PD Mike Fox has said bode well for the Q95's future:
On adding local hip-hop acts to the rotation: "We'll have an extremely open-door policy. And you gotta give props to The Beat for doing it. I'm a big advocate -- I'm a DJ by trade. I started a mix show in college, and I'm a programmer who has more of a DJ frame of mind. I've done remixes for record companies, so I'm really big on helping local artists, as long as the artists have a buzz within their own city, as long as they show that they're also committed to their product from the standpoint of doing very well at mom-and-pop record stores and things like that." The station is also searching locally for on-air mix DJs.
But neither revelation is earthshaking. The Beat has long supported local rap -- though we wish they'd do more. Nelly and the St. Lunatics owe much of their breakout success to the fact that The Beat added Lunatics singles to the regular rotation when they were nobodies, and the station's support of local on-air DJs is well documented.
The end result is that the listener wins. Every time a soft, predictable R&B ballad comes on one station, all you gotta do is hit the button, and chances are the other station will be banging the beat. "It's good for the consumer," says Atkins. "If you're only listening to one station, or reading one paper, and then you get a choice, now you get to see how good that one really is. My job is to have the most compelling product and the No. 1 radio station. When the smoke clears, I will be in that position -- ain't no doubt."
It's gonna be an interesting summer on the radio.
LOT OF LOVE: Metropolis has long supported the local music scene; whenever they hold some sort of function, you can rest assured that a decent -- or at least popular -- local band will be performing, and the result has been the sort of cooperation that leads to true grassroots rejuvenation on a number of levels. Metropolis' biggest and best contribution to local music, though, has come in the form of the admirable series of outdoor concerts known as The Lot. This season's installment, the sixth, is the biggest and most impressive yet, featuring two days of music by some of the most interesting acts out there. It takes place Friday and Saturday, July 14 and 15, at the empty lot at 16th and Locust streets. Friday's performances, which begin at 5 p.m. and run through 1 a.m., feature music by John Thomas and Friends, Languid, the Patsies, the Outsiders, Blues DeVille, the Tripdaddys and Simple Mary's Diary. Saturday's party starts at noon and features music by three gospel choirs, the Julia Sets, Jerkwater Junction, Voodoo Mouse, DJs K9 and Jumpstart, Five Block Shot, Mahogany, the Honkeys, the Patrick Clark Band, the Imposters, Javier Mendoza and Sexicolor.
Send local tapes, tips, discs and detritus to "Radar Station," c/o The Riverfront Times, 6358 Delmar Blvd., Suite 200, St. Louis, MO 63130; or firstname.lastname@example.org.