Reimagining the Role of Rap Radio

Reimagining the Role of Rap Radio

Mic Drop is a recurring series featuring the thoughts and opinions of some of the biggest voices in classic Hip-Hop. Raw, uncut — and in their own words — these are the gems you've always wanted.


Hip-Hop had to fight to get here. There was a point in time when there was so much of a divide that radio stations would say “We’re having a ‘No Rap Workday.’” They wanted to put us in just the “rap show” like “Friday Night Future Flavors” and “The Street Beat With Lady B.” Then you’d get the stations like KDAY in Los Angeles that just started playing Hip-Hop all day long, and it became the biggest station in L.A. And that’s what forced people to recognize they couldn’t really deny it.

And it wasn’t just going on in radio. DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince would do these KMEL Summer Jams and we’d be the only rap group. We’re doing this shit with The Pointer Sisters and Kool & The Gang. And, no disrespect to them, but we would blow them off the stage. They’ve got full bands and they’re trying to sing “Celebration.” Will and I are going out there doing “Nightmare On My Street” and “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and telling everybody to “throw ya hands in the air!” You couldn’t match that energy. But we felt like we had to go extra hard because they were pushing extra hard in the opposite direction. A lot of those R&B acts would look at us and turn their nose up. “What the fuck are you doing on this show?” A lot of people still believed Hip-Hop wasn’t going to last, even by that point.

And you take that shit personal because you’re talking about my career. You’re talking about what I do. And it makes you fight harder.

It was a very weird time. We weren’t even thinking about the pop stations, I just wanted to be on the Black stations.  You’re trying to be on WVAS in Philly. I wanted to be on WBLS in New York. You wanted to be on V-103 in Atlanta. And don’t put me on at 9pm on a Friday on a mix show – I want Tom Joyner to play my shit. It’s amazing to think about us being there then, and now, I turn on the radio and I’m fighting to hear an R&B song! We definitely won that war! But there's still a fight. 

I remember feeling some kind of a way when people found out BET had a limit; like, they won't play older artists. I don't care how big a record LL COOL J came out with, there came a time when BET just said they won't play it. And I could understand — if we had four different BETs and one of them was "BET Classic." But you're "Black Entertainment Television" saying you're not going to play older Black artists?

I went to Will in the early 2000s and I said “Listen, I want to sit down and have a conversation with Cathy Hughes who runs Radio One because I have an idea. I want to see if I can program about 20 stations in the country. I don’t want to DJ. I just want her to let me program these stations for six months. And let’s just see what happens with these stations.”

I go around the world and I DJ; and the way that I play is, I’ll play The Jackson 5’s “ABC” and right behind that, I’ll play Naughty By Nature’s “O.P.P.” Because it’s the same song. And people understand the correlation.

In the early 00s, Hip-Hop had gotten to a point where we had 30 year-olds who loved Hip-Hop. This was back then. Hip-Hop got to a point where the Adult Contemporary station can’t say “We don’t play Hip-Hop” anymore because there’s “Adult Contemporary” Hip-Hop. So I wanted to fuse these worlds together. And the reason why I know it works is because I do it every day live. I do it in front of people and see the reaction. So I know if I do this on a radio station in Atlanta, I know people will be like “Ohmigod, did you hear how this radio station played LL’s ‘Around the Way Girl’ and they played the Mary Jane Girls’ ‘All Night Long?’ It’s all kind of mixed together!”

But it got to a point where I realized — if I did that, I was on my way to never deejaying anymore, having a suit and tie on. And I was going to be flying all around the country, programming radio stations. And that’s not what I wanted to do. But in the early 2000s, I saw this problem. This is a problem. Like, no. Why were we in the year 2000 talking about “No Rap Workdays?” When “Rapper’s Delight” came out in 1979? The people who listened to “Rapper’s Delight” are the Adult Contemporary audience.

I ask people: do you think Rakim can’t rap anymore? Rakim isn’t rapping because he doesn’t have a home. These artists didn’t just all of a sudden become untalented. The reason why Salt-N-Pepa haven’t made a new record is because, before, when Salt-N-Pepa made a new record, they had a location that would be a home for people to hear their new record. Right now, if Kid ‘n Play did a new record, where are you gonna hear it? If Bon Jovi makes a new record, they’ve got a place to play their shit.

There was a specific moment when I realized it. My son was visiting me when Will and Jada hosted the BET Awards and the Fugees performed. And I remember being in my living room, jumping up and down like “It’s Wyclef, Pras and Lauryn! It’s the Fugees!” And I looked over at my son and when I looked at his face — he couldn’t care less. And I stopped for a second and said “Wow.” So when the Fugees drop their new record, BET won’t play it, because they’re “too old.” The number one station in the city is not going to play it because that’s my son’s station now. He doesn’t care about the Fugees, I do. So what do I have? What station belongs to me now? WBLS? The one that says “We don’t play rap music?” This is crazy. So why would the Fugees ever make a record? Why would A Tribe Called Quest ever make another record?

I know that played a factor into whether Will and I would go back into the studio.

Because it’s kind of like, we used to make music and we’d go to the radio station and they’d play it. You’d go to the video show and they’d play it. We make some shit now, and we’re sitting there trying to beg somebody to play it. We’ve got to do something about the structure.

That’s why I was really happy when somebody like LL COOL J jumped in on Rock The Bells. Because it’s time. It’s time for Jay-Z to own TIDAL. It’s time for LL to be in charge of Rock The Bells Radio. We are in the position where we should take the role of elder statesmen. And if you’re not going to support our generation and our contributions, then we’ve got to do it ourselves.

I’m relishing the fact that people in my age demographic are in positions of power. I was doing a bunch of corporate parties and at first I couldn’t understand why; until the president of the company would come up and say “’Parents Just Don’t Understand’ was my first tape.” They’re running the companies now. And they’re saying “This is what I grew up on. So that’s what I want.”



* HEADER CREDIT: DJ Jazzy Jeff performs on stage at St Stephens Basilica Square on September 25, 2019 in Budapest, Hungary. (Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures)

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