It’s a cliché now, the joke about the out-of-it white guy attempting to do a “black thing” like jumping in basketball, having a sense of rhythm, or talking in street slang. Ha-ha, look at the funny honky tryin’ to be down. We’ve seen so much of this stuff — and yep, it’s always funny! — that we forget that it all started with one man; a man who not only stole from black music but, far worse, he stole from black music and then sucked. Yep, we’re talking about Pat Boone, the whitest white man of them all, who stood in front of the TV cameras in his pastel cardigan, snapping his fingers and singing Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” as if it were an offering of strawberry ice cream for the Lord Jesus Christ rather than a metaphor for getting pussy.
That, of course, was a long time ago, when radio was as racially stratified as the South, and DJs wouldn’t play black artists on white stations. Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” only reached No. 21 on the Billboard charts, but Boone’s version hit the No. 12 slot and a whole lot more ears.
It took Elvis to bridge the gap between white radio programmers and black rock ‘n’ roll. After Presley came along, listeners clamored for more such music, and that meant adding black performers to the roster. Well, we haven’t exactly come a long way, baby. Now we’re at an eerie crossroads that is suspiciously like February of ’56, when the “Tutti Frutti” war was in full swing, and believe it or not, Eminem, as he blurts out in his big hit “Without Me,” really is hip-hop’s Elvis Presley.
Take a look at KITS, aka Live 105, the Bay Area alternative radio giant that plays stuff like Linkin Park, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Jimmy Eat World. “Without Me” is number three on the station’s playlist. “Alternative” kids have been listening to hip-hop for years, so it makes sense that Live 105 would finally add the genre to its roster. But Eminem? He’s a Dr. Dre-produced Top 40 wunderkind, miles from the Beastie Boys, that other “backpack” hip-hop group KITS has supported. Hmm … wonder what the connection is? Oh, wait, they’re all white! Could it be that in 2002 radio is almost as segregated as it was in the middle of the last century?
“Racial politics are alive and well in the music business in a major, major way,” says longtime local DJ Davey D, who, despite recently getting dumped from his popular KMEL radio show after Clear Channel took over the station, continues to be the eyes, ears, nose, and throat of people of color in Oakland. “The result is that everybody is two-dimensionalized and they are put into little boxes, and that’s why you hear what you hear.”
“It’s such bullshit,” concurs another Oakland mouthpiece, Hip-Hop Slam label owner Billy Jam, who has spun records for both commercial and noncommercial Bay Area stations. “They don’t listen to the music, they look at the people. Occasionally they will play some black artists that play white music — like sometimes in punk groups there’s a black drummer,” he says with a laugh. “It’s very ironic.”
Sean Demery, the spunky new program director of Live 105, scoffs at any notion of a vast radio conspiracy to keep black artists off white airwaves. He and his coworkers sit down and listen to the music, he says; they pick the songs they like a lot and hope that other people will like them too. “This argument sounds like something you would say if you were trying to be politically correct,” he points out good-naturedly. “Skin color really has nothing to do with it.”
Demery is candid enough to admit that being white shapes the tastes and perspectives he brings to the job, but he’s certainly not a narrow-minded bigot. But it’s not as simple as a couple of guys sitting around a table deciding what to play, either. Radio is among the most convoluted marketing machines out there, save Enron. For instance, Salon recently ran a series of pieces on “independent promoters” or “indies,” middlemen who collect fees from record labels — some call it “payola” — and then pay radio stations to put the labels’ songs on the air. All of which flirts with illegality.
While Demery says his station doesn’t use indies, KITS is owned by Infinity, which is in turn owned by media megagiant Viacom, which owns MTV. However altruistic Demery’s goals for his station, he’s still part of a gigantic labyrinth of revenues and profits, a fact he has no problem poking fun at: “We do market research like most big-time, corporate-pig radio stations,” he laughs. “But we don’t really use it very much.”
Davey D is skeptical. “It’s pretty commonplace that when you are talking about music, you’re talking about marketing, profiling, and segregation on the basis of race,” he says. “Radio stations are corporations and these corporations are all about the bottom line, and it ultimately boils down to race, even though a station will usually say that it’s by their target audience and listenership. That’s how [demographic ratings firm] Arbitron separates it: ‘We have X percent of blacks, X percent of whites, X percent of Latinos.’ That’s how the whole game gets played.”
He may have a point. Though Demery says the artist’s race isn’t factored into the mix, he all but acknowledges that the essential reason KITS added hip-hop was that more and more white kids were interested in it. “This station is becoming a mishmash between electronica, alternative, some new rock, and backpack hip-hop. That’s where it’s going, because that’s what’s on the street now. If you go out to Concord, you can see it. You can see it in the clothing statements, you see white kids in their baggies, just like they were seven or eight years ago — it’s just become more prevalent to the point where it’s mass appeal now.”
And therein lies the relationship between Elvis and Eminem: The “alternative” kids are clamoring for hip-hop, and that’s what Demery’s gonna give them, just as white programmers started spinning black rock ‘n’ roll after Presley came through town. It’s even possible we’ll eventually have a complete racial mix on every channel, with System of a Down right next to Outkast. Within the last week, Live 105 added NERD — African-American hip-hop, imagine that — to its roster. “All of a sudden this ghetto music is appealing to white kids en masse,” says Davey D. “So stations have to go and suddenly reverse the perceptions that they put out there about race.”
You’d think someone like Davey D would welcome a new era of multicultural programming, but he foresees problems. “People of color will still be on the real short end of the stick,” he says. The DJ cites the departments within big labels that market to radio stations. Most are broken down by race, with “black” departments and “pop” departments. But when these lines get blurred, says D, guess who gets the boot? “The guy from pop suddenly finds himself working Eminem on both urban stations and Top 40s, so why would we need a black music department? A lot of black music departments have already been Xed out or dwindled down, and that’s that,” he says.
But wait a minute, what’s better, being totally segregated by race, or blurring the color lines and losing some black-music marketing departments? “If I have white kids listening to my music,” says D, “and I can show those numbers, black audiences are pretty much irrelevant.”
So, according to Davey D, the more things become integrated the worse they actually become for people of color. It’s like desegregation in the South, when black children were suddenly thrust into white schools and given less attention, less expectations, and less hope.
All this is not to whitewash (har-har) KMEL, the “urban” (read: “black,” says Davey D) radio station that also seems to be racially biased. It plays tons and tons of African-American hip-hop, but little or no Eminem. Sure, you’ll see him on the station’s online playlist, crouching somewhere around number 25, though the song listed isn’t “Without Me,” but “Cleaning Out My Closet,” another song from his new record. But actually listen to the station on and off for two weeks and you won’t hear nuttin’ from the Aryan Contrarian. Davey D explains that, at least when he worked at KMEL, playlists were simply for show and didn’t reflect what was actually spun, which might explain why this avid listener has never once heard Eminem on KMEL. Representatives from KMEL and its parent company, Clear Channel, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
So what’s more blatant, a hip-hop radio station ignoring Eminem, or an alt-rock station deciding to add hip-hop, but only stuff it thinks white kids will like? Sheesh.
Demery views his station’s crossover as a positive thing. “The fact of the matter is that music has always been the bridge between races,” he says. “It’s been one of the great homogenizers, thank God.”
He’s absolutely right — music is a great racial bridge. Too bad radio isn’t.