The Apeshit Revolution

Bay Area hip-hop is finally back on the radio, but not always where you'd expect.

So why is Bay Area urban radio playing only some of the “apeshit” local records? And how did our alternative rock station become a hip-hop tastemaker?

First off, it seems a little odd that SF’s Live 105 would be all over Lyrics Born’s “Callin’ Out” — the anthemic, funky little ditty that starts out People, are you read-y? Let’s start the show — while KMEL, still the region’s #1 rap station, has ignored it.

In fact, “Callin’ Out” was Live 105’s most requested song for four weeks running in late August and early September, which LB proudly insists “wasn’t an accident.” But he also admits he’s never gotten this much attention from commercial radio before, eleven years into his career. As for the irony of an alt-rock station granting the rapper his mainstream breakthrough, Born relates an eye-opening claim Live 105’s program director once made: The station spun Outkast’s “Hey Ya” several hundred times before the bay’s urban stations spun it even once.

Indeed, Aaron Axelsen, a Live 105 DJ and music director, insists his station was up on “Hey Ya” before KMEL or Wild 94.9 took notice. Not only that, but the station has another killer hip-hop track entirely to itself. After enjoying previous success with artists such as DJ Shadow, Deltron 3030, RJD2, N*E*R*D, and Blackalicious, Axelsen decided to take a chance on Lyrics Born as well, dropping “Callin’ Out” into regular rotation after debuting the tune on his Saturday night mix show, Subsonic.

“You’re always gonna have one defining record to break down the door,” Axelsen explains. “Lyrics Born is that record for us.” He notes that the song has performed extremely well with the younger end of Live 105’s demographic — the 18-to-26-year-olds, who Axelsen says are more “open-minded” than the fortysomething Cure fans at the other end of the spectrum.

So the success of “Callin’ Out” has done wonders for LB, but it’s equally important for a station trying to expand its range and appeal. “Records out there with hip-hop sensibilities that are palatable in the alternative world, those are important records,” Axelsen says. Every now and then, “You get the right record, the song that can transcend” genre limitations and be embraced by “the average kid from Concord” who tunes in expecting to hear the Strokes and Franz Ferdinand.

Though he admits “the hip-hop world is so huge, it dwarfs rock music,” don’t look for Axelsen to turn Live 105 into another KMEL. “I’m not gonna win playing Usher,” he confesses. “You don’t go to McDonald’s for a taco and some curry.” But ultimately, “‘Callin’ Out’ was a hit song that I couldn’t believe no one else was playing in this market.”

That’s especially true now, when for the first time in years, the bay’s hip-hop stations are regularly bumping local artists. After the fall of upstart Power 92.7 — which, as an Express cover story recently noted, abruptly reformatted itself as the dance music outpost Energy 92.7 — KMEL and its sister station Wild 94.9 once again stand unchallenged at the top of the Bay Area urban radio field.

Lyrics Born says Power’s sudden demise was a “shocking” turn of events. Nevertheless, “Myself being a local artist, it was good to hear the three urban stations driving each other to play local stuff,” he says. “It really gave the Bay Area a shot in the arm, and I think it’s really invigorated the whole music scene. Finally, local people, they feel like their music is validated now. And you can see that once you play it on the radio, people respond, people request it. It only makes sense.”

Oakland mixtape king Balance — part of the self-proclaimed “New Bay” movement, along with the Frontline, the Federation, Turf Talk, San Quinn, Keak da Sneak, Mistah F.A.B., and others — admits that a few years ago, hardly anyone was being validated. “A lot of artists were like, ‘Fuck the radio,’ ’cause they didn’t play none of our shit.” Back in 2002, Balance remembers hopping in a car with the Frontline and driving almost five hundred miles to Los Angeles to freestyle on The Wake Up Show just to get some shine on KMEL (which syndicates the program). “That was probably the only way that we could get on the radio at the time,” he recalls.

Though Power’s emergence played a role in this renaissance, artists, radio executives, and DJs alike agree on another, more prominent factor. “The quality of the music wasn’t there back then like it is now,” former KMEL mix-show jock Rob Reyes says. Indeed, the thugged-out Yay Area contingent regrouped after years of decline, upping their tempos, upgrading their beats, and raising the intensity level, tinkering with the mobb music template and making it definitively hyphy. DJ Sake One of Local 1200 adds that the artists created buzz on the street, which in turn demanded radio play: “Keak da Sneak’s popularity has given radio no choice but to play him.”

“If the people wanna hear it, they gon’ hear it, and they gonna request it,” reasons Left of the Frontline, one of the underground groups that has benefited the most from the recent radio wars, landing in rotation on both Power and KMEL and perhaps becoming the first Richmond group ever invited to play at the station’s famous Summer Jam. Still, Left’s partner in rhyme Locksmith adds that “This buzz has been an ongoing process. It’s not something that just happened within a year. It’s always started with the streets, it’s always started with the clubs, it’s always started with the DJs. If they’re not respecting you, and you can’t get their attention, then radio play doesn’t mean that much.”

Whatever the cause, KMEL music director “Big Von” Johnson admits some local records are outperforming better-known national hits: “I could play Jay-Z’s ‘Give It to Me,’ but ‘Give It to Me’ is not hotter than ‘Go Dumb’ right now.” Johnson says he’s been able to get behind the current crop of local hits because listener response is off the hook, the chain, and the Richter. “These records are apeshit records,” he swears.

“I think they’re pretty smart,” Balance says of KMEL’s decision to play more local stuff. Yet he isn’t one to get caught up in the hype — after all, his own music hasn’t gotten many spins, despite his buzz on the boulevards and avenues. KMEL has changed its slogan — it’s now the “Bay Area’s home for hip-hop and R&B” — but Balance doesn’t feel the long-waged KMEL vs. Local Artists War is all good now just because some of his homies are finally getting regular airplay.

Balance points to a certain formula locally rotated tracks all share. For example, most Bay Area tunes you’ll hear on KMEL have either Rick Rock or Ea-Ski production behind them. Indeed, Rock’s beats elevated the Federation’s “Hyphy” and “Go Dumb” — as well as Keak da Sneak’s “White T-Shirt, Jeans & Nikes” — to the top of the on-air food chain, as did Ski’s work on the Frontline’s “What Is It” and his own “Ride.” Nepotism is also part of the game: E-40’s years of grit and grind building up both his rep and his listening base paid off big for his cousin Turf Talk, whose local radio hit “Slumper” was not only produced by Rick Rock, but features a guest verse from — guess who? — E-Feezy himself.

So even with all this increased airplay, who isn’t getting played on urban radio these days? Here’s what you won’t hear on KMEL’s airwaves: so-called “backpack” and alt.rappers, scratch-happy turntablists, jazz-hop collectives, explicit political and/or social commentary, or songs that respect the ladies. Numerous Bay Area artists with equally bumpin’ material haven’t earned spins on either of Clear Channel’s two urban stations: Zion-I, Crown City Rockers, the Gift of Gab, Azeem, DJ Zeph, Hieroglyphics, and the Coup come immediately to mind.

So whatcha sayin’? Are the “apeshit” records jamming on KMEL and Live 105 right now the only local songs worthy of airplay? In the aftermath of this renaissance, LB hopes the momentum generated by all the local radio-activity will continue to build, and listeners (for once) hold the key. “A program director can add your song and they’ll give you a minimum of spins,” he says. “But to really get into rotation, it’s because people reached out, they e-mailed, they called, they requested it. Every other region in the country does that. I go to Atlanta, turn it on, I hear a bunch of artists I’ve never heard in my life, know what I mean? Because they’re playing stuff from their region. People want to hear people from their area. And when you play people from your area, your ratings go up, and people do not turn the dial. And in the radio game, that’s what it’s all about.”

Now that the winds have shifted ever so slightly in favor of local artists, it’s time for commercial radio stations to use their entire field of vision and stop looking through a myopic lens at the Bay Area music scene. After all, it’s kinda wack when Live 105 breaks new hip-hop records on the air before KMEL does. So attention, radio programmers: C2tE has compiled a few community-approved local knocks — both rap and soul — for your consideration. Go ‘head, give ’em a spin. Or several hundred.

AlphaZeta featuring DJ Zeph and Azeem “Everything’s Different”

Balance “It’s Curtains”

Baby Jaymes “Tricks”

DJ Zeph featuring Boots Riley “Shake It on Down”

The Federation “In Love with a Hoodrat”

Lyrics Born featuring E-40 and Casual “Callin’ Out (Remix)”

Martin Luther “Daily Bread”

Raphael Saadiq “Grown Folks”

Shock G “Keep it Beautiful”

Zion-I “AEIOU”

KMEL request line: 800-955-KMEL

Wild 94 request line: 888-333-9490

Live 105 request line: 800-696-1053

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