Caught: The Rest of the Story ...

The Positive Side of Hip Hop

Aug 31, 2005 at 2:06 pm
C. Matthew Hamby

These rules (prohibiting payola) serve the important purpose of ensuring that the listening public knows when someone is seeking to influence them."

— Kevin Martin, FCC Chairman

July 27 — as Ice Cube once said — was a good day. The miserable Midwest humidity had lifted (if only for a day or two) and my last column, an eerily precognitive rant entitled "The People's Radio," was completed and published.

That same day I surfed to one of my primary online sources of Hip Hop news and, as if underscoring my vitriolic indictment of urban/Hip Hop formatted radio, I stumbled upon an intriguing news story detailing Sony/BMG's admission about the white elephant we all knew existed but could not prove: Label execs were "paying" radio stations to add certain songs to their playlists in order to boost record sales.

Gasp. Tell me it isn't so!

In the '50s, they called this practice payola (a term originally coined by Variety Magazine.)

Feeling smug, vindicated and victorious, I shot off a slew of "see-I-told-you-so" e-mails to my inner circle of conscious Hip Hop comrades. I made certain to copy a few others who had always viewed my position as little more than a left-wing, Orwellian theory about how big business controls the media and shapes public perceptions.

Now there was proof: Sonygate was in full effect.

Gone (supposedly) are the days of the shady, fast-talking record promoter who slides a stuffed envelope across a radio program director's desk. Instead, Sony/BMG slicksters admitted offering nearly untraceable vacation getaways, artist appearances, consumer electronics and other perks to radio professionals who could guarantee that particular songs were added to station playlists. As a result of some extremely incriminating (and sometimes humorous) e-mails, the investigation, led by New York District Attorney Eliot Spitzer, resulted in a paltry $10 million settlement that will eventually trickle down to nonprofit music education programs.

And now Spitzer is expected to confront the other entities that stand to profit from the activities described in the case: commercial radio stations.

This should be the easy part. Prior to 1996, there were literally hundreds of media companies representing thousands of radio stations across the country. That's a lot of depositions to transcribe. Now, as a result of President Clinton's infamous Telecommunications Act of 1996 (which, by the way, he reportedly regrets signing into law) those hundred or so companies were merged into a mere handful, including Infinity Broadcasting and Clear Channel Communications.

This is why 98 percent of Rap fans have probably never heard of Chicago-based Thaione Davis or North Carolina's L.E.G.A.C.Y. and why most have heard of Lil' Flip and Killer Mike. The companies that own those FM stations that play violent, misogynistic Rap music are the exact same companies that own those AM stations where stuffy, out-of-touch, ultra-right-winged talk show hosts complain about, uh ... violent, misogynistic Rap music.

And you thought this was all about beats and rhymes.

To gauge the effectiveness of Spitzer's efforts, I might actually begin the torturous task of listening to a few hours of commercial radio (while I'm stuck in traffic or having a root canal) just to see what steps program directors are willing to take in order to sever those corporate puppet strings.

Truthfully, it doesn't look good. In a recent response to the Sonygate scandal, "The Public, Not Payola, Rules the Air," LA Times music critic Robert Hilburn warns that listeners should not anticipate a sudden groundswell of independent (i.e., good) music popping up on commercial radio stations across the country because "radio stations respond more to ratings than a truckload of plasma TVs." He also suggests that record labels — in light of the scandal — would be better served investing their pay-for-play budgets into helping independent groups tour across the nation, citing Bruce Springsteen and U2 as examples of successful groups who relied on touring (and not radio play) early in their careers.

Makes sense to me.

But now that record labels and a handful of urban/Hip Hop-formatted radio stations have been caught with their greedy hands in the payola jar, there are two critical things that true Hip Hop fans should glean from this scandal.

First, if we truly care about the direction of Hip Hop culture and the types of messages carried in urban music, we should consider ourselves "at-large radio programmers" and let our spending and listening habits dictate what will and will not be played on commercial radio.

Secondly — and this one's really simple — understand that the next time you're stuck in traffic after a long, thankless day at work and hear a Rap song on the radio that absolutely sucks, someone might have just gotten paid more for that three-minute spin than you and I might see in an entire month. Combined.

It's bigger than Hip Hop ... ©

5 on theledge
· Haiku D'Etat — "Mike, Aaron and Eddie" (Coup De Theatre). A not-too-serious display of lyrical acrobatics by Aceyalone, Abstract Rude and Micah 9, three of the best lyricists to rep the mic.

· Saigon feat. Kool G. Rap — "Letter P" (Abandoned Nation Mixtape). This raw, street-conscious MC's already showing up on MTV and he doesn't even have an album out yet!

· KRS One featuring Common — "A Freestyle Song" (D.I.G.I.T.A.L.). Common even outshines the Blastmaster on this rare, off-the-dome cipher recorded in New York's Hot 97 studios.

· L.E.G.A.C.Y. — "Cold as a Butcher" (Project Mayhem). A prime example of why Source magazine's now-former editor-in-chief compares North Carolina's Justus League to the Native Tongues of the 1990s.

· Malik Yusef — "Woman, Where Is Your Soul?" (The Great Chicago Fire). With lines like, "Girl, you've got a smooth face but a scarred name," MY drops mad truth about club divas and video groupies. You'll never watch BET the same way again. (KB)