Minding My Business – Part Two
April 28th, 2005 by Dan Charnas
[A continuation of a previous entry]
In the early 90s when two white Pop radio programmers did what hundreds of their Black counterparts at Urban radio were unwilling to do — program hip-hop aggressively — they shared a quite unexpected consequence.
Keith Naftaly and Rick Cummings suddenly became the voice of young people of color.
This must have come as quite a shock. Naftaly and Cummings had only intended to position hip-hop as pop music for their audiences (young, mostly white, middle-class teenagers), much as Alan Freed had re-positioned rhythm & blues 40 years before, renaming it “rock & roll.” It was, simply, the smart thing to do.
[And, culturally speaking, the right thing to do. Freed’s bold move would, in many ways, create a generation of white kids who accepted Black expression and Black people on their own terms. These same kids would go on to support civil rights and the Black freedom movement in the 60s. Young white America was way past-due for its hip-hop injection in the early 90s.]
But because Black programmers gave rap short shrift, a Black or Latino kid couldn’t turn on KKBT in Los Angeles or KBLX in San Francisco — traditional “urban” radio — and hear “their” music. With Naftaly and Cummings’ moves at KMEL and KPWR respectively, suddenly their pop stations became the de-facto urban stations; and the beneficiaries of all the pent-up, untapped energy that accompanied that release.
I do not know if Naftaly and Cummings, as businessmen, had much of a political consciousness. My guess is that they weren’t especially political people. But even if they did, most white Americans still place issues of race on their psychological fringes. Even if they watched The McLaughlin Group every Sunday, I would be surprised if the two of them knew much about Black history or had much knowledge of the issues facing people of color.
But now, because of a simple and inexorable business decision, they found themselves the ringleaders of a three-ring circus of race, culture and politics.
Suddenly, minding their own business — the business of broadcast — meant minding other folks’ business — other folks being young Black, Latino and Asian kids. It meant knowing their issues, their struggles their sensitivities. It meant having to deal with their parents and in some cases serve as surrogate parents.
This was not what guys like Cummings and Naftaly signed up for, and there was a long learning curve for the two of them, one that —for Cummings — obviously continues to this very day. But this learning curve comes into being wherever the undereducated, underexposed denizens of corporate America meet the hip-hop generation.
By hiring capable people from within the hip-hop community — like Dr. Dre and Flex — Cummings showed a willingness to serve that community on its own terms. By playing records that his mix-show jocks recommended, he was doing the same. So by and large, the community and culture of hip-hop (or at least the cross-section of it that Cummings was able to access with his own limited knowledge) determined the tone and content of hip-hop radio.
When the “bitch-ho-nigga” backlash happened in ‘94, Cummings had been doing business like that for some time. Here was a format that had been, for the most part, programming itself. Cummings didn’t write the words to “G Thing,” Snoop did. Cummings didn’t decide that Public Enemy was passé and Dre and Cypress were the new thing. His DJs did. Cummings had largely left the fate of hip-hop radio in the hands of kids. So when these kids’ more politically-correct peers, or their parents, started to raise a stink, Cummings had a choice: He could do nothing; he could dictate from on-high what was and was not to be played; or he could let the kids work it out. In the end, he chose the path of active guidance, according to whatever personal morality or ethics he had.
I suppose Cummings learned a lot more than he bargained for in those years before he was bumped upstairs to corporate, ceding the programming desk to other folks who would have to start at the bottom of their own learning curve.
Cummings was ill-prepared for the role of caretaker of the Hip-Hop Generation. But then again, so was almost every single out-of-touch, middle-aged Black programmer in the country. And for that matter, so were the kids: people like Flex, the Baka Boys, Angie Martinez.
Whether these programmers and DJs were white, Black, Latino or Asian, I never saw them as a particularly conscious bunch. And as the years have gone by, I think they’ve become even less so, because the culture itself has become less so. What we have, then, is a bunch of asleep people driving a somnambulant culture that once put a great deal of primacy on being aware and awake.
So when you listen to Hot 97, or pick up a Source magazine, or watch BET; when you hear, read and see their narrowness, their meanness, their crudeness and think back to a time when things seemed a lot more “alive”; it may be hard to swallow that the content of these media remain the completely collaborative, multicultural effort they once were, often controlled by the same people who gave you such great inspiration in the past.
The problem, dear reader, is not that these outlets have been “taken over” by nameless, faceless white corporate interests. The supposed “subversion” of hip-hop culture isn’t happening because rich white people are diabolically exploiting people of color. That to me, is taking it way too personally. In reality, what’s happening is strictly business. The “subversion” of hip-hop is a function of how corporate capitalism and a culture of materialism exploits, masticates and expectorates everyone who works within it. The truth is that we are all going down the drain together.