Pop quiz: Which Southern California rap concert drew the biggest audience in the last 12 months? If you said Jay-Z and Kanye West's December shows, you're close. After all, the two performed before nearly 20,000 fans during each of three nights at Staples Center.
But the correct answer is Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, who headlined before 80,000 people for two weekends at Coachella in April. Sure, many came to the desert for other acts, but Dre and Snoop's shows were absolutely packed.
The L.A. gangsta rappers have become nostalgia acts; at Coachella, they mostly played old hits like "Gin and Juice" and "Nuthin' But a 'G' Thang," which came out in the early '90s. Snoop's recent albums sell poorly, and Dre's last one came out when Clinton was president, but in L.A. they're still kings.
Not so their counterparts in New York: Though rap was synonymous with the city during its first years, former titans like Run-DMC and Rakim are woefully underappreciated. The man considered to have invented the genre, DJ Kool Herc, is so destitute he couldn't afford surgery for kidney stones last year.
Here, though, we worship our rap forefathers — many of whom got their start on KDAY 1580 AM, a radio station that flipped the script by becoming the nation's first to play mostly hip-hop.
"KDAY was the shit," Dr. Dre told writer Brian Cross, author of West Coast rap history It's Not About a Salary. "[T]hey definitely put N.W.A on the map."
These days, Los Angeles still tunes in to a station called KDAY. It operates at 93.5 FM with different ownership and DJs. But as one of the few terrestrial stations specializing in hip-hop oldies, it still plays many of the same songs.
And it's kicking ass. Los Angeles is the world's biggest radio market, and the station is currently 12th overall, with a 2.9 share among 18- to 34-year-olds. At any given time, on average, about 3 percent of L.A. listeners are tuning in. "We are outperforming the market," says station general manager Zeke Chaidez.
Tied for 16th at this time last year, KDAY's ratings are on the ascent, despite inherent institutional disadvantages: While its competition is owned by big conglomerates, the station is independent. Its signal is so weak that it can barely be heard in much of the Valley, even as competitor Power 106 (KPWR) reaches almost all the way to Santa Barbara.
"It's pretty impressive to be just outside the top 10 with a niche format, with a less-than-stellar signal, and in the biggest market in the country for radio," says Jon Miller, director of programming services for Arbitron. He speculates that the format could spread around the United States. "I think the sky's the limit. In today's media market, if something is good and compelling, the door is wide open."
KDAY is making big ratings gains by playing the old gangsta rap that used to sound so menacing. The odd thing is, it no longer does.
"It brings back good memories; it brings a smile to people's faces," says program director Adrian "Mr. A.D." Scott. "People used to say, 'This is bad for our kids,' but now we praise it."
Adds KDAY's DJ Dense: "That's when music was fun."
But wasn't that also when hip-hop supposedly could get you killed? During gangsta rap's heyday, in the late '80s and early '90s, Angelenos lived through tumult — the riots, crack cocaine and gang violence. To many, the West Coast is still synonymous with drive-by shootings, Crips and Bloods.
But there's one big difference: Today, in the relative civility of modern Los Angeles, the bad old days seem downright cool. We get sentimental when we hear gangsta rap. When the sun is shining, the traffic is moving and KDAY is playing Tupac, we remember the way we were.
The original KDAY specialized in hip-hop as it first gained popularity on the West Coast. Its songs were fresh. A bit too fresh, perhaps: In the late '80s, the station was annoying the hell out of some folks on the Eastside. Its idiosyncratic signal beamed out of six towers on a hill between Silver Lake and Echo Park, bombarding neighbors who picked it up unwittingly — through their phones, fences, fax machines, even toilets.
"It's awful, it's unbelievable, at night it's unbearable," Silver Lake resident Tanya Busko told the Los Angeles Times in 1989. "You can walk in my yard when it rains and hear the 'rap, rap, rap' music on the chain-link fence. ... In the bathroom, you can hear it coming through the toilet plumbing."
The station spent a small fortune buying interference filters, alleviating the problem for most folks who complained.
But for everybody else who hated hip-hop? Well, they were out of luck. By the time President Reagan left office, Los Angeles was inextricably linked to hardcore hip-hop, which largely sucked the life out of good-time East Coast party rap in favor of something that felt more immediate, more real and more dangerous. To many kids, it sounded like the future, but it also struck fear in the hearts of middle-class citizens across the country and became increasingly linked to real-life violence.