[An L.A. native, L.A. Weekly columnist Jeff Weiss edits Passion of the Weiss and hosts the Shots Fired podcast. Find him online at passionweiss.com, follow him on Twitter and also check out his archives.]
Around 9 a.m. on a Friday in February, the radio station 92.3 FM abruptly switched formats. Out went old-school funk and R&B. In came The Real 92.3, offering 10,000 joints in a row of “real hip-hop and R&B.” This loosely translated to a playlist disproportionately comprised of Drake featuring Drake.
The shift disenchanted thousands of listeners. After all, the old Hot 92.3 doubled as L.A.’s lone funk bastion and home of the legendary lowrider Casanova, 89-year-old Art Laboe. Take Laboe off the air and incur the wrath. The rules are clear.
How the new iHeartRadio-operated station plans to differentiate itself from its direct competition, Emmis-owned Power 106, seems uncertain. The new 92.3 snatched away Power 106’s venerable morning host, Big Boy. The stations’ playlists are almost identical; I’ve flipped between stations and heard the same song (usually Disclosure’s “Latch” or Nicki Minaj’s “Only”).
For on-air promo, the Burbank-based 92.3 recruited rappers to hurl subliminal shade at Power 106 — as though it wasn’t a matter of them wanting to kiss the ring of iHeartRadio, the corporate behemoth formerly known as Clear Channel. Even by the overheated standards of terrestrial radio, it felt forced.
“The company saw an opportunity for a hip-hop and R&B station that could fill a market that wasn’t being served,” explains Doc Wynter, iHeartRadio’s senior vice president of urban programming and program director of The Real 92.3. “Although our competitor purported to be one, they’re more of a rhythmic station that plays some hip-hop.”
This is partially true. With the rise of dance music, Power 106 has gone from “where hip-hop lives” to where hip-hop sublets. But though the station has distanced itself from gritty rap, its bread and butter continues to be high-calorie, hook-glazed Top 40 hip-hop, blended with the occasional Calvin Harris track.
Though the station’s playlist has mostly not yet reflected it, Wynter envisions Real 92.3 as a more purist alternative.
“If you care about Nas, Biggie and 2Pac, as well as today’s hip-hop and R&B, you’ll want to spend time here,” Wynter says. “The next song played won’t be shark repellent; it’s going to be consistent with your expectations.”
He points out that the station honored the anniversary of The Notorious B.I.G.’s death by discussing the rapper’s legend on-air, and playing one of his songs each hour. I’ve also heard them play old DJ Quik. That’s more than I can say of Power 106, which has banished classic rap almost entirely to its throwback hour.
But if Real 92.3 wants to creatively thrive rather than play Pepsi to Power’s Coca-Cola, it must nurture local talent and break records from rising stars that have yet to hit Top 40. It wouldn’t hurt to follow the model of its ancestor, 92.3 The Beat, which featured Eazy-E’s “Ruthless Radio Hour.”
It’s been more than a dozen years since a local hip-hop station served as a legitimate talent incubator. Power 106 might regularly play Y.G., DJ Mustard and the artists on TDE, but it only began doing so after they’d built a national fan base.
Even though you’re still more apt to hear a Canadian artist than one from Compton on 92.3, Wynter says that local artists feature prominently in the station’s goals.
“We want to exude L.A.,” Wynter says. “Right now, we’re starting off with records that people are familiar with, but we have to break local records over time.”
When asked what new L.A. rappers he was checking for, Wynter singled out The Game and Problem — both longtime staples on Power 106.
The new station deserves time to find its own voice and tone, but it would be wise to dig deeper than “Truffle Butter.” Plenty of regional stars with mainstream potential are out there.
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And it wouldn’t hurt to bring back Art Laboe, either.