If you want to understand how depressingly generic L.A.’s contemporary rap and R&B radio stations are, examine Power 106’s playlist. Of its seven most-played songs, six feature Drake or The Weeknd. The entire 44-track exercise in sterility includes one solo cut from an L.A. artist — YG’s “Twist My Fingaz” — released 18 months ago.
The Burbank station’s chief competition hasn’t fared better. Despite launching with the goal of “exuding L.A.,” Real 92.3 FM should apply for a Canadian passport and pass out poutine. Its only original idea was stealing Big Boy and DJ Carisma from its rivals. Real 92.3 undoubtedly makes Eazy-E’s spirit swerve for broadcasting on the same frequency as 92.3 The Beat, which hosted the dearly departed “Ruthless Radio Show.”
The most lucid part of Kanye’s Sacramento rant was when he said, “I know it’s a lot of real programming directors with wives and kids that love music, that can’t play what they want to play because they’ve been paid to play that bullshit over and over.”
A recent YouTube clip of a sobbing blond evangelical went viral when she linked American moral decay to hearing Vince Staples “Norf Norf” on the airwaves. But for L.A. residents, the biggest surprise wasn’t puritanical zealots getting upset about gangsta rap but, rather, that red-state radio stations play Vince Staples while his hometown ignores him.
Never mind independent artists; even major-label signees with promotional budgets get iced out, save for mix-show spins or graveyard-hour tokenism. The only Schoolboy Q song played is the one that features Kanye. The only recent YG single in rotation is a Drake collaboration. You’re more apt to hear Kid Ink on Power 106 than Kendrick Lamar. Rihanna called Interscope’s Boogie her new favorite rapper, but until he gets a feature from her, it’s unlikely that he’ll get any much-deserved spins.
It doesn’t have to be this way. I just came back from Houston, where 97.9 FM (“The Box”) exemplifies the importance of a radio station that regularly plays local heroes, from Z-Ro to DJ XO. It helps foster regional culture and also strengthens the bond between hometown artists and their communities. In Atlanta, three separate radio stations are devoted to modern hip-hop and R&B with a heavy emphasis on Atlanta music, part of the infrastructure that has made that city a music-industry capital.
Such hometown-friendly programming is reminiscent of the days when the Baka Boyz controlled programming at Power 106. Artists including Domino, Funkdoobiest, A Lighter Shade of Brown and The Pharcyde competed for airtime alongside Dre and Snoop. An unspoken compact existed between the audience and the DJs, who were invested in the city and nurturing the next generation of stars.
In that era, programming directors reflected local demographics and championed Latino rappers. In today’s climate, we have Inglewood- and South Gate–raised King Lil G, a certified hometown icon earning millions of YouTube plays per video, but he still can’t cross over to the mainstream due to radio politics.
Of course, it’s never been easier to get your music heard. Satellite and internet radio, YouTube, the streaming networks and Pandora offer a panoply of options. But when Chris Richards of The Washington Post recently asked a class of 27 high school freshman how they listened to music, radio still ranked as the No. 1 way.
In L.A., we’re lucky to have KDAY and KCRW. Dublab is thankfully supposed to get on the FM dial soon. But there’s no excuse other than corporate greed for the two most popular hip-hop and R&B stations to keep ignoring these vital artists in their own backyard. To quote their favorite Canadian, “I'm just saying you could do better.”