by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming
Radio has often taken its imaging cues from MTV over the last two decades (e.g., “stopless music”), so it was inevitable that the success of the network’s “Pimp My Ride” would prompt a certain amount of copycatting. First there were the station liners about “pimping your summer.” Then there were the “pimped-out” rides that stations gave away. Finally, there was the e-mail newsletter I received 10 days ago from an adult-leaning R&B station where the headline invited all the “pimps and players” to a ‘70s-themed station promotion.
Throughout the pimped-out summer and fall of ’04, I cringed, each time I heard the word pop up in another promotion. Now, “pimp,” which has been in the rap lexicon since “Rapper’s Delight,” is hardly the most controversial word in hip-hop. And maybe if you’re 22, you have no problem accepting Jay-Z’s post-“Big Pimpin’” repositioning of the word “pimp” as just another synonym for “player” or “big shot.” (After all, I still remember my grandfather being upset about “lousy,” which he remembered not as a synonym for “crummy,” but as literally meaning “lice-infested.”)
But “pimpin’” didn’t seem like quite the image a radio station should be trying to project. It also felt like yet another case of male PDs being out of touch with the sensitivities of a female audience (even if there were recent records insisting that women could be pimps, too). And somebody must have agreed, since I’ve gotten another e-mail newsletter from the same radio station. The ‘70s party is still on, but the references to pimps and players are gone.
Fortunately, the language of hip-hop is always in flux and there seems to be a new synonym for “player” on the rise. And this one is bringing back a piece of radio history with it.
It took “boss” 40 years to come back, but the cycle for most slang is a lot faster these days.
The first indication that the word “boss” might be on its way back was early this year when West Coast rapper (and former Luniz member) Yukmouth came out with the little-heard “Nothing To A Boss.” Now there’s Houston rapper Slim Thug with “Like A Boss” and, more prominently, Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot.” After doing so much to bring back pig Latin in recent years, the rapper now refers to himself as “the big boss dogg,” then later adds, “I hang out tough/I’m a real boss,” rehabilitating two pieces of slang in as many sentences.
The term “boss” had, by Bill Drake’s recollection in a ‘70s R&R interview, already run its course as African-American slang by the time “Boss Radio” popularized it, first in Fresno, Calif., then San Diego, then at KHJ in “Boss Angeles,” and then everywhere else. Bossradioforever.com describes “boss” as a term that had peaked in the “’50s and early ‘60s.”
That didn’t stop “Boss Radio” though from becoming, for a few years, the rallying cry for Drake’s streamlined approach to Top 40—and as key a slogan to that era’s radio as “Hot Hits” or “The No. 1 Music Station” in subsequent generations. Crosstown L.A. Top 40 KFWB tried to pre-empt “Boss Radio,” but succeeded only in forcing KHJ to launch early. Thirty-nine years later, it is clear that KHJ’s entire stationality, not just its slogan, is what redefined Top 40, but that didn’t stop broadcasters from cloning the slogan then, any more than it stops them from fighting over the right to be “Wild” or “Kiss” now.
By 1970, Top 40 was reacting to the growth of Rock radio, and the word “boss” wasn’t so, well, boss anymore. KHJ’s “Boss 30” countdown became the “Big 30.” New black and/or hippie slang made their way in to radio’s lexicon and “boss” became symptomatic of just why it would be so hard for Top 40 to keep up with Rock radio. After hanging in for another decade, KHJ dropped Top 40 in 1980, prompting nearby XETRA (the Mighty 690) Tijuana to launch with a DJ named “Michael Boss” and new references to “Boss Angeles.” The latter was short lived and by the time KHJ switched back to an unusual Oldies/Top 40 hybrid in 1983, declaring, “The Boss Is Back,” the answer was a collective “who cares?”
But “boss” continued to resurface from time to time. Top 40 WBSS (Boss 97) Atlantic City, N.J., called itself “The Boss” in the late ‘80s under the consultancy of Rick Sklar, of all people. Sklar’s homage to “boss radio” was ironic, since his WABC New York had steadfastly resisted jumping on the Drake bandwagon in the ‘60s. I also remember that KRTH (K-Earth) Los Angeles, which did channel the KHJ legacy in the early ‘90s, revived the “Boss Garage” car giveaway; although, for the most part, Oldies PDs were determined not to live in the past. R&B KDIA San Francisco was briefly “The Boss of the Bay,” which rapper Too Short also used in a lyric. I’m not aware of “boss” showing up again in radio station imagery, but with its new currency, it’s just a matter of time. (One PD tells me he’s already heard it in a club spot.)
It took “boss” 40 years to come back, but the cycle for most slang is a lot faster these days, and sometimes it’s a continuous loop. That shouldn’t be such a surprise since R&B and Hip-Hop, which used to have 10 year cycles at Top 40, are now perpetually coming in and out of favor at that format. In his new “Hip: A History,” New York Times writer John Leland talks about trends flowing not just from black culture to the general market, but cycling back there as well. But even if you take a more traditional view of how trends circulate—black, gay, and other cultures create; the mainstream co-opts; and the other communities stay one step ahead by coming up with something new—trends that have moved in to the mainstream can be reactivated pretty quickly these days.
Consider Pig Latin, or some variant on it, which seemed to come and go every 15-20 years, if you count the gap between Shirley Ellis’ 1964 “The Name Game,” Frankie Smith’s 1981 “Double Dutch Bus” and Jay-Z’s 2001 “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” But in the past few years, thanks to Snoop, it’s come and gone several times. You may wince when your parents, or your station’s copywriter, tries to use “fo’ shizzle,” but Snoop still throws some more Snoop-speak in “Drop It Like It’s Hot” without destroying his own credibility. And if you believe that real hip-hop fans don’t consider Snoop or his act credible these days, there must not be enough of them to have kept “Drop It Like It’s Hot” from being the No. 1 R&B record this week.
The same goes for “back in the day.” It had barely faded from its mid-‘90s peak when WWPR (Power 105.1) New York rehabilitated it for their “Back in the Day joints,” (not to mention rehabilitating the word “joint”). Power’s liners have spread as far as Top 40 B105 Brisbane, Australia, where you can hear an almost identically cadenced stager announce, “Back in the day, Brisbane, 1990” before an old-school cut. That ought to be a sign that it’s time to move on. But the new KZBA (K-Day 93.5) Los Angeles plays “hip-hop from back in the day and today” (which has a nice cadence next to the K-Day name).
Some terminology cycles a little more slowly, while some comes and goes a little more obviously. The call-and-response chants of New Orleans’ bounce records of the early ‘90s came back a decade later, when various records gave us “where they at?” and “gimme what you got for a pork chop” again. Less than 18 months after the latter resurfaced in Chingy’s “Right Thurr,” the bounce revival and the terminology that went with it seems to have faded. And some words will probably need a while to become hip again. Madison Avenue is still using “bling-bling” (witness the recent Sprint ads for “blingtones”), but I’m not expecting to hear it in any credible Hip-Hop hits for a while.
There is, clearly, a lot of imagery taking up storage space in listeners’ memories. Early this summer, this column suggested that there might be an opportunity for a “throwback” radio station to take advantage of the appetite for all things retro by re-creating, say, Mike Joseph’s “Hot Hits” format. Months after that column made its way through the industry, it continues to get responses from non-industry listeners who remember “Hot Hits” fondly. In any event, at a time when radio is finally defending itself against accusations of homogenization, the notion that even “Boss Radio” could come back proves that there are 40 years’ worth of great ideas to pick from as an alternative to the copy-catting of current ideas that often takes place.
Sean Ross is Edison Media Research’s VP of Music & Programming and the former editor-in-chief of Airplay Monitor, Billboard Magazine’s radio programming publication. The opinions expressed here are his own and can be found on the edisonresearch.com Web site every week. Sean can be reached at 908.707.4707 or SRoss@edisonresearch.com.