Part II in a series on “The Formats That Make Too Much Sense To Work (Until Now?)”
In the late ’90s, when hip-hop began to usurp rock’s status as “the only music that matters,” even among white teens, programmers were forced to finally consider how to combine rap and rock on the radio, particularly when hybrid acts like Limp Bizkit, Kid Rock, and Linkin Park became the biggest stars of the Alternative format. Nearly a decade later, those groundbreaking records seem a lot less cutting-edge. But KMBY (X103.9) Monterey, Calif., is taking another swing at rap/rock, under PD Byron Cooke and Mapleton’s Mike Anthony, couching it in a young male-lifestyle approach that predecessors had never really developed. And while the notion of playing all the music that young males want-not just some of it-makes too much sense to ignore, it’s a mix that has eluded programmers for more than a decade.
Attempts to bridge rock and rap in one radio format have existed since at least the early ’90s, from Keith Clark’s WHJX Jacksonville and WZJM Cleveland to a handful of Jerry Clifton-consulted or influenced Rhythmic Top 40s (KUBE Seattle and WHYT Detroit) that broadened, briefly, in the mid-’90s when the New Rock Revolution briefly overshadowed Hip-Hop. But it took the passing of the grunge era and rise of Limp Bizkit, Kid Rock, and Papa Roach for Rock radio to again consider its format of “Last Resort.”
There were, at that time, a lot of prominent champions for rap/rock. Clifton installed a more rock-based version of the format on KPTY Phoenix and, very successfully for a while, at KXME (X-Treme Radio) Honolulu. Several clients of Jacobs Media’s Dave Beasing, most notably KPNT St. Louis and KMYZ Tulsa, had rap/rock elements. And Edison Media Research’s Jayne Charneski, now with EMI, published the much-quoted
“The Hip-Hop Generation Gap: Hip-Hop is ‘Taking Over.’”
Despite those efforts, the only durable proponent of the rap/rock hybrid has turned out to be Sirius Satellite Radio’s Faction channel, which bills itself as “rock, punk, hip-hop and more, especially for action sports fans.” There are also a number of HD-2 multicast channels reportedly doing the format as well. But until KMBY, you weren’t hearing much else about rap/rock for a number of reasons.
For starters, there was the question of what Hip-Hop would work on Rock stations. Being a 22-year-old guy who liked Kid Rock didn’t mean you suddenly had a fully formed appreciation for the same records he did, any more than liking Cream in 1968 made you a Robert Johnson fan. After all, there had always been Rock listeners who liked the Beastie Boys, Cypress Hill, and House Of Pain, but little else from the genre. Clifton’s stations were capable of going from Sublime into Brandy & Monica, but most stations doing the format from a Rock perspective looked for Hip-Hop with some sort of Rock connection, even if it meant playing “B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad)” by Outkast instead of “Ms. Jackson,” when the latter was hot.
…perhaps the biggest barrier to a rap/rock hybrid taking hold at Rock radio was because Top 40, for several years, became the rap/rock hybrid.
And perhaps the biggest barrier to a rap/rock hybrid taking hold at Rock radio was because Top 40, for several years, became the rap/rock hybrid. While not every Clear Channel Top 40 adhered to this model, it launched numerous Kiss-FMs with playlists that were 85% rhythm and 15% rock, with a heavy emphais on teen-punk, and very few pop balance records in between. Even those stations were geared toward women, not men, the ability of Top 40 to segue from Linkin Park to “Let Me Blow Your Mind” somehow marginalized any attempt to do the same with harder versions of both genres.
About three years ago, we saw three significant changes in the landscape for rap/rock:
1) There was less available music. Papa Roach and Linkin Park didn’t give up the rap elements altogether, but went more toward straightforward rock on their follow-up albums. And acts like Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock were suddenly on pop radio with ballad hits. The new cutting-edge acts were Mudvayne and Slipknot-joined to Hip-Hop less by their music than their extremity. At the same time, Alternative Rock programmers began to embrace more retro-flavored, adult-friendly, guitar-driven acts-White Stripes, Killers, etc.
2) Around that same time, many Modern Rock stations lost the incentive to pursue any sort of next-generation strategy with the advent of KBZT (FM94.9) San Diego’s more gold-based, adult-modern format. Incumbent modern rocker XETRA-FM (91X) was hardly a rap/rock-based radio station. It differed from KBZT primarily in its willingness to play some teen-punk and more currents overall. But when KBZT forced 91X into a war of attrition that continues today, other modern rockers looked to protect their adult numbers (and their beer money) by becoming more gold-based and getting out of the Limp Bizkit business.
3) Top 40 programmers became determinedly more mainstream. For a few years, it seemed like they were forcing pop/rock titles on through grim determination. Now, the format seems to have found plenty of rhythmic pop that serves the same purpose, but has a lot less edge, whether it’s “London Bridge” or “Hips Don’t Lie.” If you want to hear a rock star who’s been influenced by Hip-Hop these days, there’s always Gwen Stefani, but “Hollaback Girl” is probably not what proponents of the hybrid had in mind.
For all those reasons, the idea of again marrying Hip-Hop and Rock seems just as forced as the uneasy coalition of Breaking Benjamin and the Raconteurs that exists at today’s Modern Rock radio. But the notion of an attitudinal bond between Hip-Hop and Rock has endured, even if Hip-Hop’s stature as “The Sound Of Young America” has been diminished in recent years.
Most of what is on KMBY these days isn’t really rap/rock at all. Its signature artist, judging from the station’s MySpace page-which has substituted for a station Website since the changeover-is AFI, whom the station led a petition drive to bring to town. A lot of the other rock runs the same spectrum found elsewhere in Alternative: Audioslave to Buckcherry to My Chemical Romance to Disturbed. On the rap side, there’s T.I., the Game, and Ludacris and other contemporary hitmakers without any rock pedigree, not necessarily a bad thing, since one of the issues with the format before was not playing the hits.
That said, almost anything that does indeed bridge the rock/rap gap is represented: Gym Class Heroes (which most Alternative stations have conceded to Top 40), Chemical Brothers, and the Jurassic 5/Dave Matthews collaboration are all there. So is Lupe Fiasco’s skateboarding-as-a-metaphor-for-life song (“Kick, Push”). Veteran rappers Ice Cube and DMX, both icons of rap when the first coalition formed, are on its playlist. There’s also a presence for Northern California’s “hyphy” movement (E-40, Keak Da Sneak). And with shades of the reaction-record orientation of the Clifton “Extreme” stations, KMBY was also the first to get “Weird” Al Yankovic’s parody of Chamillionaire’s “Ridin,” “White And Nerdy” into significant rotation.
If the rap/rock coalition dissipated at Top 40 it was, in part, because hip-hop and rock both lost some of their claim to be the only genres that mattered. In a year when James Blunt, Daniel Powter, and Nick Lachey have had ballad smashes, and pop music is starting to show more appeal north of age 25 than it has in years, it’s harder to emphasize the extremes and say that there’s no listener demand for the middle. At this moment, the rap- and rock-coalition seems as much like your older brother’s music as grunge did by 2000. And if there’s any truly outrageous teen movement, it’s the 18-year-olds who have rediscovered “Sweet Home Alabama.”
Then again, if Nick Lachey, James Blunt, and moms who groove to “Let’s Get It Started” aren’t a good impetus for a more extreme, younger-end format, what is? It’s hard to say definitively that rap and rock aren’t the teen music of the moment when so few stations are actually asking teens for their opinions. And KMBY, like Faction, has been smart to couch itself in the notion of a male-lifestyle format that allows it to transcend the records or whether they fit together perfectly.
And whatever you think of KMBY, the industry ought to be rooting for it to work, because other strategies for repatriating young men to the radio seem largely non-existent. Radio has scratched the surface of youth culture, but it’s used it in roughly the same way that Top 40 used youth culture 30 years ago. In 1972, it was substituting the term “environment” for weather and “rip me off” for “call in and win.” In 2006, it’s now often a matter of substituting “text me” for the request line. As AM Top 40 found out years ago, merely appropriating the trappings of a culture was no substitute for finding the music that came out of it. Today, there’s less apparent impetus by most broadcasters to do that, but no less need.