When Is A Hip-Hop Record Ready To Cross Over?

by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming

Last fall, you could see Top 40 PDs straining to hold the line on R&B and Hip-Hop, to the point where a majority of the Top 10 was suddenly pop and rock. Then Usher had three hits at once, Outkast exploded and the Beyonce album kept yielding viable singles. The pop side, meanwhile, could still offer up a Hoobastank or Maroon 5, but not quite in bulk. Just in time for summer, Top 40 felt like a rhythmic format again.

So it was a little surprising when AllAboutCountry.com publisher Bill Hennes said a few weeks ago that he thought Top 40 was too slow on R&B and Hip-Hop product. For years, Top 40 was routinely a single behind R&B radio—and more likely to take its cues from other Top 40s than the Urban in its own market. For a while, Clear Channel’s bloc of rhythmic-leaning Top 40s helped speed up the process. Even label guys expressed surprise at how quickly a hip-hop hit could chart at Mainstream Top 40. And with R&B radio becoming more research-driven, it was giving Top 40 some opportunity to catch up.

But after last fall, the biorhythm at which songs crossed got thrown off again. And it’s not hard to hear what Hennes (who, despite his current focus, has a history in top 40 and knows a little about when R&B songs can cross) is talking about. After hearing Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” at R&B and Rhythmic, hearing “All Falls Down” on Top 40 sounded stale. Jay-Z’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” on a nearby Top 40 in middays sounded stale. Even J-Kwon’s “Tipsy” didn’t sound exactly right. And none of these records were all that old.

“Dirt Off Your Shoulder” sounded wrong for another reason as well. It was playing on a Mainstream Top 40 that was now facing a serious Rhythmic Top 40 competitor. Even after its peak at Top 40, it still felt like a very edgy record for middays. If a listener wanted R&B and hip-hop, there was a better song on the Rhythmic (“Confessions Pt. 2,” in this case). If they didn’t, here was this somewhat abrasive and not so melodic record of the sort that, in bulk, has been pretty good at chasing off Top 40’s P2s in the past.

That dilemma, of course, was why so many Top 40 PDs were trying to hold the line on R&B and Hip-Hop, in defiance of available product and apparent listener preferences, in the first place last fall. But a better solution may lie in the timing.

Without having seen the callout at the stations in question, one could still venture a guess what was happening with “Dirt” and “Tipsy” there. Having reached critical mass at other formats, those songs likely showed instant research at Top 40, then quick burn. PDs rested those records relatively quickly, and then saw them bounce back, more because they’d been rested than because passion had developed for them anew. The same thing seemed to be happening with D-12’s “My Band” a few weeks ago.

All of which leads me to think that Top 40 could be getting a few extra weeks out of hip-hop crossovers if PDs were getting them a little earlier. On July 1, Lloyd Banks’ “On Fire” was top 5 at R&B and Rhythmic Top 40. At Mainstream, it was at 487 spins, up about 170 from the week before. A handful of traditionally R&B-leaning stations (WXSS Milwaukee, WEZB New Orleans, KKMG Colorado Springs, WJJS Roanoke, Va., WKSE Buffalo, N.Y., WHKF Harrisburg, Pa.) were fast on it. So far, only 17 stations have it in double digit spins.

Top 40 could be getting a few extra weeks out of hip-hop crossovers if PDs were getting them a little earlier.

With its 50 Cent pedigree, its current multi-format success, and a big first sales week expected for Banks’ album, “On Fire” will almost certainly pick up steam over the next few weeks. But a song that is already Top at rival stations—many of them more highly rated than their Top 40 competition—has a reasonable chance of performing in station research now. R&B and Rhythmic stations are typically at 350 to 500 spins with “On Fire.” 35 of the 53 R&B stations shown on it have it in their top 10. So it’s very possible that a sweet spot for that song at Top 40 could develop in the next week or two, before many Top 40s are ready to look at it, much less research it.

For a song that breaks faster in a given market or region, there’s even more of a gap. Terror Squad’s “Lean Back” (20-13 at R&B this week) is already the most played record on WQHT (Hot 97) New York and No. 2 on WWPR (Power 105). It’s No.1 at WZMX Hartford and No. 3 at rival WPHH. But it’s not on Mainstream Top 40 in either of those markets. It is getting a handful of spins at WIOQ (Q102) Philly, where rival WRDW is pounding it.

To be fair, “Lean Back” is also a relatively hard record, so it’s not just a question of whether Top 40 PDs are aware of it. But by now, if I were a PD, I’d be wondering if my audience was ready. By the time a song is in power at R&B/Hip-Hop, or getting significant MTV airplay, there’s probably a pretty good case for having it in your callout, if only to gauge just when a song typically makes its move across formats in your town. Doing that, by the way, would also refocus a lot of stations on the hits in their own market, rather than making another Top 40 three markets away the arbiter of when a song is ready to cross over.

Some programmers won’t want to play a hip-hop record until it’s so entrenched that their adult females are ready for it. But as anybody who has had a Rhythmic Top 40 come into the market recently can attest, those stations aren’t just taking the hip-hop fans who didn’t have a choice before; many listeners are also using those stations as a Top 40. So letting Rhythmic or R&B have a hot record for an extra 4-6 weeks isn’t much different than letting the Hot AC have “She Will Be Loved” for the next 4-6 weeks.

Not every hip-hop record is going to be on the same biorhythm. Those that don’t have support at R&B radio take longer to kick in and stick around longer, often because they’re not being developed (or burned) by multiple-format airplay. And even with its multi-format airplay and thousands of spins already, “Yeah!” doesn’t sound burnt on Top 40 yet (unless, of course, it’s the only Usher record a station is playing so far) any more than “This Love” does. Conversely, Top 40 played “My Band” right away and still saw it burn relatively quickly, given the nature of that particular record which was a comedy routine as much as a song.

In the end, one of the best reasons to have callout is to be able to get an early read on the competition’s ability to break a hip-hop record (or a rock record, for that matter). It’s one that not every PD takes advantage of. But in a world where stations are ready to look at a record that exists only on their own air after all of 90 spins, programmers may find that a record that has had 300 spins somewhere else may be more entrenched than they think.

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.