Monday, May 12, 2008

Updating agenda for 19 May

Nikole Hannah-Jones will be joining us for a conversation about her Jammin' 95 story in the HOW WE LIVE section today -- voice, perspective, meaning, etc. If there's time, we'll get around to the Hennessey-Fiske story from the LA Times (see previous post). If not, we'll slip it over to the next week. Nikole's piece below:

Peace out, hip-hop: Nikole Hannah-Jones laments as Jammin' 95.5 abandons the genre The station's changeover in format leaves a cultural void and a loss to Portland's music scene R.I.P. hip-hop: Beyond beats are messages of love, justice

By Nikole Hannah-jones
The Oregonian
Monday,May 12, 2008
Edition: Sunrise, Section: Arts & Entertainment

It's late Monday and downtown Portland is quiet. My girls and I lounge in a dim booth at a nondescript spot called Momo's. It's too small, too smoky and the crowd too eclectic to explain. But on this night, it bangs some of the hottest hip-hop spun in PDX and so draws those of us who moved here from other places and who miss that urban thump.

I sip a Beautiful --cognac and Grand Marnier --but it doesn't lift the somber mood at my table.

We're discussing the demise of Oregon's only hip-hop station --Jammin' 95.5. After months of declining ratings, today Jammin' flips to an all-talk sports station.

My friend Leesha shakes her head. "I can't believe it. I still can't believe it."

It's not that Jammin' was that bomb. Anyone who's heard hip-hop radio on the East Coast, in L.A. or in the Dirty South knows that Jammin' played hip-hop music but wasn't really a hip-hop station. Its morning show didn't jibe with a hip-hop platform. Many of the on-air personalities came off as suburbanites who sought street cred by peppering each sentence with slang. As one young, black Portlander puts it: "They were corny."

Still, it's a blow. While other young people listen to a variety of music --from pop to punk to rock to country to hip-hop --for most young black folks, hip-hop is it. The recent Black Youth Project survey found that nearly 60 percent of black youth listen to hip-hop daily compared to just 23 percent of white youth. For Portland's tiny black community, Jammin' on the airwaves was like spraying what is perhaps the whitest major city in America with a graffiti tag saying "we were here."

The day Rose City Radio laid off the Jammin' staff --general manager Tim McNamara has not returned calls --Portland-born promoter and Jammin' radio personality StarChile sits with me to talk about why Jammin' fell off. He's wearing a khaki military jacket, baggy jeans and a baseball cap cocked to the side. His fingers are wrapped around a hot toddy --he's been sick.

"Honestly, Jammin' was not a hip-hop station because a hip-hop station is going to cater to a demographic that loves hip-hop," Star says. "Portland is one of the whitest places damn-near outside of Ireland. The mentality was that we play hip-hop for white people."

He's not dissing white folks who listen to hip-hop. Somewhere in Beaverton, he says, there's a 16-year-old white girl with nothing but hip-hop on her iPod who loves the music and respects the culture.

But, Star says, Jammin's song list became too mainstream and rarely reflected that crazy spectrum of hip-hop that speaks to the diversity of black life.

Yes, some hip-hop is about the pursuit of booty, bling and busting caps. But beyond the beats are messages of social justice and love. Of fighting the power and seeking enlightenment. Of being pushed to the edge and finding redemption. True hip-hop chronicles the story of black struggle better than CNN or any newspaper.

Star's Sunday-night show on Jammin', "Hood Radio," was so popular because it acknowledged that spectrum. "I could play the most gangsta, 25-people-killed-in-the-first-verse song, to the most backpacking, hippie rap," he says. "From Compton's Most Wanted to the Black Eyed Peas. It was a reflection of my attitude and my love for hip-hop."

But, says Portland rapper Cool Nutz, too few Jammin' DJs had that freedom. Instead they played a song list compiled by a program director who wasn't a hip-hop head. "It became more strict," Cool Nutz says. "They were doing the power programming thing where you had five power songs played all day."

No Talib Kweli or The Roots --though these acts sell out when they come to town. No Little Brother or Erykah Badu. Not even artists considered hip-hop kings unless their songs blazed the Top 40 charts. Just the same get-crunk, stripper-on-a-pole music. Over and over and over.

"It was getting to the point where the streets were turning away from us," Star says with a sigh and sip. "Why can't you play Jay-Z 'Heart of the City' at one in the afternoon? It's . . . Jay-Z!"

Vanessa Burchfield, a Portland State University student with hip-hop written into her DNA, says the station's narrow view of a genre that has defined a generation caused her to tune out.

"I stopped listening to the radio a while ago," she says. "You never heard anything new until it was old. I make mix CDs instead."

Even so, Burchfield is struck by the thought of the city's only hip-hop station going silent. Jammin' might not have been the best hip-hop station, but having it on the air gave the city something it needed.

"Black people don't really have a voice here if they don't play our music," Burchfield says.

* Those of us born right after the civil rights era fell in love with hip-hop as soon as we heard people rapping over the borrowed beat of music our parents played. It hooked us, and today African Americans born in the '70s and '80s are known as the hip-hop generation.

Back then, mainstream media didn't touch hip-hop. Pop stations advertised "only the hits and no rap!" MTV acted as if rap videos didn't exist. But hip-hop was all we listened to. It spoke to us, about us, as no other music had. Just as hip-hop was often maligned and misunderstood, so were we. Just as hip-hop was angry and bold, so were we.

StarChile remembers the day Jammin' came on the air in Portland. The year was 1999.

"It was like crack," Star says.

He's only half playing.

"My phone --I should say my beeper --was blowing up," he smiles at the memory. "Everybody was like, 'Yo, it's a radio station and it plays rap music.' It was like, 'Oh my God, we're saved.' "

Jammin' bumrushed the radio scene. Within a few months, its ratings jumped from 18th to third in the market for total audience and from 16th to first among listeners age 16 to 24. The on-air personalities loved hip-hop, Cool Nutz says, and it showed. Many of them went on to work in larger markets or for record labels. The station suffered, hiring people who had come to hip-hop late, who had no hip-hop memory.

But local artists say Jammin's ratings --which improved a bit recently after the station loosened its playlist --don't mean Portlanders don't dig hip-hop anymore. And they fear what the lack of a station will mean for the city's burgeoning hip-hop scene. Hip-hop stations advertise shows and give a platform for artists promoting new albums.

Finally, acts aren't going straight from Cali to Seattle. Nas is coming this week, and Kanye West in June. But who's going to come to a city with no hip-hop on the dial?

"That station has contributed a lot to the growth of this city, and this is damaging to our music scene," Cool Nutz says. "It's embarrassing and it makes me ashamed of our town because it basically says Portland is so weak that it could not sustain a hip-hop station. It's bigger than me or any of these rappers. It's about our urban culture."

* Back at Momo's, DJ Mello Cee bumps the classic Mary J. Blige and Method Man duet, "You're All I Need."

My friends and I stop talking. Each of us has a memory with that song in the background. That song takes me back more than 10 years to riding around in my friend's 1986 Chevy Caprice on dice rims. Mary and Method made a ghetto love story more real than anything we saw on TV.

We sway, eyes closed, and sing the chorus at the top of our lungs. As the song fades into the next track, Leesha asks, "Do you really think we aren't going to have a hip-hop station?"

Rumors on the Net and among local artists say that CBS station Movin' 107.5 might go hip-hop. Susan Reynolds, the marketing director for CBS Radio-Portland, won't confirm or deny the rumors, offering a coy, "If there's anything to announce, we'll do that when it's official."

So, there's still hope. Let's just pray the next station that takes up hip-hop learns from Jammin' and shows real hip-hop some love.


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