The Formula: Classic Hip-Hop Is Taking Over Radios Nationwide…Again

Nostalgia is a powerful sentiment. As Heads know all too well, simply hearing a track from a former era can rekindle memories of childhood, important life events, a particular friend, or just a particular feeling. That nostalgia has always been there, but part of its beauty is its amorphous nature; what might be nostalgic for one person may not resonate at all with another, and so forth. It allows each listener to curate his or her own musical memories, triggered by the uniquely individual experience felt between music and listener. For many, a yearning for the music of the past is so great, there exists a thirst for classic Hip-Hop of past decades that isn’t easily whetted by most radio programming today. However, a long-standing trend is proliferating the market, one that is making Heads across the country very happy.


Published in the New York Times Magazine, an in-depth piece entitled “How Hip-Hop Is Becoming the Oldies” explores the landscape of public airwaves, particularly when it comes to radio programming. Writer Alex French centers the article on WRWN, an Indianapolis radio station that was struggling to compete with other stations nearby, until it restructured its music programming to follow a trend that has become prevalent nationwide. Program Director Davey Morris and Station Program Director Jay Michaels brainstormed on reformatting ideas, but the one that proved to be the right formula was one implemented by a similar station in Houston. According to French, “the ideas the two came up with was a variation on a new format: Classic Hip-Hop, pioneered just a month earlier by a Radio One station in Houston called Boom 92.1. By playing hit ’90s Rap records, Boom tripled its audience, and Radio One had begun to duplicate the strategy in other markets.”

With overwhelmingly positive feedback from listeners, WRWN (now going by 93.9 the Beat) never looked back and has been playing old-school Hip-Hop ever since (“In three weeks, 93.9 made the improbable jump from 15th place in Central Indiana to first”). While the station’s move from playing music by artists like Sam Smith to playing DMX seems like a drastic change, the station is using analytics and strategy in creating the perfect combination of Hip-Hop tracks to ensure the playlists are well received. Guidelines include that listeners should never “hear back-to-back-to-back Southern Rap hits or a cluster of R & B songs with female vocalists; the Beat will break up a block of tunes by harder artists like Ice Cube or DMX with a Mariah Carey track.” Similarly, the “flow” of the format is maintained by guiding principles like “Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac should never be played back to back (it might call to mind their deadly feud), and a Biggie song should never be played before or after ‘I’ll Be Missing You,’ the tribute song Puff Daddy recorded after Biggie was killed. Michaels also won’t play Outkast next to Ludacris — it just feels weird.”

So why does this formula work so well? As French explains, radio still retains a powerful influence when it comes to advertising to target audiences. The Beat “target[s] listeners in their mid-20s to mid-40s: people who grew up during Rap’s Golden Era. This is a subset of the population that is outgrowing contemporary hip-hop radio (which targets the 18-34 demographic) but is mostly too young to be nostalgic for ’70s and ’80s stations and too hip for adult contemporary. They are also entering the prime spending years of their lives — marriage, children, car buying and homeownership — and radio, like all forms of media, is figuring out how to catch them.” It is quite evident that Hip-Hop’s worldwide dominance when it comes to influence in dance, fashion, language, and music is matched only by its audience’s influence on radio-listening habits (and, therefore, spending habits), at least in the United States.

The article mentions artists like the Big Tymers, Ice Cube, Luniz, Notorious B.I.G., Outkast, Snoop Dogg, and Wreckx-N-Effect as some of the country’s most popular, when it comes to “Old School” Hip-Hop programming. While certainly more seasoned than today’s big names like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole, the artists mentioned are by no means the oldest of schools; a radio program featuring playlists of Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, Kool Moe Dee, and similar artists from the ’80s is a rare find, but one that would appeal to a large swath of Hip-Hop fans. If curating your own “Old School” playlist, which songs would you include?

Don’t live in Indianapolis? Not to worry. Anybody can listen live to the Beat’s playlists.

Read: “How Hip-Hop Is Becoming the Oldies” at the New York Times

Related: Here’s an Amazing New Film About the Evolution of Hip-Hop Radio in the 80s (Video)