Why Many Black Radio Stations Refused to Play Hip-Hop in the ’90s
Dan Charnas is a celebrated author whose book The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop is a masterful road map to the people, places, and events that helped contribute to the culture’s emergence into mainstream and financial dominance, both behind-the-scenes and in headlines. Part of his tome chronicles the role of Black radio, one of the few places in American media where Soul, R&B, and eventually Rap artists were free to express themselves musically to an appreciative audience. However, as Charnas relates, some of the radio programmers in the scene were hesitant to start incorporating Hip-Hop into their playlists, a misstep many surely regretted as time passed. That moment in time – when the executives and personalities in Black radio didn’t come around – is also depicted in the upcoming VH1 film The Breaks, and in anticipation of its January 4 debut, Charnas penned a story about his personal experiences interviewing key players in early ’90s Black radio for VH1.
In “Why Was Black Radio Hesitant To Play Hip Hop In The ’90s?,” Charnas shares with readers his travels around the East Coast to various radio stations, which he set out on to find out why many were so reticent to play the music that he calls “the most exciting black genre at its artistic and commercial peak.” After all, by the ’90s, even MTV had come around, blasting Hip-Hop through millions of TV sets across the world. Rap artists had begun to sell millions upon millions of records, and mainstream media could no longer ignore the influence. As Charnas argues, “Black radio’s denial would have profound consequences for Hip-Hop, ones that last until this very day,” a conclusion that many would agree with, including the very radio programmers who had once opted out of putting the music on the airwaves.
Charnas spoke with Washington, D.C.’s WHUR-FM program director Bobby Bennett, who explained his reasoning. “Public Enemy we’ve never played. Public Enemy, and this is purely a personal opinion, Public Enemy’s music to me we can do without. Public Enemy is into mad rap.” Charnas spoke with another D.C. radio personality, program director of WKYS-FM Donnie Simpson, who said “I just heard some lyrics I really objected to. It just really came on too hard for me. Maybe it’s unfair that I didn’t give it a chance, and I didn’t listen closer to see exactly what he was saying.” It seems, at least in Charnas’ experience, that many objected to what they viewed as Hip-Hop’s aggressive, sometimes violent and profane lyrics on an emotional level, but those kinds of arguments didn’t always hold up. For many Rap groups of the time, singles contained no profanity and as Heads are well aware, plenty of tunes were positive, uplifting, and culturally representative of important values.
Unsurprisingly, many Hip-Hop artists and key players fought back against the seemingly blatant silencing of Rap music, including Chuck D and his “media assassin” Harry Allen. Charnas quotes the two men from an interview they did with radio trade publication Black Radio Exclusive: “Black radio has its responsibilities…Rap gives you the news on all phases of life, good and bad, pretty and ugly: drugs, sex, education, love, money, war, peace… you name it. R&B doesn’t do that anymore… R&B teaches you to shuffle your feet, be laid back, don’t be offensive, don’t make no waves because, look at us! We’re fitting in as well as we can!” Charnas goes on to include some insightful backstory into the creation of The Breaks, but he brings it full circle to real-life history by signifying the importance of the Summer of 1990. “When Black radio refused to play Hip-Hop in the early 1990s, they denied Afrocentric rap—the stuff we now wistfully see as the essence of Hip-Hop’s bygone ‘Golden Age’—a natural home and a place to grow,” he writes. “The Summer of 1990 marks the beginning of Hip-Hop’s transformation from what it was then to what it is now. The Breaks tells us why Hip-Hop’s today is so different from its yesterday.”
Will you be tuning in?