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Arsenio's Exit: A Wrap for Rap? : Television: Urban-music record executives fear that the host's exit from late night will mean curtains for artists who aren't mainstream enough for Letterman or Leno.

May 26, 1994|GREG BRAXTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Arsenio Hall takes his final bow Friday night, record company executives fear that the curtain may also drop on urban-oriented music on the late-night talk-show circuit.

Officials at MCA, Epic and other labels said that for the past 5 1/2 years, the syndicated "Arsenio Hall Show" provided a valuable national outlet for urban music while other late-night hosts such as Johnny Carson, Jay Leno and David Letterman focused on more traditional, mainstream musical tastes.

"I'm really bummed," said Laura Hynes, vice president of artist development and media relations for Tommy Boy Records, a New York-based label specializing in rap and urban music.

"This show helped break a lot of our artists--Naughty by Nature, House of Pain, RuPaul, Queen Latifah," Hynes said. "Before this show, there was no national late-night outlet where a viewer could tune in to see happening music that appealed to the segment of the audience that liked rap or dance music."

Even as Hall's ratings slipped in the last few years--24% in the last year alone--these executives and other observers of the urban music scene maintained that his show never lost its status as a desired gig for rap and rhythm & blues artists to reach their core young audience. An appearance on the Hall show often translated into a boost in popularity and record sales--as much as 400%, said Kim Jackwerth, director of television media for Epic.

It was, said Ernie Singleton, president of MCA Records' black music division, "the single best platform for urban music, even better than 'Soul Train,' 'Showtime at the Apollo' or the occasional Leno and Letterman appearance."

Hall not only gave visibility to established mainstream rappers and groups such as Salt-N-Pepa, Arrested Development and Queen Latifah, but also featured more controversial artists such as Snoop Doggy Dogg, Dr. Dre, Cypress Hill, Tupac Shakur and Ice T.

Now, with Hall quitting after Friday's show, the music industry is wondering if those artists will be able to "get busy" with Leno, Letterman or Hall's expected replacement, Jon Stewart of MTV. The opportunities to get a coveted slot on a late-night show will certainly be slimmer, they agreed.

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Reggie Miller, music editor of the Source, a rap and hip-hop-oriented magazine, said, "The overall vibe of Arsenio's show was a party, and it was also family. It was a real symbol to appear on Arsenio's show. There is definitely not another late-night show that would devote an entire program to rap. I've seen that Jon Stewart has a lot of music acts on his (MTV) show and he feels very contemporary, but I doubt if any other show will be of Arsenio's essence."

Another executive who asked not to be identified said that there was a perception in the music industry that Leno and Letterman were biased against rap and urban music acts. "They're white shows for white audiences," said the official. "Unless you have appeal to white people, you're not going to get a booking on those shows."

A spokesperson for "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" disputed that claim and other perceptions that Leno placed less of a priority on urban-oriented music. "We were the first to have on R. Kelly," said the spokesperson. "In the past, we've had Gang Starr, TLC and a number of hip-hop artists. On June 2, we've got All 4 One booked."

The spokesperson added that Leno's booking of rap and hip-hop artists would not change due to Hall's departure. A spokesman for Letterman could not be reached for comment.

Marla Kell Brown, producer of "The Arsenio Hall Show," said she does not believe the other late-night programs are biased against urban artists.

"Initially, we were an alternative to Johnny Carson, who had a whole different audience and didn't necessarily speak to the younger generation," Brown said. "It's more an issue of age than of black and white. It's an issue of being uninformed."

Some urban artists will get shots on the Letterman and Leno shows, she predicted, "but many will not have a place to go. There are only so many slots available." And "the other shows are not going to change their format," she added. "If you try too hard to be what you're not, that looks strange, too."

Brown said Hall, after all, was only doing what came naturally to him.

"I always felt that there was this misconception by the media that we were on the cutting edge," she said. "We just brought out what young America was listening to. In our first week, we had Bobby Brown on as a guest. He had the No. 1 song in the country then--'My Prerogative'--but he had never been on a late-night show. There just wasn't a venue for artists like him to get their stuff out there. So we were not cutting edge. We were just reflecting the mainstream of young America."

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That reflection extended beyond the music scene, the producer said. "There were actors and athletes that were very popular, but popular in a world that was different than the world populated by the producers of those other shows," she said.

While somewhat pessimistic, many of the urban music executives said they were willing to give other talk shows the benefit of the doubt in terms of the booking of rap and hip-hop artists.

"These musicians will have a place to go, but it just won't be the same," said Lisa Jefferson, manager of West Coast press and artist development for Elektra Entertainment. "I don't know how hard it will be for an artist to get on. It may take a Top 10 single. With Arsenio, if he knew the group, he would put them on. Plus, it won't be the same camaraderie. He will definitely be missed."

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