For the past 15 years, rap has been its own information highway--dispatches from urban East and West that speak to the issues that affect both artists and listeners. "We grew up watching friends die from drive-bys. We have friends who do the gang thing," says Long Beach-based rapper DJ Glaze of the rap group Foesum. "We've seen and been through so much."
"So you figure," adds Foesum member T-Dubb, "whatever you can do, you do it. Just keep it real."
Ferreting out and packaging "real" motivates most urban contemporary radio stations, which seek to boost their numbers by keeping their on-air personalities as fluid and provocative as their playlists.
"After the riots, we kept asking our listeners: What are the big issues that confront you and your life," says Michelle Mercer, Power 106 program director. "The answers came back overwhelmingly that it was violence. A lot of kids were afraid that they were going to die violent deaths. It's pretty alarming hearing young children say things like that. Yeah, we could talk and promote things on the air, but what can we really do?"
In response, Power and the Beat have spun their own turn on the notion of community affairs, something that had been relegated to the high-shelf hours of Sunday night/Monday morning.
"Back in the days when I was growing up in the disco era, people were worrying about partying," says Key-Kool, 27, a Torrance native, rapper and dyed-in-the-wool dial-spinner. "Now it seems that radio is a lot more politically involved. They are using it more as a social tool."
In the fray? The usual issue-of-the-moment suspects: race relations, street violence, AIDS, immigration, affirmative action and welfare reform cast against views on homosexuality among the homeboys or community life after three strikes. With the Beat's on-air, call-in community forums--"Street Science" and "Street Soldiers"--and Power 106's nonprofit Knowledge Is Power Foundation and call-in forum, "From the Streets," both stations have made aggressive attempts to "be there."
Some listeners and media experts consider the innovations a proactive way to reframe a medium battling obsolescence; others wonder if these seemingly sincere efforts to link an estranged community are just hip, but empty, marketing. Motives notwithstanding, radio, like so much else in youth culture (stripped-down fashion and hair-as-afterthought to hand-held video), has attempted to scrape off the gloss and shift into hard focus--to take action.
"The political climate is such that the youth feel alienated from the process," says Gary Phillips of the L.A.-based MultiCultural Collaborative, a community-oriented collective working to address intra- and inter-ethnic conflict. "In this era where people don't have the time to do the reading and the fact-checking, radio is very important."
It's Monday night and Dave Morales, Power 106's midday jock, drags himself in for another shift. Most late-dozing Power listeners know him as the caffeinated voice that mops up after Nick and Eric V (the Baka Boyz) of the 6-to-10-a.m. frenzied three-ring. Morales is in for an 8-to-11-p.m. shift--a special edition of the station's community affairs call-in show, "From the Streets"--focusing, he explains, not just on the violence in hip-hop, but also of that "in the streets. Period."
Swimming in an oversized basketball jersey and wearing a baseball cap tipped backward and a silver hoop sunk through his left eyebrow, Morales slumps in front of a blinking mixing board. His telephone lines flicker, lit hot, then flatline. He gives a couple of stingy coughs, clears his throat, adjusts his headset and leans into the mike: "Goin' straight to the lines, Renee in Fullerton. Renee, it's 'From the Streets,' Power 106. What's on your mind?"
"Um, I would like everybody that's listening out there to stop the violence and, you know, in order to make peace with others you have to start by making peace within yourself. And that's all, just everybody just wake up. Stop the nonsense."
Then there's Earvin from Santa Monica, voice tinged with steely annoyance over the hype surrounding Tupac's death, because people die all the time--"People I know live a life like that. I guess it's a big deal 'cause he's a celebrity." Jose from Orange County sends his prayers to Tupac's family; Billy from El Monte calls to say it's a waste, the result of the pose, the gangsta life.
Keeping the commentary popping, Morales, in the course of the three hours, smooths the brittle edges of revenge-baiting rumor--never preachy, never condescending.