Radio Daze: Nicki Minaj, Hot 97 And Radio's Relevance In Hip Hop
Hot 97 is still going to play "Starships" and any other Nicki Minaj single that increases their bottom line. And, as their Monday phone call showed, Nicki isn't done with Hot 97 either.
Hot 97’s annual Summer Jam has provided no shortage of headlines each year. From Jay-Z infamously (pun intended) showing Prodigy’s childhood dance class pictures, to the current spat between Nicki Minaj, Peter Rosenberg and Funkmaster Flex, the good folks at WQHT always manage to set the summer off with some controversy. This weekend found Lil Wayne pulling the first lady of YMCMB out of the Summer Jam festivities after some cameras caught Hot 97’s Peter Rosenberg making what Nicki Minaj perceived to be a slight of her hit single, “Starships.”
“I see the real Hip Hop heads sprinkled in here,” Rosenberg told a small crowd. “I see them. I know there are some chicks here waiting to sing ‘Starships’ later. I’m not talking to y’all right now. I’m here to talk about real Hip Hop.”
Offended by the remarks, Lil Wayne reportedly pulled Nicki and YMCMB out of the event when she was originally scheduled to be the headliner. This wasn’t a particularly good look on either side. Like many terrestrial radio stations that cater to the “urban” demographic, Hot 97 bills itself as “the World's most recognized source of Hip Hop and R&B.” So pulling the “not Hip Hop enough” card can be bad for business. And YMCMB ends up looking like the petulant children we often accuse them of being when they shut down media requests, throw sneak disses and have Twitter marriages.
The Semantics Of Labeling Something Hip Hop Or Pop
By traditional, East Coast, sample-based, boom bap standards, “Starships” is wack. If we’re using that as the only standard, “Starships” isn’t even Hip Hop. I’m confused, because as much as I hate Top 40 radio, I don’t see Rosenberg as having said anything particularly wrong. It’s all a matter of semantics and how you frame the argument. Nicki’s boss—Cash Money co-founder and co-CEO Ronald “Slim” Williams—told Billboard magazine the same thing Rosenberg did.
“Nicki isn’t like any other female rapper,” Williams told Billboard in August of 2011. “We knew she had the goods when Lil Wayne signed her. She’s not a female rapper—she’s a pop star who happens to rap.”
Niether Nicki nor her label want to be confined to strictly being a Hip Hop artist. Yet she has rapped and done so particularly well on occasion. And she’s signed to a label that has traditionally made its name from Hip Hop. As Flex himself is prone to say, “Be clear.” Before Jay Sean and any of the current YMCMB crossover pop success, Cash Money made a mint off of Juvenile, Mannie Fresh, B.G., UNLV and a bunch of grimy, less marketable artists. Its conveient to shun the label of being pop when Rosenberg is calling your single wack, but it helps to embrace such a title when you’re breaking chart records.
The term “Pop” music is short for popular music. You can make a solid argument that once a song becomes popular enough—and we’re judging popularity by legal purchases and radio spins—something from any genre can be considered pop. Do we consider everything that features a rhythmic, rapped verse on it to be Hip Hop? Because Madonna was technically rapping on “Vogue,” as was Blondie’s Deborah Harry on “Rapture.” Now that Justin Bieber wants to freestyle and Katy Perry and Gwenyth Paltrow are covering “Ni**as In Paris,” where do you draw the line?
When Starships And Multiplatinum Artists Come Back To Down To Earth
“Platinum don’t mean that it gotta be hot / I don’t gotta like it / Even if they play it a lot / You can hear it when they walk the streets / How many people they reach / How they use music to teach / Radio program ain’t a figure of speech / So watch out / ‘Cause you can be a radio freak…” –M1, “Turn Off The Radio” by dead.prez.
But let’s not focus on labels, and look at the larger issue of crossover appeal. Despite what Hot 97 and YMCMB may have said or done, they both need each other. Regardless of the musical genre, huge crossover success is rarely sustainable. Even for Pop icons such as Michael Jackson, Prince and Whitney Houston, consistently crossing over is more a matter of economics than musical talent. Consistently crossing over to a large audience usually means appealing to the market with the most disposable income. If you’re talking about record sales, a 2011 study by Nielsen states that group is the 18-24 year old demographic. I think this creates the problem of artistically and commercially stunting an artist’s growth so they can remain appealing to the next crop of 18-24 year olds—even if they’ve outgrown their target audience.
In the case of a 50 Cent, Nelly or a Nicki Minaj, each artist appears to have a core audience. And a multiplatinum album serves as a statistical outlier of sorts because it appeals to the core audience and the millions of 18-24 year olds. When those 18-24 year olds with disposable income get older, artists are faced with the task of trying to appeal to their smaller, older core audience or once again reinventing themselves for the next crop of 18-year-olds. I think that’s why we ultimately see 50 having multiple spats with Interscope, Nelly getting frustrated with his label and even a formerly bankable R&B star like Brian McKnight offering to “show you how your pussy works.”
For an artist like Nicki, such early crossover success almost guarantees either one or both of two things. As far as sales go, she may regress back to the respectable average of 500,000 to 1 million albums sold like 50 Cent, T.I. or Nelly. In case you’re wondering, that’s exactly where Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded is currently at domestically. Or she may pull an LL Cool J, Queen Latifah or Will Smith move and opt for the secure bankability of a non-rapping career. Her performance on “Saturday Night Live” in 2011 shows she can probably pull it off.
Similarly, what we like to call “real Hip Hop” can only take you so far. If you’re a programmer at WQHT, adding the biggest single by a female rapper in nearly a decade expands your listening audience. In theory, that means more advertising dollars. There’s a delicate balance at play. You may want to give your audience songs like Nas’ “The Don.” But as dope and representative of “real Hip Hop” as Nas may be, Esco hasn’t had a top 20 radio hit since 2003’s “I Can.” Conversely, few people think “Starships” represents the essence of hardcore Hip Hop—or Hip Hop at all for that matter. But it’s also resting comfortably in Billboard’s top five, and it’s been on the charts for 10 weeks now. For an Emmis, Clear Channel or Radio One station (Hot 97 is owned by Emmis), it’s not rocket science. A huge single like “Starships” essentially subsidizes “The Don.”
And let’s not even think about the future of Hot 97 without YMCMB. Take a look at their playlist. Six of the 21 songs, or almost a third of their entire play list—either feature or are performed by YMCMB artists. Are people going to tune in if “Crew Love” disappears and their listeners are left with Loverance and Cashout?
Full Throttle Hypocrisy
“Magazines said I was shallow / I never learned to swim / Still they put me on they cover ‘cause I earn for them / Soon as I sell too much watch them turn on him / ‘Cause that seems to be that shit that’ll earn for them.” –Jay-Z, “So Ghetto.”
So why all the tough talk? I think we’re seeing two of Hot 97’s most vocal personalities balance both their personal brands and tastes along with representing the company. Rosenberg has his “Noisemakers” series among other ventures, and Nicki definitely doesn’t fit within that universe as “real Hip Hop.” I’ve interviewed Rosenberg about “Noisemakers” a few times, and he’s consistent about the artists included—Pete Rock, DJ Premier and Nas to name a few.
On the flip side, Flex runs a blog (InFlexWeTrust) and his “Full Throttle” show on MTV. When Flex hosts Nicki, who is undoubtedly a ratings booster, where is all this shit about “the streets?” Because when Nicki makes an appearance, the issue of crossing over isn’t discussed. All we seem to get his Flex gushing about Nicki’s fashion choices and her derrière. Drop a bomb on that. New York City…If Flex thinks Nicki is such a sellout—as he claimed during his Summer Jam rant last weekend—why was he just beefing with DJ Clue about stealing a premiere of her “Beez In The Trap” single last month? Flex is a legend, and he practically built Hot 97. But weve seen stuff like this before in 2009 with his threat to ban all Interscope artists.
A Relationship Of Mutual Need
When you’re a purveyor of culture, as deejays and bloggers are, I think you have to weigh giving people what’s popular versus performing a certain tastemaker function. Nicki Minaj is extremely popular, but if you’re a tastemaker that trades in traditional, East Coast, sample based Hip Hop, it’s inconvenient to align yourself with a track like “Starships.” From an artist’s point of view, I think crossover success is rarely sustainable. And many artists find themselves looking toward the same cultural purveyors when diminished sales necessitate reconnecting with their core Hip Hop audience. Ask Eminem, 50 Cent, Nelly, Outkast, MC Hammer or any other Hip Hop artist that has sold over 10 million copies of an album.
You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Radio programmers, bloggers and deejays want the related advertising money that comes with commercially successful artists. Those same bloggers and deejays are also paid to be personalities and voice their opinions—which, in theory, bring in ratings too. Those are two separate functions divided by a very thin line, and when they intersect, you might find a deejay calling a song by the headlining act at the concert his station sponsors “wack.” Commercially successful works and critically panned works can sometimes be the same thing. This isn’t something exclusive to Hip Hop, or even music for that matter. How ethical is it to milk an artist for ratings or pageviews and then question their authenticity? Maybe the answer to that question is irrelevant. Because you can be certain Hot 97 is still going to play “Starships” and any other Nicki Minaj single that increases their bottom line. And, as their Monday phone call showed, Nicki isn’t done with Hot 97 either.
In 2002, Nas had his own boycott of Hot 97 when the station refused to let him lynch Jay-Z in effigy on the very same Summer Jam stage. That boycott was short-lived, because mainstream, major label artists and terrestrial, top 40 radio are locked in a system where both parties need each other. For what it’s worth, Nas was one of the people filling Nicki Minaj’s vacated performance slot last weekend during the current YMCMB rift. The ultimate solution may have come from one Ms. Lauryn Hill, who also graced the stage with Nas.
“I don’t have details on exactly what transpired between the station and the artists, but I do support artists standing by their beliefs, and walking with integrity,” Hill wrote, in a released statement. “We have to find a better way to commercially exploit music, while giving artists their proper respect. This cannot be done while taking their contributions for granted, or trying to control the scope of their growth and power through threats and fear tactics. We can do better than this, there is a better way, or else ‘we’ (the proverbial we) find ourselves in danger of being hypocrites!!!”
Omar Burgess is a Long Beach, California native who has contributed to various magazines, newspapers and has been an editor at HipHopDX since 2008. Follow him on Twitter @FourFingerRings.