Every once in a while, I resort to tuning into the radio in the car. My iPhone is dead and, God forbid, the Usher “Confessions” album is skipping through my favorite verse of “Burn.” Or maybe I just feel like partaking in a bit of brainwashing on my evening cruise–Hear the same five songs on repeat, start learning the words, jam out to a Kei$ha sing-a-long–It’s a slippery slope, that radio dial. The music ain’t bumpin’ like it used to, and we should let it burn.
Modern-day disc jockey are shameless puppets of radio executives, plugging in pre-made playlists that repeat five or six songs on an hour cycle because they’re told such. Your request is only honored if it plays into the game plan. Some rich white guy approves of your song choice, because it perpetuates a societal stigma or stereotype. He’ll just love it if you’re itching to hear songs that portray diamond laced black men bragging about their money and hoes. He’ll make sure the volume at the main station is “turnt up.” Oops, I didn’t mean to get that political. Who knows if he’d block this article if it was published on a mainstream website.
And still, plenty of artists rely on radio play to propel their album sales. Top billboard spots are the product of some bizarre, controlled popularity contest. I find myself asking: Do I really like this song, or are “they” telling me what to like? Of all things, we let “them” control our music, perhaps the most potentially influential sphere of our culture. The business of radio maintains a stronghold on an art form that was created and harvested from a yearning for individual expression.
Luckily, it seems as if hip-hop has had enough. Utilizing a strong network of music blogs and well-connected fan bases, today’s rapper is far less dependent on the radio than the Nelly’s and Ja Rule’s of the last decade. We’ve reached a point where radio play and hit singles are more burdensome than they are rewarding. I discover new hip-hop talent by browsing hip-hop blogs and taking recommendations from friends with trusted taste. Why would I rely on some faceless radio robot to tell me about the “hottest tracks out there.”
We’ve heard rappers bash the radio industry for years, but their tenuous relationship has certainly evolved. Whereas hip-hop used to have a rebellious, “we can get rich and famous without your spins” attitude, present day artists treat the radio as less of an obstacle and more of an obsolete medium that has driven itself into irrelevance.
Gone are the days when rappers released hit singles to propel their upcoming album. Instead, we have online releases from their personal websites and twitter-feeds. We have six-track mixtapes and bonus tracks and, as of last week, worldwide video projection on inner-city buildings (thanks, Yeezy). Artists like J. Cole release their music directly to fans, and Wiz Khalifa makes us feel like we’re hearing tracks as soon as they’re recorded in-studio.
In 2004, for example, Kanye rapped on “Jesus Walks” about radio’s barriers:
That means guns, sex, lies, videotape
But if I talk about God my record won’t get played, huh?
Well if this take away from my spins
Which will probably take away from my ends
Nine years ago, radio’s censorship controlled rappers’ “spins,” which ultimately affected their “ends,” their monetary income. Almost a decade later, Kanye is releasing his next album without a pre-order or hit-single. His only leaks stem from his world-wide video projections and a live SNL performance. He has essentially created a worldwide concert audience to spotlight radio’s recent insignificance, and he isn’t alone.
Hip-hop has had a liberating realization that a world without the radio means no censorship, no contract disputes, and no more rich white men telling us what music to listen to. Giving out music for free is more beneficial than selling your lyrical soul to the industry. Now, we hear rappers bragging about how much money they make off of a show or appearance, rather than how many times they’ve gone platinum. After all, they’re making much more money proportionally from concerts and merchandise than from album sales. A ridiculous portion of album sales go directly to the same rich white men who control the radio.
It gets better. The internet movement allows us to discover new artists like never before. As much as Wiz Khalifa still uses the radio to promote albums, he relied on a grass-roots twitter movement to gain fame. Curren$y left Young Money because he was tired of record label nonsense, and harvested his own fan base through internet streams and free mixtapes. In the early 2000’s, Curren$y would’ve just been that guy we heard on “Where Da Cash At” and never saw again. Wiz Khalifa would probably still be in Pittsburgh, still smoking blunts. One of my earliest posts on this blog discussed how Kendrick Lamar used the radio to trick people into hearing a socially conscious message, masking lyrical relevance with a catchy hook. He is one of many rappers who still release radio singles, but have figured out how to use it to their advantage.
Artists who continue to rely solely on the radio are behind the times, and it’s evident. Lupe Fiasco, for example, hasn’t figured out how to escape the limits of radioplay. His most recent albums have painfully driven by a mainstream sound to garner “spins,” and the socially-conscious that made all of us fall in love with Lupe has dissolved into a muffled corniness. He also started beef with a popular hip-hop blog, 2DopeBoyz, for leaking his song prior to his album release. I’ll refrain from taking sides on music ownership and sales, but Lupe certainly lost the battle with the internet. 2DopeBoyz refuses to post about his music, cutting off Mr. Fiasco from a large database of hip-hop fans.
Taking this recent movement into consideration, I’ve learned to take radio for what it is: a monotonous stream of one, decade-old joke. Listening in is certainly funny at times, if I need my fix of censored hooks like “A long-bad-b- is not my, not my problem/and yeah I like to—I got a—problem” (Yes, it certainly sounds like you have a problem, A$AP. You shouldn’t let the radio get a hold of your tracks.) But usually, I like to stay away from the dial, even if it means I have to clean my “Confessions” disc every so often.