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Oldies that aren’t so old for hip-hop fans

‘Classic rap’ channels find dedicated, and growing, audience
/ Source: The Associated Press

A young boy asks for the latest from Ludacris. Junior from Stanton wants to hear some classic Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. Randy from Anaheim is hankering for political rapper Paris’ decade-old “Guerrilla Funk.”

Veteran DJ Julio G steps away from a glowing mixing board in the darkened studios of KDAY-FM, surprised and pleased by the last request.

“Wow. I haven’t heard that in a while. That’s hip-hop,” he tells the caller, promising to add the song to his mix.

Nostalgia for the not-so-long-ago sounds of early rap is kicking in hard for longtime fans who find themselves left cold by the genre’s latest hits. The booming, marketer-friendly audience in their 20s and 30s is starting to find more mature alternatives to the ever-young party and gangster rap that populates the pop charts.

KDAY, named after the groundbreaking 1980s AM rap station, is the nation’s first hip-hop oldies radio station. In Atlanta, WFOX plays “the best jamz of the ’80s, ’90s and now” — with Whodini classics sandwiched between R. Kelly and Usher.

WFOX doesn’t attract a lot of listeners, but New York urban station WWPR (Power 105.1) is among the top-rated in the market and plays about three hip-hop or R&B oldies an hour.

Nearly every urban radio station around the country features at least one so-called old school show. L.A.’s dominant KPWR (Power 106) fills its popular weekday lunch hour with one.

And the new wave of satellite radio embraced the old wave of hip-hop several years ago; both major subscription services offer dedicated channels. Hip-hop pioneers Dana Dane and Kurtis Blow host a show on Sirius’ “Backspin” channel. Younger rap icon Snoop Dogg has a weekly program featuring old school rap and funk on XM channel “The Rhyme.”

Popular on satellite radioXM — the dominant network with 4 million subscribers — does not release listenership figures for individual channels, but urban programming director Leo Pryor said the hip-hop oldies channel is among its most popular urban offerings.

“The popularity of ‘The Rhyme’ surprises me. There’s a huge audience for this music,” he said. “There’s a song in each era of the music that takes you back to, ‘Man, I remember when I was in high school and I was dating this girl...”’

Record labels, meanwhile, have in recent years reissued a slew of “classic” rap albums from those golden years of, say, the mid-1990s.

Nas’ landmark “Illmatic” has sold a respectable 121,000 new copies since being re-released on its 10th anniversary last year, according to Nielsen SoundScan. 2Pac’s double-CD opus “All Eyez On Me,” first released in 1996, sold 773,000 new copies since being reissued four years ago. The original album sold 4.5 million copies.

2Pac was one of many rappers who referenced the influential original KDAY in their lyrics. Created in 1983, it quickly became a sensation and drew national attention for playing a bold mix of cutting-edge rap around the clock: DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, Boogie Down Productions, Kid Frost.

Now, nostalgic rap fans can hear some of that same music on the reborn KDAY.

The rather weak signal at 93.5 FM “flipped” to the new format last September after being purchased by privately held Florida-based Styles Media Group. NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton” was the first song played.

Listener Ginger Silvera, a 22-year-old student, was so enamored with the station that she recently stopped by the studio to silently watch the DJs.

“Lots of people want to hear that old stuff. It’s real,” she said. “It’s not all that watered down commercial stuff with people just talking about making money and all that nonsense.”

Despite such passionate followers, KDAY’s Arbitron ratings remain relatively low in a Southern California market already crowded with two hip-hop stations. But programming director Anthony Acompara said the station has a 2.2 share for listeners in the target 18-34 age range, comparable to established stations playing adult-oriented music.

KDAY’s on-air personalities include the nationally syndicated Baka Boyz and, starting June 1, ’90s rapper Yo Yo.

The programming, billed as “hip-hop today and back in the day,” is split about equally between current hip-hop and songs from anytime before 2000. Lil Jon may follow Eazy-E, and Kurtis Blow’s “Basketball” precedes 50 Cent’s “Candy Shop.”

It’s a format that could take off elsewhere in coming years as advertisers and radio executives recognize the buying power of aging hip-hop fans and the staying power of the music generally, said Dana Hall, urban and rhythmic editor for industry journal Radio & Records.

“It’s just a matter of time,” she said. “Hip-hop has kind of proven itself. It’s not going away. It wasn’t like disco, it wasn’t like hair bands.”

Hip-hop's mainstream successEven the concept of an oldies niche points to the overall genre’s astounding mainstream success. Nearly 26 years after Sugar Hill Gang’s catchy “Rapper’s Delight” became the first rap song to climb the charts, hip-hop is definitely pop.

Producer-rapper Kanye West was the leading nominee at the last Grammy Awards. Ice Cube, who gleefully shot a police officer in one long-ago album skit, is making family films that top the box office.

And though most haven’t hit 40 yet, fans who’ve been around from the beginning are feeling a little bit, well ... old.

Jeff Garcia, the 32-year-old DJ behind Power 106’s oldies show, said he’s still enthralled with the Beastie Boys’ “Paul Revere.”

“It’s so weird, how you can hear that and it’s 20 years old and you can remember every single lyric — yet you can’t remember to get milk when you go to the store. ... It shows that music is part of you.”