Microphone Check: How NPR Became an Unlikely Hip-Hop Force

How the hell did your mom's favorite radio station start premiering Big K.R.I.T. albums and launch one of hip-hop's best podcasts? This is how.
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The blog era might be dead now, but in 2012 sites were still very much fighting tooth and nail for premieres and exclusives, ourselves included. DJBooth, LiveMixtapes, DatPiff, Nahright, 2Dope and a host of others were in the trenches, working the angles, trying to land that next big album or mixtape stream. We didn't go to the same great lengths as many, never posting leaks or paying for tapes because that felt like playing with fire, but we were in the thick of the exclusive stream war and each day was a battle. 

And then NPR, the public radio station I most closely associated with in-depth news reporting and my mom's favorite cooking shows, rolled through with a premier of Big K.R.I.T.'s Live From the Underground album. It felt like watching Woody Harrelson walk away with your money, like being the quarterback and then watching your date leave with the nerd at the prom. It was hard to get mad, it came from such a different lane it didn't feel like direct competition. Maybe that nerd was actually far cooler than me, maybe they knew some things I didn't. Maybe getting my ego knocked down a couple notches and having my hypocrisy checked was a good thing. 

If I had taken the time to look at the byline on that Big K.R.I.T. premiere I would have seen Frannie Kelly's name, but while NPR would continue to roll off a steady stream (pun intended) of hip-hop music releases, it wasn't until the Microphone Check podcast became a regular part of my hip-hop listening diet last year that I realized what an extraordinary thing was being built outside the confines of the typical rap internet bubble and truly began to pay attention. Alongside her co-host and co-founder, the legendary Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest fame, the two had cultivated Mic Check into that exceedingly rare thing on the internet - a digital product that humanizes. As many times as I've heard Freddie Gibbs, and I've talked to Freddie Gibbs myself, I'd never heard him like this. As much as I love Pusha T, and I've talked to Pusha T myself, I'd never heard him like this

Who was Frannie Kelly, and how had NPR Music and Microphone Check seemingly come from left field to stake its claim on hip-hop journalism? The only way to find out was to talk to her, so I talked to her. 

I don't need to believe what people tell me about what I haven't seen yet

Live and in person, or at least live and on the phone, Kelly sounds exactly like she does on the podcast. She speaks the way a rock climber moves, slow and measured but with confidence, unshakably calm but with an anti-authoritarian streak that's clear from the start. She's NPR personified, if NPR dropped the occasional "fuck" and made weed smoking references.

Like so many people who didn't grow up inside a Brown Sugar script, there was no one magical moment when Kelly fell in love with hip-hop. She was a Navy kid, criss-crossing the country from D.C. to San Deigo to Oakland and back, which taught her not to judge until she experienced something for herself, be it people, places or music. But she never made a conscious decision to listen to hip-hop, it wasn't a statement or a stance. "Today people see a distinction between liking rap and liking music," she explained. "But in the early '90s there was nothing transgressive about what I was doing. I just liked this music, and all of my friends did too. There wasn't effort involved in liking rap."

After high school Kelly landed at NYU and majored in Music Criticism, which she calls "complete bullshit" and gives her the distinction of being the only person I've ever met to actually formally study the field I work in. After a stint in the book publishing world she applied to every job she could find and ended up at NPR Music before NPR Music had even gone public. She had arrived, but at a place that didn't yet know what it was. 

 A lot of people in power just didn't know enough to know if we should be doing hip-hop coverage, so if Frannie's going to do it...fuck it.

One of Kelly's first real responsiblities was to call rights holders and ask them to stream songs on the the website, which catapulted her into the center of a storm about the value of song streams and journalism versus promotion that's still raging today. More importantly, being forced to make those calls taught her that she could talk to anyone, even music legends. "I believed in all these walls," she said. "That there was a level I had to get to before I could talk to certain people, and it just wasn't true. And I very slowly figured that out." 

Kelly never had a master plan, she didn't set out to bring hip-hop to NPR explicitly, she simply tried something, then tried something else, and no one stopped her. As she put it, "I wasn't hired to do this at all." She arranged a stream of K.R.I.T.'s album because that's the kind of music she'd want to see on the site and when no one pushed back, so she went even further, premiering projects from artists ranging from 8 Ball & MJG to Don Trip & Starlito and many more. 

"They [NPR management] wanted to hear Wu-Tang on Morning Edition, they wanted to hear 8 Ball & MJG, they just didn't know how to do it," she explained. "I was like...here, I just did it. I was the little white girl NPR hired to do some bullshit and while I was in there, I snuck in this whole other thing."

NPR's hip-hop coverage was expanding by the minute and connecting unexpected audiences as rap fans were drawn in by album premieres and NPR listeners who might have dismissed rap in another context found themselves listening intently. "The success enabled me to go to NPR and say, 'These are people who have been ignored by NPR for 30 years. Look, they're here.'" The momentum was real, and then Kelly and Ali Shaheed Muhammad launched Microphone Check

People wanted us to copy a formula and we just didn't

Kelly first met Muhammad in 2010 when she wrote a piece on the Rap Anthology and he reached out to correct some misquoted Tribe lyrics. That simple encounter turned into the occasional lunch when the two were in the same city and Kelly tried to get him on air repeatedly, but with no real success. So like so many times before, she and Muhammad simply did what they wanted. 

"My boss came to us and said why don't you do a rap All Songs Considered," she recounted. "We said no, we wanted to interview people, and so we started doing it and put it up on Soundcloud. People wanted us to copy a formula and we just didn't."

Some high profile names helped bring in listeners - Andre 3000, T.I. and J. Cole have all been guests - and Kelly credits a great Earl Sweatshirt interview with really helping put them on the proverbial map, but more than the names it was the atmosphere of the podcasts, the conversations, that built a loyal audience. To be blunt, there simply aren't other places where we get to hear a white woman and black musical legend sit down and have conversations with artists that are fearlessly honest and true, and I suspect it's that deeply unique atmosphere that allows artists conditioned to hide pieces of themselves in the face of an often voracious press truly open up. 

"Microphone Check doesn't work the way we're told interactions between women and men work," Kelly said. "Or interactions between black people and white people, or artist and journalist, or newer artist and legend. I don't know what to say except I'm as surprised as anyone, but I don't doubt any aspect of it."

It's a lot of pressure to put on a podcast and there are certainly pragmatic reasons it exists. NPR might be a non-profit enterprise but it's not in the business of producing things no one listens to, and artists are certainly there for more than deep conversation, they're looking to promote themselves to a new audience which will hopefully result in more money. On the larger level there's a symbiotic agreement at play no different than any other interview, but whether it's surface or subterranean, it's hard to listen to Microphone Check regularly and not feel like a bigger mission is underway.  

"There just aren't avenues where white people who live segregated lives get to hear black people be people," explained Kelly. "I feel very uncomfortable talking about it, but we can't stop doing Microphone Check, because there's the very smallest glimmer of hope that's humanizing."

Right when I was fully immersing myself in Vince Staples' excellent Summertime '06 album I heard him on the Microphone Check podcast and his brilliance truly sunk in for the first time. I had somehow lost track of Saul Williams in my regular rotation and was reminded of what an extraordinary mind he is on the Microphone Check podcast. As unlikely as it seemed just a few years ago, NPR has become a hip-hop force, and all it took for me to recognize it was humanity in audio form.  

I always thought I would stop if I ran out of stories. But it just doesn't happen.

By Nathan S, the managing editor of DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter. Photo Credit: Ebru Yildiz for NPR.NP

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