I spent my teenage years dreaming of what listening to the radio in California might feel like. Sure, I’d heard the LA Leakers do their best Funk Flex impression over mediocre song premieres online, but it was only last month that I finally experienced Los Angeles radio in Los Angeles while jet-lagged in the back of a Lyft. A chipper DJ on Power 106 was plugging a Kehlani concert, and the vibe was exactly what I’d always associated with Southern Cali: warm and breezy as the palm trees that blurred past us on the side of the highway. That passing thought added a glimmer to my fatigued brain, even if the song that followed—something destined to be the 2018 “Shape of You”—reminded me exactly why I haven’t listened to the radio since I first had those teenage dreams.
My early childhood was spent on the East Coast when early '90s listening habits were mainly dictated by radio spins and CD purchases, and then later when LimeWire and Kazaa were ruining family computers the world over. But there was always a place for the radio in my house. My father’s preference for 98.7 Kiss FM would clash with me and my sister’s yearning for Radio Disney and, as I grew older, New York’s Power 105.1. File sharing had necessitated the creation of the iTunes Store, a place to legally purchase MP3s, but it was still in its infancy. FM stations held a tight grip on what blasted out of windows and what the streets would eventually put on lock.
Radio was a form of communal sharing, a terrestrial play date for your parents to call their other parent friends to tune into so they could listen through the phone and argue about Aerosmith and Mary J. Blige. But it was also a public platform for artists—and their fans—to reach millions that didn’t rely solely on prerecorded music or center-stage attention. It wasn’t until years later, when I first heard the radio skit that opens Wu-Tang Clan’s “Protect Ya Neck,” that I even considered what the radio really meant to someone who just wanted to hear some Wu-Tang.
The phone call that opens “Protect Ya Neck” was taken from an actual broadcast on WPGC, an urban-leaning rhythmic-formatted station based in the Washington metropolitan area, and sets the mood for the entire song. “You know what I wanna hear, right?” the fan excitedly asks the DJ, who replies, “Wu-Tang again?”
Before Inspectah Deck’s voice slices through the mix, the DJ sounds exasperated. The first few seconds of the record, the debut single off Wu-Tang’s classic album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), acknowledged a then-common practice, a precursor to the years I would hear DJs and fans alike trip over themselves requesting 50 Cent songs and later spending 20 minutes teasing Kanye West and JAY-Z's highly-anticipated Watch the Throne collaboration “Otis.” A relic of rap radio’s past came back around to inform my present.
Though the radio would inform so much of my music listening in the years before iTunes fully gripped my life, the radio was still molding and shaping the habits of music fans decades older than me. De La Soul peppered their 1991 sophomore album De La Soul Is Dead with interludes revolving around the fake WRMS radio station, which plays—what else?—nothing but De La Soul music. Snoop Dogg’s debut Doggystyle followed that tradition in 1993, taking the concept even further by establishing W Balls 187.4 FM, hosted by DJ Saul-T-Nutz, played by the late comedian Ricky Harris, in the 36-second skit “W Balls.” Both Doggystyle and De La Soul Is Dead used the ubiquity of FM radio in the early '90s to close the gap between the artist and the listener. They put listeners squarely in the sun-soaked seats of Californian drivers, switching between stations not unlike W Balls and Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, which had dropped just a year earlier. The decision gave Doggystyle’s atmosphere the loose playful swing of its G-funk production throughout.
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North Carolina's Little Brother would take this idea in a more righteous direction a little over a decade later on their 2003 debut album, The Listening. Rappers Phonte and Big Pooh and producer 9th Wonder were frustrated with a listening public unwilling to dig past a “hot song” for something more meaningful in the early 2000s, especially when it came to being added to radio station's rotation. Rap had just peeked its head through pop's doors at the tail end of the '90s and was settling into a new kind of omnipresence around this time, and with that, the more digestible, crowd-pleasing records were rising to the top. The Listening is guided by the DJs of WJLR (Justus League Radio), a fake station dedicated to “the future of hip-hop radio,” free of the Nellys and the Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz dominating the scene at the time.
Little Brother and the Justus League used their platforms—real and fake—to not just create an atmosphere that reflected an emerging backpacker scene but to also challenge their listeners to think while they listen. The most obvious example can be found on album’s title track, where Phonte and Pooh spend the entirety of the third verse spitting nonsensical bars about U-Hauling Brown Sugars and Tony Danza making people celibate. Suddenly, the laid-back humor found in radio skits on Doggystyle and De La Soul Is Dead had merged with the cynicism and anger of Bad Boy TV's The Mad Rapper, who appeared at the beginning of The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Kick in the Door.”
While it's hard to imagine radio ever completely going away, its death grip on the public consciousness has weakened over the past 15 years. File sharing gave way to iTunes and later the streaming boom, which has forced radio to play from behind. Even freestyles on the radio don’t impact anymore until they hit the internet. Still, you don't have to look very far to hear artists who grew up on a similar airwave diet. Childish Gambino does car karaoke to an all too short Lloyd jam on Because the Internet; Jay Rock, Kendrick Lamar, and SZA celebrate the radio remix with a mid-song switch-up on “Easy Bake,” courtesy of distant Saul T. Nutz relative DJ Turn-Up; and a Lonely Boy calls Golf Radio’s Shane Powers to request a song “about me” on the “Sometimes…” interlude from Tyler, The Creator’s Flower Boy before breaking into the Kali Uchis-assisted ballad “See You Again” (which, coincidentally, is Tyler’s first song to ever receive radio play).
Radio nostalgia is undeniable, but few acts have been able to capture that feeling of late in the same way Vince Staples does on his newly-released album FM!. The pressure to conform to a more modern sound following the sweaty, neon, techno pulse of 2017's Big Fish Theory nudged Vince, a lifelong Cali resident, to enlist LA radio mainstay Big Boy and his Neighborhood Morning Show crew to use the radio to flesh out the California of 2018. Songs seamlessly blend together thanks to radio drops, brief song premieres from Earl Sweatshirt and Tyga, and ticket giveaways that bring you into the Neighborhood by cutting out the middleman of a joke host. “I don’t really care about much that comes from outside of here, to be honest,” Staples told Big Boy in an interview following the album's release. “To be able to keep it insulated, feed my family, take care of where I come from and still be able to do things that are creative and still reach milestones, I just appreciate it.”
FM! is many things: a critique of Black death as entertainment, Vince course correcting on his own terms, and above all else, a stellar body of work. But hearing Big Boy and The Neighborhood Morning crew cut in between slick production from Kenny Beats shines a light on society’s amorphous relationship to the radio. Its position in this current music landscape is localized morning shows and the hottest song premieres on both Clear Channel-owned FM stations and Sirius/XM satellite radio. It remains the soundtrack to sunny mornings with my hairdresser keeping my tender edges looking fresh. It flows through open windows from stereo boxes and online streams. And, as always, its pleasures will surely continue to startle even more jet-lagged Lyft riders across the country.
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