On February 28, a shootout involving rappers 50 Cent and The Game outside the studios of New York City’s WQHT-FM (97.1) became the latest in a plague of controversies afflicting the station, better known as Hot 97. Three days later, activists staged a “Stop Racist Hot 97” rally on the south side of Union Square, directly across from a Virgin Megastore, to protest corporate media’s exploitation of hip-hop culture.
If it seems surprising that Hot 97, a popular hip-hop radio station staffed by mostly African-American and Latino DJs, is being accused of racism, then you probably never heard “The Tsunami Song.” Asian Media Watch and the Hip-Hop Coalition organized the anti-Hot 97 rally specifically to protest this spoof-song, a parody that repeatedly aired on the station in January. It set tasteless jokes about Asians and Africans drowning and being sold into child slavery to the tune of “We Are the World.”
Though promoted as an antiracist event, the rally lamented the degraded state of the corporate music industry generally. One of the first performances at the demonstration came from Asian-American rapper Koba. In front of an audience holding signs reading “Hot 97 Divides Our Community,” “Stop Hate 97” and “I Am Hip-Hop,” Koba recited lyrics that earnestly expressed his grievances with the state of hip-hop: “With a hot producer/Hitler would still be popular, blinged-out with Medusa [a popular jewelry brand].” In another song, he castigated greedy artists who fail to recognize the boost in visibility they get from bootlegs and online music traders: “Now you mad ’cause your bootleg’s on the Ave.?/That’s the best promotion team that you’ve ever had!…/You whiners unnerve me/You’re just an old, white exec in a throwback jersey.”
The activists who organized the rally are justified in framing their criticisms in anticorporate terms. Hot 97–“where hip-hop lives,” according to its slogan–is owned by Emmis Communications, which owns twenty-four other US radio stations, fifteen US television stations, three European radio stations and a publishing company. Emmis’s 100 percent Caucasian board of directors makes its decisions in Indianapolis, more than 700 miles away from Hot 97’s listeners. While media critics have long recognized that the rise of radio megaconglomerates like Clear Channel and Infinity Radio has led to a decline in the quality and diversity of radio programming, the history of Hot 97 shows that smaller media conglomerates can be just as unresponsive to the needs of the communities they serve.
A recent cover story on Hot 97 in the Village Voice implied that a ratings war with rival station Power 105.1, owned by Clear Channel, instigated much of the station’s divisive behavior. However, Hot 97’s shortcomings were apparent to some critics even before Power 105.1 existed.
One of the first clues that Hot 97’s absentee overseers might be out of touch with their audience came in 1999, only months before Emmis’s first public stock offering. On an episode of the station’s public affairs show dealing with the acquittal of the four NYPD officers who shot at Amadou Diallo forty-one times, the host interviewed a police official and conspicuously chose not to air criticism of the decision. The phones were never opened up to the outraged listeners who flooded the lines.
Other scandals followed. There was a shootout in front of the station in 2001 and a public backlash against the station later in the year after its morning hosts poked fun at the death of r&b singer Aaliyah in a plane crash. The rivalry with Power 105.1 that began in 2002 made a bad situation even worse. In 2002 a Hot 97 DJ got into a fistfight with a Power 105.1 DJ over a “payola” allegation made on the newer station’s airwaves.
Hot 97 retained its popularity and influence throughout these controversies. Until recently, it held the overall No. 2 spot among listeners 12 and older in New York, according to Arbitron, the radio ratings service. Original performances by rap stars on DJ Funkmaster Flex’s show are widely circulated by bootleggers and on the Internet. Ads featuring larger-than-life images of stars like Kanye West and Jadakiss posing in front of gritty urban landscapes are plastered throughout the city’s subway stations.
The most recent incidents at the station threaten to change all that. “The Tsunami Song” garnered international headlines and an official condemnation in the British Parliament. It drew the attention of activists in the hip-hop community and the ire of Queens Democrat John C. Liu, New York’s first Asian-American city councilman. Hot 97’s management initially defended the station in a press release, arguing that the station had “a longtime reputation for community involvement and support.” They eventually agreed to fire two employees and donate $1 million to tsunami relief, but neither politicians nor activists seemed satisfied.
In front of the crowd rallying against Hot 97 in Union Square, a political hub of the city since the nineteenth century, “old-school” DJ The Original Jazzy Jay talked about the transformative potential of hip-hop: “It ain’t all about how much money I can stuff in my pockets, how many rocks I can put in my socks. It’s all about educating ourselves, because the biggest tool we have is between our ears. If you use that tool effectively, hip-hop could be something great. It is great, but it could be greater.” Grandmaster Caz, another godfather of hip-hop, humorously inverted Hot 97’s slogan to show the contempt corporate media management often has for artists, especially those who aren’t on top of the Billboard charts: “Hot 97 is not where hip-hop lives. As a matter of fact, hip-hop needs a pass, approval and two-week notice just to visit Hot 97!” He urged those who work for Hot 97 to “wake up and realize that they’re being controlled and programmed–’cause they got a director that does that.”
The Harlem rapper who goes by the name Immortal Technique was one of the only speakers that afternoon to offer practical advice to hip-hop fans and artists who are uncomfortable with the direction hip-hop has taken under the reigns of CEOs. He advocates economic resistance as a way to break the stranglehold that multi-national corporations have on the music business–“Burn it off the Internet and bump it outside,” he shouts on one song–and has sold more than 80,000 copies of his two full-length records on a truly independent label. His third, The Middle Passage, is scheduled for release this summer on Viper Records. If it is anything like his previous albums, one of which included a song alleging continuing CIA involvement in the South American cocaine economy, it is unlikely that any of it will be played on Hot 97.
But can other artists–many of whom rely on the music industry’s globalized combination of patronage and high-stakes gambling–make a living without the support of this system? Immortal suggests it is indeed possible for artists to put money in the bank without relying on irresponsible corporations, but he warns that “it depends on [what] your idea of making paper is,” poking fun at the greed and conspicuous affluence that became a hip-hop stereotype in the 1990s.
Immortal did not suggest that Hot 97 would ever really clean up its act–and in all likelihood, any changes made at Hot 97 will disappoint the dedicated activists who organized the rally. Instead, he has discovered that he doesn’t need Hot 97 any more than it needs him. “I know a lot of people that move their stuff through the Internet now,” he says. “Even though the record industry criticizes the Internet for being one of the reasons it’s losing money, it’s not. The reason they’re losing money is ’cause they make garbage music, formula music.”
Immortal Technique’s success should give modest but tangible hope to critics of all forms of homogenous, corporate-owned media.