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'Classic' hip-hop radio format banks on old-school tastes and listeners

Before Wiz Khalifa's mellow vibe told us to "Roll Up," Snoop Dogg was sippin' on "Gin and Juice," and "I Need Love" by LL Cool J championed rap's sensitive side while Drake was still in diapers.

Run-D.M.C. at Madison Square Garden in 1986. Boom 107.9 hopes to attract nostalgic hip-hop listeners with old-school performers.
Run-D.M.C. at Madison Square Garden in 1986. Boom 107.9 hopes to attract nostalgic hip-hop listeners with old-school performers.Read more

Before Wiz Khalifa's mellow vibe told us to "Roll Up," Snoop Dogg was sippin' on "Gin and Juice," and "I Need Love" by LL Cool J championed rap's sensitive side while Drake was still in diapers.

Hip-hop, so often thought of as a young person's genre, is getting older. Rev. Run of Run-D.M.C. and Flavor Flav of Public Enemy are grandfathers. And now there's a radio format in Philadelphia recognizing hip-hop's coming of middle age. It's called by various names - "old-school" or "throwback hip-hop" - geared toward listeners who grew up with the genre.

On Nov. 7, without advance notice or promotion, Radio One Inc. launched throwback hip-hop station Boom 107.9. This replaced Hot 107.9, where the format had been "mainstream urban," or current hip-hop/rap hits. Why the change? In an early news release, Radio One said that Hot 107.9 had "sustained poor rating performance for several years."

Instead of new tracks from J. Cole or Nicki Minaj, Boom 107.9 plays Sugarhill Gang, Run-D.M.C., and Pharrell (pre-"Happy" mainstream success; he's been around a while, too), hoping to attract listeners who hear such music with nostalgia and are adjusting to being old-school themselves.

"At first it was nice to hear an old hip-hop song, and then I heard another one and then another one," said Shakirra Clark, 41. After hearing the songs in her car, Clark, like many others, jumped on social media to share her excitement.

"When Boom arrived in Philly, I've never seen 'Twitter love' like I've seen for that station," said Sean Ross, vice president of music and programming at Edison Research. In large part, he said, that love indicates Philadelphia's tight relationship with hip-hop.

Philly has a rich rap/hip-hop history, producing some of the most renowned of DJs, plus formative acts such as Schoolly D, considered by some as the father of gangsta rap.

"There's enough heritage," said Ross, "for one station to play classic hip-hop instead of three stations battling for French Montana."

Ross sees the changes as part of a growing radio trend across the country, under way for the last 18 months. Stations in Boston, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston, and elsewhere have adopted the old-school/throwback format.

Clark, a stay-at-home mother of six, listens to the station as she takes her kids to school, after homework, and while cooking dinner. She said she listens to Boom so often that her kids say, "Mommy, can you turn that old-school stuff off?"

Her children now like 1980s young hip-hop duo Kris Kross. Best of all, Clark said, "I'm not worried about them listening to the lyrics."

James Peterson is director of Africana studies and associate professor of English at Lehigh University and author of The Hip-Hop Underground and African American Culture: Beneath the Surface. He said targeting the older hip-hop demographic makes sense.

"We have a lot more money or disposable income than we used to," said Peterson, who is 43. But he wonders whether Boom 107.9 knows its demographic well enough. Although these listeners may have tastes that are old-school, their modes of listening aren't: "We're consuming music visually and digitally. I'm really interested to see how a radio station can capture that first hip-hop generation."

Clark wants Boom to remain purely old-school and not "baby old-school." For her, the late 1990s are already too recent. She wasn't thrilled on Dec. 4, Jay Z's birthday, which Boom dubbed "#JayDay Jay Z All Day." It played Jay Z's debut album Reasonable Doubt (1996) and then The Black Album (2003) in their entirety.

Peterson sees three eras in hip-hop. For him, Jay Z, Eminem, and P. Diddy were a part of what he calls the "platinum era," making their music old enough to be throwbacks. Although unsure whether hip-hop has completely left the platinum era, he said Boom 107.9 "needs to be able to tap into the contemporary music with old-school aesthetic."

That means playing new music by old-school artists and playing new artists who have an old-school sound. Either way, Peterson said the switch was a sign of "another radio station that cannot compete with Power 99," Philly's biggest hip-hop/R&B station.

Doc Wynter, senior vice president of urban programming at iHeart Media, owners of Power 99 and WDAS, said in a statement that though the company has launched successful throwback hip-hop and R&B stations in St. Louis and Jacksonville, Fla., "we never considered flipping Power 99 or WDAS, as both stations are beloved in Philadelphia in their respective formats."

But Carl Dash, 45, a platinum-era DJ in Philly, said, "People feel fatigued by negativity, and that's where the nostalgia is legit for artists of another time."

From the late 1990s to the early 2000s, Dash threw dance parties across the city, filling venues such as Five Spot, Transit, and Savannah's with people jamming to Jay Z, Nas, the Notorious B.I.G., and A Tribe Called Quest.

"Some elements of contemporary hip-hop are trafficking negativity and the decadence of violence," Dash said. "That's weary on the soul. If you're a 35- to 50-year-old parent, you don't have the luxury of doing that."

He admits, however, that old-school music had its share of violence. But "that's when the glossing-over of nostalgia comes in."

Even young listeners are tuning in to Boom. Yusuf Muhammad, 28, said the music he heard as a child had more nuance and creativity. Because of this, he said, many of his peers don't typically listen to radio.

"People crave quality music," he said. "They stopped listening to the radio because radio stopped listening to them."

After Boom went on the air, however, his Twitter timeline was full of young people tweeting about radio for the first time in a long time.

"The important thing here is that 20-year-olds are talking about radio," said Ross. "That is significant."

But Michael Morrow, 34, said the radio industry is "pulling for straws" and made a bad move in laying off human DJs in favor of automation. (Boom's website is updated with current events, but its format switch was accompanied by layoffs, and there are no live DJs.)

"It kind of hurts the culture," said Morrow, "because DJs are movement-starters in our culture."

Peterson said Boom must remember that its target demographic - "people engaged in identity politics through hip-hop for 20, 30, and 40 years" - thinks of Public Enemy as its hero. In this listenership, human interactions, conversations, and real radio personalities are key both to the culture and to the format's longevity.

Will Radio One hire new DJs for Boom 107.9? No word yet. But Ross said layoffs are typical of most format changes: "Not everybody is appropriate for the new format; some stations ought to start over. The magic for most people is hearing the records again."

A statement from Radio One does seem to suggest there's still room for change at Boom: "We aren't stunting or running a seasonal promotional. We are committed and have great hopes and plans for it, but only time will tell. Our job is to keep our pulse on what our listeners want to hear. . . . our listeners have spoken - Throwback Hip-Hop it is."

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