By Ian S. Port
By SF Weekly
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Rachel Swan
By Ian S. Port
By Rae Alexandra
By Rae Alexandra
During hip hop's ascent, Stanford University was definitely not down. If Oakland was Bay Area rap's alpha, the Farm was its omega. Buffered from the urban experience by Highway 101 – East Palo Alto is just on the other side – Stanford's campus life was fueled mostly by frat parties and Jamba Juice. Andrew Kringstein, alumnus, class of '97, and founder of San Francisco-based hip hop design collective Exact-Science, suffered a mild concussion after moving out from Brooklyn freshman year and being thumped by the school's obliviousness to hip hop. He remembers seeing De La Soul, one of the more agreeable, benevolent rap groups of all time, end its on-campus show by clowning the audience for being so painfully bland and unenthused.
Stanford, though, has been trying a lot harder recently. Last year's Big Game (Stanford versus Cal football) featured Talib Kweli as halftime entertainment, and the crowd seemed to nod along, as if the rhythms were more familiar than, say, Fijian gamelan. And in a major move, the communications department lured from Harvard associate professor Marcyliena Morgan, who directs the Hiphop Archive (www.hiphoparchive.org), which Stanford touts as the most extensive collection of hip hop materials in existence. Even the university's lab rats are making shout-outs – scientists have christened their chemical genomics laboratory "HIP-HOP," an acronym they twisted out of HaploInsufficiency Profiling and HOmozygous deletion Profiling. Dropping science, for real.
Given this new street cred, one might think Kevvy Kev, aka Kevin Montague, would be greeted on campus with flowers and the keys to the Faculty Club. He has been broadcasting his purist underground hip hop show, The Drum, every Sunday between 6 and 9 p.m. on KZSU-FM (90.1), Stanford's radio station, since 1984. Those 21 1/2 years make it the longest continuously running hip hop radio show anywhere ever, a superlative at least as impressive as the one claimed by the Hiphop Archive. It's also a slice of vintage radio programming that is all but extinct on the airwaves today – a niche show built around a playlist meticulously selected, without outside interference, by its host, who's a distinctive personality at that. Kev is excitable, obsessively knowledgeable, and a hard-core cornball – he offers bags of Snickers, canned hams, and sundry other imaginary treats to the fifth caller who knows such pieces of essential information as which New York cab company Lord Finesse said was his favorite on the B-side of his second 12-inch.
But the university, even with its newfound devotion to the four elements and its longer-standing commitment to multiculturalism (stodgy, Western civ-defending academics like Harold Bloom have ridiculed it for years), has done nothing to acknowledge The Drum or Kevvy Kev, himself a Stanford alumnus. More perplexing still, the Archive has a page devoted to what it calls "True-Skool Radio," which lists various underground hip hop programs, and it makes no mention of the show either. The Drum has been chronically overlooked and underheard since its inception, partly because KZSU's signal doesn't reliably reach all of the Bay Area. But the Archive is housed almost close enough for the employees to lean out their windows and read the labels over Kev's shoulder as he cues the records up.
Kev says the situation doesn't surprise him. "It's probably bizarre how little interaction there is between Stanford and the station," he explains while at his day job, which is spinning classic hip hop as customers peruse the terry cloth G-Unit outfits in Macy's men's section. "The university underwriters only want to make sure we don't cause trouble with the FCC, and as long as we don't, they leave us alone. I think other college stations have a different relationship with their administrations."
One of Kev's favorite expressions is "I'm not mad at you," and it seems to sum up his life philosophy. He forgives his alma mater for its ignorance, and says he doesn't feel owed anything by the legions of now-successful artists to whom he first gave airtime. That's a magnanimous attitude, considering that list includes Jay-Z (who was then with a group called Original Flavor), the Fugees, Redman, Busta Rhymes, and the entire Wu-Tang Clan. He also got behind just about every local act that made it, from Hieroglyphics to Solesides (now Quannum). Even his volunteers have flourished – Kutmasta Kurt had his first gig DJing on The Drum; Joe Quixx, now of the Oakland Faders, handled the decks for a chunk of the '90s; and even Kev's first intern, a profoundly odd fellow named Dopestyle, got a record deal last year.
Regarding any indignation over his being underappreciated by artists and fellow Cardinals alike, Kev says, "I can't start thinking like that because, one, I'll wind up on the clock tower with a sniper rifle, and two, that's just not human nature. People are mostly self-interested, and then you have to consider that fact in the context of the music industry, which is the shadiest on the planet."
As Kev acknowledges, almost none of the artists who clamored to get on the show before their albums started selling now drop him a line when they pass through town. (The RZA is a prominent exception – he played Kev's 20th anniversary party in Golden Gate Park for free.) Again, he's not mad, but he says he's also ready to start collecting on long overdue favors. He's compiling a CD of past Drum interviews and freestyle sessions by prominent artists, and will ask each for an original song to include.
Assuredly, a boatload of Bay Area artists will line up to contribute. Ask a veteran of the local scene about Kev, and you're likely to get lamentations and cries of injustice. "It's a travesty that people don't know who Kev is after all those years supporting hip hop when no one else in the bay would," says Tajai of the Souls of Mischief, also a Stanford grad. "It's messed up that he doesn't get recognized or roasted while he's at the peak of what he's doing, but maybe he hasn't reached his peak yet or maybe we'll do it later on when he decides to give it up. Since it's been so constant, people take it for granted."
Christopher Wiedmann, a longtime listener who used The Drum as a lifeline back to his native New York while attending Stanford in the late '90s, also thinks it's tragic that Kev remains one of the Bay Area's unappreciated gems. He decided to take action while attending the anniversary party. "When I heard him say that it had been 20 years and it didn't seem like a big deal to anyone," he says, "I was like, 'That's it? That's all?' There just seemed to be this huge element of recognition that was missing."
Wiedmann realized that if The Drum was the longest-running hip hop radio show in the States, then it had to be the longest-running in the world, as there is little chance that a hip hop radio show has been broadcasting in Bangladesh since 1984. So he decided to try to bring this feat to light by getting it recognized in – where better? – the Guinness Book of World Records. He approached Kev, who signed on, and then began the somewhat Kafka-esque process of validating the record according to the book's requirements. "It's like the law, in that the burden of proof is on you to prove it," he says. "And the book is run by a bunch of people who see the world in a certain way – it's really set up for guys who do things like eat a thousand coins in an hour – so trying to match their format with something like a show that spans two decades is fairly awkward." Wiedmann also e-mailed the Hiphop Archive to tip it off to the Easter egg it had in its backyard. He got a form letter back.
Kev does want his props – this is hip hop we're talking about – but he says he never did the show to go professional, break records, or ask favors from famous artists. When asked what makes him tear himself away from his beloved NFL, drive down from his home in San Francisco, and play unknown records to a listenership of indeterminate size each week (college radio can't afford Arbitron), he starts pulling 12-inches out of his crate. "See these?" he says, holding up GZA, R.A. the Rugged Man, and O.C. "Nobody else has these. I want to play these on the air for the first time, not just for people who aren't up on good hip hop, but for the heads who know. That's what gets me out of bed on Sundays."
But Kev also has another favorite saying, a reply he gives when asked what's up. "Trying to get rich," he shoots back with a grin. And like the guests on his show, he wants to do that without a desk involved, or a boss, or anything else that is not directly related to hip hop. It seems, though, that what Kev does falls between the cracks. He's certainly a radio personality – his peers Sway and King Tech, hosts of The Wake-Up Show, which he helped found, are syndicated in 20 markets (not to mention Sway's current gig as MTV's official hip hop correspondent) – but Kev cringes at the words "commercial radio" (he does hold out some hope for satellite). He's also a party DJ – but hip hop DJs are struggling in San Francisco, with rock bands getting the choicest gigs again. And perhaps his biggest forte, which is building blazing playlists out of unimpeachable hip hop, is a needless art now that radio stations have replaced music directors with market researchers.
The none-too-surprising reality is that Kevvy Kev isn't rich because he gives his best product away for free. "I'm really, really lucky, though," he says, pointing to his Macy's gig, his Thursday weekly party at the Tunnel Top, and the total absence of offices and company meetings from his life. "I'm paying my mortgage and feeding my son on what I love. It is definitely a grind, but I wouldn't change it."