The Demise of Hyphy

Thizzle, bling, and blunts may have helped bring down the overhyped hyphy movement. But KMEL pulled the trigger.

In 2000, Michael Martin, KYLD's program director, became the overseer of both KMEL and KYLD, its sister station and onetime rival. Over the next year, Martin methodically cleaned house at KMEL, slowly but surely replacing the station's core staff, who had forged key relationships with the local hip-hop community.

In 1998, Oakland's Delinquents sold 30,000 copies of their album, Bosses Will Be Bosses. The group felt its single, "That Man," had the potential to be a big commercial hit on KMEL. "We had a current record with a current single," rapper G-Stack recalls. "We had a street buzz." The Delinquents also had decent sales figures, moving 2,000 copies a week. Despite sending their music to the station, "they still wasn't playing our stuff," he says.

Out of frustration, the Delinquents and a large number of thuggy street dudes confronted former KMEL DJs Trace and Franzen at a club one night, demanding that they receive airplay; rumor has it that someone in the group's entourage pulled a gun on one of the DJs. Urban legend or not, this incident led to a meeting at the station with the DJs and then-program director Joey Arbagey.

G-Stack remembers the meeting well: "We got up in there. They weren't trying to let us in. We told them, 'It ain't gon' be okay to ride your vans through the 'hood.'"

Faced with the threat of retaliation against its marketing street team, KMEL grudgingly conceded a modicum of airplay to the Delinquents. But by then, their album had been out for six months, and the group's momentum fizzled. "We never really had that radio support again," G-Stack says.

The Delinquents' experience wasn't uncommon. In a 2001 interview, E-40 wondered aloud about KMEL, "If you're 'the people's station,' why aren't you playing the people's music?" And in 2003, producer EA-Ski complained that other regional scenes benefited from radio play: "Everybody else is supporting their music, but KMEL isn't doing it."

Rappers haven't been the only ones upset with KMEL. Over the years, community activists have frequently targeted the station. One flashpoint came when Davey D, host of the popular public affairs show Street Knowledge, was fired three weeks after the 9/11 attacks when he hosted interviews with Rep. Barbara Lee and Boots Riley of the Coup that ran afoul of Clear Channel's pro-Bush agenda.

In 2002, Malkia Cyril, executive director of Youth Media Council, formed the Community Coalition for Media Accountability, which studied KMEL's social impact on young people in the Bay Area. Cyril says the station allowed local artists little airtime, and promoted music that tended to criminalize its primary listeners: young people of color.

In January 2003, the coalition met with Johnson, then-community affairs director Cunningham, and a Clear Channel executive who flew in from Texas, to discuss their concerns. Cyril says KMEL didn't share the view that the station should be a public resource: "Big Von's stance was — I'll never forget him saying this — 'This is my radio station.'"

Possibly as a result of the public pressure, KMEL added "Closer," a jazz-tinged R&B single by then-unsigned Oakland singer Goapele, to its playlist. The song ended up being the most-played song on KMEL that year.

"Closer" may well have opened the station's eyes to the fact that there were local records out there that could compete with national hits. Still, KMEL resisted opening up its playlist – until its hand was forced by the emergence of an unlikely rival that threatened its market dominance.

In April 2004, Power 92 (92.7 FM), an upstart station that branded itself "The Beat of the Bay," began its existence by playing 48 straight hours of Tupac Shakur. Its playlist quickly evolved into a locally oriented version of the "hot urban" format. For perhaps the first time, KMEL was suddenly faced with real competition.

The battle for supremacy of the airwaves and the loyalty of the 18–34 urban listening bloc set the stage for what became known as the hyphy movement. Practically overnight, the radio was flooded with local rap music. If, prior to Power 92's arrival, one or two Bay Area rap groups at a time broke through to KMEL's or KYLD's rotation, listeners now had a choice of hearing their music on three stations.

Though owned by the same company, KMEL and KYLD catered to slightly different demographics: KYLD skewed younger and more Hispanic, while KMEL's core audience is older and more African American. By targeting the same demographic as KMEL, Power 92 represented a viable threat to the station's hegemony. Once Power 92 emerged, artists could leverage their radio play by deciding to which station they would first take their music.

KMEL responded to Power 92 with what Davey D characterizes as a "corporate thuggin' mentality." He says labels, artists, and advertisers were allegedly told in no uncertain terms not to do business with Power 92. The new station's street teams were harassed by what the East Bay Express called "Clear Channel shock troops," who piled out of KMEL- and WYLD-branded vans and slapped bumper stickers advertising their stations on Power's vehicles.

DJ BackSide had been a Power 92 street team member for just a week when she was offered a slot on KMEL. In July 2004, she started hosting The Hot Spot, a late-Friday, early-Saturday show. It quickly found an audience among hyphyites eager to keep their buzz going as they headed home after a night of clubbing.

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