The Demise of Hyphy

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

BackSide rapidly became one of hyphy's most visible proponents. In addition to her KMEL show, she hosted an online show at Warner Brothers-sponsored Web site; produced mixtapes hosted by such luminaries as Too $hort, San Quinn, and E-40; sold her own "Got Bay?" T-shirts; held residencies at non-KMEL-promoted clubs; and received exposure from national outlets like BET. There was a perception, she says, among longtime KMEL staffers that she was doing too much.

BackSide soon found herself an outsider among KMEL's predominantly male DJ roster. She says she experienced some resentment because she was new and because she had come over from Power 92 (which has since changed owners and become LGBT-friendly dance station Energy 92). Cunningham says she respected BackSide's hustle, but adds, "She was young. She didn't know how to handle situations."

BackSide alleges that certain individuals at the station did everything they could to get her fired or removed from the air, including accusing her of taking payola. On May 3, 2005, she remembers, she had just left the New York City offices of Bad Boy Records, where label owner P. Diddy thanked her personally for breaking one of his records on the air.

Not 20 minutes later, she says, she received an instant message from Scotty Fox, 3,000 miles away at KMEL. In a transcript of the conversation provided by BackSide, Fox takes an aggressive tone, accusing her of taking credit for breaking a record other KMEL DJs played on the air first. She denies it, but Fox berates her repeatedly. "U stay in your lane," he warns.

Several times, Fox invokes the name of the station's music director. "This is from Von," he says at one point. After some more back-and-forth, he curtly states, "There's nothing to talk about."

A month and a half later, BackSide was told of a letter sent to the editor of RPM (an industry trade publication) accusing her of taking payola and requesting that she not attend the Mixshow Power Summit, a high-profile conference of the nation's best radio mixers.

At first glance, the letter (which SF Weekly has reviewed, along with other documents supplied by BackSide) looks like an official document on letterhead from Clear Channel's corporate HQ in San Antonio. It claims that the DJ was under internal investigation for accepting plane flights and other forms of payola from Universal and Bad Boy.

Curiously, though, the letter is unsigned, and has no return address. Furthermore, it seems odd that an internal investigation into illegal payola by a KMEL DJ would have originated not at the station, but at its parent company's corporate offices.

After receiving a copy of the letter from RPM, BackSide says she met with Cunningham and Johnson. When asked who could have written it, BackSide gave a copy of her IM communications with Fox to Cunningham. She was then told she was suspended pending an investigation.

After consulting a lawyer, BackSide returned to the station the next day and handed a letter to the HR director detailing the conversation among her, Cunningham, and Johnson. A half-hour later, she says, Clear Channel honcho Michael Martin personally informed her that her show was reinstated, effective immediately.

From that time on, she says, she received a chilly reception at KMEL: "You could cut the tension with a knife." Johnson, she says, "wouldn't even look me in the eye."

BackSide says there was no internal investigation into the letter's authorship, although Cunningham told her the station had looked into her NYC trip and found she had paid for her own ticket. Cunningham says the station confirmed no one from the corporate office initiated any investigation: "Honestly, we don't know who sent it."

In February 2006, BackSide was fired from the station. Cunningham says the DJ didn't help her own cause by falling asleep in her car when she was supposed to be doing her show, resulting in "dead air." But BackSide says she played prerecorded music during that time, adding that she dozed off because her show was moved to 4 a.m. In any event, Cunningham says, "at that point, she knew she was not on the good side."

BackSide's departure from KMEL deprived the hyphy movement of one of its loudest supporters. By silencing her voice, the station closed a door which had allowed the artists community access to otherwise-impenetrable airwaves.

Currently living in Los Angeles, BackSide likens working at KMEL to working at a restaurant: "On the outside, it was great," she recalls. "You go into the back and it's a whole different story. Behind closed doors, [there] was a lot of stuff going on."

Much of the dissatisfaction with KMEL's support of local rap in recent years has centered on Johnson's perceived attitude toward the homegrown scene. As the public face of the station, he is in the difficult position of having to balance the corporate agenda with community needs, while his boss remains behind the scenes. "Von gets the blame because he has allowed himself to be the go-to person," says Davey D, who adds, "You're not seeing Michael Martin; you're seeing Von."

In a 2004 interview, Johnson argued that commercial radio can't placate everyone. "For the records that we do play, I could name 100 people that's still upset," he said, adding that he looks for "good records," not necessarily because an artist is from "this clique or that clique."

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