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However, more than one local artist has found out the hard way that Johnson holds grudges for perceived slights — sometimes for years. "Big Von, he's the biggest hater there could be," says Sean Kennedy, CEO of ILL Trendz Productions, an Oakland street promotions company.
Frank Herrera, an independent promoter for several local labels, says that Johnson has done some positive things for the Bay Area, but "always seemed like he was unhappy with [local] music." Herrera claims Johnson has "played God" with artists' careers and says he often ignored the advice of DJs who advocated for local records they felt were deserving — most notably in the case of the late Mac Dre, often considered hyphy's founding father. After Herrera brought Dre's now-classic "Thizzle Dance" to the station in 2003, "his DJs had to tell him it was a requested song. Von was holding out on the record."
Herrera also says that Johnson was nowhere to be found the day he brought Dre to the station for a prescheduled interview on Johnson's show. Instead, the interview was conducted by another DJ. Although Dre's 2004 hit, "Feelin' Myself," is currently in rotation, Herrera says KMEL "really didn't start playing him until after he passed away" in late 2004.
In the July 2005 issue of Ruckus magazine, Johnson appears to take credit for breaking hyphy artists: "Name someone you knew of before I played them," he boasts.
Yet Johnson may also have held the movement back. Davey D says he was present at a meeting with prominent Los Angeles radio DJs who had been supporting Bay Area artists. During the course of the meeting, it emerged that Johnson was asked by a well-respected veteran DJ whether L.A. musicians could get some KMEL love in return. Johnson reportedly denied the request; as a result, Davey D says, L.A. stations "stopped playing a lot of that hyphy stuff, almost overnight." Reached by phone, the L.A. DJ (who asked not to be named) confirmed Von's refusal.
According to Herrera, KMEL's internal power dynamic shifted in 2005, when Jazzy Jim Archer left the station and Johnson took on a greater role in programming. "Jazzy fought for Bay Area music. I know that for a fact," Herrera says.
The week after Archer's departure, Herrera remembers going to the station and being made to wait for an hour and a half in the lobby of Clear Channel's Townsend Street office as major-label reps paraded past. Eventually, the receptionist told Herrera that Johnson was unable to see him. He asked to speak with Cunningham, who reportedly told him, "Right now we're not seeing any independent people."
"It was a new regime. Things change," Cunningham says when asked about the incident. But Herrera says other local promoters favored by Johnson were allowed access. Cunningham says the new policy allowed indie-label reps to make monthly appointments at the station, while reps from national companies were granted weekly access. "We have major-label Mondays," she explains.
A similar thing happened to Kennedy, who says he had a personal and business relationship with Johnson dating back to the mid-'90s. But in 2005, the two had a falling-out. "That's when he decided to roll with Rob Reyes," he says, referring to the San Francisco DJ whose promotional company, M1, now handles the majority of major-label accounts as well as a significant portion of indie-label accounts for the Bay Area market.
When he was tight with Johnson, Kennedy was able to come into the station and give records to DJs personally, but after their disagreement, he says he was told to drop off the records at the front desk. With his access curtailed, Kennedy says the labels hired M1 instead, "because they can get radio."
Now that he has fallen from favor with Johnson, Kennedy is willing to talk about the nature of their business dealings. Kennedy says he executive-produced five volumes of Big Von's Chop Shop mixtape series, which didn't do as well as other mixes by the Demolition Men, DJ Juice, or DJ BackSide. Kennedy says he ended up giving most of them away, but he still paid Johnson several thousand dollars per mixtape, with the unspoken understanding that Johnson would give special consideration to the label accounts Kennedy was working.
"I was coming back and giving [Johnson] money for records he never sold," Kennedy says. However, he adds, "I never just outright gave him dough and said, 'Play this record.' I should have, though."
Kennedy's account appears to contradict what Johnson told Ruckus: "If you're in the house thinking I take money, I never took a dime."
Allegations of quid pro quo and backdoor arrangements might seem titillating, but the larger point is that KMEL's machinations effectively limited station access to hand-picked local promoters and major-label employees. The end result has been a narrowing of diversity on the airwaves due to what appears to be widespread favoritism on the part of KMEL executives. This extended not only to major-label acts, but to local indies: Artists like the Team (for whom Big Von was the DJ) received considerable airplay, as did rappers with financial ties to M1, including Keak da Sneak and Kafani.
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