The Demise of Hyphy

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

In 2005, KMEL appeared more than happy to go along for the ghost-ride. Yet both Malkia Cyril and Davey D contend the station had ulterior motives. They believe its support of local music at that time was a way to defuse activist efforts to challenge the station's FCC license (which is renewed every eight years) during the public comment period that ended in November 2005. According to Davey D, "The KMEL that played local music did so begrudgingly, under pressure."

In spring 2006, E-40's hit "Tell Me When to Go" made hyphy a national catchphrase. Davey D says KMEL responded by doing what he calls "superserving" local stuff, to the point where he started to feel that the station might be "trying to burn the audience out on the material." Intentional or not, that's just what happened.

According to Johnson, local music was outperforming national hits in 2004. Cunningham says Bay Area artists tested well in KMEL's market research as late as 2006. But by March of 2007, she claims, "they slid down." To the station, this showed that the "local stuff was no longer as relevant," she says. "Everything has a shelf life ... there's only so much hyphy you can take."

Asked why listeners aren't hearing as much local music on KMEL anymore, morning drivetime DJ Chuy Gomez remarks, "There is not a lot of hot stuff out there. ... It all starts to sound the same. Everybody wanted to sound like F.A.B. or sound like Keak. It got kinda stagnant."

Archer says KYLD began to back away from hyphy because of concerns over violence. "The culture that was developing was, unfortunately, not a healthy one," he says. Additionally, he says, KYLD's programming became more focused on "core" artists like Justin Timberlake, which made hyphy less than a perfect fit.

It may be closer to the truth to say that once KMEL's license was renewed, hyphy ultimately didn't fit Clear Channel's agenda. It's well known that commercial radio has longstanding arrangements with major labels, such as artists who perform for free at Summer Jam for "promotional considerations." By killing hyphy, the station could return to business as usual: playing national hits.

According to Cunningham, localism isn't good for commercial radio's image: "You can be a local artist and play up to where you're from, but if every song is about where you're from, there's a problem."

Ironically, she notes, San Quinn, Big Rich, and Boo Banga's "Frisco Anthem" is currently being spun on mix shows (though it appears on KMEL's playlist as "Scotty Fox's 6 O'Clock Chop Shop Mix"). In all fairness, local artists do show up frequently in mixshow airplay — which, coincidentally, happens at peak listening hours — but the artists don't get name recognition for it on that all-important industry barometer of hotness: the playlist.

Even if hyphy has run its course, a larger question remains of why hyphy artists were the only local rappers KMEL was playing. The Bay Area, after all, doesn't produce just one type of rap; nationally respected hip-hop artists like Lyrics Born, Blackalicious, and Hieroglyphics make music with socially responsible lyrics, yet were ignored by the station as hyphy scraped across the intersection of pop culture, leaving behind it a trail of empty Patrón bottles, half-smoked blunts, discarded pillboxes, and reckless-driving citations.

In a 2006 appearance at the Commonwealth Club, F.A.B. — who is clean and sober — told a sold-out house that he purposely "dumbed down" the lyrical content of his music in order to fit the popular radio formula and gain airplay. To a certain extent, the same could be said of KMEL, which stupefied the creative expression of a vibrant local culture — narrowcasting it to the point of redundancy and, ultimately, irrelevance.

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