For 23 years, KMEL's Summer Jam concert has featured short live performances from artists popular on the urban radio station. The mix of sounds has morphed quite a bit in that time. It began with freestyle, New Jack Swing, and pop mixed in with hip-hop, and now finds a comfortable balance between rappers and R&B artists. Despite considerable changes to the event and the station, one thing has remained constant: Summer Jam's support for local artists, and its ability to make a significant difference in their careers.
Rapper E-40, a Vallejo native, first performed at Summer Jam in 1994 and has appeared several times on his way to multiplatinum success. He returns this year as one of the most anticipated performers, taking the stage just before top-billed Canadian rapper Drake, who has released one of the most successful hip-hop debuts of the year.
E-40 says his initial Summer Jam experience was nothing short of transformative. "It just showed pretty much that anything is possible," he says. "I was just a little young ghetto child, and to be able to perform in front of that many people and then to still be able to do it now, it's an even bigger blessing."
Summer Jam's style had national influence on other radio stations; today, the format is a radio concert convention that has been replicated around the country, most notably by famed New York station Hot 97. But Summer Jam was a significant tour stop from the beginning, and helped give what would become some big names their first connection with Bay Area audiences. Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam headlined the first concert in 1987. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, New Kids on the Block, and Paula Abdul rocked the stage in 1989. Mariah Carey made her debut in 1990, though the local crowd was largely there to support Oakland sensation MC Hammer. "Hearing Mariah Carey for the first time, when nobody knew who she was and she was just a breakthrough artist [in 1990], and then to later have her come back and acknowledge that onstage ... that was amazing," remembers KMEL morning show DJ Chuy Gomez, who has worked at the station since 1993.
This year, expect some of the biggest applause to follow the homegrown performers: E-40, Oakland's R.O.D. Project; Oakland native turned L.A. resident Bobby Brackins; and, possibly, the publicly selected winner of KMEL's "Ultimate DJ" contest, who will have to work very hard to entertain an arena-sized crowd.
Brackins' "143," a collaboration with R&B singer and reality TV star Ray-J, has had consistent airplay on KMEL for most of the year. It's a fun novelty track that lives on Ray-J's hook, so it wouldn't be completely unlikely to find him at Summer Jam as a surprise guest. R.O.D. Project's "I Can't Stand You" is an R&B breakup anthem buoyed by a sample of Too $hort saying his favorite word, "bitch." This well-produced, independently released song and its singer have more potential local and national appeal than Brackins' more sophomoric work. So it'll be particularly interesting to see how R.O.D. Project is received in front of such a huge audience.
"It's good when you get a chance to rock the New Parish for 75 of your closest friends," Gomez says, "but to be onstage with not only the 75 people that follow you on a regular basis, but the 18,000 other new fans that have never been able to catch your show ... that's motivating and moving and touching all at the same time."