When you don’t have to listen to terrestrial radio, it can be hard to get excited about it, especially if you don’t live in a big city. Charlottesville, the small Southern college town where I’ve been living for about four years now, isn’t exactly a radio hotbed. There’s one freeform community radio station that can be great, depending on who’s DJing, but you’re not guaranteed to hear something you’ll like whenever you turn it on. There are two adult-alternative stations that play a light smattering of agreeable, approachable indie rock and a whole ton of folk-revival stuff. (One of them has no commercials and a pretty-great Sunday-afternoon flashback show, so that’s the better of the two.) And then there’s the usual pile of country and classic-rock and top-40 stations. It’s not terrible or anything. I’m not complaining. I can usually find something I feel like hearing in the car without resorting to plugging my phone into the port. But everything changed a little while ago, when our kinda-decent low-wattage classic-soul station switched formats and became a classic rap station. It’s fucking amazing. It’s the best. I don’t even scan around anymore. It’s weird, since Charlottesville hasn’t had a new rap station, at least for as long as I’ve been living here. But as a new entry into the nostalgia-leaning 35-to-49 demographic, I’m all-in on this shit. I’m actively looking for reasons to get into the car now. Classic rap radio is a ridiculously entertaining new development, and it’s also a fast-growing radio format, one that could rewire the way we think about the way rap music works in the world.
Once upon a time, the conventional wisdom was that fans of rap music were fickle kids. Elders like Run-D.M.C. would bemoan the way rap treats its pioneers while noting that rock fans will keep the Rolling Stones headlining stadiums until the end of time. When Jay-Z blew up, he claimed that he was “overcharging the industry for what they did to the Cold Crush,” invoking the first of many seismically important rap crews who were fucked over by sheisty labels and changing fashions. Not long ago, it was nearly unheard-of for a rapper or a rap group to maintain any kind of heat for more than three albums in a row; its sheer improbability is one of the things that makes Kanye West’s streak so exciting. But times are changing.
The people who listen to rap aren’t just kids anymore. A lot of the time, they’re parents with disposable incomes and sepia-toned memories of calling up the Box to request Method Man videos. There’s a healthy rap-oldies touring market now, and old-head touring reviews now pack arenas across the country. The Wu-Tang Clan can get booked onto any festival bill in the world, even if they haven’t released a truly vital record in years and even if you can be fairly certain that not all of them will show up. Meanwhile, of-the-moment artists like Young Thug and Migos rarely get booked onto rock-festival bills. And now, there are classic-rap radio stations popping up across America. The grandfather was KDAY in Los Angeles, the first radio station in the country that reliably played rap outside of a mixshow context; it switched over to a rap-oldies format in 2004. (I listened to it a ton when I flew to L.A. for Coachella. It was great. When I got far enough outside of town that the signal broke up, I was crushed.) KROI, an all-news station in Houston, switched over to classic rap last year after playing nothing but Beyoncé for a few days, and it saw its ratings jump, as Rolling Stone recently reported. Dallas and Philadelphia and Jacksonville and St. Louis all have classic-rap stations now. Atlanta has two of them.
It’s easy to look at this development and see doom. Something similar happened to rock music, after all, when classic-rock radio became a thing. A ton of listeners decided that they were cool sticking with the things that had happened in the ’60s and ’70s, and that probably had something to do with populist rock eventually losing creative steam. That took a long time; great and popular and boundary-pushing rock bands were all over the place in the ’90s. By the time the nu-metal and post-grunge eras kicked off, though, the arena bands were either imitating rappers or imitating the poses of the ’70s guys being played on the classic-rock stations, and neither was especially inspiring. And now you can pretty much count the artistically vital arena-sized guitar-rock bands left in the world on your fingers. Could something like this happen with rap music, over time? Could it become middle-aged dad music? Could the smart and inventive rappers be pushed out of a decaying mainstream and into various little critically-supported undergrounds? What would the Foo Fighters of rap music look like? Is Jay Z already the Foo Fighters of rap music?
But as a pure listening experience, I can’t say a single bad thing about classic-rap radio becoming a thing. Those of us who were teenagers in the ’90s, after all, should get to have the same nostalgia-rush experiences as the people who were teenagers in the ’70s. (Classic-rock stations already know this; they’ve had Pearl Jam and Green Day in their playlists for years.) And one of the great things about classic-rap radio is that it’s still a format finding itself, and it doesn’t have the same repetitive playlists as the stations — in just about any genre — that play new music. I can listen on-and-off for days at a time and not hear a single song twice. I don’t know how WUVA, my local classic-rap station, runs, but it sure sounds like individual DJs are picking songs they like, songs that go well together. Sometimes, rap will disappear from the station for a half-hour at a time and you’ll hear nothing but ’80s R&B and freestyle. Sometimes, you’ll hear five ’90s conscious rap songs in a row, and then someone will interrupt it with a glorious burst of mid-’00s Atlanta rap ignorance. Sunday mornings are devoted to gospel, as they are on just about every black-music radio station. DJs mix in recent rap and R&B, but they never overdo it. (Chris Brown is in depressingly heavy rotation, but he’s a central Virginia sort-of-hometown kid, so at least there’s a context.) And there’s something about the thrill of turning on your engine and hearing an unexpected burst of “Thuggish Ruggish Bone” that feels entirely new, even if the song isn’t new.
Listening to this stuff, arranged all haphazardly, in a present-day context can lead to some tiny personal epiphanies. For instance: In the entire history of recorded music, there has probably never been a more perfect song for leaving the pool on a sunny day than Pete Rock & CL Smooth’s “T.R.O.Y. (They Reminisce Over You)” — unless that song is Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love,” which also sounds pretty goddam incredible. Or: The simple Proustian memory-funk of hearing a piece of absolute mediocrity like Fat Joe and Lil Wayne’s “Make It Rain” is enough to make that song sound amazing for three and a half minutes. Jay-Z album tracks have often aged better than Jay-Z singles. A song like Skee-Lo’s “I Wish,” which has been a one-hit-wonder punchline practically since its release, still absolutely works as a piece of music. Back in the day, the Edie Brickell sample was the most surprising thing about Brand Nubian’s “Slow Down”; nowadays, it’s Grand Puba’s “a real gold winner just like Bruce Jenner” line. And that scene from that one Louie episode where Louis C.K. howls along to the Who’s “Who Are You?” while his kids, in back, look bored and uncomfortable? I have now found my equivalent, and it’s DMX’s verse from “Money, Power, Respect.” That means I am now an old, ridiculous dad who is still hanging onto his teenage memories. And as long as I get my own radio station out of the deal, I am entirely cool with that.
1. Tyga – “Pleazer” (Feat. Boosie Badazz)
I’m a little embarrassed that, in a week full of great new rap songs, the one I liked the best is the one where Tyga raps about sex, but the heart wants what it wants. This thing was guaranteed a spot on this list even before Boosie showed up to yelp, hilariously, about “Kardashian pussy.” And while it’s a bit weird for Tyga to be in full porn-rap mode while publicly dating a member of our reigning reality-TV dynasty, I guess that is when Kanye put his fist in her like the civil rights sign. And this song is just nasty, production duo FKi giving their take on classic Too Short-era Bay pimp-rap while Tyga goes into deranged sex-drunk mode. This is, after all, the man who made “Rack City.” Respect will always be due.
2. Bankroll Fresh – “Hot Boy (Remix)” (Feat. Lil Wayne, Juvenile & Turk)
It should be a total gimmick. Atlanta rapper Bankroll Fresh scores an underground hit with a song called “Hot Boy,” so he rounds up all three non-incarcerated members of the Hot Boys, the late-’90s New Orleans supergroup, and gets them to rap on it. But the remix transcends gimmickry because all these old fuckers just go in. Lil Wayne is in sinister Auto-Tuned nursery-rhyme mode but more engaged than usual. Juvenile is all slurry authority. Turk is rapping like he spent his nine years in prison working on becoming a better rapper. Someone bust B.G. out of jail so we can finally get that proper reunion.
3. Dej Loaf – “Like A Hoe”
In which Dej Loaf flips rap’s gender hierarchy on its ass and promises to use a dude for everything he’s worth and then kick him out. She’s proved, since breaking out with “Try Me,” that she’s capable of more than tough talk. But goddam, she is so good at tough talk, at issuing melodic threats over eerie tracks from producer-of-choice DDS.
4. Migos – “John Wick”
Migos live inside my head. They already named one song after a pro-wrestling move, and now here they are making a track out of the best American action movie of the last five years or so. Quavo’s not they boogeyman. He’s the one you send to kill the fucking boogeyman. (Song is great, too, but duh.)
5. Cormega – “No Filter” (Feat. Roc Marciano)
I thought about writing this week’s whole column about Troy Ave. That’s the cool topic on the rap internet this week: The schadenfreude that comes when we see a guy proclaim himself to be the savior of New York rap and then fall flat on his face. But Troy Ave doesn’t matter, commercially or artistically. And the people who tried to make Troy Ave happen are invested in a form of commercially dominant New York rap that are never coming back. But there are things that New York rap has always done so well, that it still does so well. For instance: Ultra-verbose hardnosed tough-talk over dusty, cinematic boom-bap. Cormega has been quietly cranking out excellent New York rap for two decades, and Roc Marciano has been finding dizzy new spins on the sound. Troy Ave doesn’t matter. That matters.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
Kanye taking a nap during the Frozen show at Disneyland pic.twitter.com/TDVpLJa11I
— Kanye Doing Things (@KanyeDoingStuff) June 16, 2015