It takes two? Twin Cities suddenly home to twin retro-rap stations

by LP Green, II

Feuds are a big thing in rap music. Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. famously had one. So did Jay Z and Nas. Even Lil’ Kim and Nicki Minaj went at it for a while.

Despite that history, very few people could have foreseen the rap battle that emerged in the Twin Cities this summer: one corporate FM radio station going up against another for fans of 1990s-era hip-hop.

“Of all the formats, this is not the one where you’d expect to see a head-to-head competition in the Twin Cities,” admitted Gregg Swedberg, senior vice president of programming at iHeartMedia in Minneapolis (formerly Clear Channel).

The Twin Cities had not had a full-time hip-hop radio station in five years until Swedberg’s company finally filled that vacancy in early June when it debuted Hot 102.5. And then all of a sudden there were two.

Just two months after Hot 102.5 emerged — with a surprisingly strong social-media buzz but a not-so-surprisingly narrow playlist — iHeartMedia’s worldwide competitor Cumulus Media followed suit and launched a nearly identical Twin Cities retro-rap outlet, the Vibe 105, on Aug. 14.

Instead of any current hip-hop tracks, both stations play only old MTV-era, radio-clean songs by the likes of 2Pac, Snoop Dogg, Jay Z, P. Diddy, Salt-N-Pepa, Eminem, Nelly, Fabolous, Ludacris and a few R&B acts such as Usher, TLC and Aaliyah.

As if to underscore the marketability of its format, the Vibe 105 arrived the same day that the ’80s rap group N.W.A. biopic “Straight Outta Compton” hit theaters on its way to an industry-shocking $60 million opening weekend.

“It was pure coincidence, but a good one,” said Scott Jameson, operations manager at Cumulus Media Minneapolis, which operates the Vibe alongside classic-rock mainstay KQRS (92.5 FM) and hard-rock outlet 93X (93.7 FM).

Jameson did not go so far as to claim it was entirely a coincidence that his company’s new outlet debuted so soon after Hot 102.5. Both stations are programmed via their parent corporations’ databases in lieu of on-air DJs.

“It’s pretty well known in the industry that this has become a popular radio format right now,” Jameson said.

Nationwide boom

Hot 102.5 and the Vibe 105 are part of a nationwide trend that has seen classic hip-hop stations emerge over the past year with surprising success in Houston, Atlanta and Philadelphia, as well as in cities with smaller African-American populations such as Indianapolis and Tucson, Ariz.

“Broadcasters might have finally found a format that can lure listeners back to FM” from the Internet and satellite radio, Rolling Stone reported in December.

The trend started last fall when another conglomerate, Radio One, turned a low-rated Houston news station into Boom 92 and saw its numbers more than triple from a 1.0 share to 3.2 (meaning the percent of the total radio audience). A similar story would certainly be welcome at the Vibe 105, which replaced the sagging sports-talk station the Ticket.

“The only place to go is up,” Jameson admitted.

Not only are the overall numbers promising, but so are the demographics for generating advertisers. The stations generally attract listeners in their 30s and 40s, leaning heavily toward women.

“If we have ratings from here on out like we’ve had so far, we’d be very happy,” Swedberg said of the response so far to Hot 102.5 since June. However, he admitted the radio industry’s shift to classic hip-hop has been so swift, “we’re not sure what the shelf life of this playlist is.”

That question is also on the mind of Twin Cities hip-hop performers and other devotees of the music, whose reaction to the stations ranged from “two is better than none” to frustration that the stations wound up being so similar. And so stuck in the past.

Cool, or Kool 108?

“Another station devoted to ’90s hip-hop targeted at thirty-something nostalgic white folks” is how one listener, Mark Fangmeier of St. Paul, put it on Facebook when the Vibe debuted.

Acclaimed Minneapolis rapper Toki Wright said the stations highlight the fact that hip-hop went from underground to mainstream in the era represented by their playlists.

“There was a dynamic shift in popular music in the mid- to late ’90s, [when] kids went from hiding the music from their parents in their room to blasting it in their cars as soon as they were old enough to drive,” said Wright, who also hosts the “Soul Tools” hip-hop specialty show on community station KFAI-FM.

“Now they grew up to run the music industry. Corporate radio sees the numbers and the shift in music consumption universally and has to move with the people.”

However, St. Paul rapper Maria Isa sees the stations less as celebrating hip-hop music and more as co-opting it.

“Where are the deeper songs that get more to the root of what hip-hop culture is all about?” asked Isa (Maria Perez), who studied radio in college and co-hosts the “Latina Theory” podcast. “It’s like [oldies-rock station] Kool 108 for millennials and their older siblings. I remember a lot more variety on the radio when these songs first came out.”

She also pointed out how ironic it is that “both stations lack a fundamental element of hip-hop: a live DJ.”

Adding on-air personalities could become part of the format at either of the new stations, but only if the stations prove popular and successful long-term.

As for the idea of playing songs issued during the Obama administration instead of the Clinton and Bush eras — or, for that matter, during a new Clinton or Bush presidency, should it come to it — any such plan doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

“Much like classic rock, this music represents ‘the good old days’ to a lot of the people that this music appeals to,” Swedberg said. “It’s a moment in time to them that’s fondly remembered.

“And it really is just fun music to listen to.” ___

Chris Riemenschneider from Star Tribune

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