Why Was Black Radio Hesitant To Play Hip Hop In The ’90s?

The denial would have profound consequences for the genre— ones that last until this very day.

-by Dan Charnas

It’s the Summer of 1990 in New York City. An intern named David fetches coffee for his boss Sampson King, the program director and star DJ of radio station WPPS-FM. While David sets the drink down beside him, Sampson purrs into the microphone, heralding the success of the station’s “No Rap Rush Hour” and announcing that he’s taking the concept to its logical conclusion.

“From now on,” he says, “No rap. Period. Strictly the R&B jams that make you move.”

David freezes, crestfallen. He’s a young white hip-hop fan, and he doesn’t understand. Why would Sampson, the black program director of a radio station with a huge black audience, back away from the most exciting black genre at its artistic and commercial peak? Public Enemy, De La Soul, Queen Latifah, A Tribe Called Quest, and others like them had sold millions of records. The popularity of rap had inspired MTV, hostile to black music at worst and ambivalent at best, to create its own daily rap video show for mainstream America; it had become the channel’s highest rated show. But even with its growing audience of white kids like David, the music remained boldly pro-black, saturated in Afrocentric sounds, imagery, and lyrics. Why on Earth would a black radio station reject this music?

The above scenario is fictional—a scene from the upcoming VH1 movie The Breaks written and directed by Seith Mann—but it is inspired by a very real moment in music history, as detailed in my book The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop. The Summer of 1990 was a moment when hip-hop’s destiny as global youth culture wasn’t at all a foregone conclusion, in large part because the most powerful promotional engine for music, radio, refused to play anything but the safest, silliest shit, if they played rap at all.

Black radio’s denial would have profound consequences for hip-hop, ones that last until this very day.

Like David, I was a white kid who had grown up listening to black music: soul, funk, and rap. Back in January 1989 I was a 21-year-old college student deep into the research and reporting of my senior thesis on racial segregation in the music industry. I was driven in my quest by a self-righteous anger that the artists I loved couldn’t get a shot at wider audiences because white programmers at pop radio deemed them “too black” for their white audiences. Bullshit, I thought. And with the rise of hip-hop came another, bizarre phenomenon: black programmers at black radio stations deeming black rap artists “too black” for black radio.

Chuck D of Public Enemy had made this point very clear in the lyrics of his 1988 single, “Don’t Believe The Hype”:

In the daytime/Radio’s scared of me/
’Cause I’m mad/plus I’m the enemy/

I set out on a mission to find out why, traveling up and down the East Coast to interview radio programmers. I had grown up listening to WHUR-FM, “Howard University Radio” in Washington DC, one of the most successful and respected black stations in the nation, so I was excited to talk to program director Bobby Bennett. Here’s what he told me:

“Public Enemy we’ve never played. Public Enemy, and this is purely a personal opinion, Public Enemy’s music to me we can do without. Public Enemy is into mad rap.”

Across town, Donnie Simpson was the program director of WKYS-FM in addition to his hosting duties on BET’s Video Soul. He talked about listening to Public Enemy in the car with his 14-year-old son:

“I just heard some lyrics I really objected to. It just really came on too hard for me. Maybe it’s unfair that I didn’t give it a chance, and I didn’t listen closer to see exactly what he was saying.”

At another DC station, WDJY-FM, programmer B.J. Johnson addressed Chuck D’s lyrical challenge directly:

“You’re right. I am scared of you.”

Their objections to hip-hop and Public Enemy in particular seemed visceral, emotional, and irrational. Johnson and Simpson complained about foul language, even though only two songs on Public Enemy’s latest album, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, contained the word “fuck,” and though neither of those songs were actually released as singles.

In the face of black radio’s resistance, Chuck D. and his media assassin, Harry Allen, took their fight to black radio’s doorstep when they wrote the cover story for a widely-read radio trade publication called Black Radio Exclusive:

Black radio has its responsibilities. The question they ought to be answering is “How we gonna make our listeners, the black nation, rise?” Instead, Black radio is pushing a format that promises “More Music, Less Talk,” which is the worst thing. Other programmers promise 75 percent love songs. WHAT! Seventy-five percent love songs?! That’s like 75 percent pure narcotics…Rap gives you the news on all phases of life, good and bad, pretty and ugly: drugs, sex, education, love, money, war, peace… you name it. R&B doesn’t do that anymore… R&B teaches you to shuffle your feet, be laid back, don’t be offensive, don’t make no waves because, look at us! We’re fitting in as well as we can!

Sampson King sits behind his desk, natty and clean, amid the spoils and perks of his corporate radio job. The intern, David, enters in a t-shirt and jeans, rolling a cork board before him. He’s prepared a visual presentation for his boss, a grid of Polaroid photos showing the diverse base of customers buying rap records at a local record store—white, black, Asian, Latino. He thinks that this incontrovertible evidence will convince Sampson to reconsider his “no rap” policy.

But David doesn’t understand Sampson’s reality: Radio stations make money by selling advertising. And advertisers, back in 1990, didn’t spend a lot of money advertising to black people because, well, they didn’t think black people had money. Black stations made around 70 percent of what a pop radio station with the same ratings would earn. It was racism. But programmers like Sampson accepted that reality and tried to work around it by rebranding their stations as “urban” instead of “black”—a euphemism black radio uses to this day—and by targeting the most lucrative and loyal segment of the black consumer base, black women.

When we shot this scene in Sampson’s office, I remembered something that B.J. Johnson told me back in 1989:

“I could play rap, rap, rap, rap, and I’d probably win in this market… But I’d win with teenagers for the most part, or males, who are more inclined to get into that. But they’re not spending money.”

David will find that Sampson doesn’t care about David’s audience of diverse male teen hip-hop fans, because that’s not who Sampson’s advertisers are paying him to get. And he discovers, just like I did, that beyond the business logic, it’s even harder to get past the disdain of older, upwardly-mobile black folks for rap. With only a few exceptions—like Greg Mack at KDAY-AM in Los Angeles, the first programmer in the world to create a rap-dominated playlist—a generation of black radio programmers hated hip-hop and would tell you so with a smile.

And I’m sure that they hated afrophilic white boys like me—as Sampson disdained David—coming in our t-shirts, jeans, and privilege to question their decisions and, in effect, their “blackness.” Our David, the rebellious son of a rich man with a questionable legacy of his own in the music business, has never had to compromise on anything. He’s never had to pay bills. He could never understand the concessions a guy like Sampson has had to make just to sit where he’s sitting.

The struggle between David and Sampson yields some of the funniest scenes in The Breaks, and leaves us with a bit of a cliffhanger.

In real life we know what happened. When black radio refused to play hip-hop in the early 1990s, they denied Afrocentric rap—the stuff we now wistfully see as the essence of hip-hop’s bygone “Golden Age”—a natural home and a place to grow. The older black generation, in effect, put the younger generation out on the street. And it would be the “Davids” of the world to whom they turned—white programmers in pop radio who either loved hip-hop or were willing to try it, people who could use their privilege and advertisers’ perception of their stations as “pop” to market hip-hop directly to white teens.

But by that time, the mid-1990s, Afrocentric rap had all but died, and pop radio’s new openness arrived too late to save it. Instead, pop radio’s benefits would accrue to a newer, more materialistic and mercenary brand of hip-hop.

The Breaks dramatizes the music at its most compelling and creative point and the scene at its most innocent, idealistic, and vulnerable stage. The Summer of 1990 marks the beginning of hip-hop’s transformation from what it was then to what it is now. The Breaks tells us why hip-hop’s today is so different from its yesterday.