Jarrett Murphy

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Thug Radio

The crime scene out front didn't cool Hot 97's "blazing hip hop and R&B" last week – or mute the station's intense coverage of the on-air beef between 50 Cent and the Game that ended in bloodshed on its sidewalk. Sure, morning host Miss Jones initially promised not to exploit the Feb. 28 shooting. But before noon on March 1, her broadcast crew was telling us "how it all began."

First, we heard the tape of Game's earlier appearance with host Funkmaster Flex, in which he disavowed any beefs with some of 50 Cent's top rivals. That meant, Jones told listeners, that "[Game] was never friends with 50." Then there was the audio of 50 Cent on Flex's show the day of the shooting, boasting that "every record [Game]'s selling is based on me being on his record with him," and announcing that Game was no longer a member of 50's G-Unit crew. Finally, listeners heard the call from Jadakiss to Hot 97 host DJ Clue right after midnight on March 1. "Who is he?" Jadakiss is heard saying of 50. Somewhere amid those clips was the confrontation on Hudson Street between backers of "Half a Dollar" and Game that sent one guy to the hospital.

It wasn't the first time the station had been in the background of a violent hip-hop incident. Last week, a federal perjury case opened against rapper Lil' Kim related to a February 2001 shooting near Hot 97. In 2003, Funkmaster Flex pled guilty to a harassment charge resulting from an altercation in September 2002 with rival DJ Steph Lova. And in September 2003, 50 Cent was fired upon in New Jersey in an incident that might have been triggered by his appearance hours earlier on Hot.

Well, it's a violent world, right? So someone shot a guy in a high-rent district of Manhattan last week, "so what?" rap impresario Russell Simmons tells the Voice. "There was a shooting in Brooklyn last night," and that's not big news, he says. Game was shot before, but the gunplay didn't make headlines then.

True. But those other shootings did not involve the entourages of young millionaires or result from on-air disses broadcast to millions on federally regulated, corporate-owned radio. While not excusing the triggermen in each case, some hip-hop heavyweights say the corporate ownership deserves blame for hyping hip-hop beefs, some of which turn bloody, and all of which undercut the true power of the music.

"They just throw it out there and they fester it," says hip-hop legend Chuck D. "They're just trying to get ears." Hence the airtime Hot 97 has devoted to the dispute between Benzino and Eminem, or Jay-Z versus Nas, and now 50 dissing Game – to name a few. Critics of Hot 97 who held a rally in frigid Union Square Park last Friday are part of a burgeoning opposition to corporate control of hip-hop radio. After all, these beefs don't just get aired to the five boroughs: Around the country last week, Hot 97's material was getting play, according to DJ and hip-hop journalist Mr. Davey D from Los Angeles. "Now people all over the world, radio stations out here are playing the clip of 50 and Game," he tells the Voice. "So their brand is out there."

Hot 97's brand was already out there. Its owner, Emmis Communications, calls it "the premier hip-hop radio station in America," and pegs its market revenue at $808.2 million. Emmis is an Indianapolis-based firm that owns a handful of small magazines, TV stations in several cities, and radio licenses in a few more. The firm's reputation is apparently good enough that "socially-responsible" investment funds, like the California Public Employees Retirement System and Domini Social Investments, hold thousands of shares.

Owners like Emmis and Clear Channel are the corporate muscle beneath hip-hop's skin; their hip-hop stations are notably dubbed "urban radio," which Chuck D says is "a perfect term because it actually escapes the notion of black ownership." The term first originated when black stations wanted to bring in white advertising, says hip-hop journalist Jeff Chang. Now, he says, it's been donned by white stations "using black music and culture to get street cred and in turn to drive the rest of the music industry."

Hip-hop is an industry – whatever personal stuff was rolled into last week's shooting, the disputes cannot be separated from the money that makes the music possible. "Now artists are companies, they're not just individuals," says Davey D. "Fat Joe's success or failure impacts a whole lot of people who are associated with the brand." So when you get dissed on air, you've got to respond.

"Radio and the media in that aspect can play a really, really irresponsible role in terms of blowing out these beefs to a whole other level," says Chang. "Everybody makes money off of that: The magazine makes money off of that, the radio station makes money off of that, and the rapper makes money off of that."

Alex Dudley, a spokesperson for Hot 97, denies that the station exploits hip-hop rivalries, telling the Voice, "The beefs are no question a large part of the music as you can understand by picking up an album. So when an artist comes to talk about his album it naturally comes up."

Since the disputes are part of the lyrical form of gangsta rap, are the beefs, in fact, genuine? Despite rumors circulating for weeks about a tiff between 50 Cent and Game, 50 only brought the issue into the open the week of his new album's release.

Simmons rejects the idea that the disputes are a marketing ploy. "This is the mind-set," he says. "If they were two hustlers – and they are – and they have a beef – which they do – and that beef got interfered with, this is how they'd handle it." Todd Lynn, the comedian who was fired from Hot 97 over a song that used a racial slur and mocked tsunami victims, calls the station management "jackasses," but insists, "I honestly don't believe that they have anything to do with creating these beefs," or with hyping them.

Regardless of where the beefs start or if they are real, DJs are the ones who decide the kind of play they get. And it's not a painless choice. "I don't think any on-air personality starts the beef. I think artists make that decision all by themselves," says MTV VJ and syndicated Wake Up Show host Sway. But once a beef breaks out, Sway says, "You put the radio personality in a catch-22 because I don't think anyone wants to amplify that – or to some people, glamorize that – but if you don't the man across the street might."

So DJs are under big pressure to talk about these beefs. But, adds Sway, "how you talk about it and how you deal with it is important." The DJs could warn listeners that the beef might be just a record-selling ploy – not deadly serious. Or they could talk about more important beefs, like the Iraq war or police brutality. Too often, however, they obsess over the stress between the stars. "They laugh about it, but these are people's lives," says Rosa Clemente, a member of a coalition organizing protests against Hot 97 after the station aired the offensive song about tsunami victims. "This is very serious, what's happening, and it's very sad that Hot 97 will do anything for ratings at this point."

Hot 97 isn't the only station that plays the game. In an interview with 50 Cent on Feb. 28 before the rapper appeared on Hot 97, Power 105's Ed Lover promised at the start to talk about the "negative energy" in 50's life. "We have to," Lover said. Asked why the station had to discuss rap grudges, Power 105.1 program director Michael Saunders said in a statement, "As media professionals we have to ask artists questions about disputes. However, we try to downplay rivalries as much as possible because we are aware of our role in the hip-hop community. We realize the importance of not putting any fuel in the fire that might ignite individuals who surround the artists on a daily basis."

But during his interview, Lover devoted several minutes of airtime to 50's feuds with Fat Joe, Jadakiss, and Nas. He wanted 50 to reveal "what's your beef with each one of them individually." Then another several minutes were spent on the dispute with Game. At one point, Lover asked, "So where does he stand with G-Unit?" to which 50 answered, "He's not in my camp." At the end of the show, Young Buck called in, offering to "take care of" Game. 50 declined.

It isn't news that sensational news sells. There was proof in the coverage of the Hot 97 shooting itself: The Daily News decorated the top of its March 2 cover with bullet holes and the headline "Rap Wars," and the next day a Post story was slugged "Fan day KO'd by gritty 'Fitty' bang-bang." Nor is it earth-shattering analysis that corporate control has, according to some fans, tainted a form of entertainment. The distinction is that in this case, the media conglomerate template is being laid over a subgenre of music – gangsta rap – that often celebrates bloodshed.

"It's not like the guys in the corporation really know who the Game is or give a fuck about 50 Cent. There'll be another," says Sway. "Whatever records by whatever artists work the best." And when a dispute between rappers erupts, Sway says, "it's not about Hot 97 or [L.A. station] Power 106. It's not about any radio station in particular. It's just about radio in general. If you're going to be on the air, you're going to have to be ready to compete at all times."

Hot 97 spokesman Dudley says blaming the station lets the triggerman off the hook. But radio's impact can be destructive. Davey D recalls that when local stations in San Francisco divided up the market into black and Latino audiences, high school fans almost resorted to violence to pledge their allegiance. Political commentary, once at hip hop's heart, has disappeared. And Simmons tells the Voice that he believes "that Biggie and Tupac's deaths were fueled by the media," although he blames the media at large, not just a few radio stations.

"I can't judge the radio station for having the dialogue that the kids are interested in," he says. The trick is to teach the listeners there is a better way, he says. Sometimes radio stations have done that – banning artists who get violent, brokering truces among rival stars. Hot 97 itself has shown restraint at times: stopping Nas from doing a mock lynching at Summer Jam, banning Capone from its air after the 2001 shooting outside the station. But other times, Simmons says, the people in charge of media outlets "don't say these things and can't teach these things because they don't necessarily know it. A lot of times we have these people in charge and their job is to exploit." That's true, he notes, of all industry.

Friday's rally against Hot 97 attracted only a few hundred people. But Chang sees the Union Square gathering as part of a "popular kind of uprising against what we're getting on urban radio" that has broken out in San Francisco, Atlanta, and elsewhere. And while earlier crusades against rap radio were led by people who disliked the music, this one is run by people who love hip hop but feel it has been polluted by cash. Rejecting the charge that Hot 97 has failed to reflect its community's values, Dudley points to the station's long-standing ranking as No. 1 among 18- to 34-year-olds. "I think that's a pretty accurate reflection of the community we serve," he says.

Oddly enough, those same market forces are also the best weapon for reform. The outrage over the "Tsunami Song" spurred real action by Emmis only after Hot 97 began losing sponsors. "That is their lifeline," the rapper Immortal Technique told the Voice by e-mail. "Threaten that and they will listen."

Indeed, Hot's DJs themselves hint at a thirst for something better. The morning after last week's shooting, before they dug into the beef between 50 and Game, the crew at Hot 97 was actually on the same page as their critics. Their talk was about newspapers' failing to put Jamie Foxx, winner of the Oscar for Best Actor, on their covers. One of Miss Jones' on-air colleagues was skeptical that people of color could unify to fight that sort of thing – they paid too much attention to distractions like the "unfortunate incident" the night before. "Yeah, but can't we mobilize for other issues?" Jones asked. Her colleague replied, "I wish."