On the Air After two years of Flow, has Canadian urban radio become a soul survivor or just another pop pretender?
Published Mar 01, 2003On March 17, 2001, Bob Marley helped usher in a new era in Canadian radio history when his "Roots, Rock, Reggae" was the first song ever broadcast on a commercial urban radio station in Canada, on Toronto's Flow 93.5 FM. It was a striking choice not because Marley is a safe bet for reaching a wide crossover audience, but because by picking a reggae icon instead of a hip-hop one, Flow made a statement about its specific brand of urban radio. It would acknowledge the wide base of its mandate, not just for popular, mainstream hip-hop and R&B, but also digging into the roots of the African, Afro-American and Caribbean forms of music that influence and inform what has become urban music today: gospel, reggae, soul, jazz, and more.
Flow filled a gaping hole in Canada's radio scene. Despite its world-wide popularity, Canadian commercial radio and its licensing gatekeeper, the Canadian Radio and Television Commission (CRTC) have lagged behind as urban music became a dominant sound in popular culture and on outlets like MuchMusic. The push for commercial urban radio didn't come just from the media conglomerates able to make it happen pressure from Canada's hip-hop community, anxious for an outlet to promote home-grown talent, had long lobbied for just such a station. "It didn't take a rocket scientist to tell you that Toronto needed an urban station," says Wayne Williams, Flow's music director and assistant programmer. The wake of Flow's launch has seen immediate results. The country's second urban station, The Beat, began broadcasting in Vancouver in March, 2002, while strangely enough, Calgary currently boasts two different urban stations: Kiss, formerly a rock station, changed its format in mid-July 2002 while new station Vibe launched two months later. Several more across the country are in the middle of the licensing process.
But two years after Flow's launch, some concerns remain. Canada's underground hip-hop community, whose support has long been the domain of campus and community radio stations, has seen the airwaves of Flow and its compatriots filled with popular American hits by the likes of Jay Z and Nelly; its early promise to support Canadian talent is questionable. Its diversity too, hasn't manifested itself as promised instead of offering an alternative, in many ways these stations are offering more of the same. Has commercial urban radio emerged as the professional, more credible contemporary of grassroots community radio that many hoped for? Or are these merely pop stations in disguise, trying to capitalise on the trend in an already saturated market?
Flow's Yonge Street studios, overlooking the heart of Toronto's downtown, are slick, tastefully designed, and stacked with the latest in digital audio technology. The atmosphere is relaxed, autographed posters from LL Cool J and Remy Shand adorn the office walls, and the sounds of Cam'ron bump softly in the background. Its parent company, Milestone Radio Inc., formed in the late 80s and began lobbying for an urban-format license almost immediately. "There was a huge void in radio at the time," says Flow's Wayne Williams. "Canadian radio didn't reflect society, it was very much one-sided. Milestone knew that, and set about to launch Flow."
It took Milestone three tries, starting in 1990, before the CRTC would vote in its favour. On June 16, 2000, Milestone was finally granted a place on the FM dial. The station was an immediate success, pulling a 3.0 market share before its first 12 months were up, and several more across the country followed suit.
"This is obviously a broad definition, but in some degrees, Canadian urban music started the day Flow launched," says Mastermind, music director of Calgary's Vibe. He's been spinning hip-hop longer than almost anyone else in the country, having launched his radio career at age 15. "What's the purpose of me putting out a record if I can't get it played anywhere? The Top 40 stations in this country were so racist and so against what was going on, they weren't trying to play any of these records. Now they have an outlet."
What commercial radio stations are looking for and how Canadian artists can fit into that while maintaining a unique sound has become a key question for the success of home-grown talent. "First and foremost, it's a matter of quality," says Flow's Williams. For his station to put a Canadian track into rotation, "it has to stand next to an LL Cool J or an Eve, or a Dr. Dre." But, does that mean it has to have the same high-quality production? Or does it have to sound like LL Cool J, Eve or Dr. Dre? "Well," Williams admits, "it's a little of both."
One sceptic is Toronto MC Arcee, who for the last two years has co-hosted The Real Frequency on Ryerson community station CKLN. "I think [commercial radio programmers] listen for certain clues," he says. "Singing in the chorus, maybe a nice Latin beat, whatever. You have to look at who their demographic is, and a lot of this marketing is being done to young girls with disposable incomes. That's why you have Nelly and Ja Rule. You see a pattern it's all these artists with muscles. That's what they think it takes to make music palatable."
Toronto MC Eternia sees the situation a little differently. To her, the issue of who gets commercial radio play is a multi-faceted one. "Some people would say it's who's in charge, or just industry circles. If you're getting backing from a major label, such as Shawn Desman, you're a lot more likely to get played 20 times a day on Flow than if you're an unknown artist. Either the songs that are chosen to be sent to Flow, on the part of the artist, or the songs that Flow is choosing to play, don't reflect the vast array of music that we have in Canada."
When Eternia approached Flow with her music, she was surprised by the support they were willing to lend her. "The track that they've been playing on air is a ghetto track," she laughs. "The fact that they play that is shocking to me, because I didn't make that for commercial radio. It's hit or miss. I don't know the method behind the madness."
In her mind, commercial urban stations like Flow and Vibe are "audio versions of MuchMusic. People who wouldn't normally be listening to your stuff hear you, know of you, and recognise your name. So when it comes to exposure, Flow has definitely helped as long as you get on the station."
"Right now," says Mastermind, "a lot of people will say, Oh, how come only Choclair, Kardinal, Jully Black and In Essence are the only ones that are getting played?'" He sighs. "Well, unfortunately everybody else either a) hasn't made a good enough record, or b) hasn't gotten their music in the right people's hands for them to get the same exposure.
"When I was on Energy [108 in Toronto], I had a home-grown show. I used to say to people, Just send me a demo, I just want to play it.' And you'd be surprised by how much decent stuff was out there. I used to fight to get unknown artists spins at my station. We were playing all this whack, Canadian pop crap but we weren't showcasing any of these Canadian hip-hop artists that actually have an inkling of some talent."
But radio airplay is not a quick fix for a Canadian industry that still lags behind in its overall support for home-grown hip-hop talent. "I did a record with this dude called Nautilus," Arcee says, "a song called Twelve.' Flow played the hell out of that, they charted it, and it was on the top eight at eight at some point." But, he's quick to point out, "just because you're hearing a song on the radio ten times a day does not mean that muthafucka is selling. People thought I was rich when they heard Twelve' on Flow. Man, I hear it all the time, so you must be bankin', huh?' Bankin' what? You wanna see my passbook update? No activity!"
Mastermind is as troubled by sagging Canadian hip-hop sales as anyone else in the industry. "Are we going to blame that on downloading? Bullshit. Nas still sells platinum, Jay-Z sells platinum, and they get downloaded more than anybody. So, what is it? You get the exposure, you release the records, but people aren't going to the stores and spending their money. Why is that? It boggles my mind."
According to DJ Disoriental, well-known in Calgary for his club residencies and local DMC title, all we need is more money and a bit of time to marinate. "The urban music scene is a new phenomenon, and that's probably why it doesn't get as much respect."
Eternia echoes Disoriental's response. "We're kind of a mini-U.S. in the sense that everything that happened there ten, 15 years ago happens here at some point. So you notice how we have literally a handful of artists that are household names: Kardinal, Choclair, Maestro. That was the States in the 80s." Part of the reason local hip-hop artists struggle to support themselves in the Canadian market, she says, is lack of proper business smarts. "I'm not speaking on a high horse either I'm a culprit, I'm learning as I go along. Putting out videos with no product out, putting songs on Flow and then a year later dropping the video. I think people are more concerned with getting themselves heard, and they will do anything, and they'll do it for free. Never once do they think, I worked long and hard on this track, I paid money to record this track, I need a return.'"
Major labels catch on slowly, but they've begun to realise that signing Canadian hip-hop acts might be a worthwhile investment, and the credibility of having commercial radio air time devoted to hip-hop has contributed to the labels' increased attention. As more artists ink deals, score studio time, work with professional equipment and get better distribution, Canadian hip-hop may see higher record sales and more radio play not because there is a quota to be filled, but because people want to hear it.
One of the greatest challenges faced by urban stations is balancing their hybrid nature. As commercial entities, they are tied to research on market share and demographics, but more than say, the average modern rock station, they also are more tied to a specific community. Supporting hip-hop music is more than just playing rap songs on the air, it comes as part of a package deal.
As part of its mandate, Vibe has set aside an annual sum of $750,000 for local artist development, and has committed to playing 40 percent Canadian content, more than the quota required by the CRTC. Flow, as part of their Urban Flowcase initiative, plans to spend $2.1 million on talent development over seven years. The main focuses of this initiative are a talent-seeking contest called Soul Search, and the quarterly release of promotional CD compilations featuring unsigned Flow artists.
"Part of our job too is to develop Canadian artists, as opposed to a lot of stations that won't even touch an artist that isn't signed with a major record label," explains Williams. "We've done artist workshops, where we charge a small amount just to cover our costs, ten dollars was the last one, and we go down to Ryerson and have a full day of workshops on producing, on writing, and on how to develop and market yourself. So, we do quite a bit for artists."
Some, like Arcee, still see all this as a self-serving move. "CanCon dictates that they're accountable to local artists," he shrugs. As stations struggle to fill their 35 percent or 40 percent quotas with Canadian music, developing local talent becomes a matter of their own self-interest. It's a similar dilemma to that faced by MuchMusic during its mid-80s infancy. With a quota of Canadian content to fill, an investment in home-grown talent is a self-interested move to help boost the quality of its on-air content.
Despite these new success stories and considering that a much greater segment of the population listens to commercial radio than community radio significant changes in Canadian hip-hop record sales have yet to manifest themselves. Hip-hop, and urban music in general, is riding a huge crest of popularity in this country, and although their American counterparts continue to achieve gold and platinum status, Canadian artists are still struggling to pay their bills. The question remains: if urban radio stations are promoting local music more than ever before, why isn't it selling?
Halifax MC and CKDU disk jock Jesse Dangerously is blunt in his response. "We have one-tenth of the population, this just isn't where the money is. Rap is like handgun deaths it's just something that goes on more in the U.S."
"Canada specifically is kind of weird about supporting itself, and I don't really know what the deal with that is," says Oddities MC Psy, from Victoria, BC. "There are certain groups I think should have at least gold records out, like Monolith or Brassmunk, and I'm not seeing that happening. Maybe part of it is they're not seeing that stuff on BET," he musis. "Now that Canada has BET, it's not all about MuchMusic's Rap City anymore which is still only half an hour."
Nestled in the belly of Ryerson University's Jorgenson Hall, just a few blocks from Flow's slicker operation, you'll find CKLN studios. Here, every Saturday afternoon, The Real Frequency hosts DJ Musiklee Inzane, DJ P-Plus and MC Arcee fill the studio with drop-in guests, MCs waiting to drop a freestyle on air. The space doesn't stray far from the typical campus station mould: two cramped booths, unpredictable audio equipment, sagging chairs, and event flyers scattered everywhere. Here, and in studios like it across the country, are the community roots of Canadian underground and the success of Flow or any commercial urban station hasn't changed that.
"I can't speak for all college radio," says Arcee, "but we don't play music that's left of centre to be left of centre. We've always played what we want to play. Right now, as commercial radio has a stranglehold on hip-hop and the music that's being brought to the people, it's important that there are shows like us. We don't answer to marketing schemes and stats."
Co-host Inzane nods in agreement. "Part of what we try to do is show people that there are other artists in hip-hop other than the ones you see every day on TV and hear on commercial radio. If people weren't playing stuff like that, I don't think the music would expand. With commercial radio stations, I think they underestimate the intelligence of their listeners. They're not giving them the opportunity to hear something different. While [Toronto] was getting Flow, I envisioned a station like [New York City's] Hot 97. They cater to the pop, but they also have speciality shows on the weekends that will play and break new artists. That's what I thought Flow was going to do."
"When you don't take risks," adds Arcee, "you're cheating the listener. Let the listener decide."
Hundred of kilometres away, DJ Cosm, host of Mental Illness on Calgary community station CJSW, echoes their critical sentiments. "I definitely don't see any major evidence that either of [Calgary's commercial] stations are broadening anyone's horizons with regards to the music that they play, but I didn't really expect them to." To Cosm, "now is the time when college radio gets to prove how diverse it is, and the potential it has for trend setting."
"Flow didn't happen because they're this great group of people and they just sweet-talked their way into a radio deal," says Arcee. "Flow happened because people in the community wrote letters, petitioned, did things of that nature, and a lot of those were people like myself and other struggling artists." Once Flow got its license, however, Arcee claims that their approach and relationship with those who had supported their radio bid changed. "They made the process very difficult. They started telling the artists, Well, you have to sound like this, otherwise you're not going to get played.' They wanted to control what they perceive the sound everybody wants to hear is."
As the commercial pop sound du jour, hip-hop's days may be numbered many have already spied the cloud of urban overkill looming on the horizon. At the same time, mainstream rap's crossover nature sees other stations encroaching on what should be urban radio's domain it's not uncommon to hear catchy pop hits from Eminem or Missy Elliot on a variety of stations, be they "edge," "mix" or "energy." What will ensure the continued relevance of urban radio is not its ability to jump on the latest bandwagon of commercial hip-hop, but in drawing from its strength a long and storied history of ties to a music community that will give its loyalty if only the stations prove worthy.
Without fresh approaches to emerging sounds, urban radio stations will find themselves behind the times when the trend fades. "If you're only in it to ride a trend, when it's played itself out, then what are you going to do?" asks Arcee. "Ride another trend. For stations like Flow it's in their interest to have speciality shows so that when the trend rides out, they have something as a foundation, that doesn't fall out with the trend."
What Exactly Does "Urban" Mean Anyway?
"That is one of the hardest questions to answer when it's brought up," laughs Flow music director Wayne Williams. "I guess in the raw sense, urban is city, is from the core, the heart of the city. If that's where a lot of this music is produced and made and played, that's what it is." His station, Flow 93.5 in Toronto, defines the urban music format as hip hop, R&B, reggae and gospel.
Montreal DJ Mike Mission is a little more specific with his interpretation. "My definition of the term urban would be for the streets.' For music that means listening to hip-hop or rap. For the clothing, it would be wearing the clothes made by hip-hop designers: Fubu, Echo, Phat Farm, Roca Wear, Sean John, etc."
While the term "urban" has been capitalised on as a descriptor for everything from music and clothing to furniture and snack food, not everyone has been so quick to swallow the fad marketing scheme. To purist P-Plus, "urban means entertainment, not art."
"It's attached to too many things, I'm sick of hearing it," complains John Smith, an MC on the Peanuts & Corn label. "It's like extreme.' You could go to Boston Chicken and get an extreme chicken sandwich. How extreme can a chicken sandwich be?"
Jesse Dangerously thinks "urban" is "a perfectly decent word of the English language," but points out it "would be better applied if it wasn't just an updated version of what they called race' music in times gone by. People use the term urban' to sell stereotypical blackness to white consumers."
Like Jesse, Eternia is bothered by the term's racist connotations. "Urban" was invented, not by artists or anyone else involved in hip-hop culture, but by record labels looking for an easy, politically correct umbrella term. "Urban music means black music," she explains bluntly. "Urban music applies to, generally speaking, reggae, R&B, hip-hop, and what that all means is black music. For example, if you have a country singer that comes out of the city, why isn't he urban music? I'm not complaining," she shrugs. "I'm put in the urban music category on numerous occasions, and it means I do black music' I guess."
"It's like Christopher Columbus coming over and calling people Indians because he thought he was in India," says Arcee. "They didn't want that label, they're not Indians at all, but everyone calls them that because of dumb ass Chris Columbus."