Breaks in the Air – The Birth of Rap Radio in New York City

Hearing The World’s Famous Supreme Team between the tracks on Malcolm McLaren’s Duck Rock album was mind-blowing. I wanted to be where radio was this exciting. This great book goes behind the scenes at the birth of hip hop radio to document the characters driving it and the forces pushing it in certain directions. The established black station owners knew rap was a ratings-grabber but saw it as too streetwise for their buppy aspirations. Frankie Crocker hated it but couldn’t fight the dollar signs. Mr Magic built his own show with his bare hands by buying airtime and promoting the hi-fi store he worked in. Hip hop history is mostly made of records and clubs, John Klaess shows decisively that radio deserves more of a look-in, arguing that these on-air communities were key to the development of the culture. There are great little insights, for example it was having a fully equipped radio studio at his disposal that let Marley Marl lay down the aesthetics of sample-built recordings. It’s an academic book, but written with stories and style and love for its subject. I talked to author John Klaess about the early hustles that took rap onto the airwaves, and where to find the best of the amazing recordings that exist online.

Frank Broughton: Why was radio so important in the early days of hip hop?
John Klaess: It helps to remember that when we’re talking about hip hop in the late 1970s and very early 1980s, we’re not necessarily talking about hip hop as we know it today. The concept of the “rap record” didn’t exist yet. The foundations of hip hop, like rapping, looping breaks, and creatively cutting records together were in place, but hip hop was mostly a live practice in the black and brown neighbourhoods of New York. There wasn’t an obvious or agreed upon way to take a three-hour park jam and convert it into a record. And it wasn’t clear that there would be a big enough audience to support those records that were made, not to mention that early on major labels weren’t interested in signing an unproven minority youth music. Radio wound up being a perfect medium to pull all of these threads together, accelerating the creative, commercial, social trajectory of the music. 

For one, DJs treated the studio like a laboratory. Each week they’d bring new mixes, tracks and experiments to share on the air. If you listen to mixes of the Rap Attack over time, you can hear Marley Marl getting increasingly sophisticated and adventurous with his mixing techniques in a way that presages beat-making techniques and sampling later in the decade. The Awesome 2 talk about how radio, in particular, was a great medium for experimentation because listeners were tuning in from contexts that weren’t the club. You can try out different combinations of records and sounds when you aren’t trying to drive a dancefloor. The aggregate of all of this weekly experimentation is a slow but distinct evolution of the genre over time. 

Maybe more obviously, radio has historically been one of the most important distribution mediums for record labels, and this was also true for rap. As indie and major labels started to sign hip hop acts, they looked to hip hop DJs with access to radio to get the word out about their product. Early hip hop radio DJs would get mountains of records delivered to them, and they were essential tastemakers. 

Finally, it’s hard to overestimate radio’s role in building an audience for rap music. If we go by shout-outs, early hip hop radio shows were mostly for, by, and listened to by people in the know in New York. That changed when two of the most listened to stations in the world programmed rap radio shows. In addition to the reach and validation these shows gave rap music and hip hop culture, listeners taped episodes and mailed the tapes around the world.

Radio was uniquely suited to taking a nascent urban culture and facilitating hip hop’s ascendence into one of the most important creative and commercial forces of the twentieth century. 

Your book is a powerful argument for giving radio more space in the history. What do we miss when we only think about the records and the clubs?
I think we miss, first and foremost, that the music industry is a dynamic web of work and relations that includes but isn’t limited to radio, records, and the club. It’s really hard to think of any one of these institutions without paying attention to how it’s interrelated with the others. I don’t use the metaphor in the book, but it’s more productive to think about musical ecosystems where a host of individuals and institutions work together in both symbiotic and competitive relationships that determine what we hear and what’s produced at any given time. 

I think we also miss an entire shadow history of artists and sounds and styles and communities that get cut out when we focus too heavily on discography. So many important artists never cut record deals, and so much important musical activity happens outside the purview of record labels. When you write from the point of view of records, you’re necessarily going to highlight artists with significant record catalogs, and you risk overemphasising records that loom large in historical memory, not what was played most at the time. If you listen to broadcasts of shows from the 1980s, there are plenty of commercial records, sure. But you also hear this wildly social, communal, musical event that’s not governed by what labels thought was important or worth hearing. I wanted to give an account where amateur, homemade mixes are just as important as Def Jam records, and where listeners who tuned in to deliver a shout out or hear what’s going on in their neighbourhood are just as important to the history as people who buy records. 

It’s heartwarming to read how much effort those pioneers put in. Mr Magic and The Awesome 2 were not only piecing their shows together, they were also hustling to find the sponsors and advertisers to keep them on the air. How would hip hop history be different if it showed us all the trials and efforts instead of just the successes?
I’m really happy you asked this question. There’s a narrative tendency in history to focus on triumphal achievements and big successes – especially in hip hop history. Paying attention to all of the small labours that go into funding a show forces us to look at what it takes to make and maintain a scene over time. When what matters to the history isn’t the magnitude of a success but the hustle itself, you have to tell the story from a different perspective. With the Awesome 2 in particular, paying attention to the work they put in helps us understand what it took to commercialise hip hop. It’s not like a label just signs an act and, voilà, hip hop is a global music. The Awesome 2 were drumming up sponsors for their show, building a record pool, hosting hip hop nights at the Latin Quarter, and doing management and production work for artists. Taken together, this is the work it takes to make a music and run a scene. This is definitely a thread I hope more authors pick up down the line, because I’m sure there are more stories to tell here. 

Another great thing about the book is the way it creates a bigger context for the history, showing the connections to the disco scene for example. Clubs like the Paradise Garage and industry figures like Frankie Crocker. What were some of the unexpected connections you found when researching it?
One of these connections that’s gotten a lot of attention recently is the intermixing between the uptown hip hop scene and downtown club scene in the early 1980s. DJ Afrika Islam could be the poster child for this. As a protege of Afrika Bambaataa, DJ and dancer with the Zulu Nation, and regular at the Paradise Garage. Islam’s radio show, the Zulu Beat, he fits neatly between these worlds. One of the most unexpected connections was that Ruza Blue AKA Kool Lady Blue, a staple in the downtown scene, funded some of the early episodes of the Zulu Beat. If you listen to some of the tapes, you can hear Islam announce that “This show is a KLB Fun production, a Kool Lady Blue production.” I lost it a little when I heard that for the first time because it was evidence of just how interwoven these two scenes were.

My intro to this world was hearing the World Famous Supreme Team in between the tracks on Malcolm McLaren’s album Duck Rock. What was their story and what happened to them? Why don’t they figure more in your book?
I think the Supreme Team were a lot of folks’ first foray into hip hop, and their show was one of the earliest to feature hip hop music. I also think you’re totally right in that they don’t figure as heavily in the books as their influence suggests they should. 

Part of the answer is that they never responded to my requests for interviews, which is fair – as a historian you can’t force yourself into peoples’ lives. So from there I was left with what I could get from other sources. There wasn’t a huge record of contemporary Supreme Team interviews or other material beyond the tapes, and with the sources I had I didn’t feel like I could tell that story in a new way without risking misrepresenting something. I opened the book with a vignette from the World Famous Supreme Team show because I wanted to quite literally put them front and centre as a way of gesturing to their importance, and as a way of making up for the fact that their radio show is regrettably underrepresented in the body of the book. 

I’ll maintain that distance here, but for folks who are familiar with the World Famous Supreme Team from their connection to Malcolm McLaren, I would highly recommend checking out broadcasts of their radio show. The broadcasts I’ve found are everything that’s interesting about early hip hop radio. You have long stretches of shout-outs, great banter and routines in between cuts, rap/disco tracks of five-percenter texts, and more. They’re just excellent listening. 

Internet radio and podcasts have ushered in a new era of radio creativity. Who do you think is keeping up the tradition of the great hip hop radio pioneers?
There are so many it’s hard to count! By far my favorite online radio resource is Some of the rap shows I like best are Screwboss Radio, Scary Things with DJ Bempah and JK (mostly UK Drill and Grime), PU$$YRAP with Jody Simms, when it was on the YGG show for grime, ONY for a mix of hip, soundtrack, and chopped and screwed, and Hit a Lick Radio for newer hip hop and trap. I find myself listening to a lot more dance music recently, and NTS is so strong there. Some shows and DJs I consistently listen to are Moxie, Kaizen with Madam X, Martha, Spinee, Ben Sims, and DJ Taye.  

Can you give us links to your favourite archived radio shows from history.
I can give a good example of each show I write about in the book. I also encourage folks to spend time looking for recordings. A lot of the hosting platforms I used when I was doing most of my collecting seven years ago aren’t up anymore.  

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton