Radio's Hip-Hop Time Machine - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Radio's Hip-Hop Time Machine

Radio's Hip-Hop Time Machine

By Emily Cadei

A hip-hop time capsule exists on the air waves.


Whether it’s for a music history lesson or a trip back to your teens, this radio format is awesome.

By Emily Cadei

Missy Elliot may have officially returned to the spotlight at this year’s Super Bowl halftime show, but for me her comeback started two weeks earlier. That’s when I was cruising the two-lane highways of rural South Texas in my Easter egg-size rental car, looking to keep myself entertained between stops on a reporting trip. The radio scanned, flipping between 10, 20, 30 frequencies without pause. Then, it landed on something. 

“Oh what a night
You should be like Missy ’stead of bein’ like Mike
I like to ride ponies instead of ridin’ bikes
Me and Lil’ Kim got the rhymes to incite.”

The lyrics oozed from the speakers like melted butter. Smooth, lackadaisical — the sort of delivery that comes only from one woman. I had no one in the car to share my glee. Oh, my God! I haven’t heard Missy Elliot in soooo long! Whatever happened to her? 

And for the next three glorious days, the dial of my radio would not budge from Yo 95.1 Classic Jams. Mace. TLC. Digital Underground. Notorious B.I.G. And, of course, Tupac. All of which is just a way of saying that throwback hip-hop has returned, and in grand style. For any kid who came of age in the 1990s, it’s as close to traveling back in time to teenage days as it can come. For me, the flashbacks came heavy and fast, memories of driving around the quiet streets of Sacramento, California, four or five giddy 16-year-old girls packed in my friend’s Chevy Suburban, chanting along (shouting, really) to California Love as the bass rattled the car doors. And I know I’m not the only one into this.

Since the first major station — Houston’s Boom 92 — launched back in October, roughly 20 stations have followed suit. That includes Univision’s Yo Classic Jams hip-hop stations in San Antonio, Texas, and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Haz Montana, vice president of content for Univision Radio, says the company embraced the model after doing some market research in Albuquerque, where it also has a current hip-hop station. “It was the first time [the research firm] had ever seen or even heard of a standing ovation for a sample radio station that they played.”

My assumption was that classic hip-hop is coming back, like most other things ’90s (purple hair, neon, slouchy flannel), because the memories of that era are now just fuzzy enough to make all that tackiness endearing. Those of us in our 30s are now being hit by the startling realization that high school was two decades ago. But Montana says the appeal is surprisingly broad. Along with mid-30s white girls like me, it’s popular among urban African-Americans, as well as Hispanic listeners, Univision’s key demographic. Younger listeners seem to like it too. “It really does really reach pretty broadly across what we consider a core demographic of 18 to 49,” says Montana.

It was the first time [the research firm] had ever seen or even heard of a standing ovation for a sample radio station that they played.

Haz Montana, vice president of content for Univision Radio

Will the revival last? Lance Venta, the owner and publisher of industry news site, tells me that throwback hip-hop is the “format fad of the month.” To date, the stations are performing well, though not out of this world, for their companies, he says. But for my money, pretty much anything Tupac put out has the timeless appeal of genius, whether it’s the music of your teenage years or not. Lil’ Kim’s cover of “Ladies Night,” well … that might be specific to me and my generation.

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