By Steve Weinstein
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The crime scene out front didn't cool Hot 97's "blazing hip-hop and r&b" last weekor 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 February 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 Gameto 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 industrywhatever 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."