The recent demise of the twenty-year-old hip-hop-oriented The Sunday Morning Show on UC Berkeley's KALX gives cause for a serious retrospective, and the eulogy isn't all sweetness and light. The Sunday Morning Show battled for hip-hop in a place it wasn't always wanted. It succeeded, but then succumbed.
Back in the day, the 10 a.m.-to-noon show was a force to be reckoned with. It broke new artists, including Digital Underground and Paris, and featured the likes of Hammer and Cypress Hill. The strength of hip-hop on local college radio became such a threat to the hegemony of the airwaves that KMEL, then primarily a R&B station, was forced to go in a more urban direction. KMEL initiated Sway & Tech's Wake-Up Show and hired host David "Davey D" Cook for its own weekday morning show after KALX won a national Gavin award for Best Hip-Hop Radio Program.
On August 12, coproducer DJ Pone received a call from station management informing him and coproducer Sarah Harris that their show was canceled effective September 10. KALX general manager Sandra Wasson declined to be interviewed, but e-mailed a statement that said the show was off-mission and unwilling to change. Harris, meanwhile, says she talked to several former programmers and discovered what appears to be a longstanding pattern of discrimination against hip-hop culture.
Davey D, who hosted The Sunday Morning Show from 1988 to '93, says the discriminatory practices preceded his arrival at the station by several years, going back to the late Natty Prep's tenure during the early '80s. "We had all this resistance from day one," he says.
Jonathan Wafer an actor, writer, paralegal, and onetime Berkeley Police Review commissioner was known as the Calm Authority when he appeared on the show with Natty Prep in 1985 and '86, back when it was called Music for the People. He says its original mission was community outreach and education, and notes that Timex Social Club's "Rumors" (a #8 Pop, #1 R&B hit in 1986) first aired on the show. Yet "there was a constant battle," he says, with management and staff who "didn't want a lot of hip-hop-type black folks ... everyone had to fight tooth and nail." Wafer says the station's racism was "a psychological thing," and therefore difficult to prove, but he felt "you were always there as someone they were trying to get rid of."
KALX also limited hip-hop spins with a "three-genre-per-hour" rule designed to broaden each show, but actually creating the opposite effect. (Full disclosure: When I was a KALX volunteer in 1991 and '92, I was told my aircheck lacked genre diversity.)
According to Davey D, "Funk, soul, and rap were all considered one genre dance music" by the station's program review committee. Punk, metal, and rockabilly, for instance, counted as three genres. Furthermore, punk and indie-rock DJs landed afternoon or evening shows, while Davey D recalls "a backlog of people of color who were [only] approved for overnight slots." Those who did get shows say they were frequently suspended for petty offenses or blamed for stealing records.
Bella Bakrania, aka DJ Bella, says the station's attitude toward people of color was common knowledge from the day she arrived in 1991. As a review committee member, Bakrania says she supported hip-hop-friendly DJs like Pal-58 and O-Dub. As head of the promotions department, she worked alongside general manager Wasson for many years. But in 1997 she left the station following a flare-up with Wasson over the genre requirement. "I got targeted for playing too much reggae," she explains. "My argument was that reggae was ska, dub, dancehall, lovers' rock. ... I was told it all sounded the same." While Bakrania notes she was never part of the Sunday morning crew, she speculates, "I think [Wasson] feared losing control of the radio station. She feared hip-hop taking over."
Davey D agrees. Between 1988 and '93, he explains, "The Sunday Morning Show was a juggernaut, especially if you wanted to go industry." Everybody who was anybody in hip-hop passed through back then, he says, pointing out that the show was getting constant media attention from both local and national outlets, which may have caused a backlash. On his Web site, Davey-D's Hip-Hop Corner, he claims Wasson "tried to do everything in her power to undermine" the show.
The most overt example of bias, Davey alleges, concerned the 1991 Gavin award a big deal at the time, considering KALX beat out many larger commercial stations for the honor. At the awards presentation, he recalls Wasson reportedly saying, "We're not just a hip-hop station; we play other music too." She refused to display the award, he says, and declined to lend it to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' "Hip-Hop by the Bay" exhibit in 2001.
Other former programmers contacted for this story relate similar tales. Ricky Vincent, aka the Uhuru Maggot, says Wasson and KALX management "made it difficult for people to do very culturally aware programs. It was a very bitter experience for folks that wanted to play jazz or funk to be marginalized." Eventually, Vincent took his popular show The History of Funk to KPFA, where it remains today.
Tamu du Ewa and Sadiki Nia, who hosted The Sunday Morning Show after Davey D's departure before moving to a reggae show on KMEL, say there was constant friction with Wasson over cultural diversity issues. Despite raising large amounts of money during pledge drives and donating hundreds of records to the station's library, du Ewa says KALX "wanted to get rid of us by any means necessary."
The show's last coproducer, Harris, says she never got negative feedback from Wasson; in fact, she got little of anything. "There wasn't any manpower support or training support from the cultural affairs department," she says. This spring, former host Jonathan Wafer briefly attempted to return to the show, which had become a shadow of its former self. "There wasn't any supervision," he says. The programmers, some of whom weren't even born when the show first aired, "didn't understand the history."
Wasson says hip-hop remains an "important and longtime staple of KALX' freeform mix of music." In July, the station debuted a one-hour hip-hop specialty show, Yo! KALX Raps, hosted by The Sunday Morning Show's DJ Pone (who did not return calls and e-mails seeking comment). The end result of all the infighting, bickering, and underhandedness at the station is that listeners suffer, Wafer says: "It's not an individual thing. It's a community thing."
The KALX schedule now reads "TBA" in the space where The Sunday Morning Show once stood. At the same time, due to corporate consolidation, "radio has lost its swagger," Nia says. "Look at where hip-hop is at now it's romper room."
Yet when the culture was at its zenith, there was no perhaps no program in the country that embodied hip-hop's ideals of diversity better than The Sunday Morning Show.
RIP. You will be missed.
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