The Fire in Which You Burn: Me, the Radio and OTA Live [Article]
Toronto, ON – Growing up in the UK my favourite radio station was a channel called, lacking a degree of originality, Radio 1. They were funded by the British government who owned a set of stations, five of them in fact. Radio 1 was their musical flagship, playing the best in new music and always on the cutting edge. But they were more than just a music station to me. Much more. I’d give a North American equivalent, but to be honest there isn’t one. I guess the closest you could get is if you mixed the popularity of New York’s Hot 97 with the sensibilities of CBC radio. It was also the place I heard hip-hop for the first time. The place, the time, the medium. I coveted my brother’s boombox like no other item and was under strict instruction not to touch it, so naturally when he wasn’t around it was the first thing I’d go for. He always kept a stack of old, new and freshly dubbed cassettes next to it. Yeah, cassettes.
We very well could be talking about a time before some of you reading this were even born, and yet it feels like last week to me. The 80s were morphing into the 90s and everybody wanted to be like Mike. Tyson, Jordan, Jackson (note: if you subconsciously finished this line “…action, pack guns/ridiculous” then you’re winning at life right about now). Rap was changing too. The music was shifting from electronic synths and sparse drums to layered walls of sound, thanks to champion producers like Prince Paul, the Bomb Squad and Dr. Dre. My brother liked all types of music, so he’d tape the late-night sessions on Radio 1. They were shows manned by specialist DJs who played an eclectic mix of tunes from Britain, the European continent and the United States. One night he was out late with friends. I predictably took this as my cue and scampered up to our room with mischief in mind. I flipped through his tapes and looked for one with the recording pin removed. This meant he’d just taped it and wanted to prevent anyone from dubbing over it. When he was done, he’d ball up paper to fill in the recording hole and the cipher would complete. I grabbed a tape, threw it in the box and hit play. Kerrrr-click. “Nineteen. Eighty. NINE-the number/another summer…” I can’t tell you how I felt the moment I heard my first hip-hop song; I can only tell you that I kept playing it. And playing it. I hid the cassette to ensure my brother didn’t dub over my new treasure and eventually played it so much the tape snapped.
At times I was an awkward kid. Like most, I tried to fit in, and sometimes I didn’t succeed. I wasn’t an outcast by any stretch and was never short of friends, but I definitely took a while to feel comfortable in my own skin; to establish my own identity. Fortunately I grew up alongside a golden age for rap music and as the popularity expanded, so did its press coverage. Radio 1 began producing audio documentaries on rap, culminating in an hour long special on the death of Tupac Shakur. Hip-hop was given a context and vital moments in the culture’s history were discussed and explained. To an impressionable young head, this information was like gold-dust. Your perception of any subject is shaped by what`s presented to you. If Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer are presented as being analogous with hip-hop, then to you, that`s what hip-hop is. You have no frame of reference to dispute it. Because of Radio 1 I knew who Public Enemy, De La Soul, Outkast and the Wu Tang-Clan were. therefore it`s because of Radio 1 that I know anything (to some, nothing) about hip-hop.
By 18 I was living in Toronto, Canada, deviously tricked by the summer weather when I first visited. Back then, fist-pumping euro-dance and easy listening rock ruled the FM airwaves but if you weren`t too far from the lake, you could catch Buffalo’s 93.7 WBLK for your rap fix. The frequency wasn`t perfect and travelling on the highway guaranteed you at least a few 5 second static spells, but they spun the hottest hip-hop with a playlist similar to the stations further south in New York City. However, Rawkus Records had me searching for music that wasn`t played on any commercial station, so a friend pointed me in the direction of CHRY and The Soundcheck Show with DJ Grouch, Contagious and Gavin Sheppard. From there I discovered Back Road Radio, the Masterplan and Real Frequency. College radio effectively had underground hip-hop (or as those of us at the time called it; hip-hop) locked down. They advertised events and in the summer of 2001 it seemed like every weekend there were at least 2 dope live hip-hop shows at places like the Comfort Zone, Reverb and Revival. We were surrounded by quality music but still wanted more. An FM radio channel for starters; a tangible, 24 hour platform where we wouldn`t have to worry about losing the signal if we drove to Malton.
Earlier that year, Milestone Radio fulfilled their mission of acquiring a frequency to broadcast an urban station. They had been turned down twice in the past 10 years, much to the chagrin of black music aficionados in the city with many penning letters and petitions in protest. Some cried foul, some cried racism, but whatever the reasoning was behind it, the response convinced the Federal Council to prepare an Order of Council in 1998, demanding the CRTC reserve a frequency in the future for a proposed urban platform. The new station, Flow 93.5, received the license based on the mandate of “reflecting the community” with a format that would be a “modern-day reflection of the rich musical traditions of Black musicians and Black-influenced music over at least the past century.” Two years later, they started moving the goalposts. What began as a promising outlet for a range of discourse and music from North America, the Caribbean and beyond rapidly devolved into top 40 selections with unabashed crossover attempts by white pop stars. Britney Spears might try to sound like Janet, she might try to sing over hip-hop rhythms like Janet, she may even copy the choreography and live show of Janet, but she’s not Janet Jackson.
Alongside a few collaborators, I’d decide to record a demo for a hip-hop radio show myself. CKLN had 3 slots opening up and despite being covered for rap content they were interested in hearing what we had. Toronto hip-hop fixture Mindbender joined me in the demo’s production, ensuring the show represented our respective backgrounds in music. The available slots all had three hours to fill, so the first would be a mash-up of current hip-hop, the second would be a produced audiomentary on the culture (We actually recorded an hour-long special on the history of Death Row Records which I later rewrote for OTA Live) and the third would be reserved exclusively to play new and classic local music. Program Director Tim May liked the idea, but ultimately felt we weren’t ready to take a spot in essentially what would have been the station’s fourth hip-hop show. He was probably right. Disappointed, I turned my attention to journalism and began blogging for American hip-hop sites. A strong voice can’t be suppressed, but sometimes you just have to look to other avenues.
At that point Flow had thrown off the false pretences of “reflecting the community” and rebranded themselves as “the new Flow 93.5.” They pushed an official format of rhythmic top 40 and forayed further and further into pop crossover. They did however compensate for this approach by carrying a variety of great shows that specialized exclusively in hip-hop, reggae and soca. On a lazy Saturday afternoon I happened to tune in to the station and to my great curiosity heard an audio biography of the Notorious BIG. It was well paced, impeccably produced and the narrative pulsed with authenticity. This was exactly the type of radio I’d wanted to make. Afterwards some dude did a segment explaining that if you wanted to be a hustler in the game, you could take that exact same skill-set to business school and become an entrepreneur, product manager or investor for greater reward. Their message was progressive, but not elitist and the DJ spun a healthy dose of local music in his mix. At the time I didn’t really care for much of it, finding most tracks to be poor imitations of their American counterparts, specifically Dipset, Jay-Z and a myriad of southern bounce music. Those audio documentaries had me transfixed though, so I contacted host Ty Harper (the dude who wrote the aforementioned weekly Cell Therapy segment) through hiphopcanada.com and enquired about penning a few.
Over the course of my two years with the show, I wrote bios for icons like DJ Premier, Pete Rock and Ghostface Killah amongst others. I loved every minute of it and there was an incredible sense of accomplishment in hearing my work live on the radio for millions to hear. But the primary pride lay in being part of what I truly believed to be the best hip-hop show around. Not just in Canada, but period. Because of their outreach with Toronto artists, the calibre of local hip-hop played was impressive and they soon created the popular Megacity Countdown (in partnership with HipHopCanada.com) to try and instil a competitive edge in a landscape dulled by FACTOR and failing media support. Aside from the omnipresent Mindbender, I’d never met two people who truly loved and believed in the progression of Toronto music more than Ty or Rez. Unlike other shows, OTA Live didn`t simply play one random Canadian record for every two American in order to fulfill their CANCON quota. They gave an introduction to a new artist, helping them brand themselves and gave them an education on how the industry works. In turn, they became incredibly well-respected critically and a success ratings-wise in their time slot, sometimes in spite of the station with its revolving door formats and mediocre PR.
My attitude towards Toronto music was shifting also. I was becoming more exposed to it through the show as they played talent like K’naan, Melanie Fiona and Drake– artists who would be artists regardless of where you put them on the planet. I remember originally scoffing when Program Director Wayne Williams said any CANCON played would “ha(ve) to stand next to an LL Cool J or an Eve, or a Dr. Dre.” I thought to myself ‘Never in my life would I place a Toronto artist in that bracket (well, at least the first and last name), never mind their songs having the actual engineering quality required.’ A greater access to technology and an explosion of local talent soon changed that. I suspect it also changed the views of many and exposed the myth of the Canadian artist not being able to compete on a hip-hop international stage. I’m perfect proof of that. In 2010, and for the first time in my life, I actually purchased more Canadian rap than American. Nor am I shy about letting my American hip-hop blogging peers know about it.
When the CTV takeover happened, most who worked at Flow knew the writing was on the wall. They knew that CTV didn’t care for speciality shows or the notion of “serving the community.” They cared about making the maximum amount of revenue from the smallest overhead. They are a business; A corporation. And a very successful one at that. The easiest way for them to make money is to follow the same top 40 formula carried by the rest of the stations they own. One ongoing 25 minute playlist of crossover music, absolutely no difference in the shows and three or four drone hosts who push buttons whilst filling their 30 seconds of talk-time with cliché, crappy puns and small-talk gibberish. It’s worked for them before and it’ll work for them again, because it’s 2011, and hip-hop is not dead, it’s just being bled dry. The question remains though, if the frequency of 93.5 was licensed based on the mandate of reflecting the black community in Toronto, can the license not be revoked once that is no longer the station’s mission? This qualm was originally raised years ago when Flow began centralizing their playlist to suit the tastes of those outside of the community. They even had the nerve to use whatever influence they possessed to try and block CARN’s (Caribbean and African Radio Network) application for its own license, stating that they were “already meeting the listening needs of the black community.” An insinuation all the more offensive after vice-president of sales Byron Garby stated “we don’t talk about being an ethnic station, we’re mainstream.”
OTA Live achieved exactly what Williams had hoped for Flow. The show inspired artists to create music on par with their southern counterparts without depicting themselves as cartoon imitations. But just as these acts had broken through into the United States with platinum success, multi-country tours and critical acclaim, the voice for the compounding next generation of artists has been snuffed out and silenced. On February 2nd, CTV dropped all of the speciality shows and retained just a handful of the station’s existing talent. It’s a crushing blow to aspiring rappers, producers and singers across the city, a good deal of whom looked to shows like OTA Live for cues on preparing demos and attending information seminars. Most importantly, a vital platform has been lost, as has the potential to instantly connect with listeners from a metropolitan area of 5 million plus. Presently, CKLN has had its broadcast license revoked in what the CRTC terms as a failure to comply with regulations and conditions. If this resolution ultimately comes to pass, Toronto will have lost four key hip-hop shows in the space of one month. I’ve been away from OTA for around a year after getting more involved in sports-writing and marketing, but I couldn’t help but feel devastated by CTV’s decision. Unable to concentrate on some late night work research, I picked up the phone and gave Rez a call. We’ve worked together on several projects outside of Flow, so I knew he’d give me a minute to vent, despite the fact he probably wasn’t even in the mood to talk about it. As usual, he was the quintessential professional, being thankful for the show’s great run, its incredible support and looking forward to the future.
After we hung up, I went back to doing my work research. I’ve been very lucky to have found a job in my field that not only combines my interests, but also pays a very rewarding salary. In these unstable times, it’s a blessing for a 20-something to be able say that. Part of my job involves using social media platforms like Twitter. Tonight I was wearily scouring the site’s search engine for mentions of the latest sports product we just launched. I paused and entered ‘OTA Live’ instead. Page upon page filled the screen with a unified message. “Are you serious?? They got rid of OTA Live?? Wow”… “I can’t believe this, I loved that show”… “I’m messed up right now, RIP OTA Live.” As I scanned through the profiles, replete with self-taken pictures of pubescent kids struggling to form their own identities: girls pouting their lips with Minaj in their names, boys with ballcaps and hand signs, I couldn’t help but think back to the night I sat by my brother’s boombox. I couldn’t help but wonder what hope they had in either making it as an artist, journalist or just as a fan of the music when the only context they’re going to be provided with moving forward will be those 5 songs with crossover appeal in the repeating 25 minute playlist. Fit for the urban rhythmic platform, efficiently recycled and monetized to its best ability.
Not fit for a culture, not even fit for a community.
Quotes referenced originally featured in the work of Ashante Infanty and Susana Ferreira
Written by Chris Cromie
About Chris Cromie
Chris Cromie was a biographer for OTA Live from 2007-09. His work has been published on HipHopCanada.com, SteadyBloggin.com, TheScore.com and CityOnMyBack.com. For more of his writing, please visit http://www.facebook.com/chris.cromie.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the opinion editorial above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of HipHopCanada or HipHopCanada’s partners and affiliates.