Mastermind (Flow’s Assistant Music Director) discusses radio in Canada [Interview]
Jonathon “Bizz” Brown sits down with Canadian hip-hop legend, Mastermind. His Vol. 49: The Set-Up mixtape was one of the first Canadian releases ever covered by HipHopCanada back in 2000.
While Flow may take it’s share of lumps from listeners critical of its programming, it also stands to be one of the few frequencies across Canada with a hip-hop focused format. In February 2011, Milestone Radio sold Flow to Bell Media and although the name remained, many of the specialty shows were cut and other programming adjustments made. This transition caused a stir among some in the community who valued shows like OTA Live, who HipHopCanada actually partnered with on the Megacity Countdown. But one of the lesser talked about changes within that transition was the return of Mastermind to Toronto radio.
The host of Toronto’s second hip hop show ever, Mastermind returned after almost nine years in Calgary as Music Director at Vibe 98.5. He is now Flow 93.5’s Assistant Music Director as well as an On Air personality and has come full circle since his days on York University’s CHRY and Ryerson’s CIUT. Back then, hip hop wasn’t a mainstream mainstay yet and Mastermind was part of a pioneering generation. 20 years later, the landscape has changed in Canadian hip hop, but some problems remain. I sat down with Mastermind to talk about his experiences in radio and to allow him to answer some of the questions I hear listeners asking about Flow’s programming.
HipHopCanada: How did you get into radio originally?
Mastermind: There was a kid on my street, he was in university. I was 14 or 15. He was doing a radio show. He was into either punk or reggae. And he was doing a radio show at York. This was before they got their FM license so they were closed circuit.
I had done some things with Ron [Nelson]. I was a fan of Ron’s and I became part of the street team and he put me on the air a few times (on 88.1). He said to me ‘[CHRY] is looking for someone to do a hip hop show, why don’t you come with me and meet the people?
I was 14 thinking nobody’s going to give me a radio show. I was just starting grade 9. And he was like “nah come anyway.” So we went to CHRY and he introduced me to the program director and I said ‘hey I hear you’re interested in starting a hip hop show, my boy said to come talk to you.’ He goes ‘ya, that’s cool, but do you know this Mastermind guy?’
I told him I was Mastermind and he was like “no way! We were looking for you.” So whatever he had heard me do on the air struck a chord with him and he was impressed. It was an impromptu interview.
HipHopCanada: So you kind of got pushed into DJ’ing because so many DJs came and went on your show right? You said they finally just said you had to learn to DJ?
Mastermind: I never thought I was a great DJ. I was never a battle DJ or the most technically sound DJ but I could pick records and I could hear hits and songs that were going to do well. And for me, my signature if you will, was I had music before anybody else. Before there was DJ Clue’s and all those mixtapes I had music before anybody else.
HipHopCanada: And where did it come from?
Mastermind: I used to hustle. I’d go to New York religiously and visit record labels. I was big on servicing before people even knew what was going on. I really made a lot of contacts in the states and I’d go to DJ conventions. I was networking a lot.
HipHopCanada: And you were still young.
Mastermind: I was extremely young and you can imagine how difficult it was back then when the resources were so scarce. Now, you send somebody an email, you get a mailing list, you find stuff here you find stuff there. Then, you had go to, hang in the lobby, make a friendship. Once I made those relationships it was easier but you had to start somewhere and a lot of people didn’t give a fuck about you. You’re from Canada in a foreign market plus your wattage isn’t that big.
HipHopCanada: They’re questioning how big are you really?
Mastermind: Exactly. But back then it was cool because the music was so young they were also looking for channels to get the music out there. They still needed outlets beyond what they were doing.
Because I started so early on my relationships were so solid, that by ’94 I got the job at Energy and ended up doing the first commercial rap show in the country I think, I was already well ahead of everybody else in terms of getting music and the sound of the station and I started making mixtapes then.
HipHopCanada: Then those guys were happy they let you in the office.
Mastermind: Oh absolutely. They were just as much in need of me as I was of them at that point. Once I left the college circuit and went to Energy, now you’re talking 1000 watts. You’re talking about blasting into Toronto and beyond all the way to Buffalo and London and all these different areas the signal reached.
HipHopCanada: And then you went out west at one point correct?
Mastermind: What happened with that was Energy at the end of 2000 decided they were going to go a different direction. I had a record deal too so I had put out two albums already. I think Flow had just launched and there was a part owner of Flow. Milestone owned Flow, but there was another company that had like 30% of them. Their president I met with him and they had just launched a hip hop station in Calgary and they wanted me go out to Calgary. I didn’t want to leave Toronto so I said put me at Flow or something.
So at that point, 2001, radio is my career so you can sit around and wonder about what you’re going to do or you can take up an offer. It wasn’t my first choice but a lot of people told me I’d go there and learn a lot. Because at that time I was just a DJ and and on-air host. What they wanted me to do was come and be their music director which is something I’d never done before and would be something new to put on my resume, a new challenge. Eventually I accepted it.
So in 2002 I moved to Calgary and we launched this hip hop station there. It was weird that Calgary was going to have a hip hop station, but at the time we had one here (Flow), they had just launched one in Kitchener, they launched on in Vancouver and then we had ours and then another company put out a hip hop station so we had two in Calgary.
HipHopCanada: And this is 2001 which is a booming commercial time for hip hop.
Mastermind: This was a big time. And finally Canada was recognizing it but after about a year, year and a half most of those stations ended up flipping to CHR. If you really think about it the only one that stayed hip hop was Flow. And the reason, the way I look at it, a huge factor was can-con (Canadian content). As much as there are so many advocates for Canadian hip hop, it’s also a detriment. It’s a struggle to convince and audience.
Let’s eliminate what’s going on with Drake, let’s eliminate The Weekend and some of these other artists starting to bubble. Even Kardinal with his success he had a few years ago, those are anomalies when you look at the grand scheme of things of having to play 35% can-con. It’s a struggle. Even up to this day it’s a struggle.
We test our music all the time and can-con never tests at the top. With the exception of Drake and the odd record here or there, everything is at the bottom. And it’s not like you say “this is the Canadian record.” The audience listens to it, unbiased and gives us their feedback. The majority of the records are sitting at the bottom of testing and that’s the nature of it.
So when you think about back then, when we didn’t even have all those successes. You had a Choclair, you had a K’Os, you had Julie Black in there, it was a huge struggle to fill 35%. So if you think about a station being this successful, having to playing all that, with a format that’s difficult to cross over to begin with while all the other stations can play people like Avril Lavigne and Nickelback and Simple Plan and you could list off a bunch of rock and pop Canadian records that you were limiting yourself to not playing because of your format. So you say to yourself, ‘we have to broaden this station to really make it work.’
HipHopCanada: In your opinion, why didn’t these stations survive?
Mastermind: And so I believe, all those hip hop stations that were amazing for this country went away because they couldn’t survive because of can-con. So if can-con would’ve been eliminated or even lowered, I believe all those stations would’ve survived.
And there’s even some people that get cosigns and stuff that don’t really… even the other day I tweeted about Melanie Fiona after she won those Grammys and I said “can somebody explain to me why she’s not being played across the country?” And I’m not talking about urban radio. I’m talking about if you think about some of her records she’s released, CHFI should be playing them. Chum FM should be playing them. Adult contemporary stations and even Hot AC stations should be playing Melanie Fiona. How does she win 4 Grammys over a two year period and she qualifies as can-con and no one is playing her?
HipHopCanada: It should be money in the bank.
Mastermind: You would think so but you could argue she’s an unfamiliar face in terms of the majority. If you went to Eaton Centre and asked, is she a household name? Drake you could say is a household name.
Even The Weekend, as much buzz as he has – I’m talking about online buzz and cool kid buzz – he’s still unfamiliar because when we added his record here a few months ago, it took people a while. And this is even after they’d already commissioned his record to be on Entourage and there was some buzz going on. He was testing unfamiliar. People would sit back and go “I don’t know who this is.” And there was so much buzz around him. Entertainment Weekly’s writing about this guy. All kinds of mass media outlets are acknowledging this kid, he’s got three mixtapes they’ve all been downloaded X amount of times. So that gives you an idea of what the general public and how they listen to music.
When you are involved in the scene, you’re so involved and you’re so on top of things and on the cusp. You know everything, but not everybody lives like that.
HipHopCanada: Is that something you had to realize going into the music director position?
Mastermind: Absolutely. I learned so much when I went to Calgary in terms of how music is scheduled, researched, how it plays an integral role for a radio station. I came from a DJ background where I thought music directing was easy, all you had to do was pick records right? But there’s so much more to it.
Over the 9 years I was in Calgary, I can honestly say that had I not gone there, there was so much that I wouldn’t know.
I saw you tweet today that people complain about Flow but they still tune in. But what’s the biggest complaint?
HipHopCanada: The complaint is this isn’t what I want to hear, but they still tune in. For me, I can listen to Flow in the night time. The day time is when I struggle to listen to it because I hear a lot of the same stuff.
Mastermind: That’s the other thing about radio. If you use that argument with any commercial radio station, they all play the same records over and over and over. And the theory is that the majority of people don’t listen to the radio all day and when they do tune in, they want to hear their favorite record. And I can’t even tell you over my career of like 25 years how many times someone will call the radio station and ask to hear XYZ, which is their favorite record and we just played that song. So they just got in the car and just missed it.
So the person who was just listening, they heard it. And if it comes on 20 minutes later, they’re going “why are they playing the same record?” Someone just got in the car and they want to hear their favorite record.
So to me the complaints are so big because the passion is so big.
HipHopCanada: How do you view Flow?
Mastermind: I sit back and as a fan of radio I don’t look at this station and think it sounds bad. If you look at Kiss, at Virgin, I think we fit right in other than the fact we’re playing our format. You could argue that it’s because of Flow that everybody started playing Drake too. I don’t find that to be a negative.
What I’ve learned is familiarity helps someone’s opinion. The Weekend is a great example. We had this song that now that people know it, they like it a little more. But when we first started playing it, they were unfamiliar with it and they’d be like “I don’t even know it. It’s alright, but it’s not my favorite or anything.”
HipHopCanada: It’s like there’s not enough context for them to buy into it.
Mastermind: See I’m different. I loved hearing new music. It wasn’t about knowing the record. I remember going to concert hall or parties and if a DJ played a record I didn’t know but it was banging I wanted to know what it was.
HipHopCanada: The listener base is more conditioned by commercial context. Like ‘who is this person in relation to what’s going on?’ Even The Weekend. The Weekend’s stuff is The Weekend’s stuff, but then there’s the push he’s getting from being beside Drake that gives people context.
I think it comes down to independent listening skills. Can you – I don’t even think it’s a matter of ‘can you,’ I just don’t think a lot of people are interested in liking something just for it, independent of knowing they saw the artist on this commercial or… Even with The Weekend, the Entourage placement is a big push because now it connects to something else culturally cool that gives it context.
Mastermind: There’s another conundrum we face. We could wait till other people play it to pick it up, but then we get the question of why we’re following and not leading. But then on the other side of the coin, when you do lead on something do you necessarily get credit for it? We were playing 4 a.m. by Melanie Fiona before anybody and now she’s getting some burn in the States, which is great the record should be played but then are people going to come back to Flow and say “they were the first station to play it”?
HipHopCanada: Being the host of Toronto’s second hip hop show ever, how do you feel about the flurry of recent Canadian success stories?
Mastermind: When I was still in Calgary and I started hearing about Toronto producers getting placements I was so fuckin proud.
Toronto has been so hip hop for 25 years and we never get the credit we deserve. I remember seeing a J Dilla documentary and some guy in the documentary from Detroit said when he thought of hip hop he thought of New York and he thought of Toronto. And the fact that people acknowledge that. He was saying early on if he wanted hip hop he’d have to come to Toronto.
This city has been hip hop for so long that we never got the props. And the fact that in 2009-10-11 we’re starting to see our just dues after all the labour pains we went through, dude I feel nothing but pride knowing I was at the beginning. The fact that I had the second hip hop show in the city and now you got dudes that are running billboard? That’s so fuckin’ positive.
Written by Jonathon “Bizz” Brown for HipHopCanada