Hip-hop radio station accused of stoking fires between rival rappers to win listeners
Critics say violence stirred by middle-aged white men intent on increasing profits
Gary Younge in New York
Monday September 19, 2005
The soundtrack of a New York summer day wafting from windows of cars and apartments often starts its journey at one of the city's most popular radio stations, Hot 97. Its lively blend of hip-hop, R & B and raucous phone-ins has been hailed as a huge success by the industry. But with shoot-outs between guests erupting on its doorstep over the past few years, this reputation owes more to the wild west than the West Village.
"They could stage gun fights at will, and they did," said Greg Tate, an author and cultural critic for the Village Voice newspaper. "They would engineer for certain crews to arrive at the same time as certain other crews. They were trying to be more outrageous than anybody else on the block."
As rapper Kimberly "Lil' Kim" Jones, whose raunchy lyrics are rivalled only by her outfits, reports for a year-long prison sentence for perjury today, some believe Hot 97 should also be in the dock. They say the station encourages violence and inter-ethnic rivalry to attract listeners.
Lil' Kim's posse crossed paths with that of a rival rap duo, Capone-N-Noreaga, outside Hot 97 in 2001. In the resulting melee, 20 shots were fired from half a dozen guns and one man was hurt. Lil' Kim told a grand jury she had not noticed two of her close friends at the scene. CCTV showed one of the shooters opening the door for her.
On the day Lil' Kim's trial started, the rapper 50 Cent (Curtis Jackson) used Hot 97 to humiliate his former protege, The Game (Jayceon Taylor). 50 Cent, one of the hottest names in hip-hop, branded The Game an untalented, jealous wannabe whose album, The Documentary, would never have come out without 50 Cent's help. "Creatively he got stuck in the mud with it, and I came through and helped the car move. That's it," he said.
Hours later gunfire again rang out outside the station. When the police arrived they found one of The Game's entourage, Kevin Reed, 24, outside Hot 97's entrance with his shirt covered in blood and his hands in the air.
Alongside the shootings, which critics say arise from "beefs" or confrontations deliberately stoked by the station, have come accusations of promoting inter-ethnic rivalries. One presenter called Jennifer Lopez a "spic princess" and "rice-and-bean eater". A show dedicated to Puerto Ricans versus Dominicans - the two largest Hispanic groups in the city - invited listeners to weigh in.
But the station's reputation slumped to a new low after the tsunami disaster, when it aired a spoof song ridiculing victims. There was a huge outcry, including threats from McDonald's and Reebok to withdraw advertising. Eventually, Hot 97 fired two employees and gave $1m (£550,000) to tsunami victims. "The tsunami song was an unfortunate incident for which there is no defence," said Hot 97 spokesman, Alex Dudley. "We took the kind of punitive action to show our apology was sincere and serious."
But one of the sacked DJs, Todd Lynn, accused the company of encouraging him to play the song. "Management heard the song and approved it," he told the New York Daily News. "After it aired, they said keep playing it. They thought it was great until the protests started. We were all under constant pressure to push the envelope. They told me to be an antagonist, be edgy."
New York city council member John Liu agrees. "They encourage this kind of behaviour," he said. "They pay big bucks for people to do this. It's obviously a corporate environment that is hell bent on making money by exploiting hate and bigotry and inciting violence. The buck stops not with an individual but in Indianapolis."
Indianapolis is the home of Emmis Communications, which earns an estimated $40m a year from Hot 97. But Hot 97's status is increasingly under threat from Power 105.1, owned by radio giant Clear Channel Communications. The desire to shock, said its critics, is driven by its bid to keep its market share and profit margins.
Rosa Clemente, 33, who heads the activist group Reach hip-hop coalition, said: "These corporations are run by 50-year-old white men who live in Indiana. They are about making money and they are going to exploit the worst aspects of black and Latino culture."
Emmis Communications has effectively outsourced media responsibility for the station, directing journalists to a private New York-based PR company fronted by Mr Dudley. "Nobody wants that kind of violence taking place outside their place of business," he said. "But what happens on the air is just words; what happened on the streets is a criminal act."
He conceded that words could be powerful, particularly in a genre such as hip-hop. "We have to take into account what the effect of the words will be on our fans," he said.
DaveyD, a Los Angeles-based journalist who covers hip-hop and politics, said the station had to take some responsibility. "Hot 97 cranks it up," he said. "They try to get away with as much as they can. It's part of their marketing. The beef is made public and when things go wrong they say: 'We really couldn't control that.' But they are the ones who gain from it."
The hip-hop world is no stranger to violence or controversy. Rap is an adversarial genre in which artists do battle through their lyrics. The east coast/west coast wars, which claimed the lives of Notorious BIG and Tupac Shakur, were the most high-profile illustrations of how these battles can get out of hand. But over the past 15 years it has also become a multi-billion dollar business.
"Hip-hop took a very dark turn during the 90s and that is what you're seeing played out with Hot 97," said Mr Tate. "First the culture came to influence the boardroom and now the boardroom's influencing the culture. There's probably more money at stake now than when the battles were for turf between the different drug gangs. 50 Cent is probably making more money than the whole crack industry on the eastern seaboard."
Meanwhile, police forces in some cities have units dedicated to monitoring the rappers and their posses. In May 2003, the New York police department conducted a three day "hip-hop training session" attended by officers from Atlanta, Miami and Los Angeles.
"If black people could live in a society with nice houses and beautiful flowers, then we would be rapping about that," said Ms Clemente. "But we live in a violent country where young black and Latino people are desensitised to murder. There's no reason to encourage that."