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The Hip-Pop Switch: Radio & Industry Experts Discuss Shift on the Airwaves

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There’s no denying that music is changing. In the past, genres sat in separate boxes, but these days, musical boundaries are nonexistent. Never before has the word “crossover” been more popular or more prevalent in radio formats. While hip-hop and R&B have been known to share top billings on the charts, as of late, dance and pop-centric songs from R&B crooners and rappers have taken the reigns in the fight for supremacy.

Of course Chris Brown, Usher, Drake and Nicki Minaj have all re-shaped the stereotypical meaning of urban music by tip-toeing over to the pop side of things. However, they still manage to have their feet firmly planted with their core audience. Yet the question is whether or not said moves are detrimental.

In the midst of this adjustment, urban radio stations have welcomed the change with open arms. Turn on New York City’s Hot 97 radio station — a place that prides itself on being the source for “blazin’ hip-hop and R&B” — and hearing a dance-friendly tune, even if mixed in by DJs, is more the norm rather than the exception. For many radio stations, allowing songs into their format that would have previously been shunned is a sign of the times.

“It’s a generation shift,” Reggie Rouse, program director of Atlanta’s urban radio station V103, tells The BoomBox. Rouse, who has been in radio for over two decades has worked in several large markets like New York City and Washington D.C., and has seen a change in the kind of music urban listeners will tolerate.

In choosing the playlist for V103, Rouse prides himself with keeping his finger on the pulse of what’s hot. “My station is known for breaking R&B,” he shares. “I’m playing Robin Thicke or Melanie Fiona; that’s R&B to me. We’re always going to play R&B and hip-hop but that one crossover record, hey if it fits, let’s go. You got to pay attention to the streets. A lot of these records I hear in the clubs in Atlanta, a lot of program directors may not have the flexibility to play records they hear in the club, but I can.”

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From the opposite perspective, some artists feel the pressure to create music that will be accepted across the board. Having a hit record on several different charts not only ups the sales quota but increases a musician’s marketability. In the case of British singer Adele, songs off her ’21′ album played in a variety of different markets due to the record’s soul-based sounds. The ’21′ LP not only become the top-selling album of 2011, but earned her six Grammys and is still going strong on the charts nearly a year after its release.

“Everybody wants to make money,” notes Rich Dollaz, manager and owner of Dollaz Unlimited. As a star of VH1′s reality show ‘Love & Hip Hop,’ Dollaz — who guides the career of singer Olivia and has a past in radio promotions working for Next Selection/Interscope – has given fans a bird’s eye-view of the hectic life of managing an artist and transitioning a hit record from online buzz to sales.

“Urban music doesn’t really sell well on iTunes,” he reveals. “The world is so involved in the digital world, I think that all the artists are trying to make rhythm and pop records because they’re chasing money. It really, really changes the game and makes everybody change, and that’s why I think now people are changing their musical identity. If you look at Keri Hilson, she’s definitely an urban artist. [On] her last album she tried to go rhythm. Nicki Minaj is a rapper but her ['Pink Friday'] album is a pop album. It allowed her to go on tour with Britney Spears. Even with Usher, [his] biggest record [last year] was a David Guetta track ['Without You']. It’s crazy that [R&B and hip-hop] people made lots and lots of pop music.”

According to Dollaz, black artists are encouraged to release certain types of music because their own people don’t support them. “Black folks don’t buy singles,” Dollaz discloses. “They don’t go online and [buy] downloads [via platforms like iTunes].”

In the case of Minaj, over the last two years she has slowly shifted from being the go-to female hip-hop MC of the moment to finding her footing in pop and dance music. This spring, the 29-year-old will drop her sophomore album, ‘Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded,’ and has received criticism from hip-hop fans who feel that she is selling out by releasing pop-friendly material.

See Photos of Nicki Minaj’s Grammy Performance

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“With Nicki Minaj, I feel it’s a little forced because that girl can rap,” says Hot 97′s DJ Cipha Sounds. “She came out spittin,’ like she was rapping, and then I think she got influenced by the sucess of Lady Gaga with the wild fashion and those type of [dance] records. She’s started making these weirdo, poppy records. She was one of those artists that was talented and looked good; a producer made her do [it], but she can rap. I think of her as one of the best rappers ever. That [pop] audience is disposable kind of, and you have to come back home.”

On the contrary, music director Geespin, of New York City’s Power 105.1, sees Minaj’s transformation as a good thing. Since the public has not heard the brunt of her next project, and the unveiling of her latest single — the Lil Wayne-assisted ‘Roman Reloaded’ — just recently hit airwaves, Geespin says that hip-hop fans shouldn’t count her out of rap circles just yet.

“I don’t think that’s an indication of what the album’s gonna be,” Geespin says. Having worked in music for more than 20 years, the Boston native has seen artists rise and fall throughout his career. “If Nicki released all the wigs and the whole persona four months ago, I don’t think she would’ve lost any steam. I hated the [2012] Grammys performance. I thought it was a step back from what we were trying to do with the culture, [but] I actually like the new record. I think it’s going for her. My gut tells me that’s she’s going to have urban records.

“I think the urban audience is more open to good music now and wide varieties of music,” he continues. “I’ll go to urban [clubs] in the city and they’ll throw in Katy Perry and it doesn’t clear the dance floor. You have to be conscious of what your station is and what [listeners] come to you for, but I think that sprinkling different records from time to time is a good thing.”

He dabbled with “sprinkling” when it came to one of Drake’s more pop-friendly records featuring Rihanna. “Drake’s ‘Take Care’ is a perfect example,” he states. “I knew from the first time I heard it, [it was] a smash; it is a great record. First time we tested it, it came back No. 1. Drake is different, what he’s been able to do has been pretty amazing at such a short period. [We're] playing four of his records [at Power 105]. That doesn’t happen.”

Listen to Drake’s ‘Take Care’ Feat. Rihanna

While some listeners who are avid hip-hop and R&B fans may not like the poppier sounds heard on the urban stations they listen to, they can rest easy because it’s unlikely there will be a day when typically urban music vanishes. However, all of the representatives that we spoke to from Hot 97, Power 105 and V103 don’t feel that urban radio stations are selling out by caving to the current trend in music nor do they believe that the phenomenon is something new.

“I think it started well before the past two or three years,” adds Geespin. “If you look back to Ja Rule when he had his run, a lot of those records crossed over and went to top 40, but there weren’t as many [at that time].”

Simply put, nothing will muddy the waters of hip-hop and R&B which, according to Cipha Sounds, continues to set the precedent for the kind of music that traditional pop acts make, thus changing how radio stations react. “Hip-hop stations have more dedicated fans, and they have more hardcore fans, but they’re trying to gain people that are not hardcore fans,” he admits. “The non-hardcore fans flip around a lot so you want to play songs that they hear at another station to keep them there. Hot 97, we’re doing us. We want our hardcore fans to listen harder. In the mix we’ll play [pop or dance records] but you won’t hear them in rotations. It works as a party DJ-style, but not to [hear it all the way through].

“New York is its own monster, but Los Angeles is good too. You have to think about how people use the radio,” he continues. “In New York, a lot of people listen to the radio when they get up and get ready and jump on the train. A lot of New Yorkers don’t drive, and radio is for cars. In L.A., the records fit more of a driving culture. You’re in the car more. There are certain songs that feel good. They feel like the sun is shining and you could drive around with your top down. When I used to come out [to Los Angeles], they used to play West Coast records. I could feel the difference. Now music is like, all the boundaries have been taken off.”

Standing firmly atop the heap of pop radio stations is New York City’s Z100. As one of the top stations overall in the country, Z100 is known to have an open-door policy for a select number of hip-hop and urban artists. For example, last week, Jay-Z stopped by the station to introduce his new Roc Nation artist Rita Ora, who was immediately given a stamp of approval to premiere her song, ‘Party and Bulls—,’ on-air right then and there.

Listen to Rita Ora’s ‘Party & Bulls—’

Although he’s known for being among the most influential figures in hip-hop, Jay himself has even changed his musical perspective over the years, collaborating with the likes of Coldplay and Linkin Park, and being responsible for constructing the unstoppable force that is Rihanna, who, at this point, couldn’t be further away from being an “urban” artist and has become a certified pop star.

“Jay-Z has been doing it for years,” Z100 program director Sharon Dastur says of Hov’s crossover appeal. “Most recently, I’d say Drake has successfully delivered music that caters to urban radio in addition to pop radio. He stays true to his core audience but has released songs like ‘Find Your Love,’ ‘Best I Ever Had’ and most recently ‘Take Care,’ that have had a lot of success at pop.

“In recent years, there have been more and more artists from the pop and urban worlds collaborating and delivering songs that are not only palatable on pop radio but urban radio as well,” Dastur adds. “It’s great for both formats because a good amount of them have been huge hits.”

With its traditional concept being threatened by the influx of digital radio, traditional radio stations have the added challenge of not only appealing to a fleeting audience, but keeping up with its online competitors. Among their opponents include Pandora, the Oakland, Calif., automated music service that was founded in 2000. More than a decade after its inception, Pandora has become popular for offering its subscribers the opportunity to bypass the similarities in playlists heard on pop and urban radio stations by constructing their own lists. In effect, Pandora is changing the way radio works by “redefining radio from the traditional one-too-many programming of broadcast radio to a truly personalized one-to-one radio listening experience,” a move that has raised its revenue in 2011 to $138 million with only a $1.8 million net loss.

So while it’s safe to say that musicians will no longer be pigeonholed in appealing to one audience, radio is still embroiled in its own battle of fending off stiff competition from the online world. Either way, the lack of segregation between musicians isn’t necessarily a bad thing and for DJ-producer and television personality Clinton Sparks, that’s the way it should be.

“I no longer think that the high school cafeteria is black kids at that table, jocks at that table, nerds over at this table,” Sparks reveals. “I think everyone just hangs out. Every rapper wants to be down with pop artists, pop artists [want to be] down with [rappers]. Paris [Hilton] wants to hang with 50 [Cent]. 50 wants to hang with Paris. They just never knew how to talk to each other, but now we live in a world where everybody just hangs out and respects each other.”

With all the pre-meditated beefs creeping into the news circuit, almost on a daily basis, harmony amongst artists is definitely valuable, especially when good music can come from the unity. Such mergers, whether it’s a rapper delving into the pop lane crafted by a producer or an R&B singer crooning over dance tunes, has influenced radio’s decision to relax its format boundaries. However, like anything, too much of a good thing isn’t always beneficial. Having variety at radio is as important to the audiences as uniformity is, but ultimately, the listener remains the deciding factor in what kind of music they will and won’t accept.

Watch ‘Nicki Minaj Biography’

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Nicki Minaj Biography

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