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MK Stallings

Did Bain Capital Kill Hip Hop in St. Louis?

October 24, 2012
I remember a few years ago when St. Louis had two dedicated FM hip hop radio stations, 100.3 the Beat and Hot 104.1.

From what I recall, Nelly once glowed about St. Louis having multiple rap and R&B stations, which made sense to me. Having two hip hop stations felt like a big deal, as though the presence of those stations would transform St. Louis into a big city. This was magical thinking to be sure, but I had another thought about what this would mean for St. Louis hip hop.

I thought competition would break up the monopoly of rap-wackness that dominated radio. I hoped that market competition would prompt program directors to diversify playlists with something that heads (music purists) call "real hip hop" and not mainstream "pop hop" that gum up airwaves now.

Although the real hip hop renaissance I desired never manifested, I still believed that it could happen just because there were two stations. Then, in July of 2008, 100.3 the Beat was sentenced to death row when Bain Capital "merged" with Clear Channel. At that time, I didn't know anything about Bain Capital. It wasn't until Mr. Mitt Romney's presidential campaign that I learned about the company's purpose and his role in it.

Over the next year, the St. Louis American began covering the personnel changes at 100.3 the Beat. According to the paper, Clear Channel had its first wave of layoffs in April 2009. Terminated staffers anticipated a more drastic change when it appeared that Clear Channel no longer wanted to "invest" in the hip hop station.

The death knell sounded on Oct. 30, 2009 when most of the on-air personalities were fired, and Halloween themed music replaced the hip hop (yes, mostly pop hop) that filled the airwaves for a decade. Kevin Johnson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the last song played on The Beat was "End of the Road" by Boyz II Men.

Several changes occurred before Clear Channel committed to its current rock format for 100.3, but inevitably incorporated hip hop into Majic 104.9's R & B and classic soul format.

In many of the St. Louis American articles, sources speculated about why the Beat ended. Some said that it was the economy, others said it was low revenues, still others wondered if unprofessional behavior of on-air personalities prompted the terminations.

Kevin Johnson believed that the higher ratings of rival hip hop station Hot 104.1 drove the Beat out of business. Amid this speculation, neither Johnson nor the St. Louis American seemed to have been aware that the Bain-Clear Channel merger was a possible factor in ending the Beat. Apparently no one knew, except perhaps Clear Channel employees, that layoffs under Bain Capital were a function of profit maximization and not solely a consequence of the economy or shifts in program ratings.

Johnson reprinted some of the farewells that Beat on-air personalities posted on Facebook. One comment from Selena J made a salient point about how her loss of a Beat program is minimal in comparison to others who lost their jobs. Selena J, unlike her terminated co-workers, was also on the air at Majic 104.9 as well as another Clear Channel station, Hallelujah 1600, on the AM side of the dial.

Perhaps Selena J's ability to maintain employment had something to do with her versatility as an on-air talent who can find an audience in multiple formats. Generally, aren't employees with several responsibilities and skills more likely to retain employment than a person limited in those areas?

Since that time, I practically gave up on radio programmed hip hop. Even satellite has wack tendencies because of its bias toward pop hop. For the record, pop hop is any form of hip hop music created for mass consumption that caters to a mainstream audience. This includes "gangsta rap" with its hard edge and whatever this non-lyrical mess is that dominates the airwaves. The only exception to this radio rap wackness is when I catch DJ Needles on his 88.1 KDHX program Rawthentic. Otherwise, I get my hip hop online or from my collection.

Is it fair to say that Bain Capital killed St. Louis hip hop? In terms of culture, of course not, but radio is a different matter. Bain Capital demolished 100.3 the Beat and, in concert with Clear Channel, terminated many of the staff members. With a greater market share of hip hop in St. Louis, Hot 104.1 no longer had to appeal to heads like me or be receptive to local artists. It can play whatever songs their corporate office tells them to play.

The Bain Capital-Clear Channel merger and subsequent decision about the Beat reflects a problem that heads feel plague hip hop. The corporate side of the music is killing the art and exploiting the culture it represents.

As a result of the hip hop industry's ability to affect what music reaches the mainstream and set standards for hip hop culture, creativity in hip hop is dead. Why? Because it is no longer a viable space of varied self-expression, and a means for non-mainstream artists to gain exposure. In a sense, all artists who can't adapt to industry standards are terminated from the marketplace, and must find employment elsewhere.

Talib Kweli once rhymed in his song "Too Late," released in 2000, that "Nowadays rap artists (are) coming half-hearted/commercial like pop, or underground like black markets." He goes on to ask, "Where were you the day hip hop died?"

I was probably somewhere in denial about its death.

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