Local hip-hop radio could learn a lot from the shopping mall.
In recent months, The Streets at Southpoint, the sprawling 1.3-million-square-foot emporium a dozen miles from downtown Durham, has incorporated local, non-chain outposts into its food options. In the name of what some have called "rebranding and being more local," or perhaps because it's much cooler to hang out at a food truck rodeo in Durham Central Park than in The Cheesecake Factory's patio dining area, Southpoint offered space for stationary versions of two area food-truck favorites, American Meltdown and Porchetta.
But to date, WQOK-FM—that is, the self-proclaimed "Triangle's #1 Station for the Hottest Hip Hop and R&B"—has done much the opposite. Though K97.5 is the title sponsor for the fourth-annual DURM Hip Hop Summit, which fans out over multiple downtown Durham venues this weekend, the station has consistently failed to play local hip-hop. Instead, they have paid lip service to local rap by splattering their logo over an event, but that's about the extent of their effort.
At least the Radio One-owned station didn't force itself on the Summit. In 2013, organizers and fellow rappers Professor Toon and The Real Laww invited three K97.5 personalities (Nikki Nicole, Brian Dawson, DJ Wade Banner) to serve as the official hosts for the evening. The following year, Dawson and his 10-year-old son, DJ prodigy Chase Dawson, hosted alongside Chapel Hill emcee KAZE. This year, the station will "present" the Summit.
"Initially, we were a little standoffish with the potential commercializing," admits Laww, "and how it might look to the public."
Toon, too, was suspicious of the possibility of having to compromise creative control of the Summit.
"I have said in songs that I don't need radio," he offers, "but the first place that we went to for sponsorship was the radio station or somewhere else corporate."
Still, the pair ultimately viewed Dawson's K97.5 affiliation more as a resource than a threat. Dawson is K97.5's station manager and voice of the afternoon "The Traffic Jamz" show. During the last 15 years, he has gradually worked his way toward becoming the unofficial face of the radio station.
"He has the promotional knowledge," explains Toon. "He's been doing this for years. We've only recently started doing promotions as a necessity for our rap music."
Dawson agrees he is an event planner by nature, so he pays attention as people start their own spectacles. When he thinks he can help a project that interests him, he steps in.
"I watched them plan this event from the ground up instead of starting way up without building support," Dawson says. "They built a good fanbase and a support system. That's where I came in: 'OK, the event was moving without me. Let me see if I can help the event move faster.'"
It's difficult, though, to believe that K97.5 cares that much about local rap. The relationship between the station and the Triangle's hip-hop scene remains fractured, especially ever since its only sincere attempt at showcasing local talent—the weekly "919 Radio" show—stopped airing several years ago. The show's cancellation exposed the station's local hip-hop void and gave area artists one more reason to lambaste their commercial radio surroundings.
It's difficult to quantify exactly how many spins K97.5 has given local rappers, including those performing at this year's Summit. They have at least played tracks from local artists like Dre Murrow, Pooh Bear and B Stacks, a Durham rapper on this year's bill. ("I was scared out of my pants," confesses Toon of hearing his "Elephant" played on the radio.) But Dawson makes it clear that fostering a community where good rap is made is less important than fostering one where people listen to the station.
"I can't say that I've always agreed with the approach that mainstream radio takes, but what everybody has to understand is that it's still a business," he says. "The demand for artists is what is going to determine what the station plays, and the station is going to go for the bigger demand."
That makes business sense, of course, even if it doesn't make for much community.
"These guys feel like somebody owes them," says Dawson. "How can we owe every artist from Durham? The ones who think that somebody owes them are the ones that don't get anywhere."
Every Friday night, Durham hip-hop veteran DJ Samps hosts his "Street Flava" mix show on Duke University's WXDU-FM. He's one of the only Triangle DJs who can claim to regularly play a variety of local hip-hop, including several Summit acts. During the event's first year, Samps even interviewed Toon and Laww about their new endeavor.
In the festival's four years, though, he's never been asked to participate. Just as K97.5 wants to enjoy a one-way promotional street with local hip-hop, the Summit seems to exploit local radio in a similar fashion.
"I was more perturbed about it in the beginning," says Samps. "After that, I stopped dealing with it. There's local artists being played in this community without the Summit."
Samps has stopped dealing with the issue of K97.5's reluctance to play local artists, too.
"It's a dead horse," he says. "We all know that they don't play local artists except for the people that are connected to the radio station. The radio station can come to the Summit, but it won't even matter unless they go back to the radio station with two or three artists that they want to give a little shine to."
Dawson at least sees that as a possibility; there's great potential, he says, in K97.5 backing Toon and Laww's local vision.
"This Summit does open the doors for the radio station to pay attention to other artists outside of what it plays all of the time," he says. "We play way more local music—and I'm gonna call it local because it's regional—than we used to. Most of that is done through mix shows."
Musically, Dawson's tastes may skew mainstream, but he still believes in the prospect of keeping the Summit true to its local core while expanding its reach—"much like an artist that crosses over but still wants to stay true to their fanbase," he says.
"Part of the station manager's job should be to further the culture of hip-hop. That's what the DURM Hip Hop Summit is doing," he explains. "It's opening us up to a lot of people who don't follow the radio station. It's merging the two cultures. Both scenes need each other."
It may take a few more years to see if Dawson is right, or to see if the merger of ground-level hip-hop with one of the most powerful and popular stations in the region produces anything more than bland marketing materials. Ideally, the combination would give a few local rappers coveted airplay, while K97.5 helps build its own grassroots-driven version of a massive summer show, like a take on Greensboro's 102 JAMZ-sponsored SuperJam.
Then, though, you've got to worry that there won't be any space left for food truck rappers.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Radio suckas."