Listening to music in the 21st Century is often a solitary exerience. Self selected, curated, and suited to the individual tastes of a lone listener, this era has been hailed as one of unlimited choice and autonomy. This is a development that has been a long time coming, accelerated by useful devices such as childrens 45 rpm toy record players, the cassette walkman, and finally reaching its apex in MP3’s, MP3 players, and computerized radio stations such as Pandora, which has the benefit of a huge amount of music information. All luddite notions aside, I’m sure all appreciate the control and interactivity this new world of musical self pleasuring provides us, however, it does not eliminate the need for individuals to lovingly and passionately curate, promote, and introduce us to music we might not otherwise be aware of. This is a function that has been expanded through the modern means of sharing information, including blogs, podcasts and vlogs. The game of radio itself has changed, as many radio stations in urban locations are controlled by entities such as Clear Channel, which owns some 1,200 stations and counting. All of this was made possible by the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which made media cross ownership and the ability to own multiple stations possible. There has been a trend at these mega stations, to drain the local character out of radio. A drive from Seattle, to San Francisco, to Los Angeles, to Houston provides essentially the same radio formats, with different voices doing very limited announcing. This current trend pays little respect to the vital role popular personality D.J’s have played in the promotion, production, and at times, creation of music from Jazz, to Rock & Roll, Soul, to R&B and even Gospel.
In the Bay Area of Northern California where I’m based, there has been a long tradition of great personality D.J’s, including funk and pop musical pioneer Sly Stone. As big radio gobbles up stations however, many popular D.J’s are finding radio has no home for them. Three long standing popular and influential jocks I grew up with on local airwaves have been let go or forced out of their positions over the past decade or so, including DJ’s Chuy Gomez and Davey D at KMEL, and “Cousin” Kevin Brown at KBLX. These Jocks were cherished both for their diverse and soulful musical tastes as well as their community involvement and activism. These Jocks were very special to me in particular because they represented a cross roads of generational attitude and musics. They came to prominence in the age of hip hop and more modern R&B, but they were raised in the worlds of soul, jazz, and funk. Davey D in particular had been around in NYC at the dawn of hip hop and was also very active in helping make albums like Public Enemy’s “Fear of a Black Planet.” These jocks also played a wide variety of music, from the old school sounds of Roger & Zapp, to the millenial sounds of Drake. Over at KBLX, we had a reliable source for so called “smooth jazz” music, with Kevin Brown serving not only as popular drive time DJ, but also station director. To this day, when a new album by George Benson, Narada Michael Walden, ConFunkShun, Marcus Miller, Lalah Hathaway, Robert Glasper, Esperanz Spalding, and many artists of that quality ilk is released, I wonder just who’s going to play it over the airwaves so that somebody who might not hear it otherwise can get the benefit of hearing it?
I can understand the change in jocks as another technologically based disruption in the American work force as we march through the 21st Century. People in the high profile music industry are not immune to the workplace instability other working people face, though they’re usually better compensated. Many A&R departments, record stores, heads of departments, vanity labels, radio stations, promo men, sound engineers, and studio musicians have lost their positions or been shut down over the last three decades of technological change in the music industry. Remarkably in this environment, live music thrives as one thing that can not be so easily reproduced. Stations look at big popular personality D.J’s as an unnecessary element that also is very expensive, in this age of free agency. Also, there is a matter of ageism here as well. In earlier years, middle aged figures like Rufus Thomas, Don Cornelius and Dick Clark continued to promote youth oriented programing, presenting a youthful image while also serving as role models. But the post MTV era has been moving toward a line of “kids selling to kids” more and more as the years go on. Such a trend was evident at BET when they got rid of Free and AJ at their popular “106 & Park” show in order to make way for younger hosts. The power DJ’s have held over the years might be an issue too, as DJ such as Wolfman Jack and Alan Freed basically built up huge reps and empires that they were able to promote regardless of which station they were attached to and that also served to make DJ’s very valuable free agents whenever they left a station.
Yet, I’m not one who sees the human disc jockey as disposable. In a world of so much social confusion and turmoil, I really don’t see the value in eliminating or minimizing ANOTHER cultural voice. This is a point that has both musical and extra musical ramifications. in the Jamaican street music culture that helped spawn hip hop, the street DJ’s were known as “Selectors.” While radio DJ’s might not have had the freedom to choose records as much as club DJ’s might have, they certainly helped turn on people to records they didnt know about. One example of this is the great New York City DJ Frankie Crocker. Crocker was suave, smooth, articulate, handsome and a real legend of the New York City scene. He was a close friend of James Brown, and can even be heard providing M.C duties on Brown’s second “Live at the Apollo album.” Crocker could be wrong about records now, famously telling Brown he found “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” “harsh”, when Brown brought it to him originally. But when he was right about a record, was he ever right. The suave and smooth Crocker was a habituate of fashionable underground New York disco’s. On one of his trips there, he heard a French import record, Cameroonian sax man Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa”, an energetic mix of modern Cameroonian dance music and American funk and soul. This was a record that was making people go crazy in the nightclubs but radio would not touch. Crocker picked up on the frenzy the record was causing in the clubs and inserted it onto his playlist at WBLS, sending the record to gold and launching a million cover versions, of a record that has since gone on to become both a classic of funk music, and one of the earliest penetrations of “World Music” on the American dance market. The songs chant “Mama se Mama Sa Mama Makossa” has become integrated in the culture through Michael Jacksons smash “Wanna Be Startin Something.” The success of the great “Soul Makossa” is just one of many examples of how a wordly, well traveled, hands on DJ can creatively alter the course that music is running on at any given time.
D.J’s such as Jocko Henderson were also important cultural figures. Jocko was known as the “father of R&B” and was rell regarded for his rapping style. He took be bop era jazz language and rhythms and crafted a style of rhythmically speaking in rhyme that influenced many DJ’s and artists. George Clinton was well known for using Jocko’s rhyme: “A diddy op/oh its the jock/and I’m back on the scene/with a wrecking machine/sayin/ooh papa do/how ya’ll do?” Jocko’s influence on rap was so clear that he himself released a rap record on Sugarhill Records in the early ’80s. Maybe even more substantial, was Jocko’s role in community service, as he was an active advocate of education. Radio D.Jing has also served as a platform for moving into the music business as an artist, as displayed by the careers of B.B King, Rufus Thomas, Sly Stone and Ike Turner.
James Brown was well aware of the power to reach people of radio. He purchased radio stations, not only as a way to promote his own records, but also as a way to put out community service announcements. But even before Brown got involved in the business on that side, he was always one of the Jock’s favorite artists. He made sure to subsidize Jock’s income in various ways, such as promoting shows in concert with them. When the payola scandal rocked the radio industry, he understood it to be more a function of how little jocks were paid than corruption. Of course, the payola scandal and the practice of paying to play records may be what might cause one to say “music is better of without D.J’s”. But the money needed to play in expensive mediums used to promote music now such as video and reality TV cost even more than what was paid out to jocks.
Last year, there was a plethora of great music released by artists such as Foreign Exchange, Janelle Monae, Thundercat, and many other artists. The music all found its way to me through every possible medium, such as blogs, social networking sites, and internet shopping sites. However, listening to the sad state of music on the radio, I still feel its a shame some of this great music is not on the public radio where everybody can hear it and music of such quality can become a part of the public lexicon. The old day’s of the Jocks might never be coming back, but there are things and lessons we can learn from them in this world of MP3’s and blogs. Maybe we can develop more interesting vocal styles with our podcasts and YouTube vlogs, incorporating local expressions, slang, news and locales. Listening parties can be held where we gather like minded friends together to listen to new music. Our podcasts can be structured more creatively, almost like radio shows, with new music, a mixture of genres, and maybe even some local news and issues read, and maybe we can invite more guests on our podcasts, including local artists and politicians. There is a club in Oakland , Era Artbar, that has a fun and innovative night where people can sign a list and play ten songs off vinyl records for the club audience to hear. All of these are small things we can do to carry on the D.J tradition as serious fans of music who accept the responsibility of providing context for music and rebuilding the communities through the communicative power of song.