By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Of course the great black artists have a somewhat easier time getting played on the Current, if by "great" you mean the dead ones. They play Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Sam Cooke, Billie Holiday, Howlin' Wolf, Leadbelly, Aretha Franklin (technically living)--all brilliant, and all exemplars of the worst kind of tokenism on a station that routinely ignores contemporary African American artists. Often the black ancients will set up a tune by a later white artist who was profoundly influenced by black styles--so Louis Armstrong might lead into Tom Waits, or Howlin' Wolf might give way to Nick Cave. All of this jibes with two tenets held dear, if rarely spoken, by hip white people: One, black music died at some point in the mid-'70s, but the old stuff sure is fun to dance or make out to. Two, black music's main contribution is to generate ideas that more "cerebral" and arty white performers can then pilfer.
But, you say, isn't the Current playing that Nas tune all the time, and didn't I hear an old Boogie Down Productions tune the other day? Aren't they playing TV on the Radio and Atmosphere and other mixed-race groups (with mostly white fans)? Aren't they playing Sage Francis and Eyedea and Abilities and RJD2 and other hip hoppers and so what if a lot of them happen to have white skin? I'll give you all that; part of the fun of pop music is getting lost in the skein of crossing influences. But we should still ask why white hip-hop artists have so much easier a time getting played by indie/alternative/ collegiate tastemakers and devotees.
All of this would matter less if the Current presented itself as an alt-rock station that just happened to have an eclectic streak and an out-of-place folkie morning show. But the Current doesn't present itself that way. From the KCMP website: "The Current is a music station with a deep and wide playlist. The Current plays the best, authentic new music alongside music that explores roots and influences." Who knows what that "authentic" means--could, say, Canadian hip hop possibly qualify? This is a station proud to proclaim that anything goes. Ella Fitzgerald and the Postal Service! Johnny Cash and Pere Ubu! Other famous musicians who are probably in your dictionary and lots of bored singer-songwriters and writerly light rockers! And all of it programmed with devil-may-care heart and soul by knowledgeable music lovers. I know a few of the Current's DJs, and they are passionate about music. But public radio is loaded with passionate music lovers--the volunteers at KFAI, KMOJ, and Radio K, for instance. And what makes everyone so certain that all those commercial radio jocks don't love music? In most cases, it's not a terribly lucrative gig, you know. From listening to B96's Tony Fly or Kool 108's Dan Donovan or K102's Donna Valentine, it seems quite clear that they, too, love and know about music. They probably aren't starry-eyed over each and every single they have to play and their listeners want to hear, but God, does Thorn really love all that weepy folk-rock and recycled Anglo pop he plays? Maybe he does.
BACK IN THE LATE '80S, I DID A hip-hop show at KFAI. I originally envisioned it as a variety show based on hip hop. Rap with roots and diversions, Public Enemy and MC Lyte and James Brown and let's throw in Sonic Youth as well. After a few months of taking calls from listeners, I sensed that people didn't want to hear that old stuff, or that rock shit, or anything but hip hop. (They also, wisely, wanted me to talk less.) So I'll concede that if I ran a radio station, it would almost certainly be an unpopular radio station. I'd want the indie-rock kids to open up to metal, or the alt-country faithful to really listen to Alan Jackson's voice, or the smart-pop snobs to hear Britney Spears's "Toxic" not as corporate effluvium, but as an inventive, complex, silly, and damn fun piece of dance music--like the Postal Service, only better. And maybe that wouldn't work.
But public radio listeners are supposed to be open-minded, right? If Current fans don't mind Al Green here and there, they might like younger R&B bohemians like Anthony Hamilton, Angie Stone, D'Angelo, Rahsaan Patterson, Erykah Badu. Maybe they'd even go for some less arty but equally good tracks by Teedra Moses or Mary J. Blige. I'm pretty sure they'd dig more Latin and world music. I think they'd tolerate some metal. I know a lot of them already like the not underexposed but perfect-for-the-format Kanye West and OutKast. They might come to appreciate the strange and funny New Orleans assembly-line hip hop of Mannie Fresh, or figure out what the kids see in 50 Cent. (Too pop? On a station that just played "Kung Fu Fighting"?) And with all due respect to Leigh Kammon, MPR could really use a jazz show that's living in the present.
Some of these are idiosyncratic examples. You could pick entirely different ones, music that would push the Current's "anti-format" further and move the station to better reflect our multicultural reality and the breadth of music out there. That seems like a good thing for a public-radio station to do. KFAI, warts and all, has been doing it for years.