The Beat Keeper

For many listeners, hip hop history is a clip of the Sugar Hill Gang on VH-1. For Kevin Beacham, it's an obsession and a profession.

Northwestern University's radio station, WNUR, a regular stop for his promos, contacted him. Their regular Thursday-night hip-hop DJ couldn't show. "They asked me if I could fill in. I said, yeah, I'll try it out. That lasted seven years."

The stint at WNUR led to connections with the fledgling Rhymesayers label, which he first discovered through the grind of college radio promos. "Most promos suck," he says. "The one good one? It was [the Atmosphere debut] Overcast."

The growing label hired him in 2002, and though he's been with the label for years now, it's still not altogether clear what he does. Or put another way, what he doesn't do. Beacham's title, he says, is, "'product manager.' Anything Rhymesayers sells, I deal with it.... There's only four of us. Four people doing 10 jobs." (Add to that another: Beacham spins around town as DJ Nikoless.)

"Moving here, the hardest thing was quitting my radio show," Beacham says. And so he was excited when he heard that the Current would be looking to start a hip-hop specialty show. "I think of it like, if I'd never stopped doing that show [on WNUR], what would I be doing now?" And there's one handy coincidence, too: WNUR and the Current go out over the same frequency. "It's destiny!" he says with a laugh. "I'm right back here on the same numbers, 89.3."

Beacham says a lot of the things you like to hear DJs say. He's partial to research, he loves theme shows, he brags lightly about his collection ("10,000 is probably a good figure"). He wishes he could fit in more kinds of music and have it all make sense: "Eventually I want to get to the point where I can have a hip-hop show that's not just hip hop, because hip hop came from all this other music. All types of music influenced hip hop, now hip hop influences everything else."

That philosophy sounds a lot like the mantra espoused by the Current's brain trust. Which doesn't quite tamp down the irony of why public radio should need a specialty program devoted to the music that more or less rules the earth. But Beacham doesn't blink at this question: He doesn't want to make too much of the underground/pop split in hip-hop culture. "Even though I'm all about the history, I don't want to be a bitter old rapper. Some people think, 'Oh, back in the day, it was all pure and real.' But when we were younger, we all said, 'I want to be on TV, I want to make a movie, I want to be on the moon, rapping!'"

It dawns on Beacham then that he and hip hop are about the same age. "I'm hitting 36 next month. Gray hair is coming in!"

So is there something about hip hop's age that explains its current state? "Hip hop is in the workforce, it's in its 30s. It's working," he says. Yet Beacham's greatest gift may be that for all his busyness--the three jobs, the years in the industry's trenches--he doesn't sound like he's working.

"I'll always be a fan first, always a student, more than I am a teacher," he says. "More of a fan than an artist. When you stop being a fan, you're going to lose it."

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