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.

Redefinition Radio
11:00 p.m. Saturdays
The Current (KCMP-FM, 89.3)

Music has a way of finding the people who need it. A teenage Kevin Beacham had already been bitten by hip hop when he found a stack of records staring at him from a neighboring bus seat. Junction City, Kansas, is by no means a big town, but its Fort Riley Army Base sprawls out enough to need a bus to shuttle soldiers and their families around the facility.

Today Beacham has two high-profile posts in local hip hop, as a DJ on the Current (KCMP-FM, 89.3) and a Rhymesayers staffer. Back then, he was just another Army brat who was fixated a little too obviously on a stack of records. Their owner, a soldier named Anthony Pittman, had to say something. "Finally he was like, 'Do you want to see these?'" Beacham recalls. "I was like, 'Hey, the new Spoonie G!'"

Daniel Corrigan

Pittman, a.k.a. DJ Pill, from New York, took the rap-obsessed Beacham under his wing. The first time Beacham had his hands on DJ gear was in Pill's barracks, against Army regulations. Pill took the risk to "have his friends distract the guards," Beacham recalls, to sneak in his new devotee. Pill's setup must have been modest, but to hear Beacham tell it, this was the door to the next world. It was set up on "a little dresser--two turntables, a mixer hooked up to that, and an echo chamber, this giant obnoxious echo chamber," he says. "I remember going in there, seeing all the crates of records, and being like, wow. He started showing me stuff. Eventually he was just like, 'You try it.'"

Redefinition Radio (11:00 p.m. Saturdays), like Pill's time with his younger protégé, is Beacham's effort to give hip hop away. The show is made up of underground and independent rap from every decade. Beacham grew up, like millions of Americans in their 30s, in hip hop, watching it grow from an NYC "novelty" into a moral-majoritarian bugbear, and then into the ruling sound of American pop. But that history isn't always present. Between the milestone five-mic records and the revolving crop of top-40 rap hits, there's a wealth of tracks that rarely get heard.

"My job, my, whatever, responsibility, is to give these [songs] time," Beacham says. "Even if people don't remember, you'll play them something, and they'll be like, 'Oh yeah, that was my track!'"

It's probably safe to say that "Black History" isn't what most Run-DMC fans remember as their track. Beacham can barely remember it himself. And yet that's the song that the DJ leads off with during a recent taping in Minnesota Public Radio's St. Paul studio. It's long and a little ponderous, a single, solid electro-bass hit underneath expository verses about, well, black history. It's not from an album; the voices are theirs, but the attitude and sound are not the Run-DMC we know.

There's a story here: Beacham pulled the song off a mix tape, the original being long gone. "I had to play this track," he says. "I thought I'd made it up, because I couldn't find any proof about it on the internet or anything. I was putting posts up on different web boards, you know, with record diggers and rare collectors. No response. Someone has to know besides me!" As far as Beacham can remember, "it was a promo song, and I'm pretty sure," he pauses for effect, "it came free in a Jheri curl box."

Beacham's devotion to cultural history, it should be said, does not go so far as to involve the present-day use of Jheri curl. He wears his hair in long dreads, and he has an easy gap-toothed smile. His booming voice can still betray a kid's excitement with a funny story, though he cuts the velocity in half when he's on the air.

Beacham's first brush with rap, as with most of the planet, was a 12" of the Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight." His dad shipped the disc back from the States to the German army base where Kevin was born and raised, before the move to Kansas. The record's effect was immediate: "That was it," he recalls. "I said, 'I want to find everything that sounds like this.'" (His very first record? A "Kung Fu Fighting" 45. "I still have it," he admits--or is that boasts?)

After his formative experiences with DJ Pill, Beacham moved to the Chicago area to finish high school. He rapped in an outfit called Wildstyle, which attracted some label attention, even if the A&R rep bluntly told them they were looking for gangstas.

"I wasn't opposed to that music," Beacham says. "I listened to N.W.A., I liked Too $hort, I appreciated it for what it was. But it just wasn't me. It wasn't something I would do. I guess the biggest slap in the face was like, why say you like me but ask me to be someone else. 'Oh we like you, but be this guy.'"

After Wildstyle dissolved, Beacham kept himself busy in hip hop as best he could, starting a promotion company, writing for magazines, even putting out one of his own. In retrospect, the most important professional step was something he did for free. ("People tend to forget, they get busy with life," he says. "[But] there's always time for the things you love, for passion.")

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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