Fear of White Radio (From the Archives)

On the occasion of learning that the Beastie Boys have been nominated to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I delve into my own archives to reprint a piece from several years ago explaining my distaste for them and the radio stations that shove them down our throats.

Man, it’s really time that somebody pushed the B.S. button on the Beastie Boys, and on the “Modern Rock” radio stations that play their music.

I was dial surfing while driving around a couple of days ago and stopped on the local “Modern Rock” station right around the time that they were doing their daily Top Five countdown. Four of the songs were what you’d expect: Disturbed or Staind or bands that sound like Disturbed or Staind. The fifth song, however, was the new single by the Beastie Boys, and (like most of their songs) it was a simplistic “old school” rap song, with those ever-annoying Beastie voices yelling at each other on top of the rudimentary musical bed.

Now, I could have listened to that “modern rock” station all day, and would I have heard any other old school rap songs, or any other contemporary rap or hip hop music? Maybe another Beastie Boys song or two. And maybe (just maybe) an Eminem number. But nothing else. So why were the Beastie Boys (and maybe, just maybe, Eminem) being played there?

Because they’re white.

Outkast or Jay-Z or Ludacris or any of the many wonderful Wu Tang members or the always-potent Public Enemy or Doctor Dre (without Eminem as his Modern Rock radio mouthpiece) or Snoop or any other popular African-American rap/hip-hop artist could put out or cover that exact same Beastie Boys song, and it would not get played on Modern Rock Radio.

So does that mean that Modern Rock Radio is somewhat racially biased in its programming? I think it is. Which probably doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone.

“But,” I hear you say, rising to corporate rock radio’s defense, “Modern Rock radio plays lots of Lenny Kravitz! How can they be racist?”

They play Lenny Kravitz because Lenny offers what their demographically average, 20-something, white rock radio listener would consider to be “white music,” exploiting the Jimi Hendrix/Thin Lizzy loophole to commercial rock radio acceptability.

The classic Public Enemy song “Fear of A Black Planet” had a little vocal riff in the middle that boiled racial anxiety down to a simple expression of math and genetics:

“Black man, black woman: black baby.
White man, white woman: white baby.
White man, black woman: black baby.
Black man, white woman: black baby.”

I think Modern Rock radio follows a similar model:

“White artist, white music: white radio.
Black artist, white music: white radio.
White artist, black music: white radio.
Black artist, black music: black radio.”

So if you’re an African-American artist making music that the demographically average, white rock radio listener (or programming director) would consider to be “black music,” then there’s evidently no place for you in “white” radio formats like Modern Rock, and apparently you can only appear on pop, R&B, rap or “urban” demographic radio stations. Which is just plain wrong.

Of course, I know there’s not really any such thing as “white music” and “black music,” so I’m using shorthand there, but I hope you get the gist of the point I’m trying to make: that there’s clearly a double standard being applied to programming decisions being made on modern rock radio today, and there has been for many years.

And the Beastie Boys are the living, breathing embodiment of this. If they’re all you know about contemporary rap, then you’re doing yourself an amazing disservice as far as exposure to quality music goes. As are the radio stations who serve them to you aside your daily doses of Staind and Disturbed.

So I suggest you call your local Modern Rock Radio station the next time you hear them play the Beastie Boys and request “Fear of A Black Planet” by Public Enemy . . . then make them explain to you why they can’t or won’t play that song.

It should be an interesting rationalization, I would think.

4 thoughts on “Fear of White Radio (From the Archives)

  1. Figured I’d post this over here instead of on the MCA post…

    It was an interesting read, and no I don’t think it was churlish to post, especially since I asked nicely. I still think they get played on modern rock more because of their punk and rock leanings and less because of their skin color, though.

    Hip hop in general is a hard genre to plug into other genre specific radio stations. I dont think they would play Dre or Bobby Digital or anything like that because while they’re awesome, there isn’t a guitar riff to get the person who listens to Staind involved. Even the Beasties songs that are straight hip-hop, they still have the pedigree of being part punk.

    But still, and interesting read and I thank you for sharing.

    • The part of my soul that’s not burnt crisp with cynicism would like to agree with you and believe that it had to do with the sound of the music, or the punk pedigree, but then I listen to the walloping guitar crunch of P.E.’s “Son of A Bush” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cJwjMygQITQ), among many others . . . and wonder why even the clean version of it never got played on rock radio, even though the clean version of Eminem’s far less rock-oriented “Lose Yourself” was a big hit in that genre. It may not be conscious, overt racism . . . but somehow the results feel the same to me . . .

      • Historically active rock stations have played acts like Dre, Snoop, Lil Wayne and some of the alternative stations have taken a shine lately to Drake, for some reason. You couldn’t escape Gnarls Barkley for a long time on alt-radio (although less rap, even if it features a Goodie Mob member). “California Love” and “Insane in the Brain” both got, and on some stations still get, a lot of airplay. I guess maybe the question shouldn’t be why are they playing white acts and not black acts, but why aren’t they playing Public Enemy and Wu Tang? Really, though you can ask that question about a lot of acts they do play versus acts they don’t. If I could tell you what makes Clear Channel tick when it comes to the acts they want to push, well, I’d be a much better journalist, probably.

        However, I will concede that yes there is probably some level of racism involved, especially with someone as potentially incendiary as PE.

        • Yeah, all good points, all noted. The original of this article was written in probably 2000 or 2001 at the latest, so things have changed on rock radio since then, hopefully for the better. Or at least I assume they have, since I stopped listening around 2004 or so . . .

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