Atlanta radio goes three times dope

Three new classic hip-hop stations make ATL ground zero for old-school rap battle

DJ Nabs is back “In the Lab,” decked out in a sparkly black and red boxing robe and matching shorts. The last time he wore this outfit in the ring, the 46-year-old amateur lost to a young pro half his age with an undefeated record.

“I actually lost by decision,” Nabs says. “He didn’t even touch me.”

The Sunday night celebrity match at the Mansion Elan on Feb. 22 was the first public announcement of his return to radio, his rightful arena. Nabs, who first rose to prominence as Kris Kross’s DJ on tour with Michael Jackson, made his mark as an on-air personality at Hot 97.5 where he gave an intern named Chris Lova Lova his first break in the industry before earning fame as Ludacris.

The fight Nabs is gearing up for today is set in the studio of the new Boom 102.9, where he’s been broadcasting live every weekday from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. since late February. Might as well call it a comeback, both for Nabs and classic hip-hop. In Houston, Dallas, Philly, Jacksonville, and St. Louis, stations have flipped for the new radio format over the past six months. In Atlanta, the trend went buck wild last November when three such stations popped up on the FM dial within one week. Two launched on the same day.

The three-way race between low power stations in Atlanta has pit one indie underdog (Old School 99.3) against two corporate big dogs (OG 97.9, Boom 102.9), turned two longtime radio allies into potential rivals, and spawned a ratings war for listeners that divides the advertising pie into interesting slices of race, age, and taste.

It’s almost surreal to find Atlanta, the reigning leader of the new school, in the midst of an old-school hip-hop battle. This is the city, lest we forget, that plenty of East Coast traditionalists blamed (and still do) for mortally wounding the genre. For almost a decade and a half, the ATL has been hip-hop’s paradoxical capital, grooming pop-rap stars and churning out industry hits — both genre-defining and disposable — while die-hards and blowhards alike constantly question the city’s hip-hop cred.

The same city that serves as a second home for many of the genre’s reigning heavyweights doubles as a retirement home for hip-hop’s veterans. Now Atlanta has become ground zero for rap radio’s old-school resurgence as the genre’s golden era advances toward its golden years.

But this is bigger than nostalgia; it’s business. And in the notoriously competitive world of radio, conventional wisdom says three stations playing the same format can’t last for long in a market the size of Atlanta.

It’s 12:01 a.m. on a Monday and A Tribe Called Quest’s “Bonita Applebum” is playing on OG 97.9. This is old-school hip-hop radio at its best. To be riding around on a random late night, turn on the radio, and hear one of the dopest old-school jams ever is why this format is the shit.

It’s 12:05 a.m. on the same Monday and Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” is playing on OG 97.9. This is classic hip-hop radio at its worst. To be riding around on a random late night, turn on the radio, and hear one of the wackest old-school jams ever is why this format is shit.

The emergence of classic rap radio is refreshing on one hand. But it’s also a reminder that mainstream radio, no matter the format, has sucked for a long time. Conglomerate-controlled stations, preprogrammed playlists, and repetitive hits are just some of the reasons why terrestrial radio has been losing audience share to digital streaming and podcasts for years.

Those same factors make the timing ripe for classic rap radio. For Gen Xers who came of age with the genre in the ’80s and ’90s but abandoned radio over the past decade, early hip-hop is the new oldies. Just like classic rock stations emerged in the ’80s to target maturing baby boomers. The format roughly aims for 35- to 44-year-olds, according to Nielsen, which puts classic hip-hop radio right between contemporary rap radio’s 18- to 34-year-old target and the 45- to 54-year-olds sought by old-school R&B stations.

Mainstream radio’s definition of classic hip-hop can cover everything from the Sugarhill Gang to Soulja Boy. But music of the mid-’90s to mid-2000s hits the sweet spot for all three stations. Of course, there are sour notes.

“All of them have flashes of brilliance, but then they’ll pull something out of nowhere,” says longtime live show host and promoter D.R.E.S tha BEATnik, who hosted an online hip-hop radio show until recently. Like lots of listeners, he’s hyped over the city’s three new classic stations. But he’s also critical. “I don’t wanna hear ‘Ditty’ by Paperboy. But sure enough, it’s in the rotation. If y’all are going to do that, why don’t you play ‘Who Got the Props’ by Black Moon? If you’re gonna play MC Breed’sAin’t No Future in Yo Frontin’,’ play ‘Deeper’ by Boss. You can play ‘Turn This Mutha Out’ by MC Hammer. That’s fine. Just give me ‘The World is Yours’ by Nas. If you’re gonna go pop, go pop. But bring it back down to earth every now and then.”

As the first on-air personality to emerge among the three stations, DJ Nabs’ career arc parallels hip-hop’s maturation. Being part of the first generation that grew up with the music means he will also be among the first to grow old with it. And just as hip-hop has grappled with its shifting identity, he’s also come to terms with how best to represent in midlife.

When Atlanta’s rap scene began taking its first steps toward national ascendancy, Nabs was there. The North Carolina native started as a club DJ, doing shows and studio work with a trio called Secret Society, while attending Morris Brown College. Two of the group’s members, Speech and Headliner, would eventually morph into Arrested Development. Through their manager, Michael Mauldin, Nabs met Mauldin’s son Jermaine Dupri and quickly became the tour DJ and music director for Dupri’s protégées, Kris Kross.

He stops telling the story long enough to pull out his laptop. Seconds later, he’s dug up an old black-and-white photo of Chris Smith and Chris Kelly before Kris Kross. No pants to the back or oversized baseball jerseys; the baby-faced rappers look even softer than they did when “Jump” skyrocketed them to fame in 1992. In a photo of Secret Society, Speech and Headliner look more like a young Public Enemy than the Southern black hippies that took the world to an idyllic place called “Tennessee.”

By the time Nabs made it to Hot 97.5 as the second afternoon drive personality in the station’s history, he’d been on tour with Kris Kross for four years and become a well-known club DJ. He helped create the station’s on-air identity with a young Ludacris. “We were totally having fun,” Nabs says. “We used to have ants crawling from the window up to the ceiling in the studio, and we didn’t even bother them. It just was what it was.”

His current studio, just across the hall from Hot 107.9, is far different from those meager beginnings. Boom is the latest addition to the local arm of Radio One, which has three other stations in Atlanta (Hot 107.9, Majic 107.5/97.5, and Praise 102.5) and a total 55 stations in 16 markets.

Gold and platinum plaques from major-label artists such as Jodeci and D’Angelo decorate the halls of Radio One’s Atlanta headquarters, located on the 12th floor of a 36-story glass tower in the heart of Downtown. It’s a long way from the trailer Hot 97.5 started in 20 years ago. On any given day, Radio One attracts a virtual who’s who of black entertainment. While standing in the lobby with the suited-up VP and general manager Tim Davies, the legendary Dionne Warwick casually walks past. Davies greets her like royalty. Meanwhile, Nabs is wrapping up an interview with Doug E. Fresh, who can’t stop talking about the new classic hip-hop format and Radio One’s four Boom-branded stations across the country.

“I think this Boom thing is really gonna boom,” Fresh says. “Now in the world of hip-hop, we are the Gladys Knights, the Patti LaBelles. We are that generation.” For legacy artists like the human beatbox originator, these stations offer a new outlet by reconnecting them with their original fans. “The groups of our generation made classic joints. Our audience is in their 30s, 40s, and 50s and they want to hear that — especially now because back then hip-hop had a different level of integrity.”

At 40, hip-hop is still a baby as far as genres go. Which has always made the term “old-school” relative at best and divisive at worst.

“I hate the whole old-school/new-school thing because it’s a divide and conquer mechanism for a culture that doesn’t need or require it,” D.R.E.S. says.

If this new format has staying power, it means that rap’s legacy artists can finally start getting the respect and extended shelf life common in other genres.

“The Rolling Stones are about to play at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium this summer. They’re still on the road touring,” D.R.E.S. says. “Meanwhile Kool Moe Dee is working 9-to-5 somewhere. Something’s wrong. And I’m not saying that Kool Moe Dee is the Rolling Stones, but the point I’m making is these classic formatted stations are leveling the playing field for hip-hop. Where there’s been no country for old men in hip-hop, it’s starting to become a thing of the past.”

But will the new format survive? That’s the multibillion dollar question. Yet it’s also as absurd a question now as it was at the birth of the genre, before it went on to spawn a $10 billion industry. The better question, perhaps, is will radio do classic hip-hop justice?

Urban radio’s relationship with rap music began contentiously. Originally coined nearly 35 years ago as a marketing term to define upwardly mobile African-American audiences, “urban” radio has become a loaded term over time.

“It was a euphemism created by radio sales people to subvert the racist perceptions of advertisers,” Dan Charnas wrote in the 2012 article “Long Kiss Goodbye” for, Radio One’s online news site. Charnas, whose 2010 book The Big Payback lays out the definitive history of the business behind hip-hop, concludes in the same article that New York’s two legacy urban stations (WBLS 107.5 and KISS-FM 98.7) faced a long, slow decline ending in one station’s demise because both failed to embrace rap.

The first station to broadcast a classic rap format came out of Los Angeles. As the country’s original all-rap radio station during its AM years in the mid-’80s, L.A.’s beloved KDAY 1580 began programming old-school hits when it reemerged on the FM dial at 93.5 in 2004. After going off-air in 2008, it returned again in 2009 and survived a change in ownership four years later that listeners feared would turn it into a Chinese-language station.

Although Boom was the last station by a hair to jump into Atlanta’s three-way battle, Radio One jump-started the new classic hip-hop trend last October when it flipped Houston’s KROI-FM 92.1 from news/talk to classic hip-hop. The station’s Nielsen-rated audience tripled from an average of 245,000 listeners a week to 802,000 in the first month.

Indeed, urban remains a bankable format in radio, and it’s only getting bigger — especially in Atlanta where five urban-related stations already existed before the classic rap formats came to town. “That’s one of the interesting things about radio. Every market’s a little different,” says Jon Miller, Nielsen VP of Audience Insights. In other words, “Atlanta’s certainly one of the biggest urban markets, meaning a metropolitan, large-population market that has a really significant portion of African-American population. So that absolutely could work in Atlanta.”

Which also explains why three classic rap stations have landed in Atlanta at the same time and nowhere else. “Atlanta does appear to be a market that can support three stations in the same format targeting primarily African-Americans,” Miller says. “And that’s probably unique to Atlanta. Might not work in Chicago, might not work in Seattle, but if you look at the history of Atlanta with those other stations, there absolutely appears to be room.”

But there are subtle differences between Boom, OG, and Old School. Despite Boom’s hip-hop cred, the station is currently losing to OG, the first Cumulus-owned station in the Atlanta market to target hip-hop listeners. It’s also targeting a different audience than the typical hip-hop station. Before the switch to OG, 97.9 served as a secondary station for the pop top-40 Q100.

While OG has taken the race by surprise, the third-place challenger, independently owned Old School, is small enough that it doesn’t need to compete with the two big stations over ad rates.

Still, the race is too tight to call. Even Rodney Ho, who has covered radio and TV for more than a decade in Atlanta, walked back his early prediction that Cumulus would be the first to bow out. “We may have three stations for longer than I ever imagined — maybe six months?” he wrote in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after analyzing Nielsen shares two months ago. “I have no idea who will ultimately blink first.”

If Nabs is concerned with the competition, his game face is intact. “Here, the idea is to focus on this station,” he says, maintaining the company line. “It’s not really about addressing them.”

That old joke about having a face for radio doesn’t apply to Jerry “Smokin” B.

It’s one of the main things I observe from my behind-the-scenes peek at the business. Everybody looks about 15 years younger than they should. Radio keeps you young, apparently. Especially hip-hop radio.

“I tell everybody my radio age is 37,” says 52-year-old Smokin B. “The music keeps me young.” He’s a longtime friend of Steve Hegwood, the owner of Core Communicators, which is home to three-year-old contemporary rap station Streetz 94.5 and now Old School 99.3. Hegwood and Smokin B grew up together in Milwaukee, where they each got their start as mobile DJs in the late ’70s and early ’80s, just before disco and funk gave way to hip-hop. As a programming consultant for both stations, Smokin B does a little bit of everything: on-air announcing, production, remixing, even design work. The dimly lit nerve center for Old School is slightly larger than a walk-in closet. It’s filled with blinking control boards stacked beneath waist-high Formica countertops he constructed from seven Ikea workstations.

Just three miles from Boom’s Radio One headquarters in the sky, Old School/Streetz occupies the modest, ground-floor corner of a Northside Drive office park. Smokin B is practically a radio legend in this town, particularly where hip-hop is concerned. He’s been around long enough to remember when V-103 only allowed him to play two rap songs during the afternoon drive — either Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” or E.U.’s “Da Butt.” (The latter wasn’t even rap; go-go figure.) He also “brought Hot on the air” with his turntables when the station started 20 years ago. “We were in the shack,” says the former Hot 107.9 program director, recalling the station’s start in a trailer in Tyrone, Ga. “Out there where the transmitter was in a field. We called it Jurassic Park.”

Today Streetz 94.5 is the young upstart Hot 97.5 was 20 years ago. Before the Telecommunications Act of 1996, small-station owners like Hegwood were less of an anomaly. But deregulation allowed a shrinking number of mammoth conglomerates to squeeze out independent and minority owners. Radio programming became more homogenized with less local control.

When Old School started last fall, its playlist centered on classic R&B from the ’70s and ’80s. But after a few months on the air, the oldies started to stall, Smokin B says. Since there were already two other stations in the city bumping old-school R&B, Old School decided to make the switch to classic rap. Some of those R&B skeletons remain, which is partly why you’re likely to hear an occasional Keith Sweat jam from the late ’80s. Like the station’s name, it’s what separates Old School from the pack. Smokin B also says they play more local hits from legacy ATL artists.

“The other two do a lot of research in their playlists, so they will give you the No. 1 song that happened throughout the country. But what about the No. 1 song that happened here in Atlanta?” Smokin B says. “For example, Lil Will’sLookin’ For Nikki,’ which was a No. 1 requested song when I was on the air, wouldn’t show up in full research throughout the country because corporate conglomerates didn’t understand that local movement. We give everyone that local feel and that’s the difference between us.”

Boom, however, mixes researched hits with a strong regional flavor as well.

“Some people just throw stuff on,” says Hurricane Dave Smith, program director for Hot and Boom. “We spend a lot of money researching records that were big in Atlanta.” That research involves calling people on the phone in Atlanta, playing them song snippets, and asking what their favorite songs are to program a Boom station customized for local listeners’ taste. That approach helps to distinguish Atlanta’s Boom from the country’s three other Boom stations. “There are songs that you’ll hear on this station that won’t be played on any other Boom stations because we asked people in Atlanta. This Atlanta station sounds like Atlanta,” Smith says.

While Smith stops shy of detailing “the secret sauce” that goes into creating Boom’s playlist, Smokin B has a pretty good idea how things work at the Radio One station. During his tenure at Hot, he regularly broke new artists (T.I., Jeezy) and helped usher in key eras in Atlanta rap, from bass to crunk to trap. He even brought Nabs back for his second tenure at the station in the 2000s.

“Nabs and I have always been friends,” says Smokin B, who once built a studio for Nabs. A hip-hop beef this is not, but shared history and friendship won’t stop them from competing. “As a friend, you wish him the best. But if he’s hosting a show and I’m hosting a show, he’s gonna try to kick my ass and I’m gonna try to kick his ass,” Smokin B says with a smile. “That’s what you’re supposed to do. But he’s in a good situation.”

It’s almost time for the 5 o’clock mixtape, DJ Nabs’ 40-minute live mix show that happens every weekday. “I’ve never done a radio show without my turntables. That’s how I infiltrate the system,” Nabs says. Today’s theme is Memphis legends 8Ball & MJG in honor of his studio guest 8Ball, who stopped by for an on-air interview to promote the duo’s concert at Wolf Creek Amphitheater and upcoming album, Timeless. As the set starts, Nabs dances back and forth on his toes like a boxer between the two turntables. “DJ Clark Kent told me one time that a DJ’s job is to tell a story with the music,” he tells me. “Even now that’s all we’re trying to do.”

The story Nabs tells now is based on career highs and lows. After years on the road spinning with some of the biggest names in the business, the parties and bullshit started to catch up. “It wasn’t one moment, but it was just a combination of destroying relationships, career coming to a freaking halt, loved ones turning their back on me,” says Nabs, who stopped drinking and sobered up. The lifestyle change led to marriage six years ago and eventually amateur boxing. He also gained more stamina in the DJ booth. Instead of a rocking a party long enough to catch a buzz, he noticed he could last in the booth for hours sober.

Now, when he goes to the club or takes tour dates out of the country, it’s strictly to put in work. At the Gold Room on a recent Friday night with his wife, he did just that for Boom’s kick-off party. He spun a brief set before passing the mic to longtime friends Bone Crusher and Da Brat who both broke off short performances for a well-dressed crowd. The last performer, golden era MC Greg Nice of Nice & Smooth, wasn’t on the bill but showed up to support Nabs and the return of real rap.

“If you go to New York right now, they don’t play no real hip-hop,” he said, hyping a middle-aged crowd with a message that put an ironic twist on hip-hop’s age-old defiance. “Don’t let nobody tell you that you gettin’ old. ‘Cause the best wine is the fine wine! Tell them young mothafuckas!”

White fans have long been the biggest buyers of hip-hop albums, so it figures that the station to blend rap with dance-pop successfully stands the chance to win the largest slice of the listening pie.

For the past three months, OG 97.9 has been that winning station. It’s also the only station of the three that eschews the term urban for the so-called “rhythmic contemporary hits radio” format. In March, it averaged 325,000 listeners a week — nearly double the next closest classic rap station, Boom, at 181,300 listeners a week, according to Nielsen. Both stations fell just shy of Atlanta’s top 20 last month. After the first full month of competition, Old School came in third place with its total percentage of audience share at .3. That was partly due to a weaker signal and smaller coverage area, which has since improved.

OG’s Program Director Rob Roberts, a middle-aged white guy with a long history in radio, is up front about what distinguishes OG. To be honest, he tells me, hip-hop isn’t even his personal music of choice. In his office hang photos of him posing with the likes of Ricky Martin, Linkin Park, and Mariah Carey. But he’s obviously doing a damn good job at programming OG based on the station’s Nielsen ratings.

Roberts ran a similar rhythmic CHR station for Cumulus in the early 2000s in Miami. The station, 103.5 the Beat, featured a playlist of dance-oriented hits, reggaeton, and rap.

It played “90 percent of what OG is now,” Roberts says. Miami rappers Trick Daddy and Trina made regular on-air guest appearances at the station and Cali radio vets the Baka Boyz ran the morning show. “I know what this radio station is supposed to sound like,” Roberts says. “And I think the most important thing to recognize is we’re not an urban station, we’re not a white station, we’re not a Hispanic station. We’re a hip-hop station.”

It’s a slippery distinction. According to an ethnic breakdown of OG’s listenership, as reported by the AJC in January, only 25.6 percent of the station’s audience is black and 11.2 percent Hispanic. All others, including white and Asian, are lumped into one Nielsen category that compiles OG’s largest demo at 63.2 percent. Neither Boom nor Old School has released such a report. But as urban stations, those numbers are probably unnecessary to attract advertisers.

A rhythmic CHR station like OG, however, needs to attract a broader crossover audience to succeed. Translation: You’re more likely to hear one-off artist Snow licking boom-booms down on his 1992 dance-floor hit “Informer” or the Beastie Boys fighting for their right to party on the guitar-driven track from the trio’s ‘86 debut. But there’s also plenty of Chronic-era Snoop and Dre, just to keep it OG.

“We don’t recognize any ethnic lines,” Roberts says. “We’re a general market radio station that will mirror the city of Atlanta perfectly. We’re not trying to lean one way or the other. We’re trying to just be a hip-hop nation that welcomes everybody to our radio station.”

Being a general market station allows OG to capitalize on a bigger share of the market. But crossover appeal can also water down the culture.

“They talk to a demographic that supports hip-hop from a consumer standpoint but has not necessarily lived it, because that’s where the marketing dollars are going,” says D.R.E.S., who considers Cumulus “top notch” among radio corporations but also recognizes the cultural disconnect. “They’re marketing to the Alpharetta set, and the Alpharetta set don’t know nothing about that Cascade or Campbellton Road life. They only hear it in songs. So there is a little bit of a disconnect, but at the same time it does translate to ratings because that audience wants to hear that.”

While Old School plays its role as the independent hustler relying on mom-and-pop advertising dollars, and OG capitalizes on the cultural shift while avoiding the ethnic clichés, Boom may have the most to lose if it fails to make gains. The station has already made a bigger commitment than the other two, best reflected in “the fact that we have Nabs over here,” says Davies, knowing it may take time. “We want to grow it like you do a baby. This is brand-new so we’re building it.”

Davies also makes the subtle point, without naming his direct competitor, that the current ratings leader is not about that life, so to speak. “The ratings, they always come and go, but all in all, this is part of what we do. I don’t know how committed the others are,” he says. “This is what we do, so there’s a little difference.”

It’s hard to predict what may happen in the long run, but Nabs for one is focused on a larger mission — one meant to cement a legacy and represent for a culture as timeless as his turntable skills.

“Sometimes I feel like calling myself the Bernard Hopkins of this DJ game,” says Nabs, referring to the 50-year-old boxer who continues to defy his age in the ring. “I don’t feel like there’s any young DJ that’s going to do what I do or shut me down because I’m older. I’ve got every trick in my bag that I ever had. And I got some more. I’m sharp as a tack. Whatchu wanna do?”

Indeed, hip-hop’s first generation may be showing signs of aging around the midsection, but it ain’t going out without a fight.