How ‘Microphone Check’ brought hip-hop through NPR’s back door

Frannie Kelley and Ali Shaheed Muhammad on the conundrums of covering rap in mainstream media

It probably was a peculiar way to start our interview. But calling Frannie Kelley and Ali Shaheed Muhammad “hip-hop journalism’s odd couple” certainly got their attention.

“Before you go any further, could you explain that a little bit,” Muhammad says at the start of our phone call in preview of their visit to Atlanta for a live taping of their podcast.

On the surface at least, Kelley and Muhammad represent different worlds — the former an accomplished journalist and editor for NPR, the latter a legendary producer and member of A Tribe Called Quest (ATCQ). But it’s their mutual love of the music and culture that brought them together as co-hosts of NPR’s “Microphone Check,” an anomaly among hip-hop podcasts.

Yet the story of their initial meeting also illustrates the cultural and contextual gap that has long existed between the medium of rap and mainstream media.

“We met because I reproduced a typo on the NPR website,” Kelley says, referring to her 2010 story on The Anthology of Rap. That book, which compiled the lyrics of 300 rap songs, included inaccurate transcriptions sourced from online databases like the Original Hip Hop Lyrics Archive. When Kelley inadvertently quoted an incorrect Ol’ Dirty Bastard lyric straight from the Anthology, which misconstrued the rapper’s original intent, she got a correction via email from none other than Ali Shaheed Muhammad.

It proved a serendipitous intro. Kelley opened the door to Muhammad for some sort of NPR collaboration and a couple of years later they started “Microphone Check.” In the two years since, the show has developed a rep for attracting hip-hop’s best and brightest — from rarely heard icons such as Nas, Andre 3000, and Hank Shocklee to rising enigmas including Earl Sweatshirt, Freddie Gibbs, and Terrace Martin.
The show’s hook is an extended interview format as intimate and thoughtful as the measured tones in which its co-hosts tend to speak. With the intelligence that listeners of NPR have come to expect, Kelley and Shaheed are covering ground totally unexpected at public radio — even if they had to sneak their way in through the back door.

Before journalism became her calling, Kelley fell in love with hip-hop. Living in the Bay Area 20 years ago, she listened to KMEL, one of the country’s first all-rap radio stations. “I remember the first time I heard Snoop Dogg’s first single ‘What’s My Name’ in the parking lot of Long’s Pharmacy,” Kelley says, recalling how she chose to sit in a hot Honda Accord with no A/C listening to the song while her mom went inside to shop. “I’d never heard anything that layered before.”

It was 1993, the tail end of the golden era and the same year ATCQ dropped its third opus, Midnight Marauders, alongside groundbreaking LPs from the likes of De La Soul, Wu-Tang Clan, Souls of Mischief, Tupac, and more. (For the 20th anniversary, Kelley dedicated a retrospective called “Hip Hop’s Golden Year” to the genre’s sonic impact in ‘93.) Her parents had a preference for Bruce Springsteen and the Beatles, Patti LaBelle and Roberta Flack. But rap was everywhere and Kelley’s infatuation required less of a cultural leap than it might seem. “In the early ’90s, hip-hop and R&B were pop. It was what we danced to at the Catholic middle school dances,” she says. “You weren’t making any type of statement, like being weird or smart or progressive. It was just what we loved.”

But did she ever expect her love for hip-hop and journalism would one day meet? “Hell no,” she says. Still, she took up music criticism at New York University, though she figured it was folly at the time. It eventually led to an administrative position at NPR. From there, “I got in where I fit in,” Kelley says. That meant endearing herself to people who taught her how to do radio. While her boss looked the other way, she began to experiment with ways NPR could better cover hip-hop and R&B.

As the future journalist was jamming to hip-hop at middle school dances, Muhammad was still learning to negotiate the media dance along with the rest of ATCQ. “There were definitely moments where I felt the journalists that had interviewed A Tribe Called Quest missed opportunities and some of what they walked away with from the interview was completely out of context,” he says. After reaching a point of frustration, they began bringing in their own recorder to tape the interviews. “That would intimidate some of the journalists,” Muhammad says, though they were only out to protect themselves.

His experience on the opposite end of the spectrum informed the development of “Microphone Check” and his approach to interviews on the show. “The intent for me as an artist moving into this position was to try to have a conversation that really reflects the mind state of an artist,” he says. “And I guess to have an environment that’s more like a home instead of the normal sort of journalistic experience that I had.”

Together they make for the best of both worlds — balancing curiosity with cultural responsibility. If Kelley’s the seasoned connoisseur with encyclopedic knowledge, Muhammad’s the understated statesman with discerning taste. But as the show’s appeal has broadened, they’ve learned to challenge their own biases by booking a wider range of guests. By connecting with each artist’s story, they hope to put the music in the proper context.

“Whether I’m partial to their music or not, I walk away with a greater understanding of who they are,” Muhammad says. “That’s ultimately what we strive to reveal, is the person behind the music.”

Of course, the show has made its biggest strides by merely existing at public radio. Being an editor for NPR Music made it possible for Kelley to slide the online show in through NPR’s “back door,” rather than hitting the wall a hip-hop show might have otherwise met.

“It’s not that there is an active resistance,” Kelley says. But the historical lack of hip-hop coverage on NPR speaks volumes. And going through the official channels in an attempt to validate the value of such coverage can add insult to injury.

“The conversations about covering hip-hop in front of a mainstream audience are stuck 20 years in the past,” Kelley adds. “They’re identical. They’re really boring. And you know what, they’re also really hurtful and bruising to go through. ‘Cause at the end of the day, for whatever reason, people are trying to tell you that people you love ... aren’t worth shit.”

Although the “Microphone Check” interviews don’t typically air on NPR stations, they’ve been received well online. The show has attracted NPR’s youngest demographic, the Washington Post reported. Whatever the unspoken fear might have been seems unwarranted now. Instead, the show has tapped into what Kelley and Muhammad already knew existed — an underserved audience that loves both NPR and hip-hop but rarely heard them paired together. Kelley’s even crafted a name for their fan base: “I call them the silent majority of the NPR audience.”

As they approach their 50th episode, the one show they haven’t done has been lurking right under their noses. But they assure me before we get off the phone that an exclusive one-on-one with Kelley interviewing Muhammad is already in the works. A rare interview subject, Muhammad admits he’s looking forward to this one. Which goes to show how much trust he’s gained in his co-host over the past two years.

“That’s kind of the dirty little secret of ‘Microphone Check’ — it’s just me and Ali talking to people we want to talk to,” Kelley says. Nothing odd about that, even if it’s just the two of them.