When MTV made its debut in 1981, its refusal to play black artists was readily apparent. The Vibe History Of Hip Hop recalls that when Epic Records submitted Michael Jackson's landmark "Beat It" video to MTV, the station told the label that the video just wasn't good enough to be shown on the fledging cable channel. Adding insult to injury, most of the videos MTV did play at the time—whether from Taco or The Buggles, or even the estimable Billy Squier—paled in comparison to Jackson's flashy, groundbreaking work.
It would be nice if such transparent racism were a thing of the past, but de facto musical segregation remains alive and well, having merely moved from MTV to alternative-rock radio. When was the last time you heard one of these stations play a black artist who wasn't Lenny Kravitz? Months? Years? Never? In that lily-white world, it's possible to go days without hearing anything from a black artist who isn't a humorless, creatively deficient '70s revivalist.
This segregation would be softened were it merely a prejudice against a specific style of music—be it gangsta-rap or pop-rap or any other less "alternative" form of hip hop. But alternative radio has made abundantly clear its willingness to play rap- or hip-hop-influenced music so long as it's written and performed by whites. Consequently, while whites playing music rooted in such distinctly black genres as funk, soul, reggae, and hip hop don't have to worry about their music being unofficially banned from alt-rock stations, blacks playing similar music enjoy fewer creative outlets.
One of the ironies of the situation is that rock 'n' roll, at least in its early stages, played a major role in breaking down the barriers between black and white culture. Artists like Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and Elvis Presley found the middle ground between country and R&B, forming a new, seemingly raceless music in the process, but alt-rock radio, in sharp contrast, sees divides and barriers where none exist.
Public Enemy—whose leader, Chuck D, has described radio programmers as "crazy racist"—has toured with U2, Sisters Of Mercy, Sonic Youth, and Rage Against The Machine, and collaborated with Anthrax, among others. But while many of PE's colleagues and collaborators remain alt-rock darlings, the group is routinely shafted when it comes to the radio. Sought-after Gang Starr producer DJ Premier has produced tracks for Limp Bizkit and Paula Cole, but you're not going to hear Premier's main gig on alternative stations unless major changes take place.
Alternative rock as a radio format has proven itself enormously accommodating, incorporating artists as dissimilar as Jewel, Nine Inch Nails, Goo Goo Dolls, Rage Against The Machine, Barenaked Ladies, and No Doubt. Still, while the tent is big enough to include everyone from gazillion-selling former teen stars (Alanis Morissette) to borderline novelty acts (The Offspring) to '80s hair-metal apologists (Buckcherry), black hip hop remains off limits. The format's embrace of virtually every form of music not made by black people could ultimately be one of the reasons it doesn't play black hip hop; if alt-rock radio is just Top 40 without the minorities, at least it's different from Top 40.
Still, what makes alternative radio's unofficial ban on black hip hop especially appalling is its eagerness to embrace white hip hop. The Beastie Boys has long been an alt-rock staple, as well as one of the few current acts that can get straight-ahead, non-genre-mixing hip hop on these stations. This year in particular has seen the floodgates open for genre-mixing white hip hop, with Kid Rock, Limp Bizkit, Eminem, and Everlast all scoring crossover success and major airplay. But alt-rock radio's embrace of hip hop is extraordinarily limited, meaning that the cartoonish antics of Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock qualify as alternative, but not the work of black rappers making music with ambitions beyond commercial success.
As perhaps the most prominent Asian Americans in hip hop, the members of The Mountain Brothers have a unique take on the subject. When asked why radio stations play artists like Kid Rock and Everlast but not The Roots or Black Star's Mos Def, rapper Styles offers, "Personally, I think it's a conspiracy by guitar manufacturers who pay off The Man, who controls alternative radio so they only play rock-guitar music." For the most part, Styles concedes that subconscious prejudice may play a part in the format's embrace of white hip hop, but he contends that it has more to do with the aggressive, guitar-oriented nature of artists like Everlast and Limp Bizkit. "To me, it's about the music," he says. "Kid Rock and Everlast's music is way closer to rock than it is to hip hop. If you had a scale with rock as a 1 and hip hop as a 10, Kid Rock would be like a 2 and Everlast a 4 or 5. Eminem I'd put at 9. So a better question is why Eminem is considered by many program managers as alternative rock and not hip hop." Of course, black hip-hop artists like Run-DMC, Pras, Canibus, and Young MC have all recorded guitar-intensive songs, and none have enjoyed substantial alternative radio play, which must make the idea of recording rock-oriented music in an attempt to cross over seem pretty unappealing.
The term "alternative rock" may be meaningless, but what gets played on the radio is still important to artists, labels, and listeners. Alternative stations' refusal to play black hip hop denies listeners an opportunity to listen to vital, socially conscious music made by some of the best acts working today. And it denies groundbreaking groups like The Roots, The Coup, and Black Star an opportunity to reach a new audience that could exponentially increase their album sales.
Original black artists find themselves in a precarious position, their music often deemed not slick or commercial enough for many urban stations, yet shunned by alternative radio. No wonder so many acts recoil from the phrase "alternative hip hop"—in reality, it's simply music that falls between the cracks, ending up in a weird limbo between hardcore hip hop and less threatening white hip hop.
At the root of this phenomenon is the notion, whether conscious or not, that hip hop is black music, while rock 'n' roll is white. It's the same notion that posits Presley, Holly, and Jerry Lee Lewis as the inventors of rock 'n' roll while excluding Berry and Little Richard. In The Vibe History Of Hip Hop, early MTV personality J.J. Jackson defends the station's decision not to run many videos by blacks, saying, "MTV is a rock 'n' roll station. You think Donna Summer, Prince, and Rick James are rock 'n' roll? I don't… Someone has to decide what the cutoff point is going to be. And people who don't agree with that particular cutoff point are going to be a little angry." Substitute Mos Def, Outkast, and The Roots for Jackson's three examples and he could be a modern-day alternative-rock radio programmer. All of which begs the question, "Why aren't Prince or The Roots or Outkast rock 'n' roll?" It's a question Mos Def asks in musical form on "Rock And Roll" (from his excellent solo debut, Black On Both Sides), and it's hard to find an answer that doesn't involve race. Claiming rock 'n' roll as white music is like saying Buddy Guy and Robert Cray shouldn't be playing the blues because they lack the life experience and authenticity of Shannon Curfman and Jonny Lang.
In viewing hip hop as something outside rock—a scary, unhinged "other" to be kept out at all costs—alternative radio is, contrary to its name, part of a long reactionary tradition dedicated to preserving the musical status quo. In the '70s and early '80s, disco served as rock 'n' roll's official "other." Today, hip hop seems to have taken over disco's role, identified as the work of an oppressed underclass obsessed with aimless hedonism. It's this conception that keeps good, progressive hip hop marginalized and unprofitable.
So why play music by white hip-hop acts but not black ones? The answer could be that acts like Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock, despite their tattoos and nasty attitudes, are simply the Pat Boones and Fabians of their day, playing retooled versions of black music that white people can enjoy without having to think about social inequities or the debilitating effects of racism. Kid Rock's routine—Axl Rose as hip-hop pimp—may be silly and over-the-top, but one of the reasons he's crossed over is that his shtick is familiar and unthreatening in a way a lot of black hip-hop acts apparently aren't.
Alt-rock stations don't play black hip hop for other reasons: fear of alienating their core audience, the force of inertia, prejudice. But if a corporate, non-ideological entity as mercenary as MTV could get over its refusal to play black artists, maybe these stations will also get the message, belatedly choosing to expand their (and their listeners') horizons. Until then, one final irony is that one of the few times you'll hear a black person rapping on alternative radio is during KRS-One's brief cameo on R.E.M's "The Radio Song," a track that attacks the short-sightedness and ignorance of radio programmers.