On a warm September night, Origix and D.C. are holed up inside the Henry Ford Community College student center in Dearborn, “making waves” — as the WHFR-FM 89.3 slogan attests — during their recently expanded four-hour time slot. Origix commands the main mic, silver chain and Lions hat bobbing to the beat as he thanks Allen from Garden City for his request for Flint’s Artful Dodgers. D.C., the quieter of the two, enters the song into the online playlist, as listeners from across the country tune in on the Web to the Motor City.
So Artful Dodgers doesn’t ring a bell? “We don’t play nuthin’ commercial,” Origix says of their hip-hop show “The Zone.” “We don’t play none of those artists that you hear on those [mainstream] radio stations.” What Origix and D.C. do play is a heavy dose of homegrown hip-hop. About 90 percent of what they spin comes from local groups like Esham, Twiztid, the Outfit, Grim Reality and Lawless Element. The other 10 percent is comprised of out-of-staters like Tech 9, Dirty, Aseop Rock, Atmosphere, and Haystack.
Since “The Zone” premiered on April 20, 2001 the show has garnered quite a following, and the reason is clear. Detroit is a city that has hip hop embedded into its very soul — it’s an extension of every dark alley, every defaced building, and every mural spray-painted over its bleak concrete walls. But most of Detroit’s major radio stations are broadcasting a different tune: one that emanates not from the urban depths of our fair town, but from the corporate boardrooms of America. Hence, Origix and D.C. see their show as more than just a passion; in the age of corporate takeover, it’s a duty.
When looked at through history’s lens, the pair’s manifesto assumes an even greater significance.
Back in the 1980s hip-hop fans could flip on their boom boxes every day with the expectation of hearing something new. It was around this time, long after Motown, disco and punk had been pronounced dead, that radio homed in on the sound of the streets. What had begun as an experiment in the 1970s Bronx began to descend upon the ears of the American public. By 1986, hip hop had reached its golden age and the radio broadcast the music in all of its divergent forms — gangster, party, b-boy, black nationalist. The age-old tradition of the griot — or African storyteller — had persevered, even amidst the melting pot of American pop culture.
Then President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which eased ownership restrictions on radio. As radio stations consolidated, playlists became more homogenized and fledgling artists found it more and more difficult to hear their songs played on the air.
In a series of articles published by salon.com in 2001, Eric Boehlert exposes one of the most harrowing phenomena in the new age of radio, a method of buying and selling airtime he calls “pay-for-play.”
The system works like this: An independent record promoter, or “indie,” aligns himself with a radio station by promising to give the station “promotional payments” as high as six figures. In exchange, the station makes the indie the sole point man for every song it adds to its playlist. Every time the indie dictates a song to be added, he sends an invoice to the record company that produced it. The money the indie collects is then shelled out to the radio station in the form of a “promotional payment.”
Pay-for-play’s indiscreet brand of bribery is a cunning way to get around the payola laws of the 1960s, but remains perfectly legal nonetheless. And the result is crippling: While mega-sized record companies buy up airtime for their stars, independently produced artists are simply never heard. And it’s nearly impossible for a band or artist to break without the exposure of the airwaves.
Origix and D.C. found this out the hard way. After meeting at Taylor’s West Junior High in 1993, the two (then known as Shawn Featherston and Tim Patterson) performed everywhere from the Wired Frog to St. Andrew’s and even released their own CDs under the names Reform Illuzionz (1998) and Fi Staarz (2001). But it didn’t take long to realize that the most valuable tool for promoting their work — the radio — would always be off limits.
Then one night, Origix and D.C. heard some “real underground hip-hop” oozing from their stereo. The station they discovered was WHFR-FM, a nonprofit, noncommercial campus radio station that gives its DJs the freedom to play whatever they like.
With renewed faith, Origix and D.C. decided to enroll in classes at HFCC and start a hip-hop show of their own. “We already knew how to do, like, all the production-type work,” Origix says. “We knew how to work the mixing board, and a lot of that stuff was pretty much, like, second nature to us.”
They also knew a lot of groups that could use the promotion. “When we were doing music, we never had the outlet to go and promote our stuff on radio stations and whatever,” says D.C. “So, basically, what we wanted to do was get into radio and give groups the opportunity to be heard.”
Susan McGraw, WHFR-FM’s general manager, says that based on the phone calls, letters, and e-mails the station receives for The Zone, the listenership is tremendous. She calls Origix and D.C. “two of the most passionate DJs we have on staff. They have an incredible knowledge of the music they play and the culture they represent.”
McGraw says, “One of the most important aspects of WHFR is supporting the local, independent, nonmainstream artists. They’re willing to look for those artists.”
Back in the studio, Origix and D.C. gear up for this week’s live in-studio set: a performance by Six Deep, one of Pontiac’s oldest hip-hop camps. At 11 p.m., the group of 10 shuffles into the studio, trying to negotiate space. The station assistant quickly sees that it will be standing room only and carries out the chairs she had pulled for the occasion.
Once settled, the rappers take off. House Massive, the obvious leader, dominates the mic, busting out rhymes a mile a minute. His eyes are on fire, his hands waving up and down as his voice pounds over the synthesized beat. The others accentuate the rhythm underneath, trading off headphones and mics as they maneuver themselves around the tiny space. Eventually, the group breaks into their “National Anthem,” a high-energy rap done in unison. The sound is thunderous. When the beat dies down, a few members break out into impromptu, freestyle rhymes. A young guy called Total Kaos whips out a fast lyric about not being able to swear on the radio and drops his voice out just in time to censor the choice, anticipated rhyme.
It’s hip hop at its height — and it’s being aired live.
Origix dreamed of moments like these, but shows like “The Zone” are not so easy to come by. Lack of diverse programming makes him wonder where the future of the music is headed. “It’s gonna grow, but a lot of it’s gonna kill itself too, by all this music that’s just being monotonous, played. It’s running itself into the ground when it comes to the image, style. I think people are really getting sick of hearing about what people have and what they got.”
Underground music, Origix says, has a grittier, more realistic appeal than its mainstream counterpart. It’s about “what’s going on in [the artists’] neighborhood, what’s going on in their life, what’s going on in their family. ... That’s why we like the local stuff more, because we know they’re from the same background as us, we know they’re going through the same thing, we know it’s the same struggle out here.”
By day, Origix is a parts driver for a car dealership and D.C. is an auto mechanic. Their positions at WHFR-FM are unpaid, but money, they say, is not what it’s all about.
After Saturday’s show, D.C. pauses to reflect on his DJ gig. “The only disadvantage of doing the radio show is, [I] can’t listen to it,” he says. Then Origix reminds the staff that it’s still a Saturday evening, and the crew is off into the night.
“The Zone” airs every Saturday 8 p.m.-midnight on WHFR-FM 89.3. Listen live on the Web at whfr.fm.Ronit Feldman is a Metro Times editorial intern. E-mail [email protected]