It began with an unsolicited e-mail—the kind of Hail Mary that artists send to radio DJs hoping for feedback or, God willing, a little airplay. In 2012 an 18-year-old south-side MC rhyming as Dreezy attached her new Mikey Dollaz collab, “Break a Band,” to a message addressed to Power 92 on-air personality DJ Nehpets.
Nehpets couldn’t deny the track’s catchy hook or Dreezy’s microphone prowess—she crushes Dollaz with tireless speed and bravado. The same day Nehpets heard it for the first time, he added it to his Power 92 mix. The song became Dreezy’s breakout track, establishing her name and launching her career—she’s followed it with the popular 2014 mixtape Schizo, a monster remix of Nicki Minaj’s “Chi-Raq,” and the Billboard-charting jam “Body” from her debut album, No Hard Feelings, released this summer by Interscope.
“I was the first one to play Dreezy on the radio. That’s why I call her my baby,” Nehpets says. “That’s what Power 92 is. We’re the station that takes people to the next level.”
The sort of overture Dreezy made wasn’t uncommon then and isn’t now. Lots of hopeful hip-hop artists reach out to Nehpets—he’s one of the hottest radio DJs in Chicago, with deep roots in the local scene and a reputation for supporting local talent. He’s been making his own music for decades: in the mid- to late 90s, he produced juke and ghetto-house tracks for the influential Dance Mania label, which relaunched in 2013.
Nehpets became an on-air personality for Power 92 in 2015, after 12 years of guest mixing for the station with DJ Pharris and contributing juke-infused hip-hop and R&B mixes. He’s on the air weekdays with a morning mix from 9 till 9:30 AM, again with his own show from 7 till 10 PM, and lastly during the late-night block Real Radio with DJ Pharris and Paris Taylor, which runs from 10 PM till 2 AM.
Nehpets receives 100 or so e-mails a day from rappers and singers looking for a break. “A hundred a day is a lot,” he says. But of those messages, maybe ten are from artists in or around Chicago. “It should be more local artists that should be sending in. I think they’re scared. People think no one is going to respond or see it, but that’s not true.”
Video by Morgan Elise Johnson
Commercial radio can seem impossibly inaccessible to emerging artists, and its tightly circumscribed playlists hardly make it feel like a welcome place for new acts. In the age of the Internet—with its proliferation of outlets, platforms, and niche services specializing in all sorts of music—the tedious and expensive art of courting radio rotation can feel not just futile but also unnecessary. Other ways of getting exposure and building an audience are likely to look more sensible to up-and-comers.
With little but a Macbook Pro running FL Studio, anyone can drop an EP for free via social media or music-discovery services like Soundcloud. Popular mixtape-hosting sites such as Datpiff and Audiomack can also be free (in most cases, the better site placement you want, the more you pay), but uploading music to another leading service, Livemixtapes, requires more effort—new artists have to get their accounts approved, and that can be difficult without a cosign from an already approved artist. But even the most restrictive hosting site is still more accessible than commercial radio.
This summer Chicago’s own rapping poet Noname released her debut mixtape, Telefone, through a Soundcloud embed on her website, and with just a low-key PR campaign and no commercial radio play, it earned an 8.0 from Pitchfork. Save Money MC Joey Purp dropped his free tape iiiDrops in May via a handful of streaming services, and in June it made Complex magazine’s list of the 40 best albums of the year so far—a list that also includes projects by Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Beyoncé, and Chance the Rapper. Like Chance, both Noname and Joey Purp are unsigned.
College radio is also popular with independent artists, according to Chicago MC Rich Jones, founder of the concert series All Smiles—audiences there are smaller, but it’s generally easier to get airtime. “I’ve never had the funds nor the connections to really go after, like, a Power 92 or ‘GCI,” Jones says. His go-to stations include Vocalo 91.1 FM and Loyola’s WLUW 88.7 FM. “Luckily, we’re at a point where, as much as [radio stations] are important as traditional pillars of music breaking, the Internet really is just so wonderful,” he says. “If people want to hear my song, they can play it ten times in a row on Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Spotify, or Apple Music.”
Hip-hop artists have valid reasons to be skeptical of commercial radio—not least the fact that “urban” radio (the category that includes Power 92 as well as its main competitor, WGCI) has declined slightly in market share in Chicago this year. But the format still has numbers that are hard to beat: according to a 2016 report by the Pew Research Center, 91 percent of Americans ages 12 or older still tune in to terrestrial radio at least weekly, and online listening continues to grow, more than doubling since 2010 to reach 57 percent of that same population.
Local artist Bekoe, who’s promoting his September mixtape Sumthn Diffrnt with the help of a small team of friends and family, recognizes that radio has its problems, but he hasn’t given up on it. He has a song with Dreezy out now, “Uncle Sam,” that he’s trying to push to radio. He’s also working social media hard, and to generate buzz he’s playing at the Wire in Berwyn on November 6. “Apple Music exists. Spotify exists. Soundcloud is killing. It’s so many streaming services to find music to the point people don’t even go to radio anymore,” he says. “Everything is political, but I feel if a record is good, it should be played. There shouldn’t be politics behind it.”
By “politics,” he means the hurdles that most independent artists have to clear to get a shot at radio play—the playing field is anything but level. One of those hurdles, according to Bekoe, is that aspiring acts need a budget—the more money they have, the more opportunities they can pay for.
The west-side native got his first at-bat on radio in fall 2014 with the single “Aw Yeah.” The path he took included paying for subscriptions to several record pools. These digital services, such as VirDiKO and MP3Waxx, distribute new songs to DJs who are members of the pool. It can cost anywhere from $200 to $2,000 for an artist subscription, Bekoe adds. “Pricing goes off of promotion. If you want a $200 package, they’re only going to give you a little promotion,” he says. Promotion can include e-mail blasts sent to pool members and longer placement on the pool’s homepage. “The more money you spend, the more promotion comes with it.”
Artists look at radio as a way to instantly build a fan base, but they often need a fan base to be taken seriously by radio. The last thing programmers want is for listeners to change the station because they’re put off by a mediocre song from an unknown.
“We try to pick what the listeners want, as long as the listeners are picking out stuff that’s good—because sometimes they be asking for their cousin’s stuff,” Nehpets jokes. “And their cousin’s stuff ain’t all that great. They need a little bit more work. But we’ll tell them that too—like, ‘Nah, go back to the drawing board.'”
Bekoe says he applied himself on both fronts—building his fan base and promoting his music via record pools—for about a year before he saw any results. In late 2014, DJ AllStyle from Power 92 played “Aw Yeah” during the weekend-night mix set aside for club bangers.
“If you’re attacking radio and you’re trying to grow your audience, you have to get good rotation,” Bekoe says. “That 10 PM and 3 AM [time], nobody’s really listening—and if they are listening, it’s not going to be the response you want. I definitely feel like it’s a waste of time, even if you do make the cut and they do play your music.”
Nehpets disagrees. “Early adopters listen to what we play at night after 7 PM,” he says. “All times are important. If you get your record played at any time on the radio, that’s a privilege. Your record got past thousands of records that got considered for play.”
Ishon Cherry, aka DJ Shon, insists on the importance of developing an audience before trying to break into radio. He started off by booking and scheduling saucy Chicago rapper Famous Dex, helping him build a fan base, and now he works as Dex’s tour DJ, performing at colleges and other venues around the country.
Cherry says that before he reached out to Nehpets in fall 2015 to play Dex’s tune “Drip From My Walk,” the video already had about a million YouTube views. Once it became a radio smash, entering rotation at Power 92 and later WGCI, that count soared, and now stands at nearly 11 million.
“You can push radio once it becomes time. When your song gets hot, yeah, you gotta do radio,” Cherry says. “But to get a buzz, you don’t need radio, man.” Famous Dex just released the DJ Shon-hosted mixtape Different, but Cherry says WGCI will no longer play Dex’s music because in September a video surfaced online that purportedly shows the rapper beating his girlfriend. (Representatives at WGCI parent company IHeartMedia did not reply to an e-mail requesting comment.)
When Nehpets began his run with Power 92 in 2003, he focused on juke music. At the time, he says, no one was playing it on the radio. “So I had to convert hip-hop and R&B music into juke music.” With roots in house and ghetto house, he paved his own path at the station by making juke remixes to hits such as R. Kelly’s “Snake.” DJ Boolumaster, a station giant at the time, put Nehpets’s tracks into his mix.
“Juke is my lane, and I would create [the music], send the stuff up there, and they played it,” Nehpets recalls. “Over time, that’s what they knew me for.” From that point forward, he occasionally came to the station’s offices in Hammond, Indiana, to work alongside DJ Pharris on Tuesday and Sunday nights, and last year he landed his present job.
Around 2009, Nehpets began playing more hip-hop tracks as the demand declined for house, ghetto house, and juke on commercial radio. He and the other DJs on Power 92 also had the freedom to play more local music—a departure from what he saw as the norm in Chicago radio at the time. “If it wasn’t Kanye, Common, or R. Kelly, someone like that, no love,” Nehpets says. “I thank our program director for giving us a chance to try to support regular artists. I would contact artists and be like, ‘Yo, I like your stuff. Send me a clean version.'”
Nehpets definitely has a soft spot for the underdog. “My whole thing is about giving an artist courage. For a lot of these kids out here, that’s all they got. All they got is that little studio time,” he says. “We, as DJs, want to see them do better. They don’t have to do the shit they talk about in their raps. They can make some money and get out the fucking hood.”
One of Nehpet’s current favorites is a west-side rapper named Monop. In March 2013, Monop opened for Miami rap goddess Trina at Adrianna’s in Markham. Nehpets happened to be there and caught Monop’s performance of his single “Real Life.”
Monop remembers that show well. “I ripped the stage down,” he says. “Long story short, the song was so dope, Nehpets told me to get back onstage and perform it again.” Not long after that show, the song found its way to Power 92.
Monop says he then spent two years in Cook County Jail fighting two drug cases—he was convicted on one case at trial and took a plea on the other. The judge sentenced him to time served, and Monop was released on February 18, 2016. He’s now back on the radio with the single “Wait Till I Get Me Some Money,” which dropped in September.
“Power 92 is the only one playing my song right now. It would be a blessing to get over at ‘GCI. That would be my next goal,” Monop says. “Radio is most definitely helping, [but] it’s basically the people, man. It’s what the people want to hear. If you can get someone to request your song, that’s love. But it’s hard.”
Dreezy’s tour DJ, Nick Watts (aka DJ Hoop Dreams), doubts Chicago artists would ever get the recognition they deserve if it weren’t for radio DJs—though he knows they also get help from DJs in clubs and on the road.
“I run into people all the time, and they don’t know who Dreezy is. But when I say the song, they’re like, ‘Oh, I heard that on the radio,'” Watts says. When he opens for Dreezy or spins at one of the college parties he hosts around the country in his downtime, he always has “Faneto” by Chief Keef, “Kill Shit” by G Herbo and Lil Bibby, and “Wife Er” by Spenzo in the mix.
“I get hit up all the time for Chicago records from Atlanta DJs,” Watts says. “Once, I got hit up from an Atlanta DJ for a Lud Foe record, and it was a long time ago too, so that’s when I knew, yeah, Chicago is really out here.” (Until recently west-side rapper Lud Foe was unambiguously an underground artist—he began picking up steam this year with “Cuttin Up” and “What’s the Issue” and just dropped his debut mixtape, No Hooks.)
Watts credits Chicago radio DJs for helping to nurture the local hip-hop scene and connect it to audiences outside the city. “Mainly I would say DJ Pharris and DJ Nehpets and, like, Jamal Smallz [at WGCI]. I feel like when I listen to the radio, they definitely go out of their way to play Chicago artists,” Watts says. But though he realizes he’s out of town on tour too much to be the best judge, he thinks local radio could still do better. “Other than that, nah, I don’t really hear too many Chicago artists on the radio, especially local artists. That is something that definitely could help local artists out more.”
Watts suggests that radio stations create programming blocks devoted solely to locals. “From there, maybe [listeners] can vote on what their favorite song from that segment was,” he says. WGCI already has a section on its website called HomeTurf, which is supposedly dedicated to Chicago artists—but clicking the button to submit music takes you to the station’s contests page.
Nehpets likes to think of radio DJs as a filter. Unlike the Internet, where any musician can post anything, the radio is at least supposed to have professional people who sift through the bad stuff to highlight good records.
“The Internet is flood city. It’s spam now,” Nehpets says. “People hear what we’re doing. We’re playing for clubs. We play in the house parties. We play in the car. We’re the filter to the Internet. If the DJ is playing your music, they’ve filtered through a lot of craziness to get you the best stuff.” v