the justification for urban alternatives

macedonia on the air.  spring of 1998.

(originally published in ON THE VERGE v1.0 e-mail monthly -June 9, 1999)

incident number one:

It was about a month and a half ago in a record shop within lower Westchester. I was purchasing a turntable along with two Rawkus singles when the clerk asked me if I was a DJ. When I replied that I was, he says, "hold on…lemme see if I have any promos I can give you."

To quote Slick Rick, it was the moment I feared. I already knew where this was gonna go. Puff Daddy to the right of me, Master P to the left of me. As soon as I saw that Bad Boy logo on the 12-inch sleeves, I said, "Really, no thank you. I'll just take what I have and go."

"You like Naughty by Nature?"

"Well, I'm not really into their new..."

"Here, take it anyway," he interjects, shoving it into my bag.

I had just been run over by the top 40/rhythmic CHR/contemporary urban radio programming formula: "HEAR THIS. Whether you like it or not." The clerk behind the counter made me a statistic with one quick motion. The statement of the motion was simple: You listen to this, don't you? You're black, aren't you? Black people that come into this store buy this. And here I am giving it to you for free. You should be happy.

"Lemme see what else I have for you..."

" don't have to. I'm fine with what I have."

"You like TLC, right?"

Mind you, "No Scrubs" was alright the first 20 times I heard it. Obviously, purchasing Black Star and Common didn't tip him off, so to explain any of what I was thinking at that time would have been pointless. TLC ended up in the garbage soon after I took it.

incident number two:

About three weeks ago, I was on my way back home after putting in some work on the newsletter when I stopped into a newsstand within Grand Central Terminal. The latest issue of URB had my man Prince Paul on the cover. Happily, I picked it up and made my way over to the cashier. She closely examines the cover for a price and said four words that completely ruined my mood.

"Who is this, Tupac?"

My heart sank. Trying not to completely lose my composure, I answered, through clenched teeth, "No, that is NOT Tupac. THAT is Prince Paul. There's a big difference. 1) He is infinitely more talented. And 2) HE'S STILL ALIVE!!!!"

(No disrespect to the tragically departed, for real, but sometimes people take you to a realm that you did not want to go to. After they bring you there, you feel compelled to fire on their ass. And my tongue comes equipped with verbal ammo before I step out of the door in the morning.)

Now that I think about it, not too many people know what Prince Paul actually looks like, do they? That's because he does what a real producer is supposed to do - stay behind the scenes and behind the boards. It isn't often that the public sees his face. But to confuse him with Tupac??? You gotta get up mad early in the morning to give a good excuse for that one.

Two different incidents with two different people from two different walks of life and yet, the same ignorance plagued them both. How does that happen? To answer that, we can start by examining the practices of American major record labels and commercial radio. I specify America because I refuse to believe that other countries have this problem. These huge conglomerates are solely responsible for taking music - a universal language and a gift from GOD - and define who should listen to what, taking into consideration a bunch of nonsensical factors (age, racial background, income, etc.). Because of these factors, any hip-hop that's slightly left of center gets marketed strictly to college radio. Techno gets marketed a certain way, as does rock and other genres. Radio has not deviated from this and has only helped shape the way that record companies promote an artist. Commercial radio plays it so safe that human beings aren't even allowed to choose what song is played when - it's all done by computers now (with the obvious exceptions being stations like HOT 97 and WKTU, which occasionally feature DJs live in the mix). No longer do you have a DJ; instead, you have an on-air personality. Trust me, there's a world of difference.

Still, not all of the blame can be placed on them. The general public must also bear some responsibility. The masses have been frighteningly passive in the face of an industry that is all too quick to not just pigeonhole their musical tastes, but to create their very identities through gross stereotyping and blanket statistics. But most people don't consider this stuff while head nodding - they don't think they're supposed to. Meanwhile, there's this whole other world of music that they'll probably never know about because they're perfectly happy with someone telling them what to listen to. They may never take the chance to venture out and find something that they might dig. How unfortunate.

The necessity for urban alternatives has become all too clear. Don't you get tired of intelligent, progressive artists not getting their props? Perhaps more frustrating than this is the fear that some of our beloved groups have of the word "alternative." The Roots can't stand the term, even though it's been used to describe them. And reportedly, Lauryn Hill has said that it means "no skills" in ghetto terms (see the liner notes for The Roots' Things Fall Apart). Ultimately, who is responsible for such a definition? Once again, it goes back to major labels and commercial radio. If they didn't make the split between Jurassic 5 and Jay-Z, we wouldn't have to have this conversation. The term "playa hater" wouldn't have to be conjured up by people who rhyme for no other reason but the money, in an attempt to legitimize works that are devoid of substance. And our beloved acts wouldn't be scared to embrace the term "alternative" as they should and to define themselves and toss aside the shackles of the mainstream media.

And let's be honest: this isn't exactly the first time that the ghetto has misinterpreted a term. Once upon a time, "sellout" used to describe a person of color who has turned their back on their people and is only interested in self-gain. Nowadays it's interpreted as a rap artist's work being purchased by white consumers. How many artists in the rap game could one consider "sellouts" with such a definition? When Public Enemy remade "Bring The Noise" with Anthrax, inner-city dwellers cried "Sellout!" What they never bothered to find out was that the members of Anthrax and PE knew each other for years and had attended each other's shows. The collaboration was bound to happen sooner or later. Beyond that, PE told everyone the first time around that "wax is for Anthrax, still it can rock bells." Apparently, no one paid attention to that line. In the end, the ghetto got mad at one of their own that they claimed to love...and all because they didn't do their homework.

I have never hesitated to use the term "urban alternative" to loosely describe artists like Erykah Badu, Spearhead, Portishead, Tricky, Esthero, Bjork, Massive Attack and countless others. It just makes sense to me. It could be jazz, funk, hip-hop, jungle, techno or any number of those mixed together. They do, however, share a common thread: it's distinctly different from what's being thrown at us 5,000 times a day and it's not getting the airplay and recognition that it should. In my opinion, for every urban trend that botches billions of brain cells in the 'hood, suburbia, rural areas, and abroad, there has GOT to be an urban alternative. It's only right. Whether you are one creating the music or one who loves the music, I implore you to take back the term "alternative" and love it again, for we are the alternative to what's on the surface. The true alternatives are underground and in order to get there, you have to dig deeper. And since I'm already there and I already know, I feel that it is my obligation to climb back up to the surface every now and then and encourage someone else to come down there with me.

To the music lovers and the artists, I hope and pray that you will do the same.

{jason randall smith}

"Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom. Wisdom is not truth. Truth is not beauty. Beauty is not love. Love is not music. MUSIC IS THE BEST." - Frank Zappa.

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