Rap on the Radio: Making Hip Hop into Hit Pop, 1986-1994

Coddington, Amy, Music - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Miller, Karl, Department of Music, University of Virginia
Maus, Fred, Department of Music, University of Virginia
Hamilton, John, Department of Media Studies, University of Virginia
Hale, Grace, Department of History, University of Virginia

Throughout the 1980s, hip hop expanded from a local subculture to a hugely popular and ubiquitous musical style embraced by listeners all over the United States. My dissertation investigates how and why this genre transformed so quickly during this period. I theorize that radio played an important role in introducing hip hop to a wider audience in the late 1980s, and that the programming practices of radio stations fundamentally altered the future of the genre as well as popular music more broadly. I argue that the wider public’s rapid acceptance of hip hop over these years wasn’t simply an adjustment in inclination towards rap’s musical characteristics. Rather, because rap was—and still is—closely associated with urban black identity, the acceptance of rap by radio programmers and national audiences displayed and transformed American racial attitudes during this period.

The first two chapters of my dissertation examine how Top 40 radio facilitated the exponential growth in rap’s popularity during the late 1980s. In the early 1980s, most radio stations were hesitant to play rap, and yet by 1991, songs in the genre made up more than a fifth of all songs played on Top 40 radio. In my first chapter, I attribute this increase in popularity to the work of rappers who made radio-friendly songs which eased Top 40 audiences into the sounds of the new genre by mixing elements of hip hop with the sounds of pop. In my second chapter, I evaluate the influence of an innovative new Top 40 subformat that embraced this same style of rap as a way to court a multiracial audience.

In the second half of my dissertation, I assess the subsequent negative reactions to rap’s move to the mainstream. In Chapter Three, I investigate how this new, rap-friendly, subformat inspired further fragmentation in the radio industry. While these stations were responsible for bringing rap to the masses, they also inspired racially segregated narrowcasting throughout the radio industry. In Chapter Four, I argue that the genre of rap as well as the field of hip hop studies developed its standards of authenticity based on the radio success of artists in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Grappling with the mainstream acceptance of what had once been an underground art form, rappers and critics created and enforced a dichotomy between pop rap and authentic rap and between pop-influenced rappers and authentic creators of hip hop culture.

To conclude, I consider the historical ramifications of rap’s move towards pop. Radio hits have continued mixing the sonic elements of rap and pop, creating pop-influenced rap as well as rap-influenced pop. By finding music that could fit on Top 40 radio, by mixing rap’s new sound with more traditional sounds, by turning rap into pop and pop into rap, hip hop became hit pop.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
hip hop, rap, radio, Top 40, American racial identity, music
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