Music

URI is Rhode Island's unlikely hip-hop epicenter

Sage Francis: “Outside of purchasing tapes at the store, college radio was the main source for hip-hop music for me.”

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Being a hip-hop fan in the late 80s and early ‘90s required active effort. Unlike today, the music was scarcely a blip on the pop culture radar: barely played on the radio (unless it was a big crossover hit like MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” or Young MC’s “Bust a Move”), hard to find in record stores, and relegated to a couple of late night hours on TV in the form of Yo! MTV Raps. The internet wasn’t even a thing yet. If you wanted to hear the latest sounds from emerging artists like Public Enemy, Brand Nubian and A Tribe Called Quest, you had to go looking for them. 

So imagine my surprise one day when I was scanning through the radio dial and stumbled upon a faint, scratchy signal that caught my ear. I fiddled with the antenna, even relocated the radio itself, until the signal got a little stronger. Through the static I could make out the unmistakable sounds of the New York underground. It was 90.3 WRIU, URI’s FM station, which almost inexplicably featured three hours of real hip-hop every weekday from 3-6pm. From that day on, I stayed glued to my radio every day from after school until dinnertime, keeping a blank cassette in the tape deck so that I could hit record whenever something new and exciting came on. What I didn’t know at the time was that I wasn’t just picking up a radio signal, I was tapping in to a community of hip-hop fans, DJs, rappers, graffiti artists, breakdancers, club promoters and more who all gravitated around this epicenter of the local hip-hop scene, which was improbably found in idyllic Kingston. And I wasn’t alone. 

“In the early ‘90s, I discovered Curty Cut on WRIU. The signal was very weak where I lived, but I still have static-heavy recordings of that era,” remembers Sage Francis, a nationally known hip-hop artist and indie label owner who grew up in Woonsocket. “Outside of purchasing tapes at the store (if they had anything in stock), college radio was the main source for hip-hop music for me.” 

Jim Brows, one of the current hosts of Tuesday’s “Real Rap Radio” show, discovered WRIU even earlier. “I think one of my older cousins turned me on to it,” he recalls. “I remember the first time I heard about 90.3 was at the first Fresh Fest,” the first hip-hop tour to play major arenas with artists like Run DMC and Kurtis Blow back in the ‘80s. 

Indeed, the hallowed halls of URI’s Student Union, where WRIU’s studios occupy a couple of rundown rooms on the third floor, have been a haven for generations of hip-hop artists and audiences in Rhode Island. “This is a torch that has been passed since people like Curty Cut way back in the day,” says DJ Nook, the station’s current hip-hop program director and co-host of “Real Rap Radio,” of the five precious three-hour time slots that make up WRIU’s hip-hop roster. 

Many alumni of ‘90s and early Aughts shows have gone on to make careers in hip-hop. Big Stress, who co-hosted a show with Sage Francis, now occupies weeknights on Hot 106, Rhode Island’s premier “rhythmic contemporary” (more radio programmer talk) station. DJ Mekalek moved to LA and found work as a DJ and producer for artists like Wu-Tang Clan, Masta Ace (a URI grad), and his own group, Time Machine. DJ Buck is now the Program Director for Connecticut’s Hot 93.7. (As existing commercial stations like our own Kix 106 began playing more hip-hop and R&B in the ‘90s, they started adopting the “Hot” moniker, following the lead of New York City’s Hot 97, the dominant hip-hop station at the time.) DJ Nook, who started around 2003 on Wednesday’s “Sterbyrock Radio” (the station’s longest-running hip-hop show at roughly 15 years), makes his full-time living as a club DJ. 

For people like Sage Francis, WRIU was more than just an opportunity to get on the radio – it was a vital lifeline to music and culture that were still very much below the surface at the time, and reassurance that there was a community out there. “It introduced me to a lot of underground music that I most likely would not have heard. There was no other place to get that kind of material,” he says. “It also showed me that there were people in RI who were rapping, DJing, producing, etc. That was huge for me.” 

Even though WRIU is located on a college campus in South County, its primary audience and influence has always been found well north of the Tower. “Local people pay more attention to 90.3 than the students do,” notes DJ Nook. “People in the streets listen to this. People in jail depend on this, listening to it on their headphones.” He points out with pride that when publications like Motif and (until recently) the Phoenix hand out local music awards, WRIU’s roster of DJs is almost always well represented. 

That disconnect between the student body and its on-campus station is even more pronounced now, in the era of Internet radio, streaming music services and smart phones. “Now you have your phone, you have YouTube, you have Spotify,” explains DJ Nook. “If you want to hear a song you can just play it.” However, for many older listeners, college radio in general and WRIU specifically remain vital connection points. “It’s still kind of a lifeline for a lot of folks, particularly those who don’t really know how to traverse the internet,” says DJ Nook, who is 34. 

Beyond keeping people connected to hip-hop, college radio also remains a crucial platform for discovering new music and artists. “If I wasn’t with the station, I don’t know if I’d still be looking for this music,” Jim Brows, who is 40, speculates. “We’ll be the first to play a lot of records commercial radio hasn’t caught up to yet.” For instance, he points out that WRIU was the first station to play current hip-hop star Kendrick Lamar’s records to a Rhode Island audience. 

Indeed, everyone involved with WRIU remains bullish on the prospects for college radio in an age of diminishing audiences for commercial stations. Bardwell, 35, who co-hosts “Real Rap Radio” with DJ Nook and Jim Brows, notes that college stations always have been and remain the antidote to the slick homogeneity of commercial radio formats. “College radio is its own genre. You’re expecting something artsy and eclectic,” he says. “You can listen to all these ideas and music, and it challenges you to appreciate it on some level.” 

Even smart phones, streaming music services and file sharing, which have proven a threat to commercial radio, have actually strengthened the audience for college radio. People who grew up on WRIU’s hip-hop shows and have since left the state continue to stream it on their computers. Listeners who can’t tune in live are able to download sets after the shows air. People around the world who continue to seek out real hip-hop find refuge in WRIU’s programming, and the connectivity of the internet allows them access to a community that previously only stretched as far as the limits of the station’s signal (which, on a good day, hits the tip of Long Island). “We’ve gotten shout-outs all the way from Australia to Nigeria to Sweden,” Jim Brows boasts. “People in New York look at 90.3 as a bigger deal than people right down the hall,” adds DJ Nook. 

As long as there’s an audience somewhere in the world, both WRIU (which is listener funded) and real hip-hop will continue to connect. And Bardwell believes there will always be another generation ready to discover them: “There are those who already know, and those who will find out. Hip-hop is here to stay, and the next generation is going to need to go find out where it is. As long as kids feel like they have a medium, they’ll be here.” Both my 34-year-old and 13-year-old selves couldn’t agree more. 

Want to support WRIU? Listen and contribute during the next Radiothon from March 22-29. www.wriu.org