In the 1980s, hip hop expanded from a New York City-based minority subculture to a popular and ubiquitous musical style embraced by listeners of all races and ethnicities across the United States. Scholars often gloss over this transformation, focusing instead on the genre’s ability to sound the political potential of marginalized minority communities and centering their narratives on artists whose work illuminates hip hop’s resistant politics. While this approach has brought vital attention to the genre’s political import, it neglects hip hop’s most famous performers, excludes the genre’s largest audiences, and fails to explain how the genre’s radical sound and style changed American racial identity.
My in-progress book project How Hip Hop Became Hit Pop: Rap, Race, and Crossover on Top 40 Radio brings hip hop’s transition into a mainstream commodity into focus. How Hip Hop Became Hit Pop explores how most people in the United States encountered rap, how the sounds of hip hop were framed for them, and how this encounter affected their understanding of the genre, their idea of mainstream music, and their conception of themselves and others. I propose that airplay on commercial Top 40 radio stations, a medium largely neglected in popular music scholarship, made rap mainstream in the late 1980s by introducing a nation of new listeners to the genre and that the programming practices of radio stations controlled the influence of the genre in the 1990s. The first three chapters of How Hip Hop Became Hit Pop narrate a largely optimistic picture of hip hop’s crossover into the mainstream. In the mid-1980s, the genre was so thoroughly connected to a poor black urban identity that not even radio stations formatted for black audiences would play it regularly, much less Top 40 stations, which throughout the 1980s and 1990s sounded American middle-class whiteness. But in the late 1980s, this changed, as hip hop crossed over into the white mainstream by employing a series of musical techniques which gained rap songs airplay on a new Top 40 radio subformat that appealed to multiracial audiences.
How Hip Hop Became Hit Pop understands the commercial radio industry as a racial project; radio formats connect sound—musical styles and genres—to specific demographics, and in doing so influence how listening communities interact. Building on recent sound studies and media studies scholarship which contends that commercial radio dramas actively systematized the sound of blackness and whiteness in the first half of the twentieth century, I propose that commercial music radio formats both reflect contemporary racial identity and participate in racial formation by assigning certain music to certain demographic groups. As Top 40 programmers came to accept hip hop on their playlists, they normalized hip hop’s black, poor, urban identity, showing the American public that this music, its audience, and its creators were part of the mainstream.
But this optimistic moment of inclusion did not last. Just as rap became a part of the mainstream, that very same mainstream fragmented. In response to hip hop’s growing presence on Top 40 playlists, many radio programmers created niche Top 40 formats designed to protect listeners from the sounds of hip hop and the people associated with them, excluding rap from the mainstream by thoroughly destroying the very idea of the mainstream. In the second half of How Hip Hop Became Hit Pop, I analyze how industry deregulation and this increasing radio format fragmentation limited hip hop’s ability to reformat the racially demarcated radio landscape and American racial identity more broadly.