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Blazin 98.5 fans the flames of hip-hop nostalgia 

Feel the burn

click to enlarge Mang-Yee Reverie, Michael Luper and Lady Latina - CASEY BRADLEY GENT
  • Casey Bradley Gent
  • Mang-Yee Reverie, Michael Luper and Lady Latina

On his digital single "D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)," Jay-Z proclaimed the end of the infamous pitch-shifting technology that had become one of the most controversial musical developments since disco. "Get back to rap, you T-Paining too much," he declared, driving his point home with the refrain: "This is death of Auto-Tune / Moment of silence."

That was back in 2009, and nearly a decade's worth of subsequent commercial radio hits — including several of Jay-Z's own — have proven his prediction to be, at best, premature. Listen to today's most successful stations in any given market, and you'll find Auto-Tune to be the common denominator that transcends formats, from Contemporary Hit Radio to Rhythmic Top 40 and everything in between.

But even if the foreseeable future still belongs to Auto-Tune, one can always turn back to the past. That's the approach being taken by Blazin 98.5 FM, which took to the Colorado Springs airwaves last May with a steady diet of "Classic Hip-Hop & R&B."

"Right now our library is basically 2007 and back," says 48-year-old General Manager Michael Luper after finishing up his

Morning Boom Box shift. "It's not like we're cutting it off at Auto-Tune — you might hear a T-Pain song, since he was around before then — but you're not going to hear a lot of it."

The Blazin studios are located in an unpretentious office off Platte Avenue that also houses sister station KFEZ ("Kickin' Country 101.3"). Up on the wall, a Bob Marley poster watches over Luper and Marty Celano, vice president of Blazin's parent company SoCo Radio. It's one of the few visible reminders of the station's more weed-centric origins. (See "Blazin's weed roots" below).

While T-Pain may never rule the Blazin airwaves, listeners can rely on an assortment of tried-and-true tracks from hip-hop stalwarts — Missy Elliott, Eric B. & Rakim, MC Lyte, Biggie Smalls and 2pac Shakur, to name but a few. The station's playlist also features the more soulful sides of pop superstars like Michael Jackson, Alicia Keys, Mary J. Blige, Tony! Toni! Toné! and Mariah Carey. Eighties hip-hop fans, meanwhile, will be cranking up the car radio for seminal rap classics by N.W.A., the Beastie Boys and Run-D.M.C.

For Luper and the rest of the crew, all of this music conjures up a somewhat more innocent time. "When I was really young, my mom would go to the supermarket every Saturday morning," he recalls. "There was this magazine rack, and above the magazines they had the Top 25 songs from Billboard. And every week I'd use my allowance to buy one of those 45s, and my collection just got bigger and bigger."

Celano promoted Luper to general manager two months ago, before which Luper hosted the SportsGuyMike and Afternoon Groove shows. "I'm from the Bronx, so I grew up as hip-hop was developing," says the former drummer, who moved to Colorado in 2000. "My first record was the Sugar Hill Gang."

Upon mention of a new Bell Biv Devoe single that Luper played earlier that morning during the "New Joint of the Day" segment of his weekday Morning Boom Box show, Celano rejoins the conversation: "It brings back memories of your first date," he says of the track, "and that time you went to White Castle, and you listened to 'My Adidas' by Run-D.M.C."

After a brief digression about the sacrilege of White Castle burgers finding their way into supermarket frozen food aisles — "Every time I look at them," mourns Luper, "I'm like 'Why did you DO that?" — the talk turns to Blazin's listener demographics.

"Right now, we have a 45 percent male listenership and 55 percent female," says Celano as he scans the station's latest ratings. "Age ranges between 18 and 49. And I wouldn't be surprised if it even goes a little bit older than 49."

"We're basically the kind of music that you used to have on cassette and put in your boom box," says Luper.

click to enlarge Michael Luper - CASEY BRADLEY GENT
  • Casey Bradley Gent
  • Michael Luper

If a station dedicated to vintage hip-hop seems like a quirky or even quaint idea that has limited market potential, think again. Within the radio industry, Classic Hip-Hop has become radio's hottest new format since it first took off in 2014.

One of the format's most dramatic success stories was Indianapolis station WRWM, which went from playing adult contemporary fare like Maroon 5's "One More Night" to vintage rap tracks like 2 Live Crew's "Me So Horny." Along with that came a market share jump from 2 to 17.9 percent, which took the station from 15th place to first in a matter of months. Of course, it didn't hurt matters that WRWM was owned by Cumulus Media, which, according to Nasdaq, raked in more than a billion dollars the year before the station's rebranding.

Blazin, not surprisingly, is off to a slower start. According to the latest Nielsen ratings, the station has a 1 percent share of the Colorado Springs FM market, which places it below two local Christian stations. Meanwhile, local Rhythmic Contemporary Hit Radio station The Beat has a 4.2 market share, while Hot Adult Contemporary Radio station My99.9, which topped the ratings throughout 2016, has a 7.7 share.

But these are early days yet. And while the most successful classic hip-hop stations have been located in more demographically diverse urban areas, the format is now beginning to find its way into smaller markets as well.

click to enlarge Idris Goodwin - KAYLA SHOCK
  • Kayla Shock
  • Idris Goodwin

That makes sense to Idris Goodwin, the poet and rapper who teaches the history of hip-hop at Colorado College and co-hosts the Critical Karaoke show on public radio station KRCC.

"I think the Blaze offers a nice alternative, because this music was loved by everybody," says Goodwin. "With the arrival of 'Yo MTV Raps,' suddenly people in places like Nebraska and Colorado Springs could be exposed to this powerful music and a culture that hasn't gone away. And it's also very emblematic of a time in which hip-hop was at its most diverse; it was largely overseen by A&R executives who really came from and understood the culture. And so the quality and diversity of the music was really strong, which is why it had such a great impact."

And while Blazin may go heavier on the R&B than some stations in other markets, Goodwin sees no problem with segueing between, say, Mariah Carey and the Notorious B.I.G.

"The way that Sean Diddy Combs and Bad Boy Records built their legacy was bringing the ethos of hip-hop into the world of R&B," he explains. "It used to be that radio stations would say, 'We're strictly R&B, we do not play rap music,' so a lot of the R&B of the '90s would have that hip-hop vibe to it. But that's the thing about it: Hip-hop is from the same tree as rhythm and blues and soul and everything else. So it's really just a sort of cultural narrow-mindedness that separated those things in the first place."

Blazin's musical mix isn't the only thing that sets it apart from most stations. In an era of nationally syndicated programs and computer-generated playlists, the station just feels local.

Following Luper's morning show, for instance, is Ladies Lounge, whose charismatic hosts DJ Mang-Yee Reverie and Lady Latina emphasize female hip-hop and R&B artists, discuss music goings-on in the community, give away Li'l Wayne tickets and take requests from local listeners.

click to enlarge Lady Latina - CASEY BRADLEY GENT
  • Casey Bradley Gent
  • Lady Latina

"We wouldn't be free-form if we brought in a bunch of cookie-cutter on-air personalities," says Luper of the station, which gives its deejays more leeway than their counterparts at the many tightly formatted stations who force-feed listeners a minimum hourly requirement of current hits by The Weeknd, Chainsmokers and whatever single Drake happens to be featured on this week. "You're not going to hear the same songs that you heard an hour or two hours ago," he promises.

And while the station's music is limited to a specific era, Luper does change the playlist regularly. He says deejays are encouraged to choose their favorites from among them, and are allowed to play up to three local songs per shift.

But while the station has its free-form elements, it's no longer the free-for-all that characterized the beginnings of FM radio or, for that matter, the beginnings of Blazin itself. Both Luper and Celano contend that success will be contingent upon a well-maintained organizational structure.

"I was a Marine back in the mid '90s," explains Luper. "My father was in the Army, my brother was in the Army, my grandfather was in the Navy, so I've always had that mentality. So when I got out of the military, everything I've done has always had structure. Not a military style, but just getting everybody on the same page, so that we can all grow together."

Goodwin also expresses hope that the station will take off, both because of its locally originated programming and the opportunity to turn on the radio and be transported, however temporarily, to a seemingly less stressful era.

"In a way, it's similar to KRCC, in that it's local and it's great to feel that these are folks who walk among you and know your city and know your concerns. And right now, in these times, I can't listen to news radio for more than 10 minutes without getting really disturbed. So it's cool to have a station for people of my demographic and older who don't exactly get down with molly rap and Auto-Tune."

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