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If the Little Rock rap scene was a Dr. Seuss book, many local rappers would be quick to cast Joe “Broadway” Booker in the role of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas. A 30-year veteran of Little Rock radio, operations manager for KIPR Power 92 — the state’s largest urban music station, which plays second fiddle only to country giant KSSN — Booker’s reluctance to plug tracks by local artists into the Power 92 playlist is often mentioned by Little Rock rappers as one of the main things holding them back from regional and national success. “Joe is treating our underground hip hop artists like refugees” on and off the air, said one local rapper who was reluctant to have his name printed because of Booker’s influence on the Arkansas market. “We’ve been crying out, and we’re getting no help.”
In response, Booker pulls no punches, and throws a bucket of cold water on some rappers’ dreams of a hot-as-hell Arkansas rap scene. He says local rappers hoping to get on his station so they can sell more records have it figured backwards.
“They want me to play it so people will recognize it,” Booker said. “But it don’t work like that. On a rap record … if people are calling me saying this record is the bomb, it’s what they’re playing on the streets, we may consider playing it. But we don’t play it on the radio station to help you get notoriety to help you sell it on the streets. That’s backwards.”
In addition, he says that local artists are never going to get anywhere if they don’t go regional.
The way Booker paints it, getting heavy airplay all comes down to money. “Let’s say I’m dealing with somebody here in Little Rock that has a project, and I’m dealing with a record from RCA or MCA that’s a half-million-dollar project — a Busta Rhymes record, or a Jay-Z record,” Booker said. “What I’m saying to [local rappers] is, here is what you’re comparing yourself to. Most of the stuff we play — the national artists — most of those projects are well over a quarter-million-dollar project, easily.”
Booker said that though Little Rock rap has a lot of talent, he simply doesn’t have space for artists that “haven’t made it yet, that don’t have a promotional budget” behind them. He said that if there is a local record on the streets that people call in and repeatedly request, he would be more than willing to give it a few spins — and he notes that the station does do a “pump it or dump it” showcase of local artists on Sunday night — but the days of a DJ getting a hunch about a record, playing it, and seeing the artist become a national sensation are as dead as Elvis.
For those rappers dreaming of record labels coming to Little Rock with an armload of contracts for the city’s untapped talent, Booker’s response might best be boiled down to: Keep dreaming. Little Rock and Arkansas as a whole just don’t have enough rap listeners to generate the attention needed to attract national labels.
Though some local rappers have come up with creative songs about Little Rock, Booker said, “that’s as far as that’s going to go,” because the Arkansas rap audience is just too spread out. “It’s like you can get to the people,” Booker said, “but you have to go to Little Rock, Pine Bluff, Hot Springs. Whereas you go to Memphis, you’ve got a half million black folks right there. If you work Memphis and Shelby County, you can hit more people than you can hit in the whole state of Arkansas.”
Booker said that he is considering starting workshops to teach local artists about promoting themselves and the business side of radio and records. Without that knowledge, Booker said, even with all the local radio support in the world, Arkansas rappers aren’t going to get far.
“That’s what it is now,” he said. “Hype and promotion. My point is, if we took a record and played it umpteen times on Power 92, [a local artist] still couldn’t sell enough products here in Little Rock to get any recognition by the record companies. There just aren’t enough customers here to buy it.”