Guerilla Radio and Grand Schemes

One artist of countless rappers wants all that the world can offer a Hip-Hop talent. Miami’s Grand Scheem is not only gunning for global radio waves, but he’s zeroed in on the Top 40 market to start – remarkable aspirations. Furthermore, the Pakistani-born rapper is not offering bling. He’s bringing social and political commentary in […]

One artist of countless rappers wants all that the world can offer a Hip-Hop talent. Miami’s Grand Scheem is not only gunning for global radio waves, but he’s zeroed in on the Top 40 market to start – remarkable aspirations. Furthermore, the Pakistani-born rapper is not offering bling. He’s bringing social and political commentary in his songs that could be deemed off-putting to some radio advertisers. He’s reflective of another era, but his grind is very current.

Things were very different between radio and rap in 1985, when LL Cool J released his aptly-titled Radio on a fledging Def Jam Records. A new artist, a new label and everything fell into place – creating a Hip-Hop icon who hasn’t left radio since. New artists and new labels today aren’t embraced as warmly by the radio. There are more rappers, more programmers, and less airspace. Rappers blame corporate radio’s tight structure and high standards. Programmers and DJs accuse rappers of poor music and even lazier hustles.

For Scheem, there is no room for complacency. With only a manager and longtime friend Raj Cutty as his team, the 29 year old attempts to achieve the unthinkable. What’s more startling – it seems to be working. Given the present attitudes about radio, many would ask “how?”

While Hip-Hop fought to get acknowledged on the airwaves in its early days, The Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” became one of the most requested songs of 1979. Because of it, Mr. Magic, Marley Marl, Greg Mack, and Red Alert soon became the gatekeepers of the airwaves, making names for themselves in the early ‘80s, by taking chances on primitive rap twelve-inch singles. Anybody who pressed up a hot vinyl single was greeted warmly, and the Rakim’s, the EPMD’s, N.W.A.’s, and Audio Two’s rejoiced.

That climate is very different today, especially in the independent market. Jim Jones’ “We Fly High” has propelled a Koch Records single to the top of the radio charts. But aside from Koch and TVT Records, the independents and their artists often cry foul. In 2004, dead prez’s “Radio Freq” urged listeners to walk away from the same stations that made “Hip-Hop” one of 1998’s biggest smash singles. Providence, Rhode Island’s rap claim-to-fame, Sage Francis named his 2004 tour, “The F**k Clear Channel Tour”, which may be an easier statement, coming from a poet/rapper who has never been acknowledged by mainstream waves. Even Jay-Z, from his throne, stated on “99 Problems”, “I got a beef with radio if I don’t play they show, they don’t play my hits, I don’t give a s**t.” From top to bottom, the present-day rap age is a bit skeptical of the radio stations, which weigh into their sales factor so heavily.

President Carter’s assertions are echoed by activist Davey D, who wrote in 2005, “Back in the days payola used to be done via the envelop full of money that was slipped under the table in the dark of night to a shiesty program director or DJ. That’s what led to some love shown for particular artists. As the government began to crack down, the methodology behind the practice became slicker.”

Popular DJ’s like Funk Master Flex have maintained their innocence against payola charges, even though they are often credited with breaking records from once-unknown rappers like Notorious B.I.G., Onyx, and 50 Cent. Those days may feel unreachable to an artist like Grand Scheem as radio presently binges on big label, lyrical-lacking “Chain Hang Low” and “Gettin’ Some.”

The answer isn’t clear, but there are stories of success amidst this era of friction between on-air programmers and artists. Grand Scheem may not be a name most people know yet, but his strategy and success-story is in good company. In the summer of 2006, Harlem’s DJ Webstar and Young B created “Chicken Noodle Soup” a dance-inspired rap that began in the Uptown parks, but found its way onto the most influential Hip-Hop station in America, Hot 97.

Sixteen-year-old Young B, born Bianca Dupree, traced that rise to popularity, “We didn’t even know that this record was gonna get this big. The people that chose this record made it this big. [I think it was made popular by] the kids that was dancin’ at the Rucker. When [DJ] Enuff saw it, that’s how it got big.”

The veteran DJ Enuff may’ve broken the then-white label, but soon others across the country followed. At its peak, “Chicken Noodle Soup” hit #48 on the Pop Billboard charts, and #30 on the R&B/Rap chart. Universal Records made careful note of all of this, signing DJ Webstar, and releasing his Caught in the Web on the major label this past September. Radio programmers acknowledge records like D4L’s “Laffy Taffy” or Afroman’s “Because I Got High” for equally climbing over the Clear Channel wall to heavy rotation. Still, “Chicken Noodle Soup” is all fine and good, but what about rappers that are more lyrically based?

Virginia veteran Skillz hasn’t released a chart-worthy or radio-supported album since he dropped the “Mad” from his name. But a over a decade since the now-defunct Big Beat Records dropped From Where?, Skillz enjoys radio support each and every December, based off of his “Year End Raps,” which as of 2006, may see a fourth installment.

Although according to Skillz, radio play was never the goal. “I never

really ask anyone to play it. I just make sure that the right people get it, and then it just does what it does.” In actuality, Skillz acts as if getting radio support is easy, “I would like to tell you something interesting about how I get it played, but it’s really not a lot to it. The fact that I can go in the studio, cut a record, get it coded, and within two days, it’s at 700 spins across the country is crazy.” Although his 2005 album, Confessions of a Ghostwriter was ignored by the waves, Skillz testifies that radio is there when needed, “It just goes to prove that good music can find a home.”

Re-enter Grand Scheem. The hungry rapper has been pursuing a career for less than five years, to surprising results. In 2005, a track intended for Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 film, “The Greatest Scheem Ever Sold”, charted with college radio – a popular outlet for purist labels like Def Jux, Rhymesayers, and Stones Throw, but not typically sought after by grittier, controversial storytellers like Scheem.

Almost two years later, Scheem and his SOTC Management company have upgraded their sights, and attempted to reach Top 40 Radio, a feat that would scare away most seven-figure independent label artists, let alone a two-man management company in South Florida. Scheem says his approach begins in the streets, for inspiration, then goes to the studio for nearly 100 hours of work per song, then to the listeners to embrace his art. What bigger or better vehicle than radio? Currently, Scheem pushes “Desperica”, a self-produced ode to changing times in a troubled America to the stations. Though he’s got a song without that needed infectious chorus, Scheem sees art standing above protocol.

“When I’m looking around the lunchroom, the boardrooms, the dorm rooms, and I’m hearing what people are talking about, they’re talking about what ‘Desperica’ is talking about. When you take that approach musically, when you’re making records, it’s not hard to see how that would translate out [to the radio] regardless of what big-budget majors are doing.” Presently, Top 40 stations in 10 cities across America have spun or added the single to their playlist.

One of those stations is WSNX 104.5 FM in Grand Rapids, Michigan – not a city frequently associated with Hip-Hop culture. Eric “EOB” O’Brien is a program director at WSNX, and he’s quick to point the finger back at corporate radio critics.

“It’s really easy to sit there and say that corporate radio stations suck, but a large portion of independent music sucks just as much as corporate radio. With the evolution of the ability to make music in your house, everybody thinks they’re Tupac,” said EOB. While EOB defends his position, he also has faith in breaking artists.”

Although Scheem has not yet attempted play on New York’s Hot 97, one of the top stations in the nation, other rappers certainly are. And while Kay Slay’s Thursday night show has long been devoted to help breaking the Papoose’s, the Jae Millz’s, and the Saigon’s, the regular solicitations from aspiring artists frequently go unanswered.

Ebro Darden, the station’s programmer, stated, “I’m tired of cats thinking that this game is easy. I came in this radio thing in ’91, and I saw Gang Starr, Biggie, Wu-Tang, Tupac, s**t – all the greats work their a#### off nationally to promote themselves and create a buzz that provided them careers. [They weren’t] just recording music and sitting in a studio 24 hours a day, thinking that’s gonna get you hot.” Clearly, radio respects sweat just as much as it respects monetary muscle. As Scheem has recorded less than five singles in his career, perhaps his slow-cooked approach stands out against artists who record an album of material a week.

While EOB and Ebro can use their programmer’s position to make these station-wide decisions, many of today’s independent rappers rely specifically on show DJs, as was the case in New York with Enuff. For Grand Scheem’s hustle, DJ Madboy on KIBT 96.1 FM in Colorado Springs is that DJ who got behind the record.

Madboy, initially from the southeast, empathized, “I’ve been on that other side, trying to get my s**t played on radio. I know what it feels like. When I’m involved, it’s a different thing than when most people are just like, ‘Okay, we’re going by the book.’” Madboy refuses to go by that book, and he plays Grand Scheem’s single, a criticism on the stars and stripes, in a military town. That’s apparently a chance the nighttime DJ is willing to take, “Not every song you play is gonna please your whole audience,” he said, without citing a specific complaint to the single. However, a place like Colorado may prove as vital to an artist’s buzz as a swing-state would to a politician. Though he’s less than two years in at 96.1, Madboy credits the station for early support on records from Pitbull and Lil’ Jon, two artists on the independent TVT Records. This station also supports local acts, which the Hip-Hop mainstream may never do, from Colorado Springs.

As for Scheem, the determined hustle continues. Presently, “Desperica” finds itself on the Mediabase 7-Day Top 40 charts, sandwiched between Ludacris’ new single “Runaway Love” and U2 and Green Day’s collaboration “The Saints Are Coming.” This is pretty amazing company, considering both acts are household names. Amidst the push, a Wisconsin radio station also added the two-year-old “Greatest Scheem Ever Sold” single to their playlist, based off of the buzz.

The music is spreading, without the wallet, infectious choruses, or pre-packaged dance steps. Unlike Webstar, D4L, or even Skillz, Scheem sees no album in sight – thus, equating whatever buzz the artist does develop to no major monetary gain. While the single is available on sites like iTunes, Scheem claimed, “I wanted to make everything available without any sort of economic ties to it.” His portion of profit from “Desperica” goes to a company called Operation Uplink to sponsor overseas troop cards, for every purchase.

In an age where everybody’s pushing a product, Scheem operates off of the single as if it was 1979, and Sylvia Robinson of Sugar Hill Records schooled him on the biz.

“A lot of independent cats, every month they got a mixtape comin’ out, but how many people are they really touching? Even if you see them in XXL or Scratch or something, how many kids are really out there listening to that material?” questioned Scheem. “I put quality over quantity.”

Lord Finesse, a rapper who went from radio love to radio’s forgetful mind once rapped, “You’re a slave to my soundwave.” Sixteen years later, many rappers refuse to believe that they are chained to the radio, but rather, denied entrance on the basis of budgets and backers. However, whether rappers are making it rain or questioning America’s contemporary motives, there is a way where there is will.

It takes a nation of DJs to truly hold the modern, resolute rap back.

For more information on Scheem visit