Once upon a time, Harvard radio was a hip-hop Mecca. This past semester, a handful of students tried to bring back the glory.
During the mid-1980s and early 1990s, the WHRB hip-hop department—known as “The Dark Side”—hosted “Street Beat,” one of college radio’s seminal rap programs. The show also spawned a campus newsletter by the same name, which later became one of the premier journals of hip hop culture: “The Source.”
Darius P. Felton ’08 and Sam D. G. Jacoby ’08, the department’s current directors, recall the halcyon days of Harvard’s hip-hop prominence: “‘The Dark Side’ was a very vibrant presence at Harvard,” Jacoby says. “WHRB has old station IDs recorded by N.W.A.-era Dr. Dre, De La Soul, and other rap icons.”
Ironically, Harvard’s foray into hip-hop ended just as the genre reached its cultural zenith. Hip-hop music was no longer prominently featured in WHRB’s broadcast lineup by the mid-90s—the era that saw Tupac Shakur, Notorious B.I.G., and the “Gangsta-Funk” aesthetic attain success as pop music—and “The Dark Side” faded into obscurity.
Jacoby speculates that the rapid chart ascendancy of rap music in the mid-90s was precisely why it fell out of favor with WHRB DJs.
“I think the lack of interest in rap during those years was the result of there being no real underground hip-hop scene,” he says. “Part of what college radio should do is spotlight overlooked artists.”
But now, perhaps paradoxically, given hip-hop’s current preeminence in the music business, Felton, Jacoby and a new generation of student DJs and MCs are attempting to restore hip-hop’s airspace at Harvard. This semester saw the inaugural broadcast of the newly resurrected “Dark Side.”
Though hip-hop continues to dominate popular culture, Felton cites the burgeoning existence of an independent rap scene as justification for revived radio coverage.
“Artists like Aesop Rock and Little Brother, that operate under the mainstream radar, are the kinds of acts we are going to feature,” he says.
The main obstacle to reassembling WHRB’s hip-hop department was dismantling its original replacement: the moribund “Black Urban Contemporary” department.
Felton explains, “When I began working at WHRB there was a shadow of a hip-hop department called ‘Black Urban Contemporary.’ But there was no new music coming into the department, and it wasn’t very organized—it was just a few kids who enjoyed hip-hop.”
To that end, Felton and Jacoby—in conjunction with members of WHRB’s indie-rock department, “Record Hospital”—designed a hip-hop comp in order to attract and train knowledgeable DJs. They also began to seek out new music from hip-hop labels while undertaking the massive project of labeling and filing thousands of vinyl LPs accumulated during the old days.
Now that the department is more established, its ambitious directors are drafting plans to extend the show’s influence beyond Harvard’s borders.
“We’re looking to hold a freestyle open to local MCs and Harvard students in conjunction with Massive Records [a Mass. Ave vintage record shop],” Jacoby says.
It could be that this incarnation of “The Dark Side” is poised to restore Harvard as a nexus of hip-hop culture. Just don’t call it a comeback.
“The Darker Side” can be heard on WHRB 95.3 from 9:00 p.m. until 6:00 a.m. on Saturday nights and from 12:00 a.m. until 4:00 a.m. on Sunday mornings.
—Staff writer Bernard L. Parham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.