[Never Before Published Full Draft. A shorter version of this piece appeared in URB Magazine, March 2005 issue.]
If you want to take part in an interesting sociological study, do this: walk up to someone who grew up in Los Angeles in the ’80s and say “KDAY.”
As you stand back and observe, you’ll see a large smile start to work its way across their face. You’ll see their mind working back into retro-gear, with visions of rap’s golden past — Ice-T’s purple Porsche from the cover of the “Somebody Gotta Do It” single; LL Cool J’s shirtless b-boy stance; N.W.A.’s posed, collective scowl — dancing through their heads. Very few strings of letters can make whole demographics get warm and fuzzy so quickly.
“There were no casual listeners to KDAY,” Wherehouse Music’s influential Director of Urban Music, Violet Brown, writes (in bold-face type). “If you were near a radio and you liked rap, your dial was on KDAY. Nothing was more important to rap back in the day.”
Julio G, one of the most respected names in LA radio to this day, and one of KDAY’s important Mixmaster DJs, says: “KDAY went way beyond the music. It was that Nissan truck with speakers in the back, and your boys all piled in. When the clubs got out on the weekends, every truck was blasting KDAY. It was our cult, our people.” Hen-Gee, an influential producer and former Mixmaster, states, “KDAY was a station that you could call home. What KDAY was all about is tattooed within people who lived and breathed it.”
LA’s legendary Kid Frost says, simply, “KDAY was bigger than life.”
KDAY — located on a hilltop at 1700 North Alvarado, near Dodger Stadium — was one thing to many people: a home. But KDAY was many parts and many people, working towards the goal of bringing rap music from the streets to national prominence. It doesn’t seem like such a crazy thing now, but back in 1982 it certainly was.
“Can’t Live Without My Radio”
If there was ever an overall representative and a single (very smooth) voice to the world of KDAY 1580 AM, it is undeniably Greg Mack. He didn’t start the station, but it can be argued that he made it what it was. He arrived as Music Director in July 1983, a year or two after they switched formats. Jack Patterson was his boss, the station’s Program Director.
Mack recalls, “When I arrived at KDAY, they were doing what I’d call an ill-fated attempt at an Urban Contemporary format. You’d hear R&B but also Wham and Spandau Ballet. It was all over the place. But what was going on in the streets of LA back then was hip-hop.” Back then, starting a rap format wasn’t exactly what profit-seeking radio execs considered a good business move. Mack continues, “At that time all the radio people in LA hated rap. Program Directors hated it, the big record stores wouldn’t carry it. They thought it was just a novelty and would go away in a year or so.”
KDAY wasn’t the first radio station in LA to play hip-hop music — R&B station KGFJ (AM 1230) regularly broadcasted live feeds and mixes by the area’s first superstar DJ crew, Uncle Jamm’s Army (Bobcat, Egyptian Lover and Rodger Clayton). But KDAY brought rap to the forefront. Mack explains, “Rap changed the whole city back then. All of a sudden mom-and-pop stores had an advantage on all the major record chains that wouldn’t carry rap. And kids who were doing bad stuff could do something positive and legal. It gave some of them a way out.”
As Mixmaster Ralph M states, “When Greg Mack came in, he just changed the whole game. KGFJ couldn’t hang after that, they couldn’t compete.” Mixmaster M-Walk, who started his tenure in 1985, agrees: “KDAY was just a huge hit, right away. Because there was nothing else to compete with it. It was rap for 24 hours a day, with some R&B, too.”
“Master Mix Those Number One Tunes”
Aside from charismatic on-air talent like Mack, morning jock Russ Parr (who made good use of his rapping alter-ego, Bobby Jimmy), JJ Johnson and Lisa Canning, one of the most distinctive things about KDAY was an incredibly skilled crew of cut-n-scratch DJs who would be called The Mixmasters.
The first Mixmaster, who began taping sets to be broadcast on Saturday nights, was the legendary Dr. Dre, who threw down with his then musical partner (from the World Class Wreckin Cru), DJ Yella. Dre remained a hugely popular and innovative DJ throughout the ’80s, but his tenure at KDAY was a relatively short one, lasting only about a year. Mack, the man who started and oversaw the Mixmasters clique, explains: “Dre’s mixes became so popular and he was making so much money pressing them up and selling them at the swap meets, that he quickly got too busy. A year later he couldn’t do the mixes for us. So we recruited more guys.”
The next Mixmasters were perhaps the station’s most important — Jammin’ Gemini and the man Julio G calls “the Kool Herc of the West Coast”: Tony G. Julio adds, “In Los Angeles, Tony is the entire basis of what radio is today. Everything came from him.”
Tony was the absolutely man in LA when it came to DJing, and his influence and importance played a big part in KDAY’s power and appeal. Raised in New York and Florida, he didn’t have a typical DJ pedigree, in no small part because he played drums in a heavy metal band called Warlock (he did this concurrently, while DJing for KDAY). “I didn’t really even have much interest in being a DJ back then,” Tony says today. “And I didn’t even listen to KDAY before I was on it, because I could barely get it in where I lived in El Monte. I really just got into it to make extra money on weekends. I did a lot of tricks at the time on turntables, and there weren’t many people in LA doing that kind of stuff. So it caught on.”
But this is most certainly downplaying his role — he became the unofficial godfather of all radio DJs in LA in the ’80s, and most certainly the big cheese when it came to Mixmasters and KDAY. He started in 1984 and left in 1989, leading a Mixmasters walk-out on the station. He continues, “The Mixmasters definitely made KDAY. Without them there wouldn’t have been no KDAY. All of us were from a different part of town and we all brought our own listeners.”
The Mixmasters could (and should) take up their own article, but suffice it to say that the most important DJs in that era of LA’s history passed thru the KDAY doors under Tony’s and Greg Mack’s watch: Julio G, Joe Cooley, M-Walk, Aladdin, Battlecat, Ralph M, Henry G (Hen-Gee), DJ Romeo, TraySki, The Mixstress and more. As Ralph M, who became a Mixmaster in 1987 and still makes popular KDAY tribute mix CDs, says: “Other than going on tour as a DJ with a big group, being on KDAY was the biggest thing that an LA DJ could ever dream of.”
Mixmasters mixes were a whirlwind of sounds, taking the best hip-hop from both coasts and throwing them all in a blender. Sometimes they would straight-up rock parties, using cuts like Run-DMC’s “Sucker DJs.” Sometimes they’d get cuter and more complex, with multi-tracked blends, throwing up to four songs on top of each other, with quick cuts and edits much like the Latin Rascals and Afrika Islam were doing out East in New York. Either way, when the Mixmasters were on, your radio was locked. And when they spun out in town, whether at Compton’s SkateLand or LA’s hip-hop hangs Radio Tron or Water the Bush, if the Mixmasters were there, it was the place to be.
Starting out with their Saturday night “Traffic Jam” mixes (helmed by Dre and Yella) in early 1984, by the late ’80s the Mixmasters were on the station every day at least once, from morning drives to live mixes at night, weekdays and weekends alike. As Greg Mack beams, “From 1986 to 1989, we could do no wrong.”
The station even did live on-air tryouts for future Mixmasters, sometimes letting hundreds of wannabes on the air, one at a time, on remote broadcasts. Tony G recalls the first tryouts, in 1986: “A couple hundred people showed up and tried out, at Skateland USA in Compton. People were showing up from all over town and going to enemy neighborhoods. Skateland was in a Blood neighborhood, so all the Crip kids from the other part of the city had to dress differently to get into the club, just so they could try out. And there were even more people for the second tryout, in 1987.” Mack adds, “The Mixmasters were so big that it was kind of like American Idol when we had auditions. We’d get hundreds of people. It was huge.”
Another important piece of the programming pie was the “High Energy” show, which Tony and Julio helmed starting around 1987, which brought Latin dance music to the city’s most popular dance music station. Tony recalls, “When that started, everything got mixed in, black and brown. All the Hispanic groups, DJs and girl groups, would come in and do an hour-long mix. The more we mixed our listening audiences together, the more the station grew. Hispanics would have never started listening to the station unless they started hearing themselves on there. And on Friday nights, the black kids would come to the Hispanic clubs and everybody got along just fine. That was big.”
“The Rhythm, The Rebels”
It should be stated that KDAY was a station from another time, before corporations started running the rap game. And anyone who dealt with them reminisces fondly about those simpler days. “I remember Young MC calling into the station and rapping over the phone, which got him signed to Delicious Vinyl,” says Violet Brown, adding, “When rappers left the studio with a new song they drove straight to KDAY before going anywhere, most of the time even before going to their label with the music.”
Greg Mack recalls an amusing story about KDAY giving pre-release love to Uncle Jamm’s Army and Egyptian Lover, who were generally considered to be the Mixmasters’ only competition in town: “Egyptian Lover had a new album coming out and I had hook-ups at all the pressing plants, so I got an early press of it and put it on the air before Egypt even had it. We played the whole album on the air, and Rodger Clayton came over, screaming.” Brown says, “I miss the simplicity of the business back then. You could roll up there to the station, get someone like Greg Mack to listen and then your record might even go right into the mix that day. It was easier for artists to work with radio back then.”
Aside from just breaking new music, KDAY was innovative in keeping their name and their faces out in the community of LA; to the kids who were the station’s core listeners. But these weren’t always friendly meet-and-greets at malls and industry gatherings. These were concerts and events in the deepest gang ‘hoods in LA, at the height of the city’s Blood/Crip battling. “We did events in places where a lot of people didn’t want to go, ever, period,” says Tony G. “Places like Washington High, with grown men jumping the fences to get into the shows, people getting stabbed. You’d have to watch your equipment and your car, especially at night. We’d go everywhere you could imagine, do lunchtimes at schools, hand out t-shirts and stickers. KDAY was the only station doing anything like that.”
Hen-Gee also remembers those wild and woolly gigs: “We performed at live remotes, recreation parks, schools and ‘hoods that no other rapper or DJ dared to enter. They were the killing fields.”
“The fact that KDAY was out in the community so much was very important,” says The Poetess, who is community director for LA’s The Beat. “I remember King News, he was on the station. He would come on the air with gang statistics, talking about people who got killed. He’d be on there every day and would chastise the gang-bangers for what they were doing to our communities.”
Kid Frost, who stretches back to KDAY’s earliest days and was even instrumental in bringing Tony G to the station, has plenty of memories of these frequently wild community outreach events. He recalls, with a chuckle, “We used to do a lot of openings for new businesses back then. The funnest ones were for Church’s Chicken, at spots in Inglewood, Compton, Watts, wherever. There were times when me and Ice-T would be up there rapping, and he’d have the car running, so as soon as we’d finish we’d run off stage, jump into the car and get the hell out of there.” He adds, “I remember one time the Crips and Bloods went at it real bad at a Church’s Chicken thing, and Rory Kaufman (the station’s PR director, who was head of KDAY’s community outreach efforts) got hit in the head with a 40 ounce bottle. Tony G used to have the screws on his speakers really loose, ready to pop out, and he’d keep shotguns inside there for the crazy shows. I mean, just in case he needed to grab ‘em.”
KDAY members, wittingly or not, risked their own lives on occasion to spread the word. As K-Pook, owner of the KDAY-LA clothing line and lifetime KDAY fanatic, says, “Gangs were at their peak at that time, but people would still go out to see the Mixmasters, no matter where they were. If they were spinning you had to be there, even if it wasn’t the safest place to be.”
Julio G adds, “We risked our lives on that shit. We got a lot of passes — gang bangers gave us a lot of passes when they could have done some pretty bad shit. But they loved KDAY and they wanted us to play at their party. People today don’t even know what that kind of danger was like.” Greg Mack states, “We had the streets so locked down that if a drive-by took place in LA, we heard what it was about. People today say that they ‘keep it real’ but no-one kept it as real as KDAY did back then.”
“They Reminisce Over You”
Throughout the ’80s, KDAY reigned supreme and brought rap music from indie labels like Electro Beat and Macola to Ice-T’s signing with Sire and N.W.A.’s well-known worldwide domination from their roost at Ruthless. Most rap stars on the rise knew that to get national radio play outside of New York, it all started with KDAY. Mack says, “Artists back then knew that if they wanted to break out, they would have to be on KDAY, no matter where they were from, New York or otherwise.” Julio G agrees: “Artists from the East knew they needed to get on KDAY to get anywhere in the country.”
As innovative as it was on the programming side, KDAY was ultimately undone by technology. With the rise of FM radio in the ’80s, and its clearer and more powerful signal range, the rest of the dial simply beat the station at its own game. “FM didn’t really kick in until the late ’80s in LA,” Mack explains. “Until then, AM still had a chance. But when FM places like Power 106 started doing hip-hop, it was more like ‘If you can hear it on FM, then why listen on AM?’”
M-Walk saw the same trend happening: “The station started to die down in 1988 or so because Kiss FM and Power 106 started playing all the big rap stuff. By 1990, hip-hop was fully embraced on FM, so it was just a matter of time.” After 1989, as great as it still was, KDAY began to face uphill battles against FM competitors, and the Mixmasters also mutinied and left, because of an alleged lack of payment and respect from the station. The station’s bottom line shrank, and by 1991 the station was sold and slid quietly into a news talk format.
Rap radio was a different game by then, with a lot more players in town co-opting what KDAY started. People didn’t know what they were missing until it was gone. Kid Frost says, looking back, “When KDAY went off the air, a piece of me died inside. The station was always the hub of what was going down in the city. Before cel phones and the internet, it was where you heard about everything. Period.” Violet Brown recalls, “People were sick and crying when KDAY went off the air. It was missed immediately and is still missed, even by folks today who just heard about what it was like back in the day.”
Many people today, especially those involved with KDAY back then, have very strong opinions about the importance of the station and what it represented. Tony G says, “The biggest thing that KDAY did in the ’80s was to bring unity to Hispanics and blacks in LA through music. Before that, nobody crossed nobody’s lines. Afterwards there was a lot of unity, and it was incredible to see.” Hen-Gee agrees: “The hip-hop communities of LA were all glued together by KDAY. No other entity could have connected the streets and hip-hop culture like KDAY did.” And Julio G explains: “KDAY created a lot of revenue and made West Coast hip-hop what it is today. We believed in up-and-coming artists like Dr. Dre, King Tee, Ice-T. We led the whole blueprint of what rap radio is, even today. People are still copying that format.”
M-Walk says, “KDAY really brought rap to the forefront, it gave guys the opportunity to get their names out there and to really make a living at this. But for most of the Mixmasters it wasn’t even about the money. It was about mixing, being the best and having fun.” Kid Frost agrees: “The station was crucial because it made West Coast rap, the whole movement, possible. We were able to separate ourselves from what they were doing on the East Coast because of KDAY. Because all the metaphors and complex stuff they used in their rhymes, we weren’t having that. We couldn’t relate to that. It was just different out here.”
Violet Brown explains, “KDAY reminds me of the glory days of rap, when people were still having fun with the game. And on the business side, that little AM station in LA made the world pay attention to what was going on, with rap music and with radio in general. Our early pioneers of West Coast rap might not have been heard or maybe they wouldn’t have even started making music without it. LA will never let KDAY die, because whenever they speak of it they do so from the heart and with a smile on their faces.”
And to bring it full circle, The Poetess reasons, “The nostalgia for KDAY is still around because those songs are just amazing, and they were important to people back then. Radio stations sleep on the 30-plus demographic who grew up with and went to high school records. KDAY was the ultimate reflection of the young black and Latino community back in the ‘80s.”
“Guess Who’s Back?!?”
Luckily for fans in southern California, KDAY isn’t dead. In the fall of 2004 (in the midst of doing research for this article), a station popped up in LA out of nowhere that turned many heads: “93.5 KDAY.” At first it was all classic hip-hop mixes and no on-air talent. Ears were open and curious. Soon enough, by October, Julio G was on the air. Cel phones buzzed and email messages were dispatched to old-schoolers all throughout Southern California: KDAY IS BACK!
Julio explains, “The people who owned the [new] station did research in LA and asked people what they wanted to see come back. The answer was KDAY.” Julio is currently a programming consultant, and he has strong feelings about people judging this version of KDAY against the original one. He states the obvious but also makes an interesting declaration: “Because of the name, the station has been under a microscope. Which isn’t shocking, because it shows how serious KDAY is to people. But it’s not really fair to judge what is going on just yet. We all love the old-school, because that’s bomb music. But we’re also trying to break Defari. We’re not all about sitting in the past.”
To make things even more interesting, the two most important KDAYers of the past, Greg Mack and Tony G, have shown up down the dial. Starting on Sunday evenings in November 2004, they countered with the hopefully soon-to-be-syndicated “Greg Mack’s Real KDAY Show” on Power 106. Tony says, of the new venture, his first time behind turntables in years: “It’s just all the stuff we used to play on KDAY. Because that new KDAY station plays stuff that we never played on KDAY. They’re doing it off of research, and they’re not doing it right. But it’s great that they hired Julio, because otherwise they’d be in big trouble.”
Julio and Tony remain close friends, although neither is glad that they’re showing 2005 LA what KDAY was on two competing stations. Julio says, “It’s a very weird situation and I’m not really all for it, because it’s just dividing people right now. We all deserve respect, end of story. But everybody has to do what they have to do. Tony could have come with me to the New KDAY and maybe one day he will. It’s just like KDAY is in two places now. At the end of the day in LA it makes for good radio. People are getting the truth.”
At first Greg Mack was on the warpath against the new KDAY, even issuing a “cease and desist” order against their use of the call letters. But after a couple months on the air at Power, he has toned it down a little bit. “My best to them,” he says, although he’s probably not 100% sincere in the sentiment. “Imagine a rap artist coming out today and calling himself 2Pac, who sounded a lot like him. But I’m 2Pac and I’m still alive! On one hand, I want them to do well. But on the other hand, why are they defrauding the public about ‘their’ perception about what I did at KDAY? It’s just frustrating to see something that you created being pimped that way.”
Tony G, who focused on production in the ’90s after he left KDAY and even sold most of his vinyl (a move that he now deeply regrets), is thrilled to be back cutting again: “I’m having a ball!” he says. “I’ve got back pains from practicing. My wrists are killing me. But I love it. And we haven’t even touched the music we still need to bring back.”
With Greg Mack’s and Tony G’s show on the rise and with Julio hoping to recruit more Mixmasters for the new KDAY, it’s living proof that LA will indeed never let KDAY go away.