Ross On Radio: Taking Your Big Brother's Style... and Bringing Hip-Hop Back To Top 40

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis

Jason Koenig

At the ebb of any format or genre's cycle, there is always a debate between detractors who declare a shift in musical tastes and defenders who bemoan the available product. Whether it was Mainstream top 40 in the early '90s lunging after a rare Spin Doctors record that it didn't have to share with rhythmic, or late-'90s country PDs with no galvanizing superstars besides Dixie Chicks, doldrums are always marked by a dearth of uptempo reaction records in a given genre. At those times, you can only take it on faith that the right product would bring listeners back, if it existed.

By now, we know that there's no faster way to guarantee that a genre's rebound is imminent than to declare its demise. There was no more reason that hip-hop should fall off the face of the earth than any other style. But this time there was a preponderance of issues that had never existed before -- much less at the same time. The genre that once sold records without airplay was more sparsely represented, including singles sales. R&B/hip-hop stations were developing ratings issues, even before the Portable People Meter. Top 40 stations could no longer depend on beating an incumbent just by playing more hip-hop. Then there were those wacky teens and their Owl City and Lumineers records.

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' 'Thrift Shop' No. 1 On Hot 100 For Fourth Week

But there was also a lack of mainstream, uptempo product. Specifically, there was nothing like Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ "Thrift Shop" (featuring Wanz) -- the fastest-growing top 40 hit at this writing, and already a top 10 song at Mainstream Top 40 and No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. The success of "Thrift Shop" is frequently described as unprecedented because of its social media component, but it's very much in the spirit of 1992 and the early days of SoundScan, when hip-hop albums began debuting at the top of the charts before radio was aware of them and listeners were able to feel that they had discovered an act.

Some other observations about "Thrift Shop:"
The language is edgy, and the subject matter is somehow comforting
: "Thrift Shop" is no different from a lot of records. There's enough edgy language to make the radio edit impossible to follow without looking up the lyrics, not to mention the allusion to the R. Kelly video. But the slice-of-life subject matter, different from the other records around it, gives it the same sort of accessibility as "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party)" or "Parents Just Don't Understand." So does the anti-brands/anti-consumerism aspect that makes it an answer to "All Gold Everything" even before most listeners outside R&B/hip-hop radio have heard that song. "Thrift Shop" is rated "R" for language, but not for subject matter, and it doesn't provoke the same cognitive dissonance among PDs as "Bandz a Make Her Dance" or "Up."

It’s physically easier to listen to: "Thrift Shop" is uptempo and bouncy, more like "Gold Digger" than the slow and texturally dense hip-hop that has dominated the genre for the last five to eight years. "Thrift Shop" also doesn't have the jackhammer repetition that has come to characterize not just hip-hop but a lot of mainstream pop as well. Ironically, with a slower, but still noisy production style having made its way to pop radio -- trading "turbo pop" for "mid-turbo" -- "Thrift Shop" also addresses a lack of tempo at mainstream top 40.

It had to come from an artist outside of not just R&B/hip-hop but mainstream radio in general: At this moment when mainstream top 40 is more disconnected from R&B/hip-hop radio than ever, it’s almost easier to spend years cultivating a fan base off the radar than to come to top 40 with a hit developed at R&B/hip-hop radio. Beyond that, however, a "Thrift Shop"-type uptempo, medium-weight record couldn't have been made by any artist already in play at either format, because they would have been A&R'd toward making two separate records: the downtempo one that sounds like the other hip-hop heard at R&B radio and a 120 bpm dance/turbo-pop record for mainstream top 40.

Don't call it a comeback -- yet: I consider "Thrift Shop" a definitive answer as far as whether the mainstream top 40 audience could care about the right hip-hop record. How quickly those can be supplied to top 40 (or R&B) radio is another question. And taking it back to 1992, it's not out of the question that Macklemore & Ryan Lewis could be Digable Planets or Arrested Development, the uptempo, positive progressive rap acts greeted as a breath of fresh air until "Nuthin' but a 'G' Thang" came along. But for now, "Thrift Shop" is indeed bleeping awesome.