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Regardless, for local rappers, having two hip-hop stations in one market is a definite plus, says Ragdoll's Williams. "I think the healthy competition has opened the doors for a lot of people in St. Louis right now, because in competing with each other, the only real edge is who breaks a new record. It also makes the opportunity for independents bigger, because when it's just one station, a lot of times if they don't mess with you, you don't have a chance. If there are multiple stations and one breaks it out and the other one may not have liked it, if it's researching well you get a shot of both."
J.D. Hate, CEO of local label Mo Dirty Records, concurs. Hate achieved moderate success with Hard Knox, which landed in rotation on both stations, and he continues to work to keep the group on local playlists. "The independent scene here is really, really hard," he says. "Everybody and their mama rap, so it ain't like it's an open hole and you're just going to get in."
Tony J. is cruising down Delmar, top down on his convertible Geo Metro. Every few hundred yards, somebody bellows "Hey, Tony J.!" and he hollers back. He's got a Jerry Lewis kind of scream (if Lewis had been born black), which you'd recognize if you've heard him on the radio during his "Traffic" segment on Q-95.5.
Once you've heard Tony J., all other traffic updates pale. Sometimes he sings it -- "Car's got a flat tire/At 270 and Page/And there's a big slowdown/Across the Poplar Street Bridge!" Sometimes he raps it. He's done it completely in falsetto. He's stretched the word traffic across fifteen seconds: "Tra-ah-aaah-yah-yah-yaaah-fih-fih-fuh-fuh-fick!"
And if you've seen him cruising recently, you wouldn't forget that, either. His Geo rides low, with chrome hubcaps, thick tires and a swank paint job, and it's wrapped in advertisements for his various endeavors. Tony J. (given name: Johnson) got local label No Loot Records to pony up for the wrap; that logo, along with one of No Loot's acts, decorates the Metro's hood. Most prominent, however, are the words "Traffic with Tony J.," which stretch along both sides. That and the "Traffic with Tony J." old-school trucker's hat he's wearing (and marketing).
On the streets Tony J. is a celebrity. "These communities, man, they love the radio. They love the media," says Tony, who, in addition to his "Traffic" duties, localizes the syndicated Russ Parr Morning Show and is also one-third of an afternoon drive-time trio rounded out by Craig Blac and Charlie Chan. "It ain't nothing to go to the city of Wellston if I've got this little car, and they love 'Traffic.' The chief of police loves the 'Traffic' report! That's crazy. That's crazy to me!"
Out on the streets is where Q-95.5 and the Beat work overtime to get in the faces of as many potential listeners as possible. Both stations cruise their vans around the city as driving billboards, sponsor endless functions and face off against one another at neutral events like record-release parties.
Wes Allmond runs the St. Louis office of Ch'rewd Marketing, a promotions company that works to get music played on Q-95.5 and the Beat. Allmond, who often accompanies artists when they come to town for promotional events, witnesses the competition firsthand. "You won't hear the competitiveness on the air," he observes. "But the people that really take it to the next level are the promotions departments. It gets ugly."
As an example, Allmond cites Nelly's record release party for Nellyville, held at Streetside Records on Delmar. "Last year at that Nelly thing, oh my God. I've seen the stations' promotions departments get into -- never physical, but yelling matches. I've seen both promotions departments tear each other's banners down. It's ridiculous on the street. Because they're both fighting for that street credibility."
The rivalry reached a fever pitch the last time 50 Cent, currently hip-hop's most popular artist, came to town. Immediately after the appearance was announced this past winter, Allmond's phone lit up. "'Hey, what's going on with 50 Cent? Are we going to get him?' Both stations want to know: 'Is 50 Cent going to come in and do an interview on my station? Is he coming to my station first?' Both stations want the artist first, if it's a big name. 'Come to my station first. If you're not coming to my station first, we're going to drop your record.'"
Q-95.5 and the Beat each claim to be on top, with the other self-consciously close behind. "We notice when we add records, the records get added over there," crows Q-95.5 general manager Dave Ervin. "We're impressed that they assume that we're right. But at the end of the day, we don't want to follow. We want to lead. We think that that's one of the keys to Q-95.5's virtual overnight success. We notice that if we tune in to the competitor, they spend a good deal of time copying what we do, so if we monitor them, we find that we're not learning anything new."
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