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by kenn on 10/07/2005 12:29:00 PM

Dreams of sparking a Jersey hip-hop Community



When the roving eye of the music industry spots hip-hop scenes thriving in places far away from here - like St. Louis, Atlanta and Houston - many can only wonder when New Jersey will get its chance to shine.

Of course, to be there in that spotlight, the state needs a scene to sell to the outside world.

So some might rephrase the question and ask, When will the state's countless MCs, DJs and promoters get their act together and form a scene to call their own?

That's the type of question that Jerome Ford, a tall, tattooed, boisterous and gaunt man from West Orange, and his closest friends pose when his voice hits the airwaves late on Friday nights.

For six years, Ford, 35, has hosted "The Last Hip-Hop Radio Show" under the nom du radio Max Jerome. (No relation to the '80s sci-fi icon Max Headroom.) From midnight to 3 a.m. on Friday nights - actually, Saturday mornings - the show blasts from the studios of WPSC 88.7, the independent radio station based on the campus of William Paterson University.

"I hope y'all are into underground rap because you're gonna get a full dose of it," Ford said last Friday into a microphone perched in the slightly dusty broadcast booth. He then slapped down records by esoteric artists, including Conspicuous the Coroner and Sir Smurf Little.

Joining him on the show are two close friends: DJ Priority, aka Faheem Jackson, 27, of Paterson; and Andreas Thai-yan Jackson, 33, of Montclair, who are not related. Together, the three want to remind people that hip-hop is also about art, not just attitude and a way to sell Sprite.

Ford, Priority and Jackson share a desire to shun the world of commercial hip-hop, which is ruled by marketing, money and politics, and explore the multifaceted world of underground hip-hop, where independent and unsigned rappers develop their chops without the pressure to sell a million albums. The belief is that hip-hop is strongest when it is a pure, creative process.

What gets played on "The Last Hip-Hop Show" is whatever records Ford and Priority pack in their milk crates that night. This includes tastemakers from the old school (like Gang Starr) and from the new (like Little Brother and Common), as well as from the bizarre (like Kosha Dillz, an MC on Matzah 4 Yo' Mouf Records).

"If it's bona fide, we play it," Ford said as he got set to spin a record by D-Block, a gangsta rap group from Yonkers, N.Y.

The dynamic between the men can be described as such: Ford is the bluster, Priority the skill and Jackson the articulate quizmaster ("This guy knows what rappers have for breakfast," Ford is fond of saying about him).

Here and there, light-hearted conversation breaks up the music.

"I don't really give a damn about Grandmaster Flash," Ford snapped into the microphone, a verbal slap at one of hip-hop's founding fathers.

"Ooooh," replied a chorus of disapproval.

The chorus rose from the others who hung out in the studio last weekend. In addition to Jackson, there was DJ Macky, who hosts a hip-hop show broadcast on Wednesday nights and is known to his parents as Michael Soliman, 22, of West Orange. There was also R.T., the building's custodian, who once studied sociology at William Paterson, co-wrote a book of poetry, and is now known to the U.S. Army Reserves as quartermaster Richard Anthony Turner, 36, of East Orange.

"He's one of the better DJs, in terms of demeanor. Humble," Turner said of Ford. "He breathes this stuff. It's his life."

Moments before, Ford said in a burst, "I trained everyone at this radio station!" The shirt he wore had a picture of Tupac Shakur, the late, bald and tattooed rapper, underlined by the title of his most popular album, "All Eyez on Me."

The once-mighty West Coast hip-hop scene largely spiraled downhill after Shakur was gunned down in 1996. But it is surprising that the Garden State has not been a more bountiful place for hip-hop, especially considering its history.

Newark spawned such stars as Queen Latifah, Redman, Naughty by Nature and Rah Digga. The Oranges produced Lauryn Hill and the Fugees. The producer Just Blaze, who frequently works with Jay-Z, came up in Paterson. And, of course, the Sugarhill Gang formed in Englewood and went on to release "Rapper's Delight," the first hip-hop record to go commercial.

"The history here is so rich," Jackson said. Problem is, the present isn't.

Like a shrub that grows in a closet, Jersey's scene exists in the shadow of two towering pillars of hip-hop: New York and Philadelphia. As a result, the state's hip-hop scene lacks "infrastructure," Jackson said.

"Jersey, honestly, is weird, promotion-wise," Jackson said. "It's a tough sell. There's not a lot of solidarity."

In other words, Jersey hip-hop lacks a community. There may be a pool of talented DJs, MCs and promoters, but there is a deficit of identity and hometown pride. Big events do happen, such as the biannual hip-hop festival at NJPAC and a rap-tinged political convention, which visited Newark during last summer's presidential campaign. But there aren't the concerts, competitions and clubs that draw the masses together into a productive, creative stew.

So, in a way, by playing non-commercial hip-hop - especially Jersey acts like Hasan Salaam and Kice of Course - "The Last Hip-Hop Radio Show" might help spark a bit of community building. The three men plan on bigger projects, such as podcasts and a documentary on Jersey hip-hop history. And, of course, there is the dream of jumping to satellite radio, the emerging format for global, alternative radio.

Until then, they will have to content themselves spinning records at this 260-watt radio station.

It is not exactly clear who is listening. The phone lines light up only a handful of times during the night. "We put them live on the air and we make them rap," Jackson said. "And they're really bad. Wait. Don't write that."

"Shout out to the Passaic County jail," Ford said into the microphone around 2:30 a.m. Apparently, convicts like to call collect and battle rap one another via phone, which is then broadcast live.

"Prison dudes, they go at each other," Turner said.

None called that night, however.

And the beat went on and the night dragged into the yawning hours of morning.

Inside the broadcast booth, Priority kept the soundtrack bumping from one record to the next, seeming content to be alone with his handicraft.

Outside the booth, Ford filled out a radio logbook in between Newport cigarettes. Soliman gnawed on his water bottle cap. A clear blue trash bag sat semi-full by the studio door, waiting to be pitched. Jackson and Turner debated the politics that rule broadcast media, like how ownership affects content and how regulation may eventually clamp down on the Internet and satellite radio. "It's about passing bills and legislation," Jackson said, popping another organic, whole-wheat cracker into his mouth.

The ever-evolving beat saturated the chill October air around them. For a few minutes that felt like hours, the studio was transformed. It felt like a lounge where people could have smart conversation or just while away the early morn. One could imagine how a dozen, a hundred, perhaps a thousand moments like these might be playing out across North Jersey, in passing cars and in the homes of young men and women where the radio is tuned in.

And maybe in one of the small spaces, somebody might be telling a friend, "We should do something, too. We should be making music ourselves."

Reach Ed Beeson at (973) 569-7042 or beeson@northjersey.com.

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