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Photographs by Charlie Nucci

Turning the Tables: KZSU Drum Posse V.2004: (left to right) DJ Felix the Friendly Traveler, Kevvy Kev, Jimbrowski.

Nothing But the Butter Cuts

DJ Kevvy Kev has been sending out signals for 20 years as the host of the world's longest-running hip-hop radio show, 'The Drum'

By Todd Inoue

IT'S A few minutes past 6pm when Kevvy Kev walks into the basement studio of KZSU-FM (90.1) carrying a crate full of vinyl. Setting the box down, Kev, a tall, skinny man with braids and a Def Jam promotional jacket, pulls CDs from every available pocket like a magician pulling pigeons out of thin air. His two assistants--DJ Felix the Friendly Traveler and Jimbrowski--work the phones, turntables, and studio board and enter tracks into a database. Kev moves between the on-air booth and the adjacent Studio A like a lanky tornado, cueing up records, locating loose patch cords, stacking up his "sweepers"--promotional freestyles cut by an A-List of underground MCs like Rasco, MF Doom and J-Live--and addressing the microphone.

"Don't worry," he reassures his invisible audience, "This is hip-hop. You're listening to The Drum."

Finally settled, Kev steps behind the DJ setup in Studio A, plugs in his headphones, digs through his crate and gets busy.

For two decades, The Drum has been beating beneath Pigott Theater in the basement of Memorial Auditorium on the campus of Stanford University. KZSU's frequency stretches north to San Francisco, east to Oakland and south to San Jose. The Drum is the station's landmark hip-hop radio show, where from 6 to 9pm every Sunday night for the past 20 years host Kevvy Kev and his crew have spun nothing but the butter cuts. Like the drum the show is named for, this Drum communicates what's happening from hip-hop's four corners.

The songs are strictly boom-bap, commercially ignored head-nodders by underground groups like the Micronauts, Chops, Soul Position, Smif-n-Wessun. As he rocks doubles of "The Writz" by Blackalicious rapper Gift of Gab, Kev's eyes narrow and the corners of his mouth curl up. He enters the "zone," a blessed-out, ether-rich space all DJs know when cuts are on time, blends are correct and time whizzes at 106 beats per minute.

Kev tenderizes "The Writz" with backspins and percussive snare hits. Hold up. A channel cuts out of the right turntable, but Kev doesn't bug. He applies an old DJ trick: he screws the headpiece off the tone arm, licks the connections and screws the mechanism back in. With this bit of DJ CPR, the absent channel's heartbeat flickers to life again and bounces back in the red. Kev gets a thumbs-up from DJ Felix manning the board and digs in his crate for another record to blend.

Over the next three hours, Kev breaks new artists, plays exclusive tracks and holds an on-air contest for MF Doom tickets. Kev and his cohorts are working in a tradition begun by hip-hop radio pioneers such as Afrika Islam, the Awesome Two and DJ Mr. Magic. Record company politics, sales figures, videos and payola--all are tossed in favor of one basic tenet that The Drum slavishly tries to uphold: Does that shit bump?

When he finally exits the DJ booth and gathers himself in a chair to talk about the trends, controversies, rappers, DJs and techniques he's borne witness to, Kev pulls on his braids and the realization crosses his brow that he's been at this for a really, really long time.

The next DJ starts his shift by shouting out The Drum and saluting Kev's "decades" on the air. Everyone in the room recognizes the added "s" on "decade" and busts up. Kev manages a guilty smile. He's missed a lot of birthday parties and Sunday dinners because of the show. He's skipped every Super Bowl for the past 19 years, and he'll probably miss another one this Sunday. The devoted New York Giants fan even had to leave his team's 1991 Super Bowl-winning game in the first quarter.

But "I don't regret a single thing, especially if you believe everything is relative," he says. "There's nothing more valuable than this on Sundays between 6 and 9."

Respect the Architect

The Drum is the longest continuously running hip-hop radio show in the world. In 1984, the "Members Only" crew--Kevvy Kev, Jonathan Brown, Richard "Rich D" Dwyer, Louis "Easy Lou" Carr, Todd "Todd T" Hosein, Mark "Rockmaster Markski" Hosein and human beatbox Bruce "Casual B" Richardson--formed The Drum's core unit at KZSU and exposed the Bay Area to a New York mix-show format and beat-digging mentality. They scratched and rapped over records, took calls on the air, invited guests in to freestyle. Most importantly, they were playing records that were blowing up on New York's gritty streets but were unknown over here.

"It was a hip-hop show because it was a crew of us doing it, and we all rhymed, we were all DJs and we were all into the life," Kev explains. "Whatever was the latest hot record, we were checking for. And the record they used to make that record, we were checking for. And then how to cut that record up to make it hotter. And that exploded. Nobody had that up and down the peninsula."

At the time, KSOL was the only Bay Area radio station playing so-called "urban music," but its producers turned a deaf ear to rap. On Sundays, from 6 to 10pm, KSOL ran its public affairs show, so The Drum seized that air space to lure away KSOL's crowd. West Coast listeners got their first taste of hip-hop royalty like the Crash Crew, Disco Four, Run-D.M.C., the Funky Four + One More, Treacherous Three, Jimmy Spicer and early Def Jam.

Journalist and DJ David "Davey D" Cook was a DJ at KALX about the time The Drum started. The Drum showed a funk-based West Coast music scene how the East Coast got down, he recalls. "They came in like gangbusters and laid down some solid groundwork that I think wasn't always realized or appreciated," Cook says. "A good part of the New York influence on these expressions that we associate with hip-hop--keeping in mind people were already doing these expressions like popping and the funk sound and accents and approach towards rhyming with a New York perspective in mind--a lot of that can be traced right back to what they were doing on KZSU."

ABB Records founder Beni B. knew Kevvy Kev back in the college years. Beni also had a hip-hop show on KALX, and he would see Kev at different parties around Cal and Stanford. "His show is very, very important," Beni says. "It's been an integral part of not just Bay Area hip-hop but the world. A lot of what I learned from doing radio and my show--nuts and bolts--came from Kev. The energy, the music that was featured, the programming--he planted that seed in me."

The show's forte--introducing acts just beginning to take off--paid off handsomely as some of today's biggest names became repeat visitors long before they hit big on KMEL or MTV. Jay-Z came through in 1994 when he was rolling with a crew called Original Flavor. The Fugees blessed the session twice, the last time before The Score sent them into the stratosphere. Busta Rhymes, Boot Camp Clik, Kool G. Rap and Redman were all regular sights on the Stanford campus when tours or promotional schedules would align. Every major player from the Bay Area hip-hop scene at one time has rocked the KZSU microphone. The Drum's resident DJs have included distinguished alumni like Mike Nice, Kutmasta Kurt and DJ D-Sharp.

Kev fondly remembers a then-unknown Wu-Tang Clan setting off a 40-minute freestyle session that culminated with handlers literally pulling still-rapping-frontman Method Man off the microphone.

"The illest session I have ever seen," Kev says. "Six of them were here: Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, RZA, GZA, Method Man, U-God, plus a couple other cats. They're already amped because they're nuts. They're amped because they're in Cali for the first time. They're amped because they did two other radio shows and people loved them. And this was the cornerstone, and they exploded in here for 40 minutes straight."

It wasn't just the visiting artists who made moves. Many listeners were inspired to do their thing by what they heard on the show. Piedmont Hills graduate and Stones Throw Records founder Chris "Peanut Butter Wolf" Manak would tune in every Sunday from his dad's house. "I still have tapes of the shows," he says. "He had all these records I couldn't get." When Manak finished his first demo, he sent it to Kev, who played it on the air.

As co-founder of Solesides--training ground for DJ Shadow, Blackalicious and Latryx and one of the most successful independent hip-hop labels in the Bay Area--Jeff Chang used to drive down from Berkeley on Sundays just so he could get better reception. Soon, the Solesides crew found airplay and open mics at KZSU.

"Kevvy Kev was one of the first folks to recognize Solesides," says Chang, who is working on a comprehensive book of hip-hop history called Can't Stop, Won't Stop. "KZSU was one of the first mics that Gift of Gab, Lyrics Born and Lateef got to bless outside of our own. The guys were sprung. Kev is like a legend to us."

Getting Down

Before he hit the air as Kevvy Kev, Kevin Montague hit the streets of Queens, N.Y., the son of an accountant father and a stay-at-home mom. A new culture of expression, soon to be dubbed "hip-hop," was exploding in Queens in the late '70s and early '80s. The first DJ Kev ever saw cut records was Greg, a boyfriend of his sister's best friend. One day, when everyone was over at Greg's house, Kev snuck into the DJ's bedroom and got his first taste.

"He had two copies of 'Super Sperm' on there, which was a big party record at the time. I started cutting it, and I cut the biggest scratch into his copy," he says. "I didn't know what I was doing. I went, 'Su-su-su-per sperm, skrrreeeeech!' Oh man, he came running in and did not beat my ass. I've never forgotten that."

Kevin graduated from Bronx High School of Science (home of Crash Crew's Barry B and Kid 'n' Play's Christopher Reid) in 1982, primed for a future in chemical engineering. He applied to MIT, the University of Tennessee (his mom's alma mater) and Stanford. He got accepted to all three and chose Stanford.

When he arrived, he found out quick that California was a world away from Queens--especially the party scene. It was all about funk and soul music like Midnight Star, Prince and the Time.

"The first couple of parties I went to, I was like, 'Whatever, no big deal,'" he says. "But it got old real quick. I got tired of: (A) the concept of the DJ out here as someone who just played music--and not very good music at that. And (B) there is a certain closed-minded attitude towards music out here that persists to this day, that if they're not familiar with it, they're not interested. So both of those annoyed me."

Kev flew back to New York that summer, bought two turntables from a friend, loaded up with records and returned with a mission. He got together his Members Only crew, and instead of endearing themselves to the black sororities and fraternities on the Stanford campus, they started their own unofficial fraternity--Chill Psi Phi. They printed up customized T-shirts with the Greek letters, added ridiculous nicknames like Absolute Zero, Deep Freeze, Dry Ice and Kool Breeze and threw their own parties.

"We were hated by the black fraternities," says Kev. "We had no respect for them. Coming from New York, I didn't know what a fraternity was. I didn't get the concept that I should be impressed, and the more I found out about it, the less respect I had."

"They were trying to challenge the fraternities and question what they were doing," says Davey D. "And people would be like, 'How do I become part of that fraternity if you're a real fraternity.' And Kev and them would tell them, "You don't ask if you can be down; we tell you that you're down." That was those guys."

Their popularity began to outweigh the scorn. Their parties and raw style of mixing began to turn heads. They put out a record themselves (the 12-inch single "You're Not Down") and went to the campus radio station KZSU looking for a show. According to a mandate, the hours between 6 and 10pm on Sundays are reserved for African American programming. The Drum already existed in another format, playing the usual party jams, but in 1984 under the direction of Kev and his crew, The Drum was officially reborn.

Drum Up Support

As The Drum's fan base grew, the station began fielding a lot of calls from listeners who wanted to know where to get the records they heard. However, the show had little clout with record labels. So in 1988, a banner year for hip-hop, The Drum banded together with similar-thinking DJs at KALX and KPOO and formed the Bay Area Hip-Hop Coalition. The group shared contacts, records and created a solid network. If a label sent Naughty by Nature to town for publicity, the group couldn't do just one show. It had to do the whole circuit.

"We felt that we were giving a lot of love to East Coast records and East Coast artists, but there wasn't a reciprocation," says Beni B., a coalition member. "New York City was in a bubble. If it wasn't from New York, it wasn't dope. We got together and pooled resources."

"When anybody came to town, they couldn't play one off the other," adds Davey D. "You couldn't do KPOO and not do us; you couldn't do KALX and not do KZSU. That's the way it was for three years."

It was because of the Coalition that many of today's hip-hop's heavyweights first got heard on West Coast airwaves. Ice-T was the first big-name rapper to bless the microphone, just around the time when Ice's first big hit, "6 n' the Morning," came out. During one memorable moment at KZSU, 20 artists waited in the lobby, including Whodini, Smif n' Wessun, Kool G. Rap, Aceyalone and others. A sports broadcast was in progress, and it wasn't until Kev applied pressure that the station relaxed its policy and allowed hip-hop history to be made.

"Something happens when they people come in here," says Kev. "There's something in the air. I've heard artists at a bunch of stations, and I've heard them here and it's totally different. I call this the bomb shelter."

Wheels Keep Turning: Not only does Kevvy Kev work the microphone, he gets busy on the two turntables during another Sunday night edition of 'The Drum.'

Time Bomb

By the late '80s, most of the original Members Only crew had moved on to other gigs. Jonathan Brown, Chris "Colt 45" Colter, MC Style, Todd T, Who Money, Kutmasta Kurt and members of Red Black and Green helped Kev hold down the show as the "Drum Posse" for the next decade. During this period, Kev also got The Wake-Up Show off the ground at KMEL and worked the Friday night 1-5am Danger Zone mix show at Wild 94.9 (then Wild 107).

The Drum has since outlasted every possible fad, crossover and media execution attempt since it signed on in 1984. "You're talking about the age [when] the 'Inspector Gadget' beat was being used in all types of songs," Davey D says, referring to the 1984 breakbeat. "Then going through the 'Paid in Full' era, the Afrocentricity era, the gangsta era, the Puffy and shiny-suit era, all the way up to now, The Drum has been there and has kept a steady message of what hip-hop is and should be. It is also a reflection of those ongoing changes."

Kev credits the longevity to being able to play whatever he wants.

"I've done radio at this level and commercial level, and college/noncommercial radio is very special in that you can play anything you want. I can say that 1 million times in a row, and if you're not in radio, you don't know what a big deal that is, but it's a big, big deal."

To this day, The Drum plays demos cut by fans of the show. "The one thing that I'm really proud of is [that] in 20 years no one has been turned down," says Kev. "That's what it's for, to give a voice to cats who don't have a voice. You bring in a demo, give me a couple of weeks, and I'll try and fit it in."

There are some rules though. The Drum doesn't play music that disrespects women or glamorizes a shady lifestyle. The Drum took a stand in 1989 against N.W.A.'s gangsta-vérité masterpiece Straight Outta Compton, refusing to play it. That decision offended the group, and in a memorable on-air moment Drum co-host Mookie D took Eazy's phone call live and offered Eazy explicit directions to the station--so he could personally whoop Eazy's ass. N.W.A. didn't take up Mookie's invitation, but the incident cemented The Drum's reputation as independent thinkers. Just because other college stations were playing N.W.A., who received zero commercial airplay at the time, didn't mean that KZSU would fall in line.

"One clear line I like to draw is though I choose not to play certain things, I am firmly on the side of anti-censorship," Kev says. "I don't agree with blanket bans, sitdowns by Program Directors, where you cannot play certain music. I won't play N.W.A., but I will defend to the death the next man's right to play it."

Listeners were asked to vote on whether the record should be played, and they responded evenly. Hip-hop was evolving, and so was the audience.

"It was an even split," says Kev. "There are certain things that people don't care about, they only care about getting their entertainment. The same thing can be said about artists; there are certain level of responsibilities that artists buy into, some don't. I don't know if there's a right or wrong attitude there."

Droppin' Science

If Kev is analytical, credit his background in science. He switched degrees midstream from chemical engineering to chemistry. He was employed as a chemist for a year before deciding to study English. He worked as a tech writer at Tandem Computer for three years. "I thought tech writing would be a workable compromise between the fact that I am a writer and am really into science," he says.

Given the opportunity to think about hip-hop, Kev turns into a master analyst. It amuses him when people say that hip-hop's a culture. "It wasn't called 'hip-hop' back then," he says. "We didn't grow up and say, 'Let's invent something called hip-hop.' It was something we were doing. There were guys on the corner wearing green Pro-Keds and no laces, cutoff Lee shorts and tank tops. They had a way of moving and talking, and they had music we all listened to. Today in 2004, you'd look back and say, 'Those guys are hip-hop.' But nobody was saying that back then. There was no reason to say that.

"If there's a skater kid walking around today, and he and his boys have a certain way of conversing with each other, certain way of dress, certain kind of music they like that's different from everything else--they're not going to label it. It'll be what they do. If it gets big enough, then society or people who want to make money off it ultimately will put a label on it. It'll be thrash, grunge, hip-hop, R&B, rock & roll. At the time, it was who we were."

As hip-hop enters the 21st century, with The Drum following right behind, Kev laments the lessons that live on unlearned. It's one of his top annoyances about hip-hop--to quote--that those who do not learn the lessons of the past are doomed to repeat it.

"I'm annoyed there are lessons in culture and history and in the American experience that people who love hip-hop, are really into hip-hop and are hip-hop can learn from but just do not," Kev says. "There are patterns that have repeated and are now occurring: the commercialization, the fracturing along socioeconomic lines, the loss of control; some of which is overt and others of which are very subtle.

"People either choose not to pay attention or don't put in the effort to understand. That I wish would change," Kev adds. "But you might as well try to pull the moon out of the sky."

In June, Kev will hold a 20th anniversary Drum celebration featuring 20 DJs and 20 MCs. He wants to hold the show outdoors, make it free. He's working on getting Method Man and Redman to headline. He's also pawing through his back catalog of freestyles and demos to create a CD to mark the occasion.

What will the show be like in 20 more years? A lot more production-savvy, he hopes. He ponders the significance of a 40-year archive and potential 40-year-olds rolling up to him saying, "I've listened to the show my whole life!"

The Drum has gone beyond a weekly residence; it's become an extra limb, a necessary component of his being that exists whether he's thinking about it or not.

"After a certain point, this stopped being something I did and became who I was," he says. "It's not something I do, ever to escape that I can't bear. It's a part of me that I'm lucky to be able to express."

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the January 29-February 4, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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