You Coulda Called Him Al
Even through a closed door you can still hear DJ Greo's angry voice thundering away. "I got no life!" he hollers. "I got no girlfriend! I got no kids! I'm a grown-ass man now, and all I got is this!" This is Blaze 104.7 FM, the hip-hop station Greo has housed inside an inconspicuous Miami office building suite -- just one of a dozen pirate radio broadcasters hiding in the city's airwaves.
Greo's tongue-lashing is ostensibly aimed at his slacking street team, the two young men paid to distribute Blaze FM's promotional flyers at key spots around town. But the chagrined duo sitting in the station's lobby are receiving more than just a typical business lecture on a day's pay for a day's work. It is the Wednesday just after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, yet even those horrific events are aftershocks for Greo and many of Miami's rap fans.
Forty-eight hours earlier, Monday afternoon, September 10, one of the area's most beloved rap DJs, "Uncle Al" Moss, answered a knock at the front door of his North Miami duplex -- home to the pirate station 98.7 FM. On his doorstep were three men, reportedly from a Broward-based pirate broadcasting on the same frequency. There had been several incidents of signal interference between the two stations with a resulting exchange of threats. This time it went beyond words. According to eyewitnesses the three men drew pistols, shot Moss to death, and then drove off. They remain at large and wanted by the police.
Since 1998 Federal Communication Commission (FCC) officials accompanied by armed federal agents have repeatedly raided more than 100 pirate radio stations across South Florida, seizing equipment and levying fines. Yet almost as soon as authorities have piled back into their cars, the pirates have returned to the airwaves; and for every DJ who hangs up his headphones, there's another with his own brick-sized transmitter ready to take his place. With the murder of Uncle Al, however, the cat-and-mouse game between renegade broadcasters and the FCC has suddenly turned very serious.
Inside Blaze FM the specter of federal marshals crashing through the door at any moment still looms. But there now seems to be another, more ominous possibility. "Greo doesn't like me here by myself," says Blaze FM's Elora, Greo's partner. She adds softly: "He keeps the place locked up and it's not because of the FCC."
In the days following Uncle Al's death, Florida's Anglo- and Hispanic-focused media shifted almost exclusively to the drama unfolding at the World Trade Center. On black radio, however -- at both commercial powerhouse WEDR-FM 99.1 and an array of local pirates -- listeners called in to talk about their memories of Uncle Al, to inquire about the arrangements for his upcoming funeral, to ask simply why?
To be sure, callers were shocked by the wreckage in downtown Manhattan, but the violent passing of Uncle Al seemed to weigh even heavier -- and hit closer to home. For anyone parsing Miami's balkanized social structure, the media contrast was telling. The oft-chronicled divisions between el exilio and the rest of the city may have been temporarily papered over, but, as always, the black community remained shunted aside.
"It wasn't about slighting the people in D.C. or New York City," cautions WEDR-FM program director Cedric Hollywood. As for his station's lengthy on-air discussions of Uncle Al: "We didn't have a chance to grieve for Al because the very next morning the [World Trade Center attacks] happened. We just didn't want that catastrophe to overshadow how important this guy was to the community.... He might have 'made it out' of Liberty City, but he always gave back. He'd block off a street and throw free parties for the neighborhood kids. If the cops would go after him, he'd move to the park and do the same thing."
Back at Blaze FM, Elora puts it into more personal terms. "My niece was in tears," she recalls. The little girl had recently received a birthday phone greeting from Al -- he'd jotted down the date a year earlier while taking on-air calls at his station. The remembrance was a small gesture, but for a child living in a community more accustomed to forced anonymity, it meant the world. For that day at least, she mattered. She was somebody.
"She kept asking me why they killed Uncle Al," Elora continues, "and I didn't know what to tell her. I'm asking myself the same question."
In a backroom of Blaze FM, surrounded by crates of vinyl, Greo takes a seat and tries to relax. Yet his tone is only a shade quieter than when he was dressing down his street team.
"There's an unspoken rule," he bristles. "Everybody knows the person who has a particular space on the dial." He bites off each word: "You do not jump on somebody else's spot!" At least that used to be the rule. Pirate radio has become a big business in Miami, Greo explains, and the revenue from nightclub advertisements has been drawing a new breed of station operator. Greo says he's already had to step in to settle disputes over coveted frequency positions, even quashing a beef involving Uncle Al once before. The number of pirates clamoring for a slice of the radio dial is quickly outpacing the remaining spots of dead air.
Kulchur suggests calling the FCC for help, but the joke doesn't go over well.
"I'm tired of dealing with drug dealers!" Greo explodes in response. "All these gangsters who say they're trying to get away from the bang-bang life!" They may want to "go legit" but they seem equally loath to adopt new business tactics. "All they know is, I put two grand into this spot, and two days later I get four grand back.' That's all they know."
The ironic effect of the FCC's local raids has been to permanently silence only the more creatively programmed pirates: the electronica-spinning Womb and OHM; the eclectic talk shows of Beach Radio; the freeform Radio X -- all stations run by bohemian-minded Anglos and Latinos who appear to be the only Floridians to take the FCC's wrath seriously.
What remains on the dial (mostly generic rap, Jamaican dancehall hits, and Haitian compas) may occasionally be entertaining, but it's hardly the radical alternative to commercialism that pirate radio once promised its fans.
And that applies to Blaze FM as well: Several of its DJs are simply faded copies of WEDR's jocks, shouting tired catch phrases into the microphone ad nauseum. Blaze FM's format may include a few more local artists than WEDR's, and its ad spots may be a bit more raw ("No Limit Bail Bonds ... don't let incarceration ruin your day!"), but you'll consistently hear more interesting underground acts on The Hip-Hop Shop, which airs Thursday evenings at 10:00 on the University of Miami's WVUM-FM 90.5. Only Blaze FM's DJ Khris, hosting a Sunday-afternoon seven-hour marathon, attempts to explore pirate radio's offered freedom, crossing genres and digging out true old-school obscurities.
Artistic expression, however, isn't the prime motivator for Greo right now. Blaze FM is a business, and what Greo hopes is the stepping stone to a Southern-based multimedia empire. "We're at a historic moment with hip-hop," he says. "Parents and their kids are listening to the same music for the first time. Forty-year-olds and fifteen-year-olds are going to the same concerts." That spells opportunity. "For a lot of people, entertainment is the only way out. If you're not working for the government or in medicine, then you're a hustler, an entrepreneur. You have to rely on music to get some taste of the things that escape you. I love hip-hop; I can't imagine doing anything else. But I'm 30 now. It's got to be about more than just having fun."
It would be easy to deem such an attitude as crass, the downside of art and commerce's eternal wrestle. But it's also nothing short of the American Way. Indeed in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks, President Bush himself has recast purchases on the New York Stock Exchange as nothing less than a patriotic duty. Television news coverage of the Exchange's reopening portrayed stockbrokers as the nation's newest heroes, striding proudly alongside our firemen and rescue workers. Wall Street, often considered a pernicious force, has been elevated to the red, white, and blue trinity alongside Mom and apple pie.
So if the marketplace is Western civilization's savior, is black capitalism the answer to Miami's inner-city ills?
At that question Greo suddenly finds himself at a loss for words. He stares at the floor intently and then looks back up.
"Not black capitalism," he corrects. "Hip-hop capitalism. Hip-hop is bigger than just black folks now."