The trials of Freedom or Death
What’s behind the cancellation of DJ Rubbaban’s hip-hop show?
It doesn’t take much looking to notice that hip-hop is everywhere these days.
From television and movies to fashion and music, hip-hop is virtually synonymous with mainstream youth culture in America, and it’s spreading quickly around the globe. Even in Chico, a small college town surrounded by farm communities, the hip-hop vibe is loudly felt—blaring from car stereos, dorm rooms and the insides of dance clubs along Main Street.
Why, then, did popular local DJ Rubbaban (otherwise known as Leon Frazier) recently resign his longtime post as Chico’s only true hip-hop personality, ending his celebrated Thursday-afternoon show on KZFR, Freedom or Death, after 11 years on the air? To hear Frazier tell it, he was forced out.
“I love KZFR as a whole, but at least three to four [people] on the Program Council and Board [of Directors] went after hip-hop music and my personal character. … I took a lot of bullying over the years from the powers that be because of their own personal views,” Frazier says.
Freedom or Death was caught up in controversy for about a year before Frazier’s resignation in early November. He believes it began when he started inviting provocative guests on air, including a transsexual, members of the gay community and another female sexuality speaker. Frazier recalls in particular one audience caller during those shows who said some inappropriate things on air. Following standard KZFR operating procedure, Frazer immediately ended the call.
But the station allegedly received complaints to the effect that Frazier’s second sex-dedicated talk show was less than informative and leaning more to the “titillating” side.
The breaking point may have come earlier, when KZFR received a complaint last January from a female listener concerning a Foxy Brown song Frazier played on his Oct. 4, 2001, show titled “Tastes Like Candy.” Though it contained no profanity, it was fairly graphic in describing sexual acts—in particular, the rapper/diva talked about how she was going to “put your penis in my mouth.”
The complaint sparked a series of letters between Frazier and the Program Council, which asked that the DJ come to a meeting to discuss the possibility of moving his slot to later that night. Frazier chose to not attend the meeting, arguing that the original complaint was brought to his attention three months after the fact and that he felt he was being harassed and intimidated into moving his show. In a rare gesture, the KZFR Appeals Committee visited him at his show, and he resigned later that night via an e-mail dated Nov. 6, 2002.
“The FCC defines obscenity in terms of community standards,” said the director of the Program Council, John Dubois. “DJ Rubbaban had been suspended before for inappropriate material, but he cleaned up his act until we started receiving more complaints about some of the sex shows.”
Frazier continues to believe he was run out of his slot because the programmers did not like his style of music. Dubois insists that the station did not want to lose Freedom or Death but was troubled by the “messages of casual violence and casual sex they [rap and hip-hop] carry.” He submits that rap and hip-hop represent “gang culture,” which is an “urban challenge” consistent with cities like Los Angeles or even Sacramento, but not Chico.
KZFR never asked for Frazier’s resignation, Dubois insists, but he adds that the station has to be extremely careful because one complaint to the FCC could shut it down forever.
“There are only 30 to 40 of these community stations in the country. We’re very lucky,” he explains. “There are no more frequencies to be had. … This was never about hip-hop music. We just wanted to move the show to a later slot, and Rubbaban did not, so he resigned.”
For 11 years, South Central L.A. native Frazier had been spinning an eclectic mix of old- and new-school hip-hop every week on 90.1. His show included everything from gangsta rap to pop, funk and r&b acts, and he often invited friends into the studio to rap themselves, promoting the local scene and creating a loose, streetwise atmosphere in the normally sedate studio. The vernacular he used was heavy on West Coast hip-hop slang—which may have gone over the heads of some older white listeners—but Rubba always made a point to keep things positive and promote “One Love,” as he likes to say. One of his trademarks that annoyed some but charmed others was a tendency to sing along when excited by a song.
For 11 years, the station supported Rubbaban by allowing him the same slot since his early days under the tutelage of KZFR founder Eric Mathisen. So how did relations get so bad that Frazier refused to attend meetings and resigned?
Perhaps this is an example of both the challenges of programming a community radio station and the gap between young and old, black and white. On one hand, Frazier likely felt surrounded by older white programmers who did not understand the complexities of black culture or its music, both of which are vastly underrepresented in Chico. For their part, the Program Council probably didn’t understand Frazier’s unwillingness to cooperate and move his show to a later, more adult-friendly slot. Frazier said he liked the midday slot because he could reach more people in the mainstream—plus, it worked with his schedule and he was used to it.
The question now is: Where will the youth of Chico get their noncommercial hip-hop over the airwaves? The only other show on KZFR that comes close is former Frazier intern Stephanie B.'s Music for Your Mind, an R&B-flavored show that Frazier would like to see take his slot.
Dubois says that he would love to have another hip-hop show, albeit one with milder content and perhaps a later time slot. He adds that change has always been difficult at the station while noting that it needs now to move from “a radio club for programmers to a station that is responsive to the community.”
In the meantime, the loss of the positive voice of DJ Rubbaban is lamented by his many fans. But don’t worry about him. He’s not bitter about it and has already had other DJ offerings; he just wants Chico "to keep it on the real."