Urban contemporary

Urban contemporary

Urban contemporary is a music radio format. The term was coined by the late New York DJ Frankie Crocker in the mid 1970s. Urban contemporary radio stations feature a playlist made up entirely of hip hop/rap, contemporary R&B, pop, electronica such as dubstep and drum and bass (often with hip hop vocalists or rappers) and Caribbean music such as reggae, reggaeton, zouk, and sometimes Soca (In Toronto, London, New York City, Boston and Miami). Urban contemporary was developed through the characteristics of genres such as R&B and Soul.[1] Virtually all Urban contemporary formatted radio stations are located in cities that have sizeable African-American populations, such as New York City, Atlanta, Chicago, Washington, Philadelphia, Detroit, Cincinnati, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Memphis, New Orleans, Charlotte, etc.

The term "urban contemporary" is heavily associated with African-American music, particularly for Contemporary R&B in African-American contexts. For the Latinos, the music is more Latin urban, such as Reggaeton, Latin hip hop, or bachata.

These stations focus primarily on marketing to African-Americans between the ages of 18 and 34.[citation needed] Their playlists are dominated by singles by top-selling hip hop and R&B performers. On occasion, an urban contemporary station will play classic soul music songs from the '70s and early '80s to satisfy the earlier end of the genre.

Most Urban formatted stations such as; KJLH, WQOK, KWIN, KMEL, KDAY, UTN, and WVEE will play gospel music or urban contemporary gospel music on Sundays.

Mainstream urban is a branch of Urban contemporary, and Rhythmic contemporary is also a branch.



The 1970s

When Frankie Crocker was appointed as Program Director of the newly created WBLS in 1974, he created an eclectic music mix of R&B, disco and gospel music, redefining the R&B format as Urban Contemporary. The station was an instant success, the most listened-to radio station in the country[citation needed]. In 1975, WDMT in Cleveland began programming a mix of R&B, disco and rap. The station featured live "street jocks" mixing vinyl records each night. The station 's popularity grew and in 1980, it was Arbitron rated #2 12+, just behind the #1 rated WMMS with the original "Morning Zoo". Carol Ford hosted the morning drive show. Other famous people who worked at WDMT include: Tony Harris (CNN), Len Canon (NBC, Fox-NYC), Brenda Love, Kim Skillern (Lady Skill), Matt Morgan, Dean Rufus, Freddie James, Mike Chapman, Rod See, Eric Fasion and Vanilla Fudge.

The 1980s

WBLS in New York City was the first station to air a rap radio show, Rap Attack with Mr. Magic and Marley Marl, in 1983.[2]

During the early 1980s as newly-formed WRKS-FM (98.7 Kiss FM) became the first rap station in the United States[citation needed], WBLS quickly began adding more rap records to its playlists. The urban format by this time was redefined by an eclectic mix of R&B, rap, reggae, gospel, dance, house, and freestyle. WBLS continued as the flagship station of the Urban format; however, Kiss FM surpassed them in the ratings.

Many radio stations imitated the urban sound since it was proven to be more profitable than other formats. Another subformat of urban contemporary is rhythmic contemporary hits which plays a great deal of dance music. WQHT-FM and KPWR were the first stations to utilize this format.


Since the 1990s, as urban contemporary hits have dominated the US pop charts, many adult contemporary stations have turned to playing some tracks popular on urban contemporary radio stations.

Today, urban contemporary refers to music that can be described as a crossover of rap and contemporary R&B which in some instances may be accompanied with dance beats. Notable examples include:

It should be noted that contemporary R&B artists usually produce alternative versions of such duets that have rapping excluded. Such versions are produced for more conservative radio stations that would consider rapping unacceptable for their listeners.

Grammy Award for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration is awarded since 2002.

Other formats

Urban adult contemporary

Urban AC is a subformat that is geared towards adult African-American audiences, and therefore, the artists that are played on these stations are most often African-American. The Urban AC stations are more similar to Soft AC than they are to Hot AC, and the music they play is predominantly R&B and soul music. This is reflected in many of the Urban AC radio stations' taglines, such as "Today's R&B and Classic Soul", "The Best Variety of R&B Hits and Oldies" and "(City/Region)'s R&B Leader." Some popular nicknames for Urban AC stations include "Magic" (borrowed from Soft AC), "Mix" (borrowed from Hot AC), and "Kiss" (borrowed from Top-40)[citation needed]

A more elaborate form of Urban AC is the Rhythmic Oldies format, which focuses primarily on "Old School" R&B/Soul hits from the 1960s to the 1990s, including Motown and disco hits. Often referred to in the past as "Jammin'" or "Groovin'" Oldies, the Rhythmic Oldies format was quite popular for a time in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In 1997, KCMG-FM "Mega 100" in Los Angeles pioneered the concept of "Jammin' Oldies," which involved creating a mass-appeal music mix. The "Jammin'"/"Groovin'" Oldies format subsequently spread nationwide, to stations like WTJM-FM in New York City, WMOJ in Cincinnati, and WGRV-FM in Detroit (all of which have since changed format). Many of these stations played soul or disco by artists such as ABBA and The Bee Gees in addition to African-American artists. Many believe that what contributed the most to the death of the "Jammin' Oldies" stations was the fact that their playlists soon became very small and narrow, increasing listener "burnout" and dropping ratings within a few months after a promising ratings start. Rhythmic Oldies stations still exist today, but chiefly in markets with large African-American populations; the peak of the "Jammin' Oldies" approach has come and gone.

Usually embedded within the Urban Adult Contemporary is another format called Quiet Storm. This format is most played during the evening beginning at 7:00 PM or 8:00 PM hours into late night. The Quiet Storm format plays on Urban Adult Contemporary format. The music that is played are strictly ballads and slow jams. Popular artists played on the Quiet Storm format are Babyface, Teena Marie, Angela Bofill, Miki Howard, Regina Belle, Howard Hewett, Freddie Jackson, Johnny Gill, Anita Baker, Sade, Patti LaBelle, Whitney Houston, Vanessa Williams, Mariah Carey, Dru Hill, and En Vogue among others.

Mainstream urban

Mainstream urban is a term used to describe a radio format similar to an urban contemporary format. The format differentiates itself due to two factors: playlist composition and target demographic. The majority of the stations cater to younger listeners; they tend to have a more hip-hop-heavy playlist compared to the R&B-heavy playlist that is very common among urban contemporary-formatted radio stations. Also, mainstream urban stations tend to target both genders with its playlist compared to urban contemporary station that tend to target mainly females[citation needed]. The term 'mainstream urban' was coined in the mid-1990s when radio stations started featuring primarily different styles of current hip-hop and R&B when it became very popular. The target demographic of the format is usually the 16- to 34-years-old males and females.[citation needed]

The format features various styles of hip-hop and R&B from different regions of the country that are popular at the moment. However, the format does feature numerous classic hip-hop and R&B songs from the late '80s and '90s.

Rhythmic contemporary

Rhythmic Contemporary, also known as Rhythmic Top 40, Rhythmic Contemporary Hit Radio and "Rhythmic Crossover" is a music radio format that includes of a mix of dance, and upbeat rhythmic pop, hip-hop, and R&B hits. While most rhythmic stations' playlists are composed of that mentioned above, some tend to lean very urban with current hip-hop, urban pop, and R&B hits that gain mainstream appeal.

Most of its core listeners makeup a multicultural mix of African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans, that include a core group of teens, young adults (mostly 18-34) and young females[citation needed]

The origins of Rhythmic Top 40 can be traced back 1978 when WKTU on 92.3 FM New York City (now WXRK) became a disco based station. That station was classified as urban but played a blend of disco, dance music, and pop crossovers. Back then stations playing strictly R&B materials were known as Black stations[citation needed]. Stations like WKTU were known as Urban[citation needed]. In the 1980s many Urban contemporary stations began to spring up. Most of these leaned towards R&B and away from plenty of dance music. These urban stations began sounding identical to so called "Black stations" and by 1985 stations that played strictly R&B product were all known as Urban stations. Still some urban outlets continued to add artists from outside the format onto their playlist. In most cases it was dance and rhythmic pop but occasionally they added a few rock songs. Also Urban Contemporary radio stations were the first to play New Wave artists such as B-52's, Duran Duran, ABC and Culture Club.[3] However it wasn't until January 11, 1986 that KPWR Los Angeles, a former struggling adult contemporary outlet and WQHT New York began to make its mark with this genre by adopting this approach[citation needed]. It would be known as Crossover because of the musical mix. As these stations pilfered listeners away from numerous mainstream stations, many urban stations reintroduced Dance music onto their playlists again. Billboard magazine took notice of this new format and on February 15, 1987, it launched the first Crossover chart. But by December 1990 Billboard eliminated the chart because more Top 40 and R&B stations were becoming identical with the rhythmic-heavy playlist that were also being played at the crossover stations at the time. Billboard would later revive the chart again in October 1992 as the Top 40 Rhythm/Crossover chart. On June 25, 1997, it was renamed the Rhythmic Top 40 chart as a way to distinguish stations that continue to play a broad based rhythmic mix from those whose mix leaned heavily toward R&B and Hip-Hop.

For years since its inception, the Rhythmic name has been a source of confusion among music trades, especially in both Billboard (which used the Rhythmic Top 40 title) and Radio & Records (which use the CHR/Rhythmic title for their official charts). In August 2006 Billboard dropped both the "Top 40" and "CHR" name from the Rhythmic title after its sister publication Billboard Radio Monitor merged with Radio & Records to become the "New" R&R as part of their realignment of format categories. The move also ended confusion among the radio stations who report to their panels, which was modified by the end of 2006 with the inclusion of non-monitored reporters that were holdovers from the "(Old) R&R" days.

Still, over the years since its inception, the genre has grown and evolved but not without criticism. Traditional R&B outlets claim that the Rhythmic format does not target or serve the African-American community properly, while traditional Top 40 stations claim that the format is too urban to be Top 40. However, those claims have been all but slienced, with both R&B and mainstream Top 40 stations taking cues from the format they criticized.

Still there continues to be confusion of the distinction between Rhythmic CHR stations and Urban Top 40 stations. In New York City WQHT Hot 97 strictly plays R&B and Hip Hop. Also in that city WWPR Power 105 plays a similar format. WQHT is classified as Top 40/Rhythm while WWPR is classified as Urban. Los Angeles is similar where KPWR and KDAY have similar formats but KPWR is considered Top 40/Rhythm while KDAY is considered Urban. Also very similar situations have occurred in Washington, D.C. with WPGC-FM and San Francisco with KMEL. One possible reason for this is precedent. When these stations began they played a great deal of dance music and were classified as CHR outlets. However, many critics say the ability to attract more mainstream advertisers as Rhythmic, rather than Urban, is the real reason, thus fueling the criticism from the African-American community in general.

However by 2005 KPWR began to re-add more Rhythmic Pop product after a seven-year gap (it had phased most of the Rhythmic and Dance product by 1997 when it had competition from KIBB and KACD/KBCD, both defunct), mostly in response to rival KIIS leaning towards a rhythmic direction. The move has resulted in KPWR and KIIS reigniting their Los Angeles Top 40 war. KPWR has also gone on the offensive to protect their Hispanic demos in the wake of new Hurban rival KXOL making a dent in the ratings.

WQHT on the other hand, had moved more towards R&B/Hip-Hop as they step up their competition in the Big Apple with WWPR-FM, which had gotten nasty with both stations blasting each other on the air and at high-profile concerts/events, as well as who claims ownership of who plays the most Hip-Hop in New York.

WPGC-FM began operating in 1987 as a Rhythmic that played R&B, hip-hop, dance, and pop music. Its playlist began to migrate to mostly Hip-Hop/R&B songs with R&B and soul slow songs on Sunday through Thursday nights since 1993, a format very similar to WKYS. This began a head-to-head battle with WKYS, but also Urban ACs, WHUR and WMMJ, due to WPGC playing old school R&B and soul songs during the overnight hours and on weekends. In 2008, WPGC began to air gospel music on Sunday mornings.

KMEL also began in 1984 as a Mainstream Top 40, but migrated to a Rhythmic that played began hip-hop, dance, freestyle, house, and reggae music by 1987. However, in 1992, its playlist began to lean more urban to battle with competitor KYLD, which ended in 1997 when both stations became sister stations. KMEL currently has a playlist that is Hip Hop/R&B music, and plays mostly R&B slow jams at night from Sundays through to Thursdays and gospel music on Sunday Mornings, while KYLD plays a balanced mix of Rhythmic Pop, Hip-Hop/R&B and some Dance products.

On August 11, 2006, R&R had moved WQHT, WPGC-FM, KMEL, to the Urban Contemporary Airplay Panel since they seldom play any type of Rhythmic pop product and is therefore not considered part of the 'Pure' Rhythmic community. However, despite the changes, there are a few "Churbans" who remain on the Rhythmic panel that are exceptions, mostly due to the lack of minorities in several major metropolitan markets that do not have a mainstream Urban, like KTTB/Minneapolis-St. Paul and WJMN/Boston. However, on May 25, 2007, WQHT, KXHT/Memphis, WZMX/Hartford and WMBX/West Palm Beach, along with KZZA/Dallas-Ft.Worth (from the Latin Rhythm Airplay panel), were re-added to the panel, as their playlists now favors a broader Rhythmic direction, thus making them outright Rhythmics.

Urban adult hits

In 2010, WUKS St. Pauls, North Carolina switched to a format described as "Everything that jamz" that included a variety of musical styles that can be described as urban contemporary or urban oldies. WUKS owner Beasley Broadcast Group said the new sound "targets men and women, ages 25 to 54, with a blend of rhythm-and-blues, funk and early hip-hop from the 1970s to today's hits."[4] Beasley market manager Mac Edwards said listeners indicated they wanted more energy and more of the songs they danced to when younger.[4] It is interesting to note that from 1975 to 1988, Beasley Broadcast Group owned WDMT in Cleveland, one of the first Urban Contemporary stations in the country.

Another station in this format is WUHT in Birmingham, Alabama owned by Citadel Broadcasting that has had a similar format to this since 2005.

Outside the US

Urban contemporary formats are also heard in other radio markets.

United Kingdom

One of the United Kingdom's longest-established legal stations of this type is London-based Choice FM.

Galaxy Birmingham was initially licenced as a Choice FM station but was subsequently bought by the then-owners of Galaxy. As a result it began to take some Galaxy networked programming featuring dance as well as urban music. The station is still required to broadcast more urban music than other Galaxy stations, and delivers this requirement through daily local opt-out programming.

In 2002, the BBC launched 1Xtra, an urban contemporary station operated as a digital subsidiary of BBC Radio 1. This station was launched to provide a national, legal alternative to the growing array of small illegal pirate radio stations operating, particularly in urban areas. (The need to replace pirate stations with a legitimate station was also a driving reason behind the launch of Radio 1 itself in 1967.)

In other major areas, urban music is covered by hybrid dance/urban stations such as Kiss and Galaxy. These stations generally broadcast on a large regional basis (such Kiss in West England and East England, Galaxy in the North East and Yorkshire) or to a heavily-populated major city area (such as Kiss in London and Galaxy in Manchester). These are not true 'urban contemporary' stations as the music they play is drawn from across the rhythmic genres.

Many pirate radio stations now operating in the UK use an urban contemporary format; this is in part due to the relative paucity of coverage of this music form in mainstream radio as compared to other musical formats. Some musicians, MCs and DJs have developed skills and/or a following on the pirate radio circuit and subsequently been recruited into legitimate stations.

See also


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