NEW YORK — A few minutes before 4 a.m. on March 30, police approached a car parked near West and Watts Streets in Greenwich Village, 10 blocks from radio station Hot 97’s offices on Hudson Street. Inside the car, Mister Cee, a legend in the hip-hop world; an associate executive producer behind Notorious B.I.G.’s debut album “Ready to Die,” and host of Hot 97.1’s “Throwback at Noon” hour, was receiving oral sex from a 20-year-old male, according to a police report filed that night.
Gayness and hip-hop music are like stone and flint, so the news took off. It also came at a time when fascination with black homophobia and sexuality is once again under the spotlight. Fresh scholarship shows that Malcolm X had his own gay past, while Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant is facing a $100,000 fine from the NBA for calling referee Bennie Adams a “faggot.”
Over the weekend after Mister Cee’s arrest, the news spread on the Internet like it can only on the Web. The fact that Mister Cee’s companion was dressed in drag that night only made writing blog headlines easier. By the following Monday morning, the story was in the tabloids (“‘Hot DJ caught with pants down,” howled The New York Post) and, inevitably, on radio.
Charlamagne Tha God, a host for the Breakfast Club at Power 105, Hot 97’s archrival, which is slightly behind in the ratings, half-heartedly told listeners that “prejudice is whack.” Then he went straight to work. He asked his DJ to play Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out” on loop. “Get a room, you nasty old man,” he said. He wondered if he should start calling Mister Cee Misses Cee.
“What do the gays say?” he asked. “‘Let’s keep it cute?’ ‘Let’s keep it cute out there!’”
The Breakfast Club welcomed calls about Mister Cee, and each caller offered his or her own flavors of homophobia. One listener talked about how hip-hop music was ruined for him whenever he wondered if there were gays behind it, while another caller said she thought Mister Cee was part of a larger industry-wide conspiracy. “If it’s run by gay men, they’re gonna pull in their little gay boyfriends,” the second caller, Monique, said. “The industry is controlled by the gays, so I think a lot more will be coming out soon.”
One of Charlamagne’s partners on the Breakfast Club, Angela Yee, underscored the idea that there are gays secretly lurking everywhere, impregnated with virus. “These guys that are in the closet and they then mess with us,” she said, “it puts everybody in danger. That’s it, just be out there.”
Later in the show, Charlamagne looked back at the morning’s broadcast. “I learned a lot about people,” he waxed, “And I think that we have a long way to go as a society until you guys start embracing others who are different from you. Prejudice is whack,” he said again. He reminded listeners that it was the 43rd anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and asked them to carry the spirit of his work with them through the day.
With the Power 105 Breakfast Club done for the day, the gauntlet was thrown. Everyone at Mister Cee’s home radio station Hot 97 was put in the most awkward position: Do they come out and defend their longtime host, or do they avoid alienating listeners by disavowing their DJ?
“You want to come to the defense of someone who you like and you have a lot of respect for,” said one Hot 97 source. “That was a feeling a lot of people had, just noticing who was talking s–t, noticing who was making jokes that didn’t seem fair.”
So began one of New York’s strangest, most heated pitched media battles, which raged for several days on two of the city’s hottest radio stations.
A few years after Clear Channel relaunched Power 105 from Jammin 105 in 2002, the two stations entered a near deadlock for the top hip-hop station in New York, an enormous market. The rivalry between the two stations started off on a personal note. Later that year, Hot 97’s Funkmaster Flex got into a heated encounter with Big Steph Lova, a DJ who defected to a new station Hot 97 after she accused him on air of taking money to play songs. The two got into a dust up outside Hot 97’s offices: Funkmaster Flex allegedly choked and punched Steph Lova, and the two wound up in court.
This year, Hot 97 and Power 105 are separated by just 0.2 percent market share for the month of March, according to the latest Arbitron numbers released Monday.
For the past few years, the companies that own the stations have been hurting. Shares of Clear Channel, which owns Power 105 and former New York top-dog Z100, are trading for $13.34, less than half their value at the top of the market in 2007. Hot 97 owner Emmis Communication is trading for $1.04, after fetching more than 10 times that amount four years ago. Hip-hop is more mainstream than ever; artists like Jay-Z and Sean “Diddy” Combs head multimillion dollar fashion and music empires. The whole category of hip-hop music radio, which has been elided with pop music at large after an increasing number of collaborations across genres (Lady Gaga and Beyoncé; Kanye and Bieber) is down. At one point Power 105 and Hot 97 were the second and third most-listened-to stations in New York; now they battle for 12th place.
With their parent companies struggling, every listener and every rating point matters. And that’s where the battle over Mister Cee’s honor comes in.
Later on the Monday night after Mister Cee’s arrest, Funkmaster Flex, armed with his trademark “Flex Bomb” sound effect, took to the air to play war with his Power 105 rivals in Midtown. “I think it’s mostly the audience that wants that,” said one Hot 97 insider about the battle. “There’s a bloodlust there. Do you cater to the public bloodlust? Do you keep feeding the bloodlust?”
Funkmaster Flex’s radio slot that night was pure theater. He growled, he spoke through clenched teeth in hushed tones, he hit the bomb. “Whatever is your preference out here, New York City, we do not discriminate,” he said over cued eruptions. “Understand, the rumors that you hear about my man Mister Cee are untrue, but we do not discriminate against what anybody wants to do.”
He turned a damaging conversation about his colleague into something palatable, an episode of classic hip-hop radio beef.
Everybody knows the routine. “Be clear: you’ll never win,” Taylor growled. “You can take a potshot. You dreamt last night that you could get the crown — hit the bomb, turn the bomb off — you still did what you did, and once again you’re still in a losing position.”
By the next morning on Power 105, Funkmaster Flex was the Breakfast Club’s “donkey of the day,” not Mister Cee. “You the big bad wolf in this city, huh?” said Charlamagne, starting a second round. “You like to huff and puff and blow houses down. Let’s be clear, you can huff, you can puff but the only thing getting blowed down is Mister Cee by transsexuals.”
What started as a feud over Mister Cee’s sex life sputtered out into normal radio personality chest-thumping. Later in the week, Howard Stern dipped in from satellite radio days to start his own back and forth with Funkmaster Flex. “Funkmaster, I like actually what’s going on over there on black radio. I just never would know about it,” Stern said on his Sirius XM program. “I like that they’re fighting and carrying on on the air. I love that stuff.”
“I’m sure people are generally invested in the conflict, the beef, the drama, but really it’s a corporate game,” said professor Tricia Rose, the chair of the Africana Studies Department at Brown University and author of “The Hip-Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop — and Why it Matters” after listening to tape of Funkmaster Flex on the Power 105 Breakfast Club segments about Mister Cee. “It looks like a personal game, but it’s a corporate strategy game for market share, for listeners — to mimic the kind of cultural rivalry that abounds in hip-hop.”
The harder art to make doesn’t follow a trope. The rapper Lil B, who makes rap music on the West Coast mostly for fans on the Internet, performed at the Coachella Music Festival in Indio, Calif., this weekend. He has outflanked homophobia with his irreverently macho mantra “I’m a pretty bitch.” Between songs, he told the crowd that he was “going to do the most controversial thing in hip-hop”; he said he’s naming his next album “I’m Gay.”
For his part, Mister Cee has kept his head down. He is not known for his panache. While Funkmaster Flex is Hot 97’s braggadocio embodied — a self-promotional DJ-blogger-tweeter with a motor oil sponsorship who will choke someone out in front of the studio over harsh words on air — Mister Cee is the quiet grouch and elder statesman.
“He’s not trying to social climb. He seems very comfortable with his lot,” said one source at the station. “He just wants to play his music and talk about music and that’s about it.” He shies away from attention, avoiding jewelry or even flashy sneakers, instead sticking with baggy jeans and T-shirts from his favorite groups.
Yet he’s a saint in the hip-hop world. His musical pedigree as a DJ and producer is untouchable. The artist 50 Cent plays each of his records for Mister Cee to get his opinion before it’s published and, after the rumors of the arrest came out, 50 Cent told Hot 97’s Miss Info that, if need be, he would fire his own DJ and hire Mister Cee in a heartbeat. “It’s not like there’s going to be a nightclub that doesn’t call Mister Cee because of the rumor,” the rapper said.
Mister Cee is also a workhorse, and nobody has stopped him from going to work since the arrest. On the Monday after he was dragged through the mud on Power 105, he showed up at Hot 97 to play his normal hour at noon. He talked little and focused on his mix, playing songs like Nas’ “Hate Me Now,” Jay-Z’s “Can I Live” and “Hate It or Love It” by the Game and 50 Cent. His relative hush on air, in the face of everything, was triumphant.
Former XXL magazine editor in chief Elliott Wilson wrote on his blog, Rap Radar, that “Cee was speaking to us through his Serato,” his DJ kit. “Sorry kids,” Wilson continued, “I don’t care how Calvin gets down in his personal life.”