Local radio station brings hip-hop to community

By Leslie Bruce

The sound of the bass pulsed against the cracked wooden walls, as Gene Finley nodded – almost mechanically – to the beat.

His eyes focused intently on the computer screen, Finley reached over to the control panel and glided a lever upward.

“That’s hot,” Finley said, lifting a pair of oversized earphones off his head.

Finley, a senior in LAS at the University, is the president of WBML – a cable radio station that broadcasts in Champaign-Urbana from a small backroom in the University’s African American Cultural Program building.

WBML has been heating up campus airwaves since the 1980’s. Although dormant for about two years, Finley re-ignited the station as a sophomore, relying on hip-hop as its major drawing card.

“Hip hop is a form of education,” Finley said, “Because through education, you mold your conscience.”

For Finley and others of a post-Generation X era, hip-hop is language and life. Most commonly associated with a brand of music bred in urban America, hip-hop is seen in everything from hairstyles to sneakers. Courses studying hip-hop are surfacing at universities across the country – including Harvard and the University.

Its supporters say that hip-hop provides a slice of culture for some, and a connection to roots for others, like Finley. And perhaps nowhere is that more obvious at the University than inside a cramped studio, where the walls drip with the sound of hip-hop.

Hip-hop refers to a culture, in addition to a genre of music, said Fanon Wilkins, associate professor of African-American studies at the University.

“This culture developed from a grieved African-American and Hispanic youth in the mid-1970’s,” Wilkins said. “It developed as a response … to a community crisis.”

An urban community created the culture but at the University Finley uses the culture to create community.

Finley, who grew up in Aurora, Ill., spent his high school years at an eclectic boarding school outside the city.

“Everybody did stuff together there,” Finley said.

Finley said he believes that kind of unity is missing on the University campus that is about 140 miles south of Chicago but a world away in many respects.

Although he speaks fondly of his youth, Finley remembered using hip-hop as an outlet for stress. Finley explained that oftentimes he would simply drive around and listen to Tupac.

“I just needed somebody to listen to,” Finley said. “His music is poetry.”

But when Finley arrived at the University in 2001, he found himself in a very different educational environment.

Finley was among many African-American students who felt out of place without musical and cultural representation on campus, said Michael Jeffries, director of the Office of Minority Student Affairs. “Prior to creation of WBML, it was difficult for students from urban areas to find the continuous music and information that they were accustom to hearing in the Chicago and St. Louis areas,” Jeffries said.

Jeffries said he identifies WBML as an important tool in bringing together the African-American students to establish a support

system in the community.

Finley found himself in a place unlike any he had known before, and again found comfort in hip-hop’s embrace. Taking over as president and manager of WBML his sophomore year, Finley used music to establish a presence on campus.

“It’s a way to communicate,” Finley said.

When Finley began his role at WBML, the station had become inactive.

“It was like a fresh start,” Finley said.

While re-establishing contacts and a core audience, Finley also recruited new members of WBML to the station: an assorted group of DJs.

“There is some jazz, some gospel,” Finley said. “One DJ plays new hip hop with sampling, followed by the old beat, so people know the history of it.”

In addition to the 14 live broadcasts, Finley also achieved his goal of implementing two new programs for the radio station: One Mic – an American Idol type show – and the WBML Music Conference.

As Finley prepares for his departure from the University, he is already grooming the next generation of WBML leaders.

Quincy Means and Ashley Jenkins, both freshmen in business, refer to their broadcast simply as “The Show.”

“Bring us some food,” Jenkins said into her microphone, recently during their show.

Jenkins and Means occasionally break up their three-hour broadcast, which normally airs live at 9 p.m. on Thursdays, with a few minutes of unscripted dialogue.

“If you bring us some food, I will send you home with something,” Means said.

Jenkins plugged the African American Culture Program’s “Lunch and Learn” series – a weekly lecture program.

“Jimmy John’s is up in here,” Jenkins said. “We ain’t in the kitchen making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”

Means nodded in agreement.

Means and Jenkins joined WBML in January of this year and began broadcasting “The Show” once a week.

“I wanted to learn how to DJ,” Jenkins said of her decision to join WBML. “There are a lot of opportunities for everyone here.”

In addition to providing an education, WBML has offered Jenkins and Means a sense of community.

“It provides a place for everyone to come,” Jenkins explained.

For now, Finley continues to recruit new members, like Jenkins and Means, to WBML as he prepares for his graduation.

“It’s been an absolute roller coaster,” Finley said, “But it’s been fun.”

On a recent evening, as “The Show” was airing, Finley pulled the straps of his backpack onto his shoulders and treaded out the door of the small backroom, as Means pulled the next song – a little Eminem:

“Step by step, heart to heart, left right left, we all fall down, like toy soldiers. Bit by bit, torn apart, we never win, but the battle wages on for toy soldiers.”