It wasn’t a straight line to get to this point. If the late rapper Nipsey Hussle were to describe it, he’d say it was a marathon.
Yet, in 2019, Peoria finally has a viable hip-hop station again.
Demarcus Hamilton took over as the program manager at 90.7 WAZU-FM in the fall of 2017. In doing so, he converted the station to an Urban AC (Adult Contemporary) format and called it “Strictly Hip-Hop,” modeling the station’s programming after the two-hour show he and current station personality DJ Lavish – known more formally as Travis Covington II – started in 2010 under the same name.
“You could listen to ‘Strictly Hip-Hop,’ and then the next show could be something on lawn and gardening,” said Hamilton of the old format.
The eclectic mix of shows was what made 90.7 special for years; it was a purist’s dream of community radio. It wasn’t working, though.
In 2017, owner Jeremy Styninger put out a call for donations before eventually turning programing over to Hamilton.
"I needed to get out from under it. Dealing with symptoms related to MS is a full-time job," Styninger told the Journal Star in 2017.
2017, as it turns out, was a good time to switch to hip-hop programming.
According to a Reuters report in January of 2018, hip-hop and R&B surpassed rock as the United State’s most popular genre of music. The genre continued its dominance in 2018, particularly on streaming services.
Now with nearly a full day to schedule from their studio in the East Bluff Community Center, Hamilton, Lavish and the rest of the station are able to blend hip-hop music and culture with a subtle dose of politics, giving the station a clearer identity than it perhaps has ever had before.
One such example of that blend – Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth joined Lavish to discuss cannabis legislation and other state and community issues on June 5.
“I was always interested in politics and history, what makes a city move, what makes a state move,” said Hamilton. “There’s a ton of things that impact us that we don’t even know about. There (are) decisions that are made that a lot of people, who are our listeners, wouldn’t be privy to without us.”
The station also teamed up with the Black Justice Project and the Peoria Democratic Socialists of America to put on a candidate forum in January before the 2019 Peoria at-large City Council primary.
Lavish, who said he knew he wanted to be on the radio since he was 8-years-old, understands that he can bring both news and music to listeners because the station is filling a void in the Peoria market.
“When you speak on Peoria and hip-hop, it was almost non-existent,” said Lavish.
Lavish, much like Hamilton, grew up listening to the nationally-syndicated R&B show of Tom Joyner on 92.3 FM. However, once Joyner’s familiar morning show and the station that hosted it were overtaken by pop programming, there was a gap in the market.
It stayed that way for years.
“Without 90.7 there’s still nothing,” said Hamilton.
He acknowledged that other stations are indeed including more hip-hop in their programming, but he questions whether they were doing it before 90.7 launched their new format.
The longer you speak with both Hamilton and Lavish, the clearer it becomes that the station is not only about the love of music, but about a love of their city. Even if that city has a tendency to disappoint.
“People haven’t bought into what’s going on (in Peoria), and how could you if everything you see around the city doesn’t represent any of your interests?” said Hamilton.
Whether the city as a whole shifts to better represent the interests of its younger, more diverse demographics remains to be seen, but the marathon isn’t over yet.