Photo by Jalani Morgan
For a long time in Toronto, there was no such thing as an “urban music” radio station. In fact, prior to 2001, hip-hop and R&B were essentially non-existent on local channels, which instead catered to folk and alternative rock. But in February of that same year there was a shift with the introduction of CFXJ-FM, better known as Canada’s first all-urban radio station Flow 93.5 FM. Flow’s programming catered to a large and diverse audience that was reflective of the city’s multicultural population with shows like Soca Therapy with Dr. Jay de Soca Prince, Morning Rush with Mark Strong and Jemeni, and Riddim Track with Spex. But one of the most important shows in its roster would turn out to be O.T.A. (On the Air) Live!, a show that managed to expand the listener's knowledge of rap music while shining a light on local talent.
Created and hosted by Ty Harper and Reza “rez DigitaL” Dahya, O.T.A. Live was the destination spot for weekly interviews with Toronto’s underrepresented hip-hop community. From artists like Shad, who was just coming off his first Juno nomination for his sophomore album Old Prince, to a young Drake who was in the midst of his first beef, mocking rapper Aristo on a call-in infomercial. More importantly it was a space that encouraged free-flowing conversations about issues in the industry and community at large. “People would sit and listen to the show for two or three hours and I think that's because… we didn’t conform to just doing a mix show,” Dahya explains. “For us the heart [of the radio] is the connection with the community and we worked hard to keep that connection strong.”
For Harper, his connection with hip-hop began very early on as a kid growing up in Toronto during the 80s. Back then the only station in the GTA area offering rap, R&B, or reggae music on public FM was Buffalo’s 93.7 FM WBLK—and that was a city away. Other options were limited to the odd campus radio slots, most popularly through DJX and Mastermind’s respective Wednesday mix shows. “For me radio was kind of just what it meant to be a black kid in Toronto and all those guys brought a sense of [us] through that medium and one of the more important things that kind of set me in that direction [of radio] were the petitions coming from Milestone,” explains Harper. In response to the success of urban programs like Mastermind and the outcries of the local hip-hop community looking for an outlet that supported them, Canada’s first black owned and operated broadcast company, Milestone Radio Inc., was founded in 1988. This would mark the first of many attempts to launch an urban radio station in Toronto.
Finding the Flow
Pushed forth by Milestone CEO Denham Jolly along with co-founders Zanana Akande, Carl Redhead, Reynold Austin and Tony Davy, the company launched their first proposal for a broadcast license through the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission in 1990. However, their attempts would be denied, passed over in favour for a country station. Harper, still a kid at the time, remembers watching and feeling the influence that the first wave of petitions had on him. “I think people took for granted the push coming out of the community for this stations. You had Mr. Jolly and all these guys out there knocking door to door trying to get support for this station,” he explains. “I was just answering the front door and when they handed us the petition I finally realized like 'holy shit I want to do this.' So I literally went to school with the ambition to only work for what would become Flow.”
Dahya, on the other hand, wasn’t so sure where his ambitions laid as a kid growing up in Vancouver. Known as the guy who always had headphones on, he loved music and had already gotten his feet wet in radio volunteering for a show on local radio run by The Rascalz's Kemo. He would eventually take up hosting duties as “Baby Hip-Hop” on a morning college radio hip-hop show called Special Blend before a friend encouraged him to pursue it as a career. “They just said to me one day that I should try going for radio and television at Ryerson [University], and [after a while] I was like yeah ‘that’s a dope idea,’” says Dahya.
Photo via Coloribus
As the two started studying in university, the future of urban radio in Toronto was in doubt. Seven years after their first application, Milestone would gear up again to to land a spot on the 99.1 FM signal, which was believed to be the last available FM frequency in Toronto at the time. Amidst a groundswell of attention and support for them to obtain a broadcast license, they tried again in 1997 but would be denied once again by the CRTC, losing out to CBC radio. The result of this ruling and denying a station for the second time sparked outrage in the African-Canadian community, many of whom believed the CRTC’s rulings to be racist. “When that happened I was pretty devastated. I remember I had to do co-op as part of my program and thinking there’s no way I’m going to waste time doing all this if the station that inspired me to want to work in radio; that reflected my culture, community didn’t even exist,” says Harper.
In his second year, Harper left school to turn his side gig as DJ into his full-time job, doing regular spins as The Boogeyman from the Soundquest Crew. “For a [couple years] I was [DJing] with my crew and doing pretty well building a name and respect for myself, and soon enough I start hearing about another Milestone bid coming.” Dahya, meanwhile, was already working door-to-door doling out flyers as a volunteer in support for Milestone’s third series of petitions after two new frequencies were made available. Both open for applications.“I never wanted to go work at some Top 40 station or do pop. I wanted to work in the community and culture and genre that I love. So I did [my part] to help out,” Dahya says. Finally, at the turn of the millennium, CRTC would finally award Milestone with a broadcast license to operate an urban format station at the 93.5 FM frequency.
Going live to air February 9th, 2001 the station would now infamously open with Bob Marley’s “Roots, Rock, and Reggae” and create a vessel for the local hip-hop and R&B scene to thrive in. On arrival, the station was a success, pulling in a significant market share of listeners that rivaled even the most established stations. Eventually, the two would come aboard—Dahya, already a part of Team Flow’s street team, would work as a board operator and commercial producer. Harper would also take on production duties in addition to acting as fill-in for DJ Starting From Scratch’s Midday Mix and Traffic Flow Mixshow under his Boogeyman alias. And while he was certainly satisfied with a position at his dream job, Harper had bigger plans in mind: namely developing and putting together a long form documentary styled hip-hop show. “Picture you’re living in this city with all these ideas for a show, but having no way to express that—like literally no one gets it. I’d talk to people and they’re like ‘yeah we can get some DJs and make some music’ and I’m thinking there’s a bit more to it than that.” Despite having never even met at the time, Dahya had the same idea.
“I remember one of the first demos I had given was an audio documentary about Maestro Fresh Wes. Pretty much from the day I started I was trying to get on the radio,” laughs Dahya. His persistence paid off, eventually doing overnight shifts on-air that would catch the attention of Harper. “I think him seeing me [on the mic and boards] made him realize I want to do more than just work in the office. I can't remember exactly what the first conversation was, but we started talking and then he came to me about doing this show with biographies and I was like ‘fuck yes, that’s what I wanted to do and we started building.’” Beginning in 2003, the two started fine-tuning rough ideas of the show together before pitching demos of the show to then Flow program director, (now on-air host/program director at G.98.7FM) Wayne Williams but “it was either just not the right time to add new shows on the station or we needed more polishing on our end,” says Dahya. Of more concern to the station was if a two hour long-form urban variety show that centered around biographies, interviews, and a mix show would be attractive to listeners. “It was always like ‘this is a great idea but I don’t know.’ We just kept pitching and pitching and then finally they said yes, and it was just a blur from then. We got maybe a week or two of promo and an air date and then we started.”
We’re Going Live to Air
Photo By Quinntyne Brown
O.T.A. Live! would finally go live in 2005, airing on Tuesday nights at 11PM. Quickly, the two grew into their roles as relatable on-air personalities; Harper, was the guy who had no issue challenging and debating with listeners/interviewees on a variety of topics albeit with a show of respect. While Dahya often provided unique viewpoints with little known details that would add an interesting footnote to conversations. “It was always about how do we connect to our city, how do we make this unique to us?” says Harper. “Not just in terms of what we were playing but what was actually happening in [Toronto] because there were a lot of artists we knew who were doing stuff but not getting the shine. And it wasn’t even on some trying to give a hand out, no, they were making music that we actually loved.” From the very outset, O.T.A. served as outlet for rising Toronto artists through The Burn, a 30 minute mix; Megacity Countdown, a local user-based top 10 countdown done in connection with Hip-Hop Canada as well as popular interview segment O.T.A. Talk: “[For us] the next step was always about creating a culture that’s not just hip-hop as this Americanized thing but is also very Toronto-centric... and O.T.A. Talk became a thing because it was there we could discuss issues not only in terms of industry stuff but also being racialized people here in Toronto,” says Harper.
One popular point of debate on the show was Toronto’s seeming lack of pride and interest in supporting its own talent, a topic that continues to float around today. “It may not have felt that way sonically, but I feel like when you listen to [Ghetto Concept’s] “E-Z On Tha Motion,” The Circle (Kardinal Offishall, Saukrates, and Choclair) or Michie Mee you’re talking about a mixture of not just Caribbean but also African [influences] and that was the product of the people who immigrated here [in Toronto]. We could once say ‘yes theres American in this, but a lot of us is in it too’ but eventually that just disappeared,” Harper explains in reference to one show where he and Dahya spoke to long-time event producer Ian Andre Espinet on the city’s failure to capitalize on Kardinal Offishall’s 2001 anthem “BaKardi Slang.” “When that song dropped it was a moment, it was one of the few [Canadian] songs outside of maybe “Let Your Backbone Slide” where you had to wheel that shit back and play again. That’s why [Espinet] brought up that song... because it was so big, that never really happened before. And it just felt like this moment [in the city] where all these things were happening for us and then [stations] like BET, amongst other things, just came and moved things in a totally different direction and caused this sort of disruption.” These conversations would give the show its heart, but the true crux of the show laid in their well-produced on-air biographies.
Aptly named, The Unauthorized Biography or “UBX” the extremely popular segment chronicled the careers of seminal artists like Notorious B.I.G, Sade, KRS-One and The Neptunes. Done in part before the convenience of pulling songs off of YouTube, they would use Harper’s “insane” record collection and a vast array of magazine interviews, books, and memory to create compact cinema-like stories interspersed with music. “When we made those it was always kind of like ‘what’s interesting to us’ and [like a movie] you have to craft a beginning, middle, and end. The music was also important because it has to be sonically interesting—people are sitting down listening to the radio so there has to be movement so it doesn't get boring,” says Dahya. As the show continued to grow, however, they would have to rely on the assistance of interns to keep up with production. “When we got into the swing of things one biography took 30 to 40 hours to make, and when you’re working nights it's basically two weeks; one for writing and the second for production. It was just too much so we’d take [the research] they found and I’d filter it into what worked or could lead into song clips. Next thing you know you have a script.”
Not long after hitting the airwaves, the ratings would start climbing for the show as listeners tuned in to hear Harper and Dahya behind the mic. Once seen as a risky proposition for radio, O.T.A. at its peak would consistently reach number one in its 11PM time-slot garnering a second evening spot on Saturday nights before resting on Tuesday and Thursday nights with an additional hour. But O.T.A.’s success was only a fraction of a stable of high-rated programming on Flow. “Before a lot of these shows aired people would ask how these “specialty programs” would do under the metrics of BBM [Bureau of Broadcast Management] and doubt us. But every single one of these shows were number in their markets; Soca Therapy was number one in its timeslot for like 10 years, so was Riddim Track, and we were too for our entire time on air or in the top three. So, it wasn’t like ‘oh okay those guys were doing their thing.’ No, we were performing under the metrics that mattered to mainstream radio,” says Harper.
Flow’s success would also inspire the creation of urban stations all over the country—from Vancouver’s The Beat 94.5 FM to Calgary’s VIBE 98.5 FM and KISS 96.9 FM. But more importantly, the reach of O.T.A. and fellow programs would grow beyond the once-thought to be niche hip-hop community in Toronto and pull in a wide variety of listeners. “I think I realized how well we were doing when we were outside of a Mariah Carey concert and this little girl randomly came up to me and was like ‘oh my god, I love O.T.A. Live.’ The same night at this dingy underground spot these dudes were like ‘your show is the shit’ and I remember thinking ‘man we’re not some underground hip-hop show—this is something that reaches a broad audience.'" However as Harper and Dahya’s show and the station itself grew, so too did the audience's tastes. And as the years went on and the music of the artists skirted outside the realm of traditional hip-hop and R&B, it would become increasingly difficult for Flow to clearly define the limits and boundaries of what urban radio should be.
Urban Radio's Glass Ceiling
Photo Courtesy of Ty Harper and Reza Dahya
As early as the first couple months on-air, Flow had been a target of criticism for seemingly veering away from its early promise of supporting local artists and providing frequent mixes of reggae, soca, and jazz. Instead, hip-hop and pop were the predominant discourse offered, at least on prime time hours, and a significant slab of it was American in origin—perhaps most tellingly the airing of songs like Britney Spears’ “Toxic.” “Flow had always been… struggling to find it’s place” explains Dahya. “As the first [urban] station there were always a lot of challenges trying to figure out where to land as far as tone, genre; How far we go with the culture and connection to the city? How much of the kind of pop cross over into urban type of songs we should bring in, do we want to attract a bigger audience?” Rumours of the station being bought out would begin circulating around the station as early as 2008, according to Dahya. Sure enough it would prove true as it would be formally announced in 2010 that Toronto’s first commercial black/urban radio station Flow 93.5 would be bought out in 2011.
While it was still consistently performing well in its time slot, the merger left _O.T.A’_s future in doubt. “That was a really big thing to hear because we had put our whole life into this station,” says Dahya. “From there it was just kind of a day to day process dealing with what's coming down the pipe and planning for the worst because every story you hear about a station getting bought out is like a nightmare—people showing up to work and the doors are locked or everyone getting fired.” But all seemed well when they came face to face with their new owners for a company meeting, all of whom seemed to be dedicated to keeping the Flow 93.5 brand and format.
“[Harper and I] were like ‘okay that seemed like a good meeting’ but as it got closer to the actual date of the merger, the night before, we decided to get all our hard drives from the studio,’ says Dahya. “We never really spoke about it possibly being our last show, but I think we both kind of knew it.” During the first week of February 2011, another company-wide meeting was held by the new management announcing that they would call out the names of staff members to meet with an HR representative and manager to find out if they still had a job at the station. Eventually, Harper and Rez’s name would be called. “I went into this room and they basically said ‘we don’t need your services anymore here’s your [severance] package. If you have any questions you can speak to the HR lady.’ That was it.” says Dahya. “It was… just fucked, man. The Flow office is this long open [hallway] so when you come out of the room you’ve got to walk by everybody and when you’re in an emotional state you might not want to do that. It just wasn't the best exit: it was a lot of hugs, a lot of people crying.” Harper adds, “I mean, again, for me I don’t really remember much of it. I knew it was over.”
Are we on the air?!?! Ty Harper is one of the smartest hip hop heads ever. He is from Toronto.
— Drizzy (@Drake) January 29, 2011
February 1st, 2011— the day before they were let go—would unofficially be their final spot on radio. There would be no parting goodbyes to listeners who had supported them those seven years or a proper farewell show. The two would be resigned to silence and their show terminated. “I know Shi [Wisdom] was there with WolF [J McFarlane] just chilling the night before and I remember it being weird because we couldn't have this big goodbye show, we couldn’t say anything it was just very muted… we didn’t really know anything [at the time],” says Harper. “Yeah, because there was still— we could’ve gone the next day and by some miracle could’ve had a show next week,” says Dahya. While their exit was never declared officially, news of the mass firing at Flow would spread to the internet and #OTALive would trend on Twitter. “[We] were always very aware of our place in Toronto’s hip-hop community but seeing it reflected on Twitter and Facebook, even having Drake shout us out... all of that was both heart-warming and heartbreaking because we were there to help that era build. But we lost the show right when things were really gaining momentum [for Toronto],” says Harper.
A Love Letter to Toronto
The next couple years for Harper and Dahya would be a time of rebuilding and restructuring. Enrolled as a full-time student at University of Toronto for Sociology/Public Policy during O.T.A., Harper would graduate in 2012 before landing the position of Segment Producer and Production Assistant for MTV News. He now currently works as an Associate Producer for q with Shad on CBC Radio One. Dahya, whose second love had always been movies, would venture into making short films including 2012 debut Esha, Five Dollars and the forthcoming Chameleon. Still, hip-hop is something the two could never truly part from and together in 2009 they started popular Toronto-focused music blog City on My Back. “I mean it wasn't even a conversation we weren't ‘like what do you want to do?’ it was just let’s keep blogging,” says Dahya, “There’s all these new kids and, of course, the guys that sound like old Toronto, Raz Fresco, Brisk in the House, Rich Kidd.” “And of course, Redway,” says Harper.
Even now, five years removed from the end of their show, people still ask the two about bringing back O.T.A. over popular platforms like satellite radio or podcast. And while they both admit it's something they’ve thought about, they’re not considering right now. “It’s a tough call because we still speak about it, but for us when you make a show it needs to be created with a long term plan in mind; so if you’re going to start a podcast you need to do research on what works and what’s missing to make something great. You can’t just take O.T.A. and make it fit anywhere—it was built for a different format,” says Dahya. More importantly, they’re satisfied with the legacy they’ve left behind: “I remember when we did this countdown launch party we had like 700 people come out to watch like ten independent artists and I remember feeling like we were helping, giving the city something to be proud of,” beams Dahya. “On paper we [and the station] definitely made it clear that Toronto-centric hip-hop/R&B programming is commercially valid and for anybody testing that theory we passed with flying colours. Also during that time [our show] especially never lost credibility as the go-to place for that thing. You couldn’t ask for anything more than that,” says Harper.
Flow 93.5 FM has also moved on. Once known as the sole and prime destination for urban radio, the station has switched its on-air format several times—pushing further into the territory of top 40 and more recently billing itself as a throwback station playing classic hip-hop, reggae, and R&B hits. Many of the stations influenced by Flow’s launch, including those in Calgary and Vancouver, have also been formatted into contemporary rhythmic programs. However, in its place stations like G.98.7FM have risen to try and fill the void, placing a focus on music and news coverage in African and Caribbean communities in the GTA and employing many of Flow’s former staffers. As well as campus urban-alternative radio show 105.5 VIBE. Admittedly, say Harper and Dahya, it feels like hip-hop and urban music and radio will always be an outlier in Toronto.
Photo By Ajani Charles
“It’s a gift and curse being in Canada; of course we love everything about living here but there’s nowhere else to go. If we were in the States a competing station would’ve picked us up in two seconds, but here there is no [other] station so you’re just kind of left to figure shit out,” says Dahya. “I mean, we’re at a place where the hip-hop and R&B coming out of Toronto is a no brainer—it’s world class and yet no one is able to create an economy and we still lack the capital investment proportionate to other genres that are culturally Canadian but are white,” offers Harper on the subject. “Until we have more stations playing the [music] and programs supporting it and putting money into it, it won’t go anywhere. It’ll just be these one-off people that sort of blow up but the scene itself, the actual economy itself will never exist. And deeper than that, the reason why it isn’t coming from within our own racialized communities is because we are poor; we don’t have rich benefactors who will shell out money and be like ‘Here, go make an album’.”
“That’s a whole other article, man,” laughs Dahya.
Jabbari Weekes is a Noisey Canada Staff Writer. Follow him on Twitter.
*quotes have been edited and condensed for clarity