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Ross On RadioInsight: This Is How The ‘90s Roll In At Classic Hits

It was the perfect driving song for the end of a road trip.

I got in the car at the airport and there was Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It.”

And it was on WCBS-FM, “New York’s Greatest Hits.”

When the song was done, it was cold-segued into “Band on the Run” by Wings.

When I got home, I checked NielsenBDS Radio. While it’s sometimes the case that I come across songs after they’ve actually been playing for a while on a given station, I had come across its very first spin on the Classic Hits station as part of an “oh wow Wednesday.” (They did play the version without the rap, if you’re wondering.)

It wasn’t the newest song in rotation on CBS-FM. Santana’s “Smooth,” from 1999, is up to 700 spins on the station, helped by the plausible deniability of an artist whose other hits are decades older. And Kid Rock’s 2007 “All Summer Long,” a throwback that samples two oldies, has also gotten a handful of spins.

It wasn’t even the first infusion of mid-‘90s hip-hop-era R&B on CBS-FM. TLC’s “Waterfalls” gets a few spins every week. And based on that song’s recent footprint, I’m expecting to hear “No Scrubs” on Classic Hits in the not too distant future.

It wasn’t the very first spin for Montell at Classic Hits. Sister WOCL (Sunny 105.9) Orlando, Fla., often the first station to explore any rhythmic pop title, already has 42 spins on the song.

It wasn’t even the first encounter with hip-hop on CBS-FM. I had come across “Rapper’s Delight” on CBS-FM many years ago, although it was only in a Saturday night party show.

And it doesn’t quite represent the floodgates opening for the ‘90s at CBS-FM. There were about 25 songs from the ‘90s that got spins at the station last week, only about half of those in any kind of meaningful rotation. While that station has always been nudging forward, it hasn’t done so at the pace of, say, KOLA Riverside, Calif., where there are enough ‘90s for a category (and maybe even a secondary ‘90s category).

But “This Is How We Do It” was still attention-getting on CBS-FM.
Unlike “Smooth,” its retro element only takes it back to another hip-hop song (1988’s “Children’s Story” by Slick Rick).

It’s only two years older than the oldest title in rotation on top 40 WHTZ (Z100) last week (Puff Daddy’s “I’ll Be Missing You”).

It’s actually three years newer than the oldest title in rotation on CBS-FM’s sister top 40 WBMP (92.3 Amp Radio), which is Chaka Demus & Pliers’ “Murder She Wrote.”

It’s also a song that wasn’t played as a current on top 40 radio in New York. When “This Is How We Do It” was new, Z100 was still in the heart of its alternative period, and WKTU hadn’t yet arrived. That song was very much owned by Hip-Hop/R&B WQHT (Hot 97). It showed up on WKTU and Z100 later.

Four years ago, I wrote another column about a ‘90s song on CBS-FM. That one was Whitney Houston’s version of “I’m Every Woman.” At that time, I noted, not every station in the format previously known as oldies had even gotten as far as playing Def Leppard and Guns N’ Roses from the late ‘80s yet; that barrier has mostly fallen now.

My prediction at the time was that the format would start with those songs with retro elements or from veteran artists (Bryan Adams, Billy Joel, Madonna). Then would come the uptempo, neutral hits of the early ‘90s (“Losing My Religion,” “Only Wanna Be With You”). Then, I thought, classic hits stations would eventually get to the bigger AC ballads of that era, even if they weren’t “good time oldies,” such as “Under The Bridge” or “Walking In Memphis” (because, hey, it mentions Elvis Presley and Al Green).

Most of those predictions have come true to some extent. So did the one about some stations substituting the Smash Mouth version of “I’m A Believer” for the Monkees original. The song that I couldn’t imagine hearing on any traditional Classic Hits station—“Informer” by Snow”—still isn’t part of the format, yet.

For the most part, the next wave of ‘90s songs to make their way on to a handful of classic hits stations has been the “modern AC” hits of that era. Those songs aren’t always “good time oldies” either, but they are the next body of music that needs a home. Hot AC is done with them. Mainstream AC has inherited that era of music, but it doesn’t always perform as well as ‘80s music or more recent offerings. KOOL Phoenix is playing a few dozen of those songs, ranging from Tracy Chapman’s “Give Me One Reason” to Sixpence None the Richer’s “There She Goes.”

So where else has the Classic Hits format pushed into the ‘90s or beyond?

No Doubt, “It’s My Life” (2003) – KRTH (K-Earth 101) Los Angeles tried playing this remake for a while. You can pretty much imagine the internal discussion. “Hey, it’s an ‘80s song, and how can you go wrong with Gwen Stefani in Southern California?” Now, they’ve gone back to the Talk Talk original. But sister KOOL Phoenix played this version last week, as did KOLA.

Ricky Martin, “Livin’ La Vida Loca” (1999) – It was a throwback at the time. There were early ‘60s surf guitars and a certain overall ‘70s bubblegum feel. Songs like “Livin’ La Vida Loca” are often the type of songs with which classic hits broaches a new era. Martin wasn’t exactly a one-hit wonder, but this was his truest hit, and it’s a viable song for a number of mainstream ACs. Mostly played on KOLA now, but with a handful of spins at other Classic Hits stations.

Chumbawamba, “Tubthumping” (1997) – In “I Took A Pill In Ibiza,” Mike Posner jokes about being (sort of) a one hit wonder has made him an instant “old timer.” So how must Chumbawamba feel? Even at only 19 years old, “Tubthumping” certainly qualifies as a good-time oldie. It’s on a number of Classic Hits stations including KXKL (Kool 105) Denver, KKLZ Las Vegas, and KQQL (Kool 108) Minneapolis, which just added a handful of ‘90s songs recently, including Matchbox Twenty’s “Push” and Semisonic’s “Closing Time.”

Third Eye Blind, “Semi Charmed Life” (1997) – Not a one hit wonder. Not a song or a band that has ever entirely gone away. And a topic that some stations might be uneasy about. But it was also on KQQL, KOLA, KKLZ, and KOOL last week. In the latter market, Phoenix, that means it was on both a Classic Hits station and an Adult Top 40 (KMXP).

Nicki French, “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (1995) – While some ‘60s and ‘70s songs have been switched out for newer versions at some classic hits stations (e.g., “I’m A Believer” and “I Can See Clearly Now”), the Bonnie Tyler 1983 original should still be within the classic hits format’s wheelhouse. But this one has tempo and it’s on KOLA and KKLZ.

Kid Rock, “All Summer Long” (2007) – Mashing up “Sweet Home Alabama” with “Werewolves of London” made it an instant oldie, even though it hardly seems like most classic hits stations are looking to move on from Lynyrd Skynyrd. It played five times last week on WOCL and once on CBS-FM.

Depeche Mode, “Enjoy The Silence” (1990) – The late ‘80s/early ‘90s “Euro” feel makes it more of an Adult Hits than a Classic Hits record in most places. But it plays at KOLA, KKLZ, KXKL and at KJR-FM (the Jet) Seattle. And in Miami, where new-wave dance music was part of the “freestyle” dance boom of the same era, it played eight times last week on the new WMXJ (The Beach), which also played “Personal Jesus” six times last week.

So what hasn’t wound up at Classic Hits in any significant way yet?

Hanson, “MMMBop” (1997) – It sounded like a ‘70s Osmonds record, but Classic Hits never went back and played the Osmonds, either. This got one spin last week at K-Earth.

Spice Girls, “Wannabe” (1997) – Like Hanson, it was one of the songs that jump-started mainstream pop in that era, but it got only one spin last week, at WOCL.

Bell Biv Devoe, “Poison” (1990), Blackstreet, “No Diggity” (1996) – These have emerged as surprisingly reliable Urban AC records, and staples of the new ‘90s-based throwback Hip-Hop/R&B format. But nothing at classic hits last week.

Mary J. Blige, “Family Affair” (2001) – Even with bomb beats by Dr. Dre, this emerged years ago as a reliable record for any AC station that would test it. It doesn’t feel like an oldie yet, but it’s becoming a timeless record that adult women like. So if “This Is How We Do It” really does become a classic hits staple, this probably isn’t far behind.

Pharrell Williams, “Happy”; Mark Ronson, “Uptown Funk” – Both of these retro-flavored genre exercises were essentially “instant oldies” in the same way that “All Summer Long” was. But no classic hits station was trying to sneak them in next to the real thing last week.

For the most part, the move to the ‘90s at classic hits radio remains tentative beyond a few titles. But the consistent success of KOLA, the station that has been most aggressive in that era, means that the push is likely to continue. Mainstream AC stations approach the ‘90s cautiously, but they don’t need those ‘90s songs to update, they have more recent CHR music to pick from. At classic hits, the push to update remains a constant, and the ‘90s songs are the next ones in line.

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Profile photo of Sean Ross
Sean Ross is author of the Ross on Radio newsletter and VP of music and programming of Edison Research.

3 Comments

  1. Profile photo of Lee Chambers


    KOLA was very much a ’60’s based Oldies format when I got there 15 years ago this month. Then the library evolved to post-Watergate ’70’s. Next came ’80’s MTV era tuneage. Now it’s leading the way with ’90’s. One can only imagine where it will be in another 5 years!

  2. Profile photo of louis tenore44


    the 90s are now classic hits well i guess im getting old now but answer me this 20 years ago when oldies started playing 70s music didnt that seem odd as well i mean i used to think oldies were only related to 50s to mid 60s music

  3. Profile photo of Mark


    As for the CBS-FM spins on “Smooth,” what’s the time frame? Could those include when the station was Jack? (I believe that by 1999 they had stopped playing one or two currents an hour, which they had been doing longer than most early oldies stations.)

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