When T.I. dropped a new track produced by Dr. Dre in May, Peter Parker was immediately on top of it. He downloaded the song himself, uploaded it into the Go 95.3 FM database, got on the microphone and hyped it, then pressed the button to make Twin Cities radio listeners some of the first in the country to hear the song.
“I didn’t have to call up a corporate office in Atlanta or New York and get anybody’s permission,” Parker bragged the next day, sitting in his station’s sound booth in Minneapolis 22 hours and three more spins later.
“I’ve been a professional radio DJ for 15 years, and I’m finally in a position to execute my own vision without being controlled by anyone.”
That’s partly because — for now, anyway — there is no one else.
On air, Parker is a one-man army leading the charge for Minnesota’s first modern all-hip-hop station after a six-year lull in the format. He’s the hardest working man in Twin Cities radio, serving as the station’s only full-time jockey as well as its music director, event organizer and social-media hype man.
Go 95.3 debuted in January as the rap-loving kid sister of Go 96.3, the two-year-old modern-rock station that also airs the Minnesota Twins’ game broadcasts. Both Go stations and the baseball team are owned by the Pohlad family.
In a convoluted chain of format changes that recall the Twins’ trades in recent years, the Pohlads killed off the last local modern hip-hop station, B-96, in 2010 to make room for what eventually became Go 96.3. Six years later, the Pohlad operation decided that the Twin Cities could use a hip-hop outlet after all.
A half-year into its run, people are putting aside their skepticism and taking Go 95.3 seriously. Its ratings are modestly impressive for a start-up station, especially among listeners ages 18-25. Its general buzz within the local hip-hop community is growing by the minute and the tweet.
Parker is a big reason why.
“He’s authentic, knows his stuff, and lives and breathes hip-hop,” said Sam Elliot Gagliardi, president of the Pohlads’ Go Media, Parker’s boss. “I knew he’d be the perfect guy to do this.”
Local rapper and DJ Sophia Eris was won over by Parker two months into his run when he hosted Go 95.3’s first promotional showcase at First Avenue, featuring New Orleans rapper Curren$y and local acts such as Sims and Greg Grease.
“He managed to pull it together and get a really good-sized crowd out in about three weeks, which isn’t easy,” said Eris, who has since been recruited to do weekend mix sets at the station.
“He’s just a really passionate dude, and it rubs off on everything he does there.”
Doomtree producer Lazerbeak said of Parker, “He’s been great about having local artists on the air and integrating them into the playlist. That’s almost unheard of for a commercial hip-hop station.”
Straight outta Boston
One listen to Parker’s accent, and you’ll know he’s not a local himself. Mark Wahlberg’s rapper persona Marky Mark may come to mind when Parker talks excitedly on air — but it’s not a put-on for radio.
His given name is Peter Mazalewski, age 35. He was raised in Lawrence, Mass., a blue-collar city that Boston magazine called “the most godforsaken place in Massachusetts” in 2012. His ticket out of the gritty town was basketball. He played Division III ball for Curry College near Boston.
“I was like seventh man on my [high school] varsity team, so I really had to push myself to get there,” he said. “I applied that same drive to my radio career.”
He DJ’d for the college station and landed a job at Boston hip-hop station Hot 97.7 after school. While still in Boston, he also helped start an event promotion company, Leedz Edutainment, which has grown into one of the city’s top hip-hop concert promoters.
As often happens in the radio business, though, Parker bounced around with his former corporate employer Radio One and wound up at B-96 in Minneapolis in 2006. Even as a local newcomer, he tried to integrate Twin Cities hip-hop acts onto the airwaves, but B-96’s format at the time had gotten narrower as commercial hip-hop on the whole grew stale.
“The station had kind of hit a dead end,” Parker said.
“Mainstream hip-hop had kind of played itself out from 2009 to 2010. There was so much crunk music at the time and a lot of stuff we’ve mostly forgotten. The station I was at in Boston failed around that time, too.”
Parker was offered a job to stay on when B-96 signed off, but since the station initially changed to the short-lived Top 40 formant 96.3 Now, he declined the offer.
“After repping hip-hop as hard as I did,” he explained, “I didn’t feel comfortable going from that to, ‘Yo, this is Jason Derulo!’ It didn’t seem authentic.”
In the interim, he kept bouncing. He landed at a hip-hop station in Washington, D.C., and then another in Cleveland.
Parker might have stayed in Ohio — especially after relishing the Cavaliers’ run to the NBA Finals in 2015 — but he went back to wearing his lowly Timberwolves jerseys for one key reason: His wife, Emily, is from Minnesota. They met while he worked at B-96. After the birth of their daughter, Vivian, two years ago, they were eager to be nearer to Emily’s family. And they were very near the family at first.
“We lived in her parents’ finished basement in Jordan our first six months here,” he said. “It was a blessing for us as a family, but it meant I had an hour commute each way on top of what were already 12- to 14-hour days getting this station off the ground.”
They’ve since settled in a condo in Uptown Minneapolis. Aside from the commute, though, the workdays haven’t grown much shorter.
Trying to find a balance
Parker and his boss, Gagliardi, both talk about Go 95.3 as if they’re patiently launching a start-up company and carving out a niche.
“This market didn’t have anybody playing rap full-time on the radio for six years,” Parker said. “So almost everything we’re playing in the beginning is going to be new and untested in the market.”
Rather than blindly follow the Billboard hip-hop charts, they use a few different guidelines to pick songs for the playlist, including: the charts on Shazam, a streaming app that breaks down online song streaming by cities and regions; song requests from listeners via the station’s website and Twitter, and the good old-fashioned experience of seeing what plays well in concert locally, such as when Parker saw the reception for East Coast indie-rap star Logic at a sold-out Skyway Theatre in Minneapolis in February.
“The place is going nuts for him, but he’s not getting any spins on the radio?!” Parker asked. “That’s a no-brainer.”
Last summer, the Twin Cities saw the sudden emergence of two competing “classic” hip-hop stations, Hot 102.5 and the Vibe 105, launched by iHeartRadio and Cumulus Media, respectively. Each was copied from an ’80s/’90s hits format popularized nationally but generally considered a narrow, short-lived fad. Even the most devout old-school fans can take “Nuthin’ But a G Thang” and “Jump Around” only so many times per day.
New hip-hop wasn’t entirely absent from the local radio dial in the interim. Community stations KMOJ (89.9 FM) kept playing mainstream and local acts with frequency, but at relatively low wattage.
Minnesota Public Radio’s higher-powered 89.3 the Current regularly rotated many of the local and underground acts now on Go 95.3’s playlist, including Lizzo, Atmosphere and Chance the Rapper. However, only about one in eight of the Current’s songs fits the hip-hop bill.
Go 95.3’s team believes it lucked into the right time and place to start blending local rappers with the bigwigs.
“A decade ago, mainstream hip-hop was so far away from what the local hip-hop scene was doing,” Gagliardi said. “It was a huge divide. Now, it’s not a stretch. We’re playing local hip-hop music that sounds as big as anything national, and of course many of these local artists are national now.”
Parker talks about wanting to use Go 95.3 to support the Twin Cities hip-hop community on the whole, not just the performers. “We want to feel inclusive,” he said.
This idea came to fruition a week and a half ago in the aftermath of the Philando Castile shooting by a St. Anthony police officer, when Parker let listeners vent their anger on air and urged for more peace and understanding. On his Twitter account, @MrPeterParker, his messages included, “Speak up, educate the ignorant, this is an AMERICAN issue, not just a black problem.”
Even before that incident, Parker said, “We want the phones lit up, and we want people to feel like they’re a part of what we’re doing — because they’ve deserved a station like this for a long time.”
So he’s not really going it alone, in other words.