This past weekend, Hot 107.9 celebrated its 20th anniversary on air as Atlanta's first full-time hip-hop station with a blow-out trio of concerts, one focused on the past, one focused on the present and one focused on the future.
Through it all has been one steady presence: Dwayne "Emperor" Searcy, afternoon host for most of the station's two-decade run.
Both Searcy and the hip-hop format have matured since those heady days in 1995. The station was once an upstart chasing after V-103. It's now very much part of the establishment with its own start-up rival (Streetz 94.5) nipping at its heels run by the very people who created Hot in the first place. And late last year, three stations launched virtually simultaneously playing the classic songs that were fresh on Hot when it was on the 97.5 signal.
Searcy's survival has much to do with his easy-going likability that belies his nickname "emperor." He isn't the type of person that requires folks to kiss his ring or bow before him. As former Hot morning host Rashan Ali said, "I really don't think you can find anyone who would say anything bad about him." (Indeed, she was right.)
"He's just that nice of a man," Ali said. "He treats people admirably and that is reciprocated in every interaction. His commitment to his career coupled with his commitment to his children makes him an exemplary person."
Her former morning co-host and stand-up comic Griff called Searcy a "genuine spirit and the listeners pick up on that. Never too long on words and always direct. That's how I sum up Dwayne Searcy... One of the most humble people I've ever met in the field."
Indeed, he's a patient man who almost never gets angry, said Mz Shyneka, who has been his "pop culture" guru on his show for many years.
His first boss Mary Catherine Sneed, who created Hot in 1995, dubbed him one of the best mixers in town. At the time her station hired him, he only played mixes. He didn't actually talk on air. But she saw he had personality so when Hot had an afternoon opening around 1997, he got it.
"We got so much Coke and Pepsi money, we couldn't clear all the spots in his afternoon show," Sneed said. "I'm assuming he's still making a lot of money for that company."
And she said he has managed to keep himself relevant, even in 2015. "He's absolutely relatable," she said. "When he goes out for an appearance or community event, people just feel like they know him. And at a club, he can rock a crowd. He knew how to get people on their feet and dance."
Searcy is no egomaniac. He began in radio in 1993 at WRFG-FM, the odd-ball independent station at 89.3 that draws hipsters and people who hate corporate radio. He and international DJ and rapper Lil Jon did a show together for three years.
"We grew up together," Searcy said earlier this month during his afternoon shift at Hot 107.9 in downtown Atlanta. "We were buddies. When you see 'Entourage,' that's kind of our story."
He learned to DJ in sixth grade from the younger brother of a friend. He convinced his parents to fund his first turntable and a mixer for about $500. ("I was a good kid. Never got in trouble," he said. "I was the baby.")
Searcy began getting paying gigs at Mays High School. He recalls DJing a 14th year old's birthday and pocketing a whopping $50. Lil Jon started throwing wild parties. "His mom had a three-level house," he said. "Every time she went away, I remember cars up and down the street."
Searcy said he actually taught Lil Jon to DJ.
He made mix tapes. He just gave them away, never sold them. "I was always a perfectionist," he said.
Searcy entered the Navy after high school. When he hit the ports in the Mediterranean, he'd find the clubs and convince them to let him DJ if he brought his fleet over. He came back home and by then, Lil Jon had become "the man in the city of Atlanta."
He himself was offered mixing gigs at V-103 but he turned them down. "They didn't play hip hop except after 6 at the time," Searcy said. "I didn't feel like the station was for me."
Instead, he and Lil Jon opted to build their own brands and host parties around town "making a lot of money. We had this amazing promotion company BME before we started a record label." They did parties for Jermaine Dupri, Dallas Austin and P Diddy. At that time, a fan dubbed Searcy "the emperor of hip hop." It stuck. "Emperor Searcy" it was.
When Hot started, Jerry Smokin' B asked him to do a live night mix show after scoping him out. Searcy knew how important it was for hip hop to have its own radio station. He joined, even if it cut into his well-paid DJ gigs.
The timing was good. Hot, he said, generated $5 million in revenue its first year out of the gate as club promoters jumped aboard. He soon got a weekend job doing traditional on-air hosting, then an afternoon job in 2007, replacing DJ Nabs (now at Boom 102.9). Except for a three-year period when he did mornings, he's been in that slot ever since.
As Griff noted, he is not overly gabby on the air. "Be concise," Searcy said. "Have good material. Talk about hip hop." The only time he said he ever cursed on air was when he heard a Busta Rhymes song and said, "This s*** is hot!" and had to dump himself using a delay button before it made it actually on air.
He said hip-hop community nationwide began to understand how important Hot was, as the South became a breeding ground for new trends and artists such as Lil Jon (of course), Outkast, Goodie Mob, Youngbloodz and Pastor Troy. "The whole country was looking at Hot," he said. "If you didn't come to Atlanta and get stamped by Hot, you weren't considered a bonafide artist."
During the 2000s, he also became a record-label owner with Lil Jon and others called BME Recordings, which featured Lil Scrappy and E-40. Lil Jon's "Crunk Juice" on that label went double platinum in 2004.
He said the annual Birthday Bash became a big deal fast. Biggie Smalls was at the first one at Variety Playhouse. It didn't take long for the Bash to graduate to Philips Arena. Over the years, almost every major hip-hop star has done the show at one time or another, from Lil Kim to Lil Wayne, from Outkast to Jay Z, from Snoop Dogg to T.I., from Usher to Young Jeezy. This past Saturday at Philips Arena, the bash featured the likes of Nicki Minaj, Drake, Wale, Future, Ludacris, Kanye West and B.o.B.
Searcy no longer hits clubs every night. He's in his 40s, divorced, with four kids, ages 14 to 20 and he's close to them all.
But Hot is in in many ways his fifth child. He sees Hegwood and Jerry Smokin' B working Streetz and trying to take the younger end of Hot's audience without fear. "It's just a compliment to what we do," he said. "I love hip hop. I want to see hip hop thrive. It keeps me feeling young. I have the greatest conversations with my kids. I'm so connected to everything they love... Hip hop is the diary of their life."
Searcy said V-103 tried to ply him away from Hot when Greg Street went to Dallas more than a decade ago. (Street came back.). He was part of BME for eight years. He could have stayed in the recording business and produced music. But he couldn't leave Hot.
He is still a tech guy at heart, keeping himself up to date with all the latest toys. He makes himself an indispensable engineer at the station. He doesn't even need a producer for the show. He can handle that himself.
He said he is grappling with how millenials seek everything right now. "They are on to the next thing so fast," he said. "With some songs, we've had to play catch up. We have to keep our ears to the streets looking for the next new thing and get it to them."
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