Peoria’s Strictly Hip Hop Radio is providing a platform for young artists, building a following and opening minds.
At 512 E. Kansas Street on Peoria’s East Bluff, you will find the radio headquarters of WAZU 90.7 Strictly Hip Hop.
With roots that begin across the Illinois River and up the hill at Illinois Central College (ICC), 90.7 currently calls home a generously sized, second-floor office with high ceilings, reminiscent of an old classroom, because it is. The non-commercial radio station is housed within the East Bluff Community Center in what once was St. Bernard’s Catholic Grade School.
The Community Center is a non-profit organization in one of the city’s lowest income neighborhoods, with a mission “to foster connections that enrich lives and enhance the East Bluff.” It represents a safe and collaborative space for the community, including the radio station that operates within.
The station’s ties to ICC were severed in 2015 due to budget cuts prompted by the college’s enrollment losses at the time. WAZU would find its new home shortly thereafter.
WAZU is certainly about hip hop subculture and inclusion, but it incorporates all kinds of music along with news.
Today, the station is run by General Manager De’Marcus Hamilton — aka Marc Supreme — a Peoria native who earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and a master’s degree in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield. At age 23, he found himself in a job at a national chain fitness facility in Atlanta, Georgia making $6.50 an hour, not exactly what he had in mind for his post-graduation career. Though he hadn’t planned on returning to his hometown, Supreme at age 28 didn’t see a better opportunity elsewhere. Back to Peoria, it was.
As station general manager, Supreme does just about everything including taking out the garbage. He’s a busy fellow, working multiple gigs, including as a regional admissions counselor for Northern Illinois University. But WAZU is a special passion, going back to 2010 when he first started at the station before eventually helping to create the current content format in 2017.
So what has changed?
The previous format was the epitome of a non-com radio station: a mixed bag with no clear focus, said Supreme. Today, the station is now “hitting the steps … not done yet, but on the right path.”
He also noted that when the for-profit urban contemporary Peoria radio station B92, with popular personalities Tom Joyner and the late Doug Banks, ceased to be, it left a void in Peoria’s Black community. In some cases, it seemed its orphaned listeners became disconnected from the community altogether.
Ever since, Supreme’s intention and approach have revolved entirely around filling that void, providing a megaphone for those underserved by mainstream media platforms. Prior to the format flip in 2017, Strictly Hip Hop was strictly a two-hour show. Given the moniker, one might presume the station plays hip hop exclusively. To the contrary, while Supreme emphasizes that WAZU is certainly about hip hop subculture and inclusion, it gets there by incorporating all kinds of music, along with local and global news and politics.
The vision is to thread the needle between pop music — including the most consumed genre of music worldwide, hip hop — along with information to get people, especially young people, engaged, said Supreme. Another goal is to encourage people to be more comfortable being themselves, even if that version of themselves isn’t culturally acceptable.
Examples of that inclusive programming includes news delivered from WCBU, Peoria’s public talk radio. At the top of every hour, local hip hop artists’ songs are showcased so they can gain experience, exposure and pride without having to travel to a larger market. You know the saying: If it plays in Peoria …
In addition, from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays, listeners can catch local radio veteran Roger Monroe on his show, “Roger & Friends,” followed by another local show from 9 to 11 a.m., DJ Abofa & Big Tam. The contrast isn’t only in the ethnicity of the show’s hosts, but in their respective generational and social leanings. Call it inclusion and diversity at work.
Meanwhile, Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 7 p.m. brings “Follow Up Radio,” music programming with a heavy emphasis on local artists and breaking new music. Thursdays at noon and 7 p.m., there is throwback programming with the show “Déja Vu.”
During the pandemic shutdown of 2020, Strictly Hip Hop also became a conduit for those struggling to understand the death of George Floyd. Those who reached out wanted to know how to ingratiate themselves to Black culture. “It was weird, but cool,” said Supreme.
What is the hope for the future of Strictly Hip Hop? Growth! Supreme lights up at the idea of businesses and donors believing in the station enough to utilize the platform to lift their brand awareness in the region. A larger paid staff is another goal. Currently, the entire staff is volunteer.
Supreme is extremely proud of WAZU, which he insists is about so much more than urban music.
“Most young people grow up to be what they see,” he said. “But if you are from a marginalized community, you are exposed to less opportunities than others.” That’s why using WAZU as a platform for inclusion and encouragement is so important, he said.
Jasmine Johnson, an account manager at Komatsu who, like Supreme, grew up listening to Power 92.3 on Peoria radio, now has 90.7 as the number one preset on her must-hear playlist. She’s taken it a notch up by volunteering at the station, doing podcasts and voice work, and her kids often tag along. She puts it simply:
WAZU Strictly Hip Hop is “bringing life back to the city for people that look like us.”