How Drake and OVO Are Reinventing Radio with Sound 42

Drake, Oliver El-Khatib and more explain how last weekend’s Apollo shows were just one phase in curating the best radio show out.

Drake's OVO  Sound 42 crew Oliver ElKhatib Nyan Teo Nio Kid Masterpiece Noel Cadastre Drew Ferguson G0home Roger Mr....

Drake’s OVO / Sound 42 crew: Oliver El-Khatib, Nyan, Teo Nio, Kid Masterpiece, Noel Cadastre, Drew Ferguson, G0home Roger, Mr. Morgan, Geoff “Gee Spin” Gamere, and Mark Robinson pose outside of the OVO store in New York, 2023.

This weekend all eyes in New York were on Drake, who took the stage at the Apollo theater to kick off two nights of headlining shows at the storied Harlem venue. It’s been five eventful years, three Drake albums and one global pandemic since the last time Drake performed live and no one in the packed house knew quite what to expect. But when the curtain raised to reveal a meticulous recreation of Drake’s teenage bedroom, it was clear attendees were in for something unique, something special. What followed was an artfully-orchestrated medley reimagining his early hits: “Say Something”; “Over My Dead Body”; “Marvin’s Room”; “Wu-Tang Forever.” By the time the Apollo curtain descended and rose again on boardroom set dramatizing the signing of young Aubrey Drake Graham, it was clear that this would not just be Drake’s first performance of songs from Certified Lover BoyHonestly Never Mind and Her Loss, but rather a carefully curated setlist putting his newest material in perspective of his whole career to date.

Crucially, the event was presented by SiriusXM, the same satellite radio subscription which has forced us, a species, to invent the term ‘terrestrial radio’ to describe the earthbound disc jockeys comprising everybody else. As great as it is to see a stadium status talent like Drake performing for under 2,000 people at a landmark venue, there’s little doubt that with this harmonic convergence of star and satellite-power, more ears will be attuned to Sound 42, the exemplary SiriusXM station curated by the OVO Sound crew/label/cabal and subtitled simply ‘music culture by Drake’. 

“It’s something that Scott [Greenstein] from SiriusXM was extremely passionate about from the inception of our partnership,” explains Drake, speaking by phone just moments before doors open at The Apollo for night two. “He’s been so supportive with us as far as Sound 42 goes. And Sirius offers us the opportunity to be heard far and wide, right? Sirius is just the closest thing we have to those days of glory radio moments and I still get a massive amount of joy premiering music when I know that everyone is listening at the same time.” Since its launch in March 2021, Sound 42 has been utilizing that reach to coolly, quietly rearrange the possibilities of radio, realizing for perhaps the first time the global potential tantalizingly suggested by a platform based in orbit. A first time listener dipping randomly into the station’s 24-hour programming might very well pick up the latest Drake x 21 Savage collaboration…or might just as easily land on an amapiano or UK drill track or a set of Stone Love sound system running through the latest dancehall and JA trap (or as it’s known in Jamaica, “chop”). They might find themselves immersed in a white label-heavy set of South African deep house from guest DJ Fka Mash or a surprisingly granular exploration of regional Detroit rap. Or a slowed-and -throwed remix of a pop song on Houston legend OG Ron C’s The Chop Not Slop Show. Or Kodak Black doing his take on Memphis jook. There’s everything from the Afrobeats vibes of Tems, Wizkid or Burna Boy to French rapper Freeze Corleone. It would not be correct to state that Sound 42 is the first or only radio platform taking such an intercontinental approach to music in 2023–NTS Radio and BBC Radio 1xtra come to mind–but they might be the only platform doing it so damn well.

Drake performs at Night 1 of his SiriusXM Apollo Theater show.

Sound 42 succeeds in making a cross-section of new and often unfamiliar music sound intimate and feel personal. After all, there’s no way to present the newest music from every corner of the globe without having a lens, a viewpoint, some criterion for selection. This sort of filter is often unstated but clearly detectable. (For BBC Radio 1xtra, for instance, there is a certain politics of representation that goes into creating a sonic analog of post-imperial Britain. The result looks like programming blocks that correspond to certain communities or demographics within it; the bhangra/British Asian block, the Caribbean block, the urban London block etc).

 Sound 42’s editorial lens is, if anything, even more present, if harder to name. A very particular sensibility flows through what might otherwise be a disorienting no-man’s-land of sonic diversity –a dubby, moody, atmosphere, created by interludes that feel more like sound-collage than conventional radio drops and transitions that feel as curated, as considered, as the edits of a film. The result is a sort of 24-hour mixtape–or a Drake album that goes on forever. 

In a way, Drake has been preparing us to hear the world in this way at least since More Life, the album he insisted on calling a playlist, which featured everything from a Black Coffee dance classic remake to two different songs with UK rapper Giggs, and an all-star trap line-up track with Quavo and Travis Scott. There, as on Sound 42 , Drake himself is the glue, his versatility and depth of catalog the secret weapon. Despite the incredible array of styles and scenes in the mix, there is no cutting edge selection which can’t naturally segue into or out of a Drake song, even if he hasn’t collaborated with the artist…yet.

But what Sound 42 never feels like is a vanity project. If anything, Drake picks his spots on the channel. Yes, he has his own show Table For One, wherein he and 21 Savage might interview each other…or Drake might just play DJ, cutting together a surprising selection of influences ranging from old Rawkus Records cuts to Slick Rick & Outkast. The Sound 42 throughline is less a Drake’s-eye view of the world than it is a conversation between Drake and his OVO Sound crew. The station, at its best, feels like we are listening in as the sacred aux cord passes from Drake to OVO co-founder Oliver El-Khatib, to young guns G0home Roger and Kid Masterpiece, to OG Ron C, to legendary Stone Love selector Rory and back again. The thread which connects it all is the love for discovering new music—and it’s made possible by a handful of longtime collaborators who have helped directly shape Drake’s sound and career. It’s evident in El-Khatib’s voice as he cues up the next selection, the playfully faded banter of OVO Mark and OVO Noel (Drake’s longtime engineer and producer) of Night Owl Sound, for whom the pairing of spirits and sound are as important as the order of tracks played on their late night Fry Yiy show, which lucky Apollo attendees got to witness live when El-Khatib, Mark and Noel united for a DJ set to get the mood right before the show began.

OVO co-founder Oliver El-Khatib’s OVO Sound Radio show was the genesis of Sound 42.

Even moments before he steps back into the Apollo’s spotlight, Drake consistently speaks of these interlocked creative endeavors in terms of we. “Me and Oliver–and everyone else that has a show on the station–we’re just so passionate about music that to have that platform for us to play what we love or–what we make or just things that we’d like people to know about–it’s been such a great experience for us,” Drake says. “And I think it came in two parts: a station that obviously if you have satellite radio you can experience but even initially in the partnership we talked about making it more tangible at some point and I think that’s what Apollo was. Gathering what felt like, almost like a friends and family rehearsal for an arena tour. You know we used to do those back in the day,” he adds. “Before OVOfest I would invite our closest people in the city out before we did the actual concert. And that’s what last night felt like.”

It starts with the typically elusive El-Khatib, who alongside Noah “40” Shebib, is Drake’s longest partner and collaborator, the consigliere to Drake’s don. El-Khatib’s OVO Sound Radio show–which began life as an Apple Music show back in 2015–was the genesis of Sound 42 and remains its heart, an eclectic “musical art gallery” showcasing his latest sonic passions and obsessions. El-Khatib’s restless ear is largely responsible for the globetrotting span of Sound 42 and OVO Sound Radio is where he displays that most directly. “There’s no exact method,” he says of the curation process.  “There’s no responsibility to like, represent certain countries or scenes. It really reflects whatever our taste in music is as global citizens, it’s coming from the pure place of being music junkies. The conversation is what matters.”

Part of this cosmopolitan ethos is surely just Toronto, repeatedly named by the U.N. as the world’s most multicultural city, sonically defined by its cultural ties to the Caribbean and the UK as geographic proximity to New York, Detroit and Chicago. But this only partly explains El-Khatib’s penchant for identifying the Italian rapper or Soweto-based house DJ that the world needs to hear. “I’m just eternally curious,” he says “I’m always naturally on the search. Some people are car fanatics or watch collectors, I’m just constantly chasing that next feeling through music discovery.”

Of the tone that gives Sound 42 its remarkable consistency, he says simply, “Look we want to create a trusted brand but not by being safe. I take the ‘art gallery’ part seriously; you might not get everything you see in a gallery show but hopefully it moves you. Indifference would be the worst reaction. OVO Sound Radio is like my Scorcese movie. I’ve got my regular cast of characters, you’re gonna have your Pacino and Deniro but I’m always looking to cast the next DiCaprio for that movie in my mind. This week I might cast Central Cee or Skillibeng…or it could be Rondodasosa [from Italy], or [Spanish-Moroccan rapper] Morad.”

OVO Mark and OVO Noel’s playfully faded banter is the key charm of their late night Fry Yiy show.

“When I touch down in Barcelona, I pick up with my friends there–and their music–seamlessly,” El-Khatib continues. “Even when there’s a language barrier, it flows because we’re from the same generation and we have a similar lifestyle.” To keep the conversational element central to OVO Sound Radio, El-Khatib recruited G0home Roger and Kid Masterpiece as collaborators in the show on the strength of their SoundCloud mixes and a resonant taste in music. But expanding this unique formula into a 24-hour station, would require recruiting–and indoctrinating–someone with experience in radio programming that he could trust to see the vision. So of course he asked Mr. Morgan.

If Oliver is OVO’s consigliere, Mr. Morgan might be considered consigliere to the consigliere. Raised in Toronto but with family ties to NYC, a young Morgan Lieberthal found himself DJing and promoting records in the big apple in the prime days of Stretch & Bobbito’s hip-hop show on WKCR, just when the duo were breaking then unheard of rappers like Mobb Deep, Nas, the Wu Tang Clan and a kid from Brooklyn who called himself Biggie Smalls. Interning and then consulting for labels like Priority and Greensleeves, Morgan developed a rep for helping indies break into bigger markets–and a rep with radio DJs for handing them their next breakout hit. He was a particular champion for both Toronto rap (Choclair, Saukrates, Kardinal Offishall) and reggae (it was he that walked the pre-release of Damian Marley’s “Welcome To Jamrock” into the DJ booth at Hot 97, signaling a whole new relationship between roots reggae and commercial rap radio.) When he met Oliver and Drake he had just signed Estelle and released her garage-inflected Kanye collaboration “American Boy.”

“It was early 2008, and they were in New York, working on [Drake’s second mixtape] Comeback Season,” Morgan explains. “Drake hadn’t met Wayne yet.” Having an older head from their own city, someone with hard-won industry experience who encouraged them to chart their own course surely undergirded the young impresarios’ most ambitious instincts. “I wasn’t working with them in any official capacity but I was just like, Hey, you guys are really on to something? Go with your gut. Don’t let all these other people get in your ear about, You should do this, you should do this. Trust what you’re doing and if you need any advice, I can give you advice in the background.” 

Although Morgan is not directly involved in programming Sound 42, he has been instrumental in establishing OVO Sound as a label and umbrella for all Drake, Oliver and 40’s creative endeavors. In all discussions of these endeavors–of the commonalities between OVO Sound’s vision and what would become Sound 42, the word ‘platform’ comes up a lot. “A lot of it stemmed from Oliver introducing all of us to Abel [aka The Weeknd]. At that time [around 2011], I don’t think Drake had ever really pointed or shared anybody else’s music, that was one of the first times. By that point Drake had a very captive audience, and when he pointed to something like The Weeknd that was every bit as good as he said it was–that obviously started a real firestorm. A lot of people assumed we were trying to sign Abel and couldn’t. But we didn’t actually have a label. And I was like, guys, this is a good reason to start a label.”

G0home Roger and Kid Masterpiece are the young guns of Sound 42.

The same approach to OVO’s eventual signings–Dancehall star Popcaan, moody Toronto  crooner PartyNextDoor, and the 80s-retro infused duo Majid Jordan–emphasizing the power of OVO’s reach and influence, rather than a conventional hit making model, would be central to the idea of Sound 42. Crucially, it was Morgan who connected Oliver to Geoff “Gee Spin” Gamere an old ally in rap radio, when it was time to go 24 hours.

A self-described “backpack hip-hop DJ back in the day,” Gee Spin parlayed an indie rap show on Boston’s Jam’n 94.5  into programming nights for the station, eventually working his way up to Music Director. In 2008 he was brought in to help revitalize New York’s Power 105.1, hiring Charlamagne, Angela Yee and DJ Envy to helm the Breakfast Club talk show in 2010. Sitting more or less at the pinnacle of rap radio in terms of ratings and cultural impact, a programmer could probably choose their next assignment. But Gee ended up walking away from radio altogether.

“From there I kind of…I don’t wanna say I got down on radio but I just felt like I had kind of reached the ceiling a little bit in 2017.” He was working at United Talent Agency when he heard from Mr. Morgan about the launch of Sound 42, which ended up being a unique fit with his particular career crossroads; someone who’d worked with the best in the broadcasting biz, who was frustrated with doing things the old way. 

“Everything about the channel is there to sort of reflect what OVO Sound Radio sets the tone for,” explains Gee. “Even when we do weekly music meetings, a lot of it is just kind of taking the temperature on where Oliver’s going with it at the moment. But to make that work, you kind of ask yourself well, How do you make it a little bit less niche? What I found out over time was that the answer was, “Let’s keep it as niche as we can.”

Rap radio veteran Gee Spin says the secret to Sound 42 is “keeping it as niche as we can.”

Gee is the guy who not only translates the mixtape ethos into a weekly and monthly calendar but also the guy who cuts up Marvin Gaye’s or Lennox Lewis’ voice to make the collage work on a molecular level. Keeping OVO Sound’s unconventional approach going around the clock required nuts and bolts expertise in programming, but also being willing to throw some hardware out. “When we started, I’m thinking: big production and loud rah-rah radio voice guy, you know? Cause that’s what I came from. But Oliver’s like, no, no, no, it’s gonna be very minimal. We’re really looking for a constant musical vibe. It’s not about the hot topic of the day, you’re not gonna get that from us.”

What you are going to get is back to the music, preferably something you haven’t heard before, or simply haven’t learned to love yet. Tems’ “Free Mind” for instance, was playing on Sound 42’s demo channel even before they launched. Gee had long since rotated it out of his programming by the time it became a mass radio hit, in search of fresher material to break. “You know, I spend more time on the music log for this channel than I ever have. Like just hours and hours, whereas at commercial radio, I could knock out a log in 20 minutes. I had to get out of that old radio mentality of like, ‘provide hits.’ Cause that’s not really what we do. We provide vibes.”

Jim Jones gifts Drake a custom piece of jewelry on behalf of Dipset.

Later in the Apollo show, Drake made the ultimate nod to the surroundings by bringing the Dipset crew as special guests–lead by Cam’ron stepping through the doorway of a meticulous recreation of a Harlem bodega draped in full-length chinchilla cape. Drake just bops along, knowing every lyric, for a few songs an honorary member of the crew, as symbolized by the fact that he’s wearing Cam’s iconic baby pink fur ensemble from Fashion Week 2002 …until Jim Jones steps forward to anoint his wrist with a custom Dipset/OVO bracelet and make the honorary status permanent.

Bigger questions of life and legacy certainly appear to be on Drake’s mind, judging by his onstage monologues, perhaps because of the recent loss of not only Takeoff but also close friend Virgil Abloh. “Obviously one of the best friendships and connections I had was with Virgil,” he says. “And when I heard one of his dear friends Mahfuz [Sultan] speak at his funeral–which is an unfortunate time to hear somebody speak for the first time–I just said to my manager Adel [Nur aka Future The Prince] that guy is just so smart and eloquent and I can see that V surrounded himself with–just like [me with] Oliver and 40–just class acts with a lot to offer and contribute. I kind of begged Future to see if Mahfuz would…I really just wanted to be friends with him more than anything but our friendship, much like mine and Virgil’s friendship, developed into a working relationship. He worked with us on the Her Loss rollout and brought in Bergér & Bergér to do this set, which I really wanted to just take people on a journey of gratitude. Just gathering all my dearest friends in a room and expressing how grateful we are to have come this far on the journey.”

 Somehow the intricate sets, the narration, even the appearance of Cam’s pink fur as a sort of objet d’art, all serve to underscore why the event is a fitting terrestrial analog of Sound 42; it’s often noted what a music connoisseur Drake is, moving easily from the milieu of Jamaica to Atlanta to Houston. But the cinematic attention to detail, the rescored compositions, all illustrate how much of his success is due to the fact that Drake has also consistently been the best curator of his own art, a fact that has everything to do with the brotherhood of collaborators he keeps around him. For both the relatively intimate audience at the Apollo show and Sound 42’s global listenership alike, it seems, the artists have taken over the museum.

Drake opened his Apollo Theater show with a recreation of his childhood bedroom.

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