Sway has been a fixture at MTV for nearly a decade. He’s covered everything from social to political issues. He’s talked one-on-one with some of the biggest artists in music today. He’s even interviewed and appeared with the President of the United States. Now Sway, who got his start in radio, sits down and talks to FMQB about his storied sojourn to one of the biggest platforms in the world, MTV. –
by Bob Burke
Sway Calloway, known to most as simply Sway, has become a staple in the music news arena and MTV for more than a decade. He’s become an icon in Hip-Hop from giving Eminem and Notorious B.I.G. their very first radio airplay on his local show in the mid-’90s to being a part of some of music’s biggest moments. But Sway paid his dues and began his career in the streets as a radio personality, record producer and Hip-Hop artist before he joined the MTV News team in 2000. Sway’s interviews with some of the biggest music and entertainment celebrities have created a face and voice for a whole new generation. We recently caught up with Sway who hosted our FMQB nationally syndicated radio special “U2 3 Nights Live!” from Boston and discovered that Sway is still lovin’ life while keepin’ it real.
How was “MC Sway” born and how did you get your start in the game?
My partner King Tech and I had dreams of becoming Rap stars in the Bay area. We tried by all means necessary but weren’t able to make a lot of things happen. At that time I was MC Sway and he was DJ King Tech, and we had a group called the Fly Namic Force. After many attempts we couldn’t get a record deal so we had the idea of starting something we called All City Productions. We saved our money and made a demo tape and shopped it around. The way we got to radio was interesting because in 1990, one of the records we put out independently caught the ears of a guy named Alex Majia who worked at KMEL [San Francisco] and Theo Mizuhara. Alex was a mix show DJ. Those guys were impressed by the production and we met with Alex and he took a liking to us and asked us to join a few contests. I won a Rap battle and Tech won a DJ Battle. The prize for winning the DJ battle was a one time forty-minute mix show on KMEL. This was before mix shows became really what they are today. Before Hot 97, which was playing Dance music at the time. Tech was mixing Old Skool break beats, James Brown break beats and playing [Louis] Farrakhan speeches over them and we’d play Public Enemy. We would also play some classic Soul music. It was just all over the place, but it was crazy and innovative and got a lot of response. The program director at that time at KMEL was Keith Naftaly. He gave us our break. In 1991, we created The Wake Up Show, which is now the longest running syndicated Hip-Hop show on mainstream radio and it’s been on ever since.
It’s interesting, because when we came on we had no radio training, and I think that’s what Keith liked. I kind of assumed the voice role. I’d be the guy to conduct the madness. We allowed all these artists on the show to free style rap. Nobody was doing that on mainstream radio at that time. And what happened was, people discovered Nas, Fugees, KRS-1 and even Jay-Z. It set a new precedent on how to do Hip-Hop on mainstream radio with a P1 station and from the popularity of that show we began to grow.
Many people didn’t realize you actually came from radio. What was your experience like working at KMEL?
I was very fortunate to be there at the time when Keith was programming because when it came to PDs, Keith Naftaly was the Michael Jordan back then. A lot of people want to give credit to Steve Smith who did great things for Hip-Hop at Hot 97, but in my opinion Steve Smith took the formula that Keith Naftaly did and he borrowed from the success of 106 KMEL in the Bay and moved it to New York and then took it to another extreme. KMEL gave birth to Hot 97 in New York, and we were a part of that because we programmed the Wake Up Show and we enabled Keith Naftaly to break music that was underground and rebellious. It was part of a sub-culture that was growing. It was a storm rising and he was able to funnel it through the Wake Up Show. He couldn’t put all of it in mainstream rotation in the prime day parts, so he would send it to us, or even more so we would bring it to him. Whether it was A Tribe Called Quest or Public Enemy, it started on the Wake Up Show.
What did you learn the most from those MC Sway & King Tech days as recording artists?
The history we had as recording artists and getting in front of crowds where we actually performed at Summer Jam in 1993 for KMEL where we rocked it in front of 22,000 people was invaluable. We did a lot of club dates. We opened up for everybody from Digital Underground to 2 Pac to Vanilla Ice and 3rd Base. It taught me how to address a crowd and not be nervous.
I learned much from radio in the mid-’90s because I ended up doing different day parts. I started a show called the Ten O’clock Bomb, which was like a daily night show that I had to anchor myself while Tech was in LA when the Wake Up Show became syndicated. Then they moved me to morning drive. I created a show in ’96 called Sway And The Breakfast Club. Then I did afternoon drive. All of these things prepped me for MTV. I’d already gone through all this stuff in radio. I don’t think MTV really knew the history, which was fine by me, so I was able to hit the ground running. No matter what situation they threw me in, whether it was live television or sitting down doing an interview, most of the people I’d already interviewed on radio so I had the relationships. I didn’t go to school for journalism, but I was able to adjust because radio is about being able to think on your toes. Because of that I was perfectly groomed and trained. The equivalent to Keith Naftaly at MTV now is Dave Sirulnick. He’s the one who brought me to MTV, and some of those attributes he recognized.
The FMQB radio special event I recently hosted with U2 was a shoo-in for me because it was like doing Summer Jam at KMEL. I’m about to introduce this major act. Then afterwards I got to sit down and moderate a panel in front of a crowd while this broadcast is live on the air. That’s like doing a live remote for a morning show. So for me I was in my element and it worked, and being able to transition from radio to TV and even from rapping to radio to TV it all tied in together, none of which could have happened without the other.
How did a young kid from the Bay Area end up with an opportunity to be on MTV?
In our case it was a lot of the groundwork we did initially in the ’90s. We never compromised who we were or our integrity. People recognized it and somebody suggested to MTV, if you’re really looking for somebody to talk about Hip Hop culture, if you want somebody who may not have gone through formal training or graduated with a journalism degree or was begging to be a DJ, you should get this kid who works with the Wake Up Show. I turned it down twice before saying, “let me see if I can give it a shot.” But I’m happy that it happened, because since then I’ve sat down withPresident Obama four times. I’ve now interviewed Bono and U2 — Bono three times, U2 as a group twice. I’ve spent days with Tom Cruise. I even did the salsa with Jennifer Lopez.
You hosted quite a few shows while with the network. Which was your favorite and which impacted you most?
My favorite was a series we did called My Block. That show epitomized what I represent and the people who come from where I come from. It was a show where we would identify cities that haven’t quite blown up yet from music to style, and we’d catch it at that perfect time and go in and find out what the culture of the city was about. We did it in documentary form. It was almost like the National Geographic of Hip-Hop. But sitting down with President Obama is thus far the most exhilarating, surreal experience I’ve had since I’ve been in the music business. He was very easy to talk to. I did Biggie and 2 Pac’s last interviews, and it was not much different in the approach of speaking with him. I had to make sure I was well versed on his policies, and what was going on in the world in terms of economics and global warming, all components of politics. But it was also a comfortable conversation about what was going on in the world of culture. What other president would talk to you about Rap music and what Hip-Hop can do in order to advance itself? It will never happen again.
What’s your favorite type of story or event to cover?
It kind of depends. It used to be if there was controversy, I wanted to be on top of it. Now I tend to shy away from that. I feel that’s what you do in your early days to make a name for yourself and prove yourself. I learned when you’re racing to cover those types of stores, it doesn’t really advance you as a journalist or as a personality. You’re just the first to exploit something that someone else has done or created and you just happened to be there. The story was big without you and you just happened to be in the right place at the right time. But it’s more the stories that you bring to light, like when we did My Block, or when we would do the sit-down interviews one-on-one, All Eyes On Eminem. Where he and I would sit down and I could get him to talk about something that people weren’t aware of. But at the end of the day, the things I learned that I like the most are the pro-social coverage I’ve been able to do with MTV. Going into New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit, that was really an incredible experience. Being on stage with President Clinton for the Clinton Global Initiative, and talking about youth activism and getting kids to get involved. And being on a campaign trail in ’04 with our “Choose Or Lose” campaign with twenty million loud. Making people familiar with the issues, and passing down important information. Those stories are the ones I love to cover the most.
You’ve become a major player both in front and behind the camera at MTV. How gratifying is it nowadays to be such an important fixture of the network’s programming?
It’s an honor and I don’t take it for granted. There are legends like Kurt Loder who are still in the building. His office is two doors down from mine. He doesn’t know this, but I say “hi” to him everyday. Every time he’s in the office I’m like: “…what’s up Kurt?” It just brings me much joy for Kurt to say: “Hey Sway, how’s it going?” He’s the nicest man you’ll ever want to meet with the most valuable mind in the business in terms of what we do. It gives me a certain level of security. His personality and his branding is what gave MTV its credibility.
To be walking through his lineage is a proud thing for me. I’m no Kurt Loder by no means, but I’m walking the path of Kurt Loder and it’s a lot of responsibility. I look at what he’s done and what John Norris has done and I’m just trying to uphold that tradition of excellence. I am proud to be here because I feel like I’ve paid dues. I’ve been on the front lines with MTV for nine years, and they recognize it and they take care of me and they allow me to grow. It’s been a mutually beneficial relationship and I’m grateful and I don’t take it for granted. And, not to mention being an African American male and them allowing me to express that without having to say I’m black. They let me wear my lox. They’ve never given me any problems about wearing my head wraps, or about how I present myself. They allow me to be me.
How would you define MTV’s lasting impact on Pop culture as a whole?
It’s the leading platform for the youth voice. It always has been. Even if it’s gone through some transition, it still is. I know this because I’ve been able to travel the world, and the impact of being on that channel and how people receive you knowing that you work on that channel, is incredible. And whether you’re the rebel, the misfit, the nerd, the kid who’s gay, or the kid of color, whatever facet of society you are, you’re being represented on that channel through music culture, through our series True Life and through political coverage. They’ve maintained a consistency of being a leading platform for the youth voice internationally and that branding has made such an impact over decades.
What’s in the game plan for Sway? What should we be on the lookout for?
My partner Tech is a part of a new Rap group with an artist by the name of Crooked I. It’s calledGroup Therapy. They’ve been making some music I can’t wait for programmers to hear. It’s a rebellious sound, but it’s smart. It has hooks and innovation. Then, also in the world of radio, we’re still doing the Wake Up Show. We’re still on stations like KMEL and Power 106. People can go towakeupshow.com and they see all the archives and video of all the artists who’ve come by the show. Tech is also going to produce a new show for MTV syndication. It’s a countdown show that I’ll be a part of to some extent. Radio programmers will love this as it’s a lot of hits with some discovery in terms of new music and quality artists.
**QB Content By Bob Burke**