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PHOTO: Chris Shields

Stepping Out of the Arena

After 17 years on local college radio, DJ Toast calls it a day

By Kirsten Ferguson

This Friday night, WRPI’s steadfast purveyor of all things hiphop, DJ Toast, will pack up his turntables and record crates and haul them to the Troy college radio station for one final 9 PM-to-midnight shift. Toast, aka Eric Haskins, has chosen to put his show, The Main Event, to bed after dedicating 17 years to a program that many in the area rely on for the best in new- and old-school hiphop, from classic Wu-Tang cuts to fresh-from-the-demo-tape tracks by local 518 artists.

Haskins cites a “handful of reasons” for his retirement, which was celebrated at a hiphop show on Saturday night at Northern Lights featuring Guru from Gang Starr, Smif-n-Wessun and other acts. For one, the “stress and strain” on his family from his weekly Friday-night commitment had taken its toll, explains Haskins, a father of two young boys who travels frequently during the week for his day job in software sales.

The musical landscape since Haskins began his show as a Public Enemy-loving RPI sophomore (with a “crazy off-hours slot”) in 1989 has changed as well. “Seventeen years is a long time,” he says. “In my mind, the music has changed. . . . Radio has changed. The landscape has changed. I don’t know if the audience wants to hear hiphop from a 36-year-old perspective.

“To me, I came up in the golden era of hiphop, the mid-’80s to early ’90s. Before, people thought hiphop was a fad that was going to go away, while people who were into it knew that it wasn’t.” Haskins, who grew up in a “typical” suburb of Boston and first started listening to hiphop on college radio in the Boston area, fell in love with the genre at a time when, he says, “it was different. It was raw. It had an edge to it.”

A concert at the RPI Field House back in 1987 featuring Public Enemy, Eric B. & Rakim and Doug E. Fresh had a big impact on a young DJ Toast. “Public Enemy was signing records at [onetime record store] Strawberries in Troy,” Haskins reminisces. “I remember going in there and seeing Chuck D. and Flavor Flav signing autographs. The concert was incredible. After seeing that, I was like, wow. It was old-school stuff where the rappers had dancers; they weren’t trying to be all tough. It was fun.”

Back then, commercial radio had yet to embrace rap music in regions outside of major cities, Haskins says, so record labels and music promoters looked primarily to college radio to gain exposure for their artists in secondary markets. “Record labels were calling,” wanting to get their artists on the air, Haskins says, and hiphop acts would “drive up from the city just for a chance to get exposed in a new market.” Over the years, Haskins interviewed tons of artists in the studio or on the phone for his radio show, from Mobb Deep to Smif-n-Wessun to Masta Ace. He also wrote articles for underground hiphop magazines across the country and had interviews appear in Buzzz magazine, Albany’s legendary but long-defunct monthly music ’zine.

These days, “corporate influences” have a major effect on the kind of hiphop that is most popular, Haskins laments. A lyrical prodigy like Gang Starr’s Guru, who hails from “one of the greatest rap groups ever,” may have only one gold record to his name, while a Southern rapper like T.I., with more commercial appeal, is at the top of the charts. “I just can’t get into that kind of music,” Haskins states. “I think I sound old when I say it, but I don’t think the new [hiphop] artists are as good. An exception to that is the local area.”

Haskins mentions his one regret about retiring: calling it quits at a time when local 518 hiphop artists, whom he has promoted throughout the years, are starting to gain prominence outside of the area. During his radio program, Haskins often mixed local recordings into his sets alongside major-label artists, because “the music is just as high-quality,” he says. “That’s one thing I will miss. A lot of the local artists are starting to make moves now,” including Albany MCs Sev Statik, Rick Whispers and Awar. “I like to help [the local acts] in any way possible. I will always be a fan. I just won’t have as active a role.”

At last Saturday’s DJ Toast retirement party, Haskins had an opportunity to “bring up some of the local guys onstage and say thank you,” including DJ Biz, one of his frequent cohosts on The Main Event. And, the local acts had their own way of saying thank you. Opening act Doom Fist, a 518 group, paid tribute to DJ Toast in the tradition of a good-natured “roast,” Haskins explains. “They brought me onstage and gave me a 4-foot high karate trophy with a microphone on top.” The trophy reads: “Presented to DJ Toast for wasting 17 years on something as fucking retarded as hip-hop.”


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