Keith Naftaly (white shirt) with the seminal rap group Run-DMC. (Photo/Courtesy)
Keith Naftaly (white shirt) with the seminal rap group Run-DMC. (Photo/Courtesy)

How a Jewish radio savant turned San Francisco’s KMEL into the top rap station

As a sophomore at UC Berkeley in the early 1980s, Keith Naftaly was bored. His mass communications classes weren’t stimulating. He wanted to work in radio, but the DJs at the college station played music that was too esoteric for his taste. He preferred Black music, especially R&B and funk.

One day he walked into the offices of KFRC, the iconic Top 40 station in San Francisco, and talked his way into a job answering the evening request lines. He quickly got promoted to produce a morning show and dropped out of Cal. By age 24, he had become the program director at KMEL (106.1 FM), a one-time rock station that he would transform into a multicultural pop station — and one of the first to fully embrace hip-hop culture.

“I didn’t know that KMEL or the team that I assembled there would serve as a gateway for rap music hitting the mainstream,” Naftaly said in a series of phone interviews this week. “I was following my gut.”

Hip-hop was born 50 years ago this month during a back-to-school dance party in the Bronx. While the culture was created primarily by young African Americans in New York City, Jews (including Black Jews) have contributed to its growth in a variety of ways — as managers and record label executives, journalists and artists themselves. Naftaly was one of a handful of fearless program directors who ignored industry warnings about rap being “too street” to play on pop radio.

In his 2010 book “The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop,” journalist Dan Charnas cites Naftaly as one of the trailblazers who “basically ended the cultural segregation that had reigned in American radio since its inception in the early twentieth century.”

Under Naftaly’s leadership, KMEL became the top-rated station in San Francisco. He dubbed it “The People’s Station” and sought to build a true community around it. He did so by giving radio play to local rappers such as MC Hammer, Too Short and Digital Underground. He green-lit the first hip-hop radio show, “The Wake Up Show,” which was hosted by Sway and King Tech and included live mixing and freestyle battles. He broadcast short public service announcements about the crack and AIDS epidemics.

He also planned the first annual “Summer Jam” festival, held at the Concord Pavilion in 1987, with all proceeds going to charity. The all-day format featuring rap, R&B and dance acts would be copied by radio stations around the country.

“I just wanted the station to feel like, if you were not tuned in, you were missing something,” he said.

Renel Brooks-Moon, the beloved Bay Area broadcaster and public address announcer for the San Francisco Giants, worked with Naftaly for several years at KMEL. In an interview, she called him a “visionary” who “changed the way people listen to the radio.”

She also credited him with fostering a “family vibe” among the staff at the station. “I wrestled in my radio career with playing Black music programmed by white folks, but Keith did it lovingly and with respect,” she said. “That’s why he’s still so revered in radio and in the recording industry now. He wasn’t faking the funk.”

Sway, who grew up in Oakland and has gone on to have a successful career on MTV and SiriusXM radio, praised Naftaly for setting his ego aside and letting the multicultural staff set the tone for the station.

“He was a 20-something white, Jewish kid from San Francisco who was put in charge of a radio station that was beginning to spearhead this movement that he had no knowledge of, but he was smart enough to surround himself with greatness or soon-to-be greatness,” Sway told J., citing DJs such as Alex Mejia, Billy Vidal and Mind Motion. “There’s a lot of people that are really successful pillars in the music business, like myself, that have come under Keith Naftaly’s umbrella, bro.”

Naftaly with Sway, who hosted "The Wake Up Show" on KMEL in the 1990s.
Naftaly with Sway, who hosted “The Wake Up Show” on KMEL in the 1990s. (Photo/Courtesy)

Today, KMEL is owned by iHeartMedia and continues to have a loyal fanbase despite the ascendance of streaming services such as Spotify. “In an era where radio matters less than ever, KMEL still has a 4.6 share in the Bay Area, whereas other stations are in the 2s or the 1s,” Naftaly, 60, said proudly, citing recent Nielsen Audio data. (Share refers to the percentage of listeners tuned into a given station at a given time.)

Naftaly no longer works in radio or lives in the Bay Area — he’s the president of A&R at RCA Records and lives in Hollywood — but he said he still keeps tabs on KMEL. “I consider myself the architect of the station, and the fact that it still is the essence of what I once envisioned, I’m humbled by that,” he said. (A&R stands for “artists and repertoire” and involves scouting new talent to sign.)

The youngest of three boys, Naftaly grew up in the Miraloma Park neighborhood of San Francisco. His father, Stanley, was a scientist and traveling salesman, and his mother, Bryna, a homemaker and social activist. Naftaly took piano lessons as a child and played for the residents of the Home for Jewish Parents in Oakland. “It was all in the spirit of being a good Jewish boy,” he said.

In the fall of 1971, Naftaly was one of thousands of students who were bused to elementary schools in different parts of the city as part of a court-mandated integration of the San Francisco Unified School District. His new school, Burnett Elementary, was located down the street from slaughterhouses in the historically Black neighborhood of Hunters Point.

“It exposed a new world to me, and I was excited to embrace it,” he recalled. “But simultaneously I became separated from all of my Jewish friends from Sunday school at Sherith Israel because their parents were terrified about sending their kids to ‘the ghetto.’ And they could afford private schools.”

His parents, by contrast, saw benefits in busing. “They wanted me to have exposure to other cultures, other cuisines, other customs,” he said. “They just thought that that would fortify my education.” His mother was especially committed to racial justice, he said, and he recalled accompanying her to see Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress, speak in San Francisco during her 1972 presidential campaign.

Outside of school, Naftaly became obsessed with radio — so much so that he would type up his own playlists for imaginary radio stations. As a bar mitzvah gift, his brother Eric bought him a subscription to the music magazine Billboard. “For me, Billboard magazine was my Torah,” he said.

Naftaly cuts the challah at his bar mitzvah, held at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco in Sept. 1975. (Photo/Courtesy)

During his high school years at Lowell, he was the go-to DJ for parties. He said he first started paying attention to rap music while working at KFRC in 1981. Callers were requesting three songs over and over again: “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang, “Planet Rock” by Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force and “The Breaks” by Kurtis Blow. “When I heard ‘Rapper’s Delight,’ I immediately sensed that there was something brewing that was very urgent and bold,” Naftaly said.

In 1992, KMEL was sold to Evergreen Media and the following year, Naftaly moved to Los Angeles to work at another Evergreen station, KKBT (known as “The Beat”). Then in 1995, record producer and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Clive Davis hired him to work in A&R at Arista Records in New York. “Clive took me under his wing, and all of a sudden I’m making records,” he said. He worked with The Notorious B.I.G., Puff Daddy, TLC and OutKast, among other legendary rappers.

The project he is most proud of, he said, is Whitney Houston’s 1998 album “My Love Is Your Love,” which he described as a hip-hop album (“we put her with Wyclef [Jean], Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliott”). It sold 10 million copies worldwide.

At RCA, he has helped shepherd artists including Doja Cat, H.E.R. (who grew up in Vallejo), ASAP Rocky and Steve Lacy. Of Doja Cat, who is Jewish, he said, “She’s a genius. She’s an internet troll turned global superstar, and she has done it her own way.”

On the topic of his personal life, Naftaly said he prefers to remain “mysterious.” He did reveal that he likes to box, he celebrates Passover, and he has been with his partner, Nathaniel, since 2002. His sexuality was something he kept hidden for years. “I realized that for my career to flourish, it was not advantageous” to be out, he said. He was content to let rumors swirl that he was dating various female celebrities, including Paula Abdul (“a nice Jewish girl”), who is actually a close friend of his.

Asked if the homophobia in some hip-hop music bothered him, he said he found the genre’s misogyny more troubling — so he made a point of programming a lot of songs by female artists, including Queen Latifah, Salt-N-Pepa and MC Lyte, at KMEL.

Naftaly with Doja Cat (left) and Paula Abdul. (Photos/Courtesy)
Naftaly with Doja Cat (left) and Paula Abdul. (Photos/Courtesy)

How does he explain his success in the music industry?

“I have a good ear. I’m an attentive listener. I speak slowly but with intention. I get along with all different types of people,” he said. “I feel like I was just destined to turn people on to music that pushes boundaries, shifts culture and fuels the soul.”

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.