- Matthew Thorsen
- Melo Grant
Melo Grant can't sit down. Well, she can, of course, if she chooses to. But throughout a recent broadcast of her two-hour radio show, "Cultural Bunker," on University of Vermont station WRUV 90.1 FM, the diminutive hip-hop DJ, dressed head-to-toe in muted, unassuming gray tones, rarely stopped moving, let alone indulged in a breather.
"I never sit down when I'm here," Grant, 53, explained that Friday evening at the studio. Behind her, the sinister half-time bounce of "Hose Down" by Mr. Lif and Akrobatik thumped loudly through the station's speakers as she grinned and grooved to the beat at a mixing console. She added, "I feel like I'm not doing my job if I sit still. And I just can't."
When Grant is on the airwaves, it's a good bet that most of her listeners can't stay still, either, whether they're nodding coolly to the rhythm or full-on busting a move. Grant has been known to do the latter in front of the station's picture window that faces the hallway of the Dudley H. Davis Center.
"Sometimes I'll be getting really into it in here, and I turn around and see a bunch of kids staring in at me," she said with a characteristic easy laugh. "I'm like, 'Hey, what's up!'"
Grant's masterful blend of classic and new-underground hip-hop has been inspiring spontaneous dance moves, from the dorm room to the DJ booth to radios all over Chittenden County, for a very long time. For more than three decades — 33 and a third years, to be precise — Grant has served as the smooth-voiced, inviting host of "Cultural Bunker." She's occasionally delivered the program from other area community radio stations, as well.
In Burlington, the "Bunker" is a Vermont radio institution. It's sort of the boom-bap equivalent of Reuben Jackson's "Friday Night Jazz" or of Joel Najman's rock-and-roll time machine "My Place," both on Vermont Public Radio. But it's likely that more listeners turn to the "Bunker" to get hyped up for a night out.
On Friday, October 6, fans would do well to flip to 90.1 FM at the customary 6 p.m. time slot and pregame the anniversary bash for Grant and her show at Club Metronome, 33 1/3 Anniversary of the "Cultural Bunker," which will take place later that night. (A note to the non-vinyl-savvy: 33 1/3 is the RPM speed of albums on a turntable.) Grant herself will host the gig, joined by a cavalcade of local hip-hop luminaries, including DJs Big Dog, Cre8, Sexfly, Luis Calderin and Nat Woodard. Acclaimed Burlington producer Es-K will drop beats for a cypher with rappers Konflik, S.I.N.siZZle, Learic and Jarv.
Throughout its run, the "Bunker" has served as a go-to source for killer hip-hop. But it's much more than that. Long before the celestial jukebox (aka the internet) granted easy access to nearly the entirety of recorded music, Grant was hipping audiences to underground sounds that you simply couldn't hear anywhere else in Vermont. (This reporter is old enough to remember when "hip-hop" on local commercial radio was Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer — or, if you were lucky, Young MC.)
A generation or two of local rap fans, and local rappers, were raised on Grant's weekly sonic postcards from the cutting edge. In relatively isolated Vermont, her show served as a lifeline to the sounds of the outside (read: urban) world. With the advent of streaming services, one could argue that this lifeline is less vital. But one could also argue this: Faced with an overwhelming quantity of music, listeners need sage tastemakers more than ever.
Grant is more than just a good radio jock and curator. As the current longest-tenured DJ on the college radio station, she's a pillar of WRUV, a rare and invaluable constant in an organization that, by its nature, sees turnover every semester.
"She is WRUV," declared fellow WRUV DJ Lluvia Mulvaney-Stanak.
Grant is equally important to Vermont's hip-hop scene. She gives airtime — and occasional advice — to local acts hustling to be heard in a community that can be frustratingly slow to listen.
"[She told us] to keep putting in work and always stay hungry," said Brian Walsh, aka Walshie Steez. His group, the Lynguistic Civilians, is one of many that Grant has championed to her audiences in recent years. Walsh continued, "She is so dedicated to her craft that it inspires others to be great."
But even that might sell Grant short. More than simply an inspiring figure in local hip-hop and radio, Grant is a community cornerstone. Hers is a chilled-out voice of the people, humbly changing this little corner of the world one dope beat and clever rhyme at a time.
- Matthew Thorsen
- Melo Grant in the record stacks at WRUV
It might seem unlikely that one of the most important people in Vermont hip-hop is a bubbly middle-aged woman from the Bronx — a knitting enthusiast, no less. Humble to a fault and, she claims, "painfully shy" outside the DJ booth, Grant would probably dismiss the notion that she's a community pillar. Yet plenty of local voices attest that she is. Since she first flipped the on-air switch at WRUV as a sophomore in 1984, Grant has made a difference in many lives — over the airwaves, in person or both. Just ask Luis Calderin.
"All of the cool things I've done, the amazing people I've met and worked with, the places I've seen, it all traces back to WRUV and Melo Grant," he told Seven Days.
Calderin is one impressive cat himself — an entrepreneur, a marketing savant and a DJ. Most recently, he worked as the vice president of marketing for the national nonprofit Rock the Vote. Before that, he served in Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) presidential campaign as the arts, culture and youth vote manager. In that role, Calderin was responsible for managing Sanders' legion of celeb endorsers, including rapper Killer Mike, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and actor Susan Sarandon.
Calderin met Grant in 1990, when he was 15. The Miami native had moved to Burlington with his mother and siblings four years earlier to escape Miami's increasingly violent streets. To say the first American-born son of Cuban immigrants experienced culture shock in snow-white Burlington would be an understatement. But Grant helped ease his transition.
"She was a woman who looked like me in a state where there weren't many people who looked like me," Calderin explained of Grant, who is black. "She showed me love in a big-sister kind of way."
She also showed him a lot about hip-hop.
"We take a lot of stuff for granted now in Burlington. But in 1990, pre-internet, Melo was critical to sharing hip-hop music and culture in Vermont," Calderin said. "To be a woman of color in Vermont in 1990 would have been hard anyway. But educating people and handpicking the hip-hop you needed to hear really had a tremendous impact on me."
That year, under Grant's tutelage, Calderin became the youngest DJ in WRUV history. Save for a break to study communications at Emerson College in Boston, he remained on the air until 1999.
"She's a great teacher," Calderin opined of Grant. "She knows everything about everything, from underground to commercial hip-hop, regional complexities, you name it. But she's never condescending about it. She's excited to share, and that's contagious."
Spend five minutes walking WRUV's record stacks with Grant, and you'll find that she is indeed a living encyclopedia of hip-hop. After two hours with her in the DJ booth, even a die-hard hip-hop fan will come away with a newfound appreciation for the genre — maybe even an obsession that approaches Grant's.
The veteran DJ doesn't consider herself an educator, per se — though she said she once considered teaching a course on hip-hop history. "There's just so much that I wouldn't know where to begin," she admitted. On air, she speaks only as much as she has to.
"I prefer to let the music do the talking," she explained.
And talk it does. Listeners could learn a lot about hip-hop and how its past connects to its present by paying close attention to the "Bunker"'s weekly playlists (all of which, dating back to 2010, can be viewed at wruv.radioactivity.fm).
Grant said she never plans her sets ahead of time; each show is improvised. Week after week, she navigates her two hours like a jazz soloist, moving fluidly in the moment and riffing on themes and sounds as they strike her.
On the night this reporter dropped by the studio, an off-mic discussion on the intersection of music and politics inspired Grant to spin "Legalize Me" by Prophets of Rage — the politically charged collaboration of Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy's Chuck D and Cypress Hill's B-Real. An offhand comment on the timelessness of certain music led to an Eric B. & Rakim track from the late '80s.
And that discussion became a reason to play "Hip Hop Quotable." Lyrics on the J Dilla-produced AG track are stitched together from classic hip-hop songs dating from the origins of the genre through the mid-2000s. The song is practically a microcosm of the "Bunker" itself.
What the listening audience doesn't get — at least not explicitly — are Grant's insights on each tune as she spins it. When she listens to music on her own, she keeps a notebook filled with notes, thoughts and reminders. Off-mic, for almost every cut she played — on CD, vinyl or MP3 — she passed along nuggets to her visitor. They ranged from recollections of how she found the artists to biographical tidbits like their influences or who discovered them.
Then there was stuff like this: When Grant dropped the needle on "Put the Record Back On," a 1986 track by Bronx rapper Just-Ice, she revealed a long-ago crush on producer Kurtis Mantronik.
"Oh, I loved him," she said with a sheepish laugh. She never met the groundbreaking producer but still gets flustered talking about him. "He was so handsome," she gushed. Her crush was musical, too. "He was doing things no one had ever heard before. I bet if you asked him, Timbaland would tell you he listened to a lot of Mantronik," she said.
Maybe it's too bad Grant doesn't use the mic more. When she talks about hip-hop, at least with a good beat going in the background, she slips into a rhythmic, lyrical cadence that almost sounds like, well, rapping. (Grant claims she's never rapped outside her car or the shower.) While she prefers to let her music do the lecturing when she's in the booth, it's safe to say that certain members of Grant's audience have absorbed quite a bit from the weekly survey course in hip-hop that is the "Bunker."
"Her consistency is amazing. I remember as a teenager listening to WRUV — she always played quality music," said Devon Ewalt. "You always knew you could tune in and listen to a dope show."
Ewalt, who grew up in Essex Junction in the 1990s, is better known by his stage name: Learic. He's a founding member of seminal Burlington hip-hop group the Aztext and is widely regarded as one of the finest rappers to pick up a mic in Vermont. "It was cool having that in Vermont long before hip-hop entered the mainstream," he added of the "Bunker."
Pre-streaming, radio shows were appointment listening. Both Ewalt and Calderin recalled taping episodes of Grant's show on cassette to listen to repeatedly and identify albums to seek out.
"If you wanted to hear A Tribe Called Quest, that could only happen by listening to certain DJs at a certain time," Calderin said. "You could always count on tuning in every Friday night and hearing her smooth, cool voice talk about some great hip-hop group you'd never heard of before."
Said Ewalt, "She gave you the ingredients for enjoying the music yourself and was a pipeline for making people aware of what was going on in the actual hip-hop scene."
Put the Record Back On
- Matthew Thorsen
- Melo Grant cuing up a record
One reason Grant is so well versed in hip-hop is that she's lived through most of its history. Growing up in the Bronx in the 1970s, she had a front-row seat for the genre's birth. Her teen years were spent following DJs, bands and rappers around New York City clubs on the weekends.
At UVM, where she landed in 1982, Grant majored in statistics. She was drawn to WRUV because of the station's alternative bent — and because a friend from NYC was a DJ on the station at the time. Through her college years and into her twenties and thirties, Grant often ran up to Montréal to follow musicians as she'd done in New York. She also deejayed at Burlington nightclubs.
Today, her life is slightly more staid than back when she could "stay up for days." You can still catch her spinning locally every now and then, though not with nearly the frequency she did in the 1980s and '90s. In part, she said, that's because for several years she assumed guardianship of her niece and nephew, both of whom are now out of the house.
"I went from being the fun aunt to making sure everyone was eating breakfast and doing their homework," Grant explained. Though the responsibility of raising two teenagers cut into her club DJ work, she continued spinning at WRUV.
"It became a really important outlet for me, but for entirely different reasons," she said. Grant's nephew still lives in Burlington and, according to his aunt, is a talented musician in his own right. "I think you'll be hearing from him sooner or later," she suggested.
Grant currently lives in Burlington's Old North End and works as an account consultant for a health care administration firm in Williston called Choice Strategies, a division of WageWorks. Her previous day jobs include positions at the Visiting Nurse Association and the now-defunct Burlington rental shop Waterfront Video. For 17 years, she worked for a video distribution company called Video Products Distributors, which had an East Coast office in Burlington.
"It meshed with the DJ thing," Grant said of working for Waterfront and VPD. "I was your entertainment source."
Despite having, as she put it, "a real job and a mortgage," Grant is still prone to escaping to Montréal to catch shows that bypass Burlington. And the self-described "painfully single" DJ is not immune to the occasional new celeb crush. Her latest music obsession is Anderson .Paak, whom she heard at the Montréal International Jazz Festival this summer. The Grammy-nominated artist has since earned an almost weekly slot in the "Bunker"'s rotation.
"I mean, how can you listen to 'Am I Wrong' and not feel at least a little better about the world?" the DJ asked. (She's not wrong: It's a great song.)
Grant's tastes have always run the gamut. Though she's best known now as a hip-hop guru, when she started the "Bunker" in 1984, the summer after her sophomore year, it was a repository for all sorts of underground and indie music. Hip-hop, sure, but also rock, funk, punk and beyond. To this day, she claims the best show she ever saw was Gang of Four.
"That show was when I realized music could say something," Grant explained of seeing the British post-punk band on a pier in Brooklyn in her youth.
She's been finding and sharing music with a message ever since — although not exclusively.
"I love a good party jam, too," she admitted. "Deep down, everyone loves ignorant music, right?"
That's probably true. But what sets Grant apart is the care and passion she puts into curating sets of music that does say something, regardless of which shelf at WRUV it came from.
"It blows my mind how much she knows — not just about hip-hop, but all kinds of music," said Mulvaney-Stanak, who has been at WRUV since 2004.
Mulvaney-Stanak is a notable local radio figure, too, having hosted the now-defunct local rock show "Early Warning" on 99.9 FM the Buzz for several years. The longtime radio jock is part of the brain trust behind Burlington's new low-power community radio station, WBTV-LP 99.3 FM. Grant is also heavily involved with that station, both as a DJ and a member of the outreach committee.
Mulvaney-Stanak sees a direct link between Grant's love of music and radio and her ties to the community.
"She has that connection to the local scene, which is a dying art in radio," said the DJ. "The immediacy that the internet gives us in some ways makes it harder to find the music you want. So keeping a local connection is even more important."
Key to such connections is the continuing viability of the radio station where Grant has volunteered for more than 30 years. It's obvious even in passing that the other DJs hold her in high esteem. During the changeovers before and after her show, Grant breezily joked with the student jocks as colleagues and friends, not as kids three decades her junior.
Later, she said that training new DJs is part of what keeps her going — in her 33 and a third years, she's only taken a handful of breaks, and never for more than a summer. She recounted a recent training session after which a freshman trainee from Richmond approached Grant and told her that she and her father used to listen to the "Bunker" every week. Grant's show had inspired the student to get into radio.
"That's the stuff right there," Grant said, beaming. "Reaching people like that keeps me coming back every week."
"She's a sucker for punishment and willing to start from square one with students over and over again," said Mulvaney-Stanak. "But it's all for the greater good of the station. Our goal is to have a really rad radio station, and that's where her heart is. Melo represents an authenticity about what radio really means."
Grant has highlighted a multiplicity of sounds in a community that has slowly become more diverse since she came to Vermont.
"I remember hearing that velvet voice in a place where you wouldn't expect such a soulful, urban-based radio show that was well curated," recalled Craig Mitchell, who's both a radio DJ and a renowned house-music DJ in Burlington and beyond. The Detroit native arrived in Vermont to attend Saint Michael's College in the early 1990s.
"I equate Melo to the soul, hip-hop and R&B version of Reuben Jackson," Mitchell continued, referring to the VPR jazz-show host. "She is totally connected and always has the right thing to say and the right thing to play."
Grant is a hands-on kind of person, which has helped her foster connections with her audience, fellow DJs and the community at large. It's also the reason she avoids online music streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora.
"You don't get a real interaction from an algorithm, because it doesn't change until you introduce something new," she explained, referring to the computerized — and often suspect — metrics that streaming sites use to curate for individual listeners. "You don't get someone who really gets to know your taste or what you might want to hear," she continued. "That takes time and effort and trust."
Grant added: "I like to think the show is helping people update their algorithms."