Leaning back in his chair and resting his hands on the sound board, Phil Jackson is at ease in the studio. He is helping to sound engineer a lacrosse game broadcasting on WPRB 103.3, Princeton University’s community-supported radio station. But this is also where Jackson sits every Sunday between the hours of five and seven, when he is the on-air DJ for his radio show, “Side B with Phil Jackson.” Jackson’s show, which has aired on WPRB since 2010, promotes independent hip-hop and rap artists from across the state, region, and country.
“The whole reason for ‘Side B’ is back in the early ’90s, side A (of a record) is all the stuff that you basically would hear on the radio,” Jackson says. “If you flip the tape over to side B, that’s where you would hear the rare cut, the stuff that didn’t really get played on the radio. That stuff’s actually better than side A, but you don’t ever hear it.”
Jackson receives submissions mostly from independent hip-hop artists in New Jersey, but also from artists in Philadelphia and New York, while still playing big names in the independent rap scene like Action Bronson and Wu Tang Clan. The common theme is that most of the artists do not have record deals with “big” producers. After receiving the submissions, Jackson then screens and plays the songs of these artists — many of whom are in need of “exposure more than anything else,” he says.
Jackson says “Side B” started gaining momentum “basically through word of mouth,” as hip-hop artists in the northern New Jersey area shared information about the show among themselves. “Since I came on WPRB in 2010, I’ve seen a huge number of independent artists,” Jackson says. “Once I got on social media and they started hearing about my show, it was just like a snowball effect.”
He then emphasizes how the show fills a niche in the community. “The one thing I pride my show on is not just playing their music, but if they have an event or something, I give them an opportunity to get that out there, which you don’t really get with commercial radio. There aren’t that many shows like (‘Side B’), especially on the east coast.”
Inviting guest DJs and artists onto the show is something that Jackson has added to make the show special, but it is often also what produces the biggest problems for his show. “My guests are sometimes no-shows, and that leaves me hanging,” says Jackson, who then has to fill the time playing the guest’s music. Yet while he has become generally wary of promoting future guests unless he is sure that they will show up, he is still ready to invite DJs from across the state to “showcase their talents” and notes a 2017 goal is to invite as many new DJs as possible.
There are other issues that come with the show, such as scheduling conflicts and unscreened submissions (there are certain words and phrases that can’t be played on public radio). “What I’ve learned is to weed out those who are serious about their craft,” Jackson notes. “And I’ve learned to be brutally honest because some music I might not like and have to explain to them that it doesn’t fit the format of the show. My show is for everybody to enjoy, not just certain groups, so sometimes you might get into disagreements with artists.”
It was in a moment of epiphany that Jackson found his love for radio, but his roots in the medium go back to his childhood.
Jackson’s late father, also named Phil, worked as a consultant and regional store manager and helped establish new branches for supermarkets such as Pathmark and D’Agestino. His mother, Van Jackson, worked as a store associate at Sears when the Jackson family moved to Burlington County. He says both parents have served as a source of inspiration. “That’s where I get my hard work. My commitment to anything comes from my parents.”
Jackson’s childhood home in Mt. Laurel in Burlington County was in WPRB’s broadcast range, and he grew up listening to the late night underground hip-hop shows of the early 1990s. One thing that drew Jackson to WPRB was the strength and reach of the Princeton-based station’s broadcast signal, which stretches from Manhattan, New York to Wilmington, Delaware, well past Burlington County on a clear day.
“I’ve known about WPRB since the early ’90s because of the legendary underground hip-hop shows. Tony D and ‘G,’ the promoter from Wu Tang records, started the underground shows on WPRB and that’s been going on since probably 1989 up until the early 2000s. That’s how I really got hooked on WPRB, being in the South Jersey area. And that’s how I knew about all the legendary DJs that came out of our area,” says Jackson. Those memories inspired him to create “Side B.”
The move from Mt. Laurel to Bronx Community College was one in a series of relocations that included North Carolina and Maryland. The revelation occurred when he was at Bronx Community College and working as an assistant road manager for a singing group called the Delphonics.
“We had a show in Toronto, Canada, and we were going to a live radio interview with an FM station up there,” Jackson says. “So I went to the studio with them, and when I saw the producer back behind the board pressing buttons, I thought it was so cool.” Jackson still smiles when talking about that moment. He turns around for a few seconds to adjust the soundboard, then mimes what that producer in Toronto did with the buttons on the board. The Toronto producer reminded Jackson of his earliest encounters with radio.
“As soon as we got back off tour, I went back to college,” Jackson says. “I changed my major from business to communications because I knew that I wanted to pursue radio. And I’ve been hooked on radio ever since.”
In his first communications-related job, Jackson worked as a board operator for WHAT, a Christian radio station broadcasting from the suburbs of Philadelphia at the time. He also worked as a production assistant for the CBS sports station in Philadelphia. Now his full-time job is at Navigant Consulting, where he met his fiancee, Phyllis Hooks of Trenton.
“My family supports me so much,” Jackson says. “Without my fiancee, I don’t know where I’d be. She keeps me committed.”
And he continues to contribute to WPRB in Princeton and promote the area’s artists.
Jackson has a degree of admiration for the station, while remaining humble when talking about his own show. “It’s not about me, or even the show — it’s about those guys,” he says, pointing out of the studio. “I just appreciate the hip-hop culture around here. And really, I’m honored to be a part of WPRB.”
“Side B” is Jackson’s attempt to continue that legacy, and to give independent local artists the exposure they need to be successful. “They really don’t have an outlet,” Jackson says, pointing out of the studio again to the imaginary hip-hop artists outside, “and for seven years, I’ve been an outlet for them.”
Side B, WPRB, 103.3, Sundays, 5 to 7 p.m. For more information and to hear past broadcasts, visit www.wprb.com.