The voice, heard floating out of a radio, moves between peppy cheerleader and clear piccolo. It’s light and high and perky, but never slips into helium-laced bimbo-ness. Maybe there’s a dollop of Eartha Kitt’s velvet during the serious moments, but there aren’t many of those. There are many more funny ones, in which a laugh is a series of musical flutters. The voice isn’t just a pleasant accident, though; it’s a mastery of pause and pitch and breathing, along with what those in the industry call “good articulation.”
Sitting across from me at a Starbucks, that voice is finally connected to a face: the opal-eyed, full-lipped visage of Ranelle Sykes. Sykes hasn’t been on the air for a while, and she has a story to tell about that. It’s a story of work and fairness and gender and the law.
But first, there’s a story of a girl who loved music—and a voice that helped her turn that love into a job. Sykes explains the emergence of her voice like this: Growing up black in predominantly white Alexandria, the woman thousands of D.C.-area radio listeners know as “DJ Rane” was an enigma—a middle class military brat with two doting parents who was president of her church choir. A girl who also loved listening to Nas and Tupac. A music obsessive who found in the knock and bang of ghetto music a welcome intrusion on a suffocating life of good grades and God.
“I didn’t live in circumstances similar to what people were saying,” Sykes says. “When I listened to Pac or Nas, for me, there was this sense of identification with how they felt in society.”
For Sykes, that identification turned into a career. From an early age, she and hip-hop were in serious cahoots. She memorized lyrics, and at night, focused her Sony boom box on WPGC-FM 95.5 to dance to D.J. Tigger and his Live Den Show or WKYS-FM 93.9 to jam to Steph Lova, P-Stew, and Poochman of the Live Squad Show. They both blared “all the hottest joints,” she remembers.
“Hip-hop had a profound effect on my life, and you know, I kind of wanted to be a purveyor,” Sykes says. She scored a broadcasting degree from West Virginia University and, after graduation, tried her luck at WPGC—one of the stations she’d grown up listening to. Before long, she was working with the baritone Keith “DJ Flexx” Clagon in the 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. slot on the venerable hip-hop broadcaster, now owned by CBS Radio.
The voice, all of a sudden, was an integral part of the most dynamic African-American radio outlet of Sykes’ childhood. Rane and Flexx were dubbed the Home Team. They cultivated a chemistry that would last them ten years, enough time to dream up features like “Kickass Countdown,” a nightly rollout of the five most popular songs in the DMV, as well as “the Home Team Halftime Show,” during which mixer D.J. Book would throw down a collage of tracks as Sykes and Clagon hyped the festivities.
Clagon would punctuate his on-air time with raspy chuckles and party yells, and Sykes with her bubbliness. The duo came off like a fun couple, the kind that never fought. That’s not how things ended up.
It’s the middle of summer in Washington. On 95.5 FM, Sykes is elatedly shouting about the blazing temperatures as if they were trucks full of cotton candy: “It will be upwards of 95 degrees today,” she says. “Roastin’!”
“Hope you’re drinkin water!,” adds Clagon. “Home team on your radio!”
The country is learning the fate of Casey Anthony, the Florida mom accused of suffocating her two-year-old daughter. Here’s Sykes, delivering the news that the mom has been found not guilty. And there’s Clagon with a comic “oh, boy,” in the background.
Off-air, though, the good times had petered out. Sykes believed she was being stiffed.
In April of 2010, Clagon had shown up at the studio distracted, Sykes says. When she asked him what the trouble was, it all came pouring out. “He confided in me that management had come to him and asked him to give some of his money back, so that I could make more,” Sykes remembers.
Sykes, who’s rarely at a loss for words, was speechless. Up until that point, she says, she’d had no idea that Clagon’s salary trumped hers. She’d always considered them partners.