Hot 102's Club 102 stage was Summerfest's wildest dance party
Few commercial radio stations captured the essence of their era quite like Milwaukee's Hot 102. Owned by Green Bay Packers great Willie Davis and replaced in 1994 by an alternative-rock format, Hot 102 now lives on only in the memories of Milwaukee radio listeners and the old T-shirts that periodically make their way to local thrift stores, but in the '80s and early '90s the station was on the pulse of dance, pop and hip-hop trends.
George Sharp, who spins under the stage name Fresh G, was a mix DJ and on-air personality for Hot 102 for its final six years, and he recalls that the station tweaked its format frequently as tastes changed.
"When I started in '88, it was mostly house and dance music -- a lot of Chicago house, a lot of stuff coming from independent labels in Chicago, and a lot of Latin freestyle dance," Fresh G says. "By '92 it was strictly hip-hop and R&B, and that's all because radio kept changing at the time. Around '89 you had the introduction of Paula Abdul and MC Hammer, and they were running the radio, along with C+C Music Factory, Bell Biv DeVoe and New Jack Swing. Then that sound dried up when Dr. Dre hit the radio around '92."
And, like nearly every prominent radio station in the Milwaukee market, Hot 102 had its own stage at Summerfest, a dance tent called Club 102 that it programmed for a few years in the early '90s.
The stage was everything you might imagine in to be. On YouTube, there's some old VHS footage of a TV broadcast from the stage that aired on Fox 24 (back when channel 24 was a Fox station), and it's an absolute trip, an avalanche of period signifiers, from denim overalls to high-top fades. Even the broadcast's sponsors are nostalgic -- one of them is the Milwaukee anti-drug campaign Hang Tough.
But what's most striking, of course, is the dancing.
"Look at the fucking energy!" says Fresh G. "It was a bunch of kids dancing and jumping around, everybody doing the same Hammer jump up and down dance. That doesn't exist anymore."
Fresh G was in charge of booking DJs for the stage. "Since I was the only DJ who did mixes on the air, we had to go out and find other DJs to fill all the slots. I rounded up a bunch of club DJs and people that I knew."
The DJs had relative freedom to do their thing, so long as they kept the tempo upbeat. "There were a lot of songs we could not get away from," Fresh G recalls. "'It Takes Two' by Rob Base and 'I Wanna Rock (Doo Doo Brown)' by Luke of 2 Live Crew were songs that the crowd kept requesting, and because the crowd kept coming and going all day, every 30 minutes there'd be a new crowd all over again making the same requests."
2 Live Crew, incidentally, landed one of the stage's more prominent DJs in some hot water. Veteran Milwaukee DJ Doc B had been booked to spin nearly every night at the stage its first year, but he got banned his first night for playing an explicit 2 Live Crew track."It was funny but not really because I literally got banned from the tent!" Doc B laughs.
Fresh G recalls one night in particular that felt like destiny, when The Club MTV tour stopped at the Marcus Amphitheater, right near the Club 102 stage. "It had Hammer, Bel Div Devo, Milli Vanilli, C+C Music Factory -- everybody hot at the moment, all the artists we were killing on the air," Fresh G says. "And when the concert ended everybody from the Marcus Amphitheater flooded into our tent. It was absolutely jam packed with party and dance people."
"We really were one of the biggest draws at Summerfest for a while," Fresh G says. And if that sounds quaint, he says, "remember, this was the old Summerfest, not the Summerfest you know now, which is the biggest music festival in the world. At the time there was maybe one big draw a night, and a bunch of smaller stages. So being part of it was such a big deal. Summerfest was so high profile. It was something you had to be at."
You can watch the videos of Fox 24's Club 102 broadcasts, in all their grainy VHS glory, below.