Urban contemporary is a music radio format. The term was coined by New York DJ Frankie Crocker in the mid-1970s. Urban contemporary radio stations feature a playlist made up entirely of genres such as hip hop, R&B, grime, UK garage and drum and bass, and Caribbean music such as reggae, dancehall, reggaeton, zouk, bouyon, and soca. Urban contemporary was developed through the characteristics of genres such as R&B and soul. Virtually all urban contemporary formatted radio stations are located in cities that have sizeable African-American populations, such as New York City, Atlanta, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, London, Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Dallas, Houston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Memphis, Boston, New Orleans, Louisville, Indianapolis, Birmingham, Columbus, Oklahoma City, Charlotte and Orlando.
The term "urban contemporary" is heavily associated with African-American music, particularly for R&B in African-American contexts. For Latin Americans, the music is more Latin urban, such as reggaeton, Latin hip hop and bachatón.
Urban contemporary playlists are dominated by singles by top-selling hip hop and R&B performers. On occasion, an urban contemporary station will play classic soul songs from the 1970s and early 1980s to satisfy the earlier end of the genre.
Mainstream urban is a branch of urban contemporary, and rhythmic contemporary is also a branch.
When Frankie Crocker was appointed as program director of the newly created WBLS in 1974, he created an eclectic music mix of R&B and disco redefining the R&B format as urban contemporary. The station was an instant success, the most listened-to radio station in the country. In 1975, WDMT in Cleveland began programming a mix of rhythm blues R&B, disco and rap. The station featured live street jocks mixing vinyl records each night. The station's popularity grew and in 1980, it was Arbitron rated No. 2 12+, just behind the No. 1 rated WMMS with the original "Morning Zoo".
During the early 1980s as newly formed WRKS-FM (98.7 Kiss FM) became the first rap station in the United States, WBLS quickly began adding more rap songs to its playlists. The urban format by this time was redefined by an eclectic mix of R&B, rap, reggae, dance, house, and freestyle. WBLS continued as the flagship station of the urban format; however, Kiss FM surpassed them in the ratings.
Another successful early urban outlet was WDRQ in Detroit, which switched from a top 40 format in the spring of 1982 and made a #2 showing 12+ in its first Arbitron ratings book. In addition to rap, R&B and dance music, WDRQ featured mainstream pop music with a danceable beat from artists such as Cyndi Lauper and Culture Club in rotation.
Many radio stations imitated the urban sound since it was proven to be more profitable than other formats and had proven itself more adept than straightforward black-targeted R&B formats at attracting white and Latino listeners. Another subformat of urban contemporary is rhythmic contemporary hits which plays a great deal of dance music. WQHT-FM (Hot 97) and KPWR (Power 106) were the first stations to utilize this format.
Since the 1990s, as urban contemporary hits have dominated the US pop charts, many top 40 stations have turned to playing tracks popular on urban contemporary radio stations.
Following periods of fluctuating success, urban music attained commercial dominance during the early 2000s, which featured massive crossover success on the Billboard charts by R&B and hip hop artists. In 2004, all 12 songs that topped Billboard Hot 100 were African-American recording artists and accounted for 80% of the number-one R&B hits that year. Along with Usher's streak of singles, top 40 radio and both pop and R&B charts were topped by OutKast's "Hey Ya!", Snoop Dogg's "Drop It Like It's Hot", Terror Squad's "Lean Back" and Ciara's "Goodies". Chris Molanphy of The Village Voice later remarked that by the early 2000s, urban music was pop music
By the early 2010s, urban music had taken a backseat on top 40 radio to mainstream EDM sounds, and several successful urban artists, including Rihanna, Chris Brown, Ciara, Usher, Nicole Scherzinger, Akon, Trey Songz, Pitbull, Flo Rida, and Ne-Yo, were making EDM records for top 40 airplay while continuing to make hip hop or pure R&B records for urban airplay. Pure urban formats continue to be successful in markets with large African-American populations, while medium or smaller markets are more likely to feature urban music through the subset of rhythmic contemporary stations with danceable mainstream hits mixed in.
The Grammy Award for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration has been awarded since 2002.