As Summer Jam Turns 25, Hot 97 Stakes Its Claim To Hip-Hop Pedigree

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The hosts of Hot 97's Ebro in the Morning (left to right: Ebro Darden, Laura Stylez, Peter Rosenberg) in New York in 2015.

The hosts of Hot 97's Ebro in the Morning (left to right: Ebro Darden, Laura Stylez, Peter Rosenberg) in New York in 2015.

Hip hop’s feud of the moment reached a white-hot peak last week. For once, Twitter wasn’t the first place to hear about it.

Pusha T had just unleashed “The Story Of Adidon,” the diss record that takes calculated and ruthless aim at Drake, belittling his parents, his producer, even the mother of his alleged secret son. But rather than drop it online, as Drake had done days prior with his own “Duppy Freestyle,” Pusha took the old-school route: He paid a visit to WHQT Hot 97’s Lower Manhattan headquarters and hand-delivered the record to DJ Funkmaster Flex, who premiered it on the air that evening, dropping his signature sound bombs all over the track. Twelve hours later, the hosts of the station’s drive-time flagship, Ebro in the Morning, still sounded jacked from the night before.

“When it comes to this hip-hop thing – when it comes to doing this beef thing and putting out records – if you not coming by Hot 97 or a station that really matters, with a DJ that matters, it don’t have the same impact,” Ebro Darden said Wednesday, proselytizing to the airwaves from his bully pulpit with co-hosts Peter Rosenberg and Laura Stylez. “Throwing it up on SoundCloud is cute and everything, but when you got somebody up here kicking and screaming, wheeling it back, and you up here with them, talking and taking photos, that takes it somewhere else. And y’all can be like, ‘Oh, you just saying that.’ Nah, y’all feel the difference. It feels different.”

The moment encapsulated the old glory that helped stamp Hot 97 as the nation’s premier hip-hop destination during the ’90s and early 2000s. Though hungry competitors and high-profile departures have challenged its dominance, the station’s gravitational pull can still be felt on the stage of Summer Jam, where Hot 97 has tried to curate some of the hottest names in rap each year for a quarter-century.

There aren’t many living, breathing institutions left in hip-hop. Clubs eventually close. Record labels get bought and sold, in spirit if not in name. Now that the genre is the most consumed in the U.S., it commands the biggest festival stages in the world. But Summer Jam isn’t for the world — it’s for the culture. This is where family biz and requisite beefs get hashed out, where monumental moments occur. This is where Jay-Z dissed Nas and Prodigy with his debut of “Takeover,” then brought out Michael Jackson to close his 2001 set. This is where Nas planned to hang Jay in effigy as payback the following year, until show producers said no. And this is where, six years ago, Nicki Minaj made headlines by not performing, canceling hours before her set after word of a dismissive statement by the station’s own Rosenberg made it back to her.

This Sunday, the stage at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. will host some of the year’s most culturally resonant artists — including Kendrick Lamar, a newly minted Pulitzer winner; Lil Wayne, now on the other side of a long and bitter battle with his label, Cash Money; and Meek Mill, who walked out of prison less than two months ago. The event is Summer Jam’s 25th anniversary, dubbed ’94 Til Infinity, and the lineup is a strong reflection of everything Hot 97 has fought for as an institution.

But with experience comes baggage. At 43 and 38, respectively, Darden and Rosenberg are squarely in the midlife of storied careers as standard-bearers, which frequently puts them on the outs with the new wave.

A commanding presence on YouTube, where Ebro in the Morning‘s extended artist chats are required viewing for rap diehards, Darden is even more imposing in person. When he rises from the console to greet me in the studio, wearing white low-top Nikes, a lavender Billionaire Boys Club hoodie and black Stussy hat to the back, he stands as tall as his resume is long.

Darden was already entrenched in the radio world by 15. He got his first gig on the research side at a Sacramento station, where he’d cold call station listeners to quiz them on their listening habits. Even then, he was learning to use his voice to provoke a response. “I would put on a higher-pitched voice, change my name,” he says, “try to get people to do the thing.”

Over the next couple decades, he went from running operations, with occasional on-air hosting duties, to directing music and programming at various stations from Sacramento to Portland to New York, where he landed at WQHT in 2003. When he switched back to on-air talent in 2014, the station was in the thick of a ratings war with local rival Power 105 and its own morning staple, The Breakfast Club. “It was a challenge,” he says. “Any time you’re starting a show it’s a challenge. You’re going from managing content to creating it. It’s a different mind[set].”

Where The Breakfast Club showed an aptitude for bringing drama, with host Charlemagne tha God’s contentious interview style drawing tears from Lil Mama and a demand to “put some respek on my name” from Cash Money boss Birdman, Darden and Rosenberg doubled down on hip-hop fundamentals. They took Trinidad James to task, good-cop/bad-cop style, for his “ignorant” debut single and video, “All Gold Everything.” They chided Lil Uzi Vert for refusing to freestyle over a classic ’90s DJ Premier beat. And Darden jokingly called Lil Yachty a “high school-a** rapper” while criticizing his lack of bars, after the then-teenaged rapper released a song titled “For Hot 97.”

Youth is currency in hip-hop, but Darden has distinguished himself by flaunting his age and perspective as assets. “Nobody had done hip-hop radio until they was 43 when I started at 15,” he says. His handle on Twitter and Instagram is @oldmanebro, and when his Rick Ross beard began showing grey streaks a few years ago, he made no attempt to hide it.

“I’m old,” he says, flashing a quick smile, when asked if he ever worries about alienating young artists and their fanbase. “I’m not trying to be y’all friend. I’m not trying to hang out with y’all. I’m going home to my 4-year-old.” A linebacker in his high-school days, he turns to a football analogy: “Just because you’re the rookie, you come across the middle and I’m gonna tap you soft? No. I’m about to tear your f****** face off. You’re in the big leagues now, daddy. That’s what we doing.”

If Darden is the enforcer who holds young acts’ feet to the fire, Rosenberg is the nerdy early adopter, who champions rising MCs before they break big. He prides himself on having embraced Kendrick Lamar shortly after the rapper’s major-label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, dropped in 2012, before most East Coast stalwarts were ready to publicly do so. Since then, Rosenberg has taken his commentary to ESPN and Complex, where he hosts a new web series, Open Late. But he’s quick to pull the cards of influential tastemakers who have emerged in the digital space in recent years.

“This culture is important: When it comes to documenting it, commenting on it and gatekeeping, if you will, it requires people to have earned certain stripes. It’s great that DJ Akademiks has a certain voice in hip-hop,” Rosenberg says, referring to the host of the Complex series Everyday Struggle. “He made a lotta YouTube videos and they got a lotta views. But you’re not actually a DJ. He’s an entertaining personality and he has a role. Or Adam22, who does NoJumper — great podcast. He’s so up on all the SoundCloud rappers. I love Adam, [but] he’s not a hip-hop head. He doesn’t come from the culture.”

Like Darden, Rosenberg traces his hip-hop timeline back to adolescence. As a high school DJ in Bethesda, Md., he would tune in to Hot 97 whenever his family took trips to New York. By 17, he was a constant fixture on the 10-watt station at the University of Maryland. “I got the 3 a.m. show, but I would just go up there starting at 6 o’clock and sit there all night till my show went on,” he says. Rosenberg made the rounds at several Washington, D.C.-area stations before being recruited by Darden to join Hot in 2007.

The team makes for an odd match on the surface — Rosenberg, an East Coast native from a Jewish background; Darden, a West Coast native of black and Jewish parentage; and Laura Stylez, an L.A. native of Guatemalan descent who joined in 2013 — but the hosts intersect in ways that speak to hip-hop’s expansive audience. After a period of turmoil following heavyweight departures (including personalities DJ Mister Cee, former morning show co-host Cipha Sounds and the voice of New York, Angie Martinez, who left for Power 105 in 2014), the station, and the morning show in particular, seems to have found its voice again.

“Hot 97 has succeeded now in its staying power by not being so hell-bent on being the only one,” says journalist and author Kathy Iandoli, who wrote a Billboard article a couple of years ago that posed a critical question: “Does Hip Hop Still Live at Hot 97?

“The biggest argument that was being posed to Hot 97 at the time is that they weren’t giving enough opportunities to the younger artists who were trying to get put on,” Iandoli tells me. “Maybe Ebro had the foresight to see that the Internet was going to make it too easy. Maybe streaming did allow for people to become these power players without having actually earned their stripes. … It’s a different thing that anyone who even listened to Hot 97 during its heyday can understand. It’s an entirely different era.”

The crosstown radio battles that once consumed Hot 97 also became less imperative as bigger culture wars began to overwhelm the news. “We’re living in history right now in a lot of ways,” Darden says. “The President of the United States is a Twitter troll and his wife has nude photos on the Internet. We ain’t never seen nothing like this.” But he says talking about culture and identity has always come easy to him, thanks in part to an upbringing in Berkeley, Calif., surrounded by activism.

“These conversations have been a part of my life forever. They’ve just become cool now, and because of social media more people are having them,” he says. “When Iggy Azalea came up here the first time I asked her if she was an imposter — just real, you know what I’m saying? When Migos came for the first time I was like, ‘I don’t understand what y’all saying.’

“I challenged a lot of artists when it was unpopular to do that. That’s who I am and that’s how I’ve always felt about hip-hop. I like some ratchet stuff and some hood stuff, but I also like things that are very thought-provoking and well-crafted. I’m more of a quality-over-quantity type of dude.”

As for Sunday’s Summer Jam, which Darden produces, he thinks it’s one of the best they’ve presented in years. His only big disappointment is that Cardi B won’t be able to perform. “She’s an artist from the Bronx that we’ve been supporting since the beginning,” he says. “But being eight months pregnant on the stage … you know what I’m saying.”

Meanwhile, Rosenberg plans to introduce a big act, as he usually does, while making sure he doesn’t say anything that could potentially jeopardize the show. But he also can’t imagine being anywhere other than Hot 97 at a time like this.

“The reason I’m here is because I specifically dreamed of being here,” Rosenberg says. “So while there’s certainly other impactful things that happen, everyone knows deep down that the biggest moments that you can remember all seem to be here. This is where the pinnacle of the culture is.”

As with any Summer Jam, there’s always the element of surprise. When asked whether he’s been in communication with Pusha T lately, Darden flashes that smile again. “I talk to Push all the time,” he says. In a digital age where streaming platforms and soundalike playlists hold a vice-grip on the industry, the terrestrial station still wields the ability to shift the culture on occasion. It’s a face card Darden and the rest of his team plan to hold on to.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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