Is there a more storied Hip Hop radio station than New York City’s HOT 97? Is there a generation of Hip Hop fans that do not have at least one Rap memory immediately tied to the historic WQHT? Regardless of whether these questions are rhetorical, from Summer Jam to Who’s Next, on every level HOT 97 has been the source of nearly three decades worth of defining cultural moments.
But peering in from the outside, the past nine months looked arduous for the station. Former HOT 97 Morning Show member, K. Foxx was unexpectedly removed from her co-hosting duties early last summer. Four months after being arrested for soliciting sex from an undercover male police officer, legendary deejay Mister Cee resigned from the station in September 2013. Both controversial departures made national headlines and landed squarely on the desk of Program Director, Ebro Darden who announced that he is stepping down as PD in March 2014. Coupled with a losing ratings battle with NYC rival, Power 105.1, an aging roster of on-air legends in pivotal time slots arguably growing out of touch with their younger audiences, an array of competition from satellite and online radio, iTunes and streaming services and it’s not crazy to read tweets like “HOT 97 is launching a reality show” and immediately think money problems. Comparatively speaking, what do slumping artists do when they can’t crack SoundScan?
But HOT 97 isn’t launching a reality show. This Is HOT 97 is an unscripted comedy—more Real Husbands Of Hollywood than Real World. And Ebro may be stepping down, but he’s not leaving the station. Rather, he’s transitioning fully to radio show host and television co-star. K. Foxx and Mister Cee’s departures may have been public, but, according to Ebro, they haven’t altered the station’s progress.
“I think it’s just radio,” he tells HipHopDX in this exclusive interview with the entire HOT 97 Morning Show cast ahead of the series premiere of VH1’s This Is HOT 97. “We’ve gone through a number of staff members and people just move on and want to go do other things. Some people tell the truth. Some people like to make up stories on their exit. Some things are great for websites and somethings are just business as usual. For us, this was just business as usual.”
Also in this conversation, Peter Rosenberg, Cipha Sounds, and Laura Stylez tackle the myth that New York’s most rapped about radio station ever ceased supporting the five boroughs’ bourgeoning talent—championing HOT 97’s monthly new artist showcase, Who’s Next, and questioning the competition’s contributions to the culture. They also provide tips to aspiring journalists and radio personalities on ways to break big in a crowded content industry. Oh yeah, the team talks Angela Yee, as well.
Origin Of This Is HOT 97
Get More: This Is Hot 97
HipHopDX: Congratulations on the new show, everyone.
Peter Rosenberg: Thank you. The ratings are in. We’re #1 [Laughs].
DX: Ebro, if you can, please provide a rundown of the thought process leading up to This Is HOT 97. Where did this idea come from?
Ebro Darden: It was several years of dialog with people wanting to do a show about the radio station because of its legacy. We’re very careful about the things that we do, because we know that we have a brand that’s of value, so we just want to do the right things. The opportunity was presented again to do something on our terms. We decided to go about making people smile and feel good. VH1 and [Eastern TV/Mona Scott-Young] liked the idea and we collaborated and came up with the show, and now it’s on television.
DX: Why was this the right time for a show? Was it a change in the pitch or was it a change in the station’s position on why doing a show now makes sense?
Ebro Darden: It was actually a change in the pitch, because I don’t even know if we knew about the timing when they pitched it to us. The conversation started last June/July. That was when the pitch took place. The fact that it’s coming on television now is more of a VH1 thing and an Eastern conversation, because they put their schedule that way. For us, it was all about the idea, the content and making sure that it represents us in a way that we want to be represented.
DX: How much reality is in this show? I enjoyed the first episode. It seems lightly scripted as if characters are being developed and presented.
Peter Rosenberg: Your gut reaction is the one we’re hoping people have when they watch the show. We’re hoping they realize that it’s not a reality show. There are pieces in it and there are things that are based on real life stories. For example, the storyline of episode two, the episode focuses on something about me and my wife that played out on the radio in a real fashion. It was just sort of overdone for the show. There are definitely real pieces, in particular a lot of those little conversations are really conversations that we had. A lot of the stories that drive it are things that are recreated.
DX: One of the things that I think is interesting now is that major superstars do not need to rely on press the way that they may have in previous years or decades. There’s a conversation that happens on the pilot where Angie Martinez and Ebro and everyone else are discussing the importance of getting someone big for the show. Angie says something like if this show is only going to work if we get Jay Z, then that might not happen. Is that a real life challenge for the station?
Ebro Darden: I think that’s more a function of who Jay Z is as an artist. Our relationship with Jay Z and the radio station’s relationship with his career is with him as a rapper. We have a personal relationship, but as you know, the way Jay goes about allowing people to know him beyond being a rapper is very controlled. Because this is an unscripted comedy, comedy is not something synonymous with Jay Z. Getting Hov to be a part of a comedy is unlikely. That’s just who Jay Z is. I don’t know if that has anything to do with state of [the station].
Peter Rosenberg: That one speaks to Jay Z on the television show more than getting him on the radio. It’s just that the success of the radio station depends on getting Jay Z on radio. That’s a much different conversation than the television show. Although personally, we think that will change with the television show once people have seen season one. I think people will be more apt to understand it right away.
Ebro Darden: Let’s keep it another level of [one hundred], doing a show and telling people that it’s Mona Scott-Young and VH1—which we play out in the first episode—always sets people off a little bit. So it’s taking us doing something different that’s kind of warming people up to the idea.
DX: How much conversation did it take to get Kanye West to drop the “I don’t do TV, bro” line in episode one? Was that his idea or was that an idea pitched?
Ebro Darden: That was a conversation based on the fact that Kanye doesn’t do TV. [Laughs] He really doesn’t do TV, but when I pitched it to him just like what you saw, I was like, “Yo, you’re coming by to do X, Y, Z. Let’s do this little thing like this.” We had fun with it.
Ebro Darden Details HOT 97 Personnel Changes
DX: There’s a lot of change that’s happened at the station over the past year. Last July, K. Foxx explained why she left the show. Mister Cee left recently. Ebro, you moved completely to the creative side. What’s the mood like within the station? Is this a pattern from a bigger challenge within the station or this is just part of being in radio?
Ebro Darden: I think it’s just radio. We’ve gone through a number of staff members and people just move on and want to go do other things. Some people tell the truth. Some people like to make up stories on their exit. Some things are great for websites and somethings are just business as usual. For us, this was just business as usual.
DX: How much of your transition to the creative side play out through the show?
Ebro Darden: I don’t think a lot at all. The program director job is more analytics and management based. I’m still involved in a lot of the creative decision parts, but there’s a whole other corporate sales/research side that I’ve kind of let go so that we can do these type of ventures and stay focused on those things. The program director job of the 1990s was more of a creative one. These days it’s more analytics based.
DX: You transitioned into being a personality on the show about a year and a half ago. Was this part of your long term strategy, or was the decision based more on the change in the position?
Ebro Darden: Yeah, that’s pretty much it. Even when I started 18 months ago, we were having the dialog then. We always knew it would get to this point. It’s tough to do all of that stuff. Plus, I have a growing family. I have a daughter on the way. Being at work from 5:00 am to 7:00 pm is not something that’s conducive to having a family.
HOT 97’s Relationship With New York Artists
DX: Rosenberg and Cipha, one of the story lines last year that played out heavily on the internet was New York Hip Hop’s relationship with radio, or lack thereof. Rosenberg, you’ve always done an incredible job of highlighting New York artists on your Sunday night show [Real Late with Peter Rosenberg]. What are the challenges that people just might not understand between your Sunday night show and The Morning Show?
Peter Rosenberg: I can explain this question simply. I am not really allowed to sniff music during the morning. That’s not totally true. I will make suggestions or I will suggest records that make sense coming out of one of the segments that I do like “The Realness.” I don’t really think about music for The Morning Show unless it’s about a topic. I look at it as a separate job. It’s an undertaking I have that I was fortunate to have Ebro give me and have done as a thing that I love to do for the music. I look at my job in the morning as completely different. My job is to just be entertaining, funny and provocative. It’s really easy for me. I see it as totally separate.
DX: Is there really an opportunity for any radio station to support their local market the way the consumer believes there is?
Cipha Sounds: When people ask that question, I don’t think they do their full research because we support our local community a lot. Not every record that’s ever made in New York should be on the radio. We play all the dope radio records.
Peter Rosenberg: I think people do have a misconception that there was a time where everything being played was backpack New York records. That’s not really true.
Cipha Sounds: The radio station is not your iTunes.
Laura Stylez: Yeah, and then we have Who’s Next where we showcase local artists all the time.
DX: I think it’s interesting watching any story where there is a such a disconnect between reality and perception. Why is there this misconception? Why do people forget about Who’s Next? You guys have cats like Gliffics on there.
Ebro Darden: You also have to remember that we live in a world where the most interesting things on social media are driven by a passion point and a lack of support for independent or local scenes or specifically a New York scene—when there’s eight million people in New York City, which is probably two or three times as large as [Atlanta, Georgia] to put it into perspective—it’s a passion point and it will get clicks on a website. People use it to get clicks. Saying that the local scene is supported and doing well isn’t interesting. That’s not just the reality. It’s more interesting to say you’re being hated on or your being held down or oppressed or big corporate whatever is not supporting. That’s gonna get more clicks than, “HOT 97 is showing love.” Troy Ave is not saying that we’re not showing him love. Action Bronson, A$AP Rocky, the whole A$AP Mob for that matter, Bodega Bamz, French Montana…
Peter Rosenberg: Here’s what I think about the conversation, everyone always has that conversation about HOT 97, about local music and how it’s being covered is about HOT 97. It is never, ever about the other radio station…
Laura Stylez: That never plays local artists.
Peter Rosenberg: To me, I would ask you the question. Why is it that the conversation when it comes to new music and New York support is exclusively about HOT 97?
DX: I think it’s interesting to watch from a fan standpoint because it looks like The Source and XXL in the late 1990s/early 2000s to me. Not necessarily from an organizational standpoint because the stuff happening behind the scenes at The Source seemed like outliers. But when XXL did show up, everyone still cared more about the five mics in The Source, regardless of what was happening. I think the brand meant more and was more important to the community. I feel like that is where HOT 97 is now.
Peter Rosenberg: Well let me say this: Talk about it! That’s exactly what I’m saying. I’m always happy the conversation is about HOT 97. I’m coming up on six or seven years of doing Who’s Next. Every month as a volunteer team, we all do it in support of [Karlie Hustle], Chris Nadler and the rest of the team. There’s people who spend a lot of time tirelessly working for young artists. I wish people could see the way that people Chris and now Karlie work with, literally, no benefit except putting on artists. It’s really amazing. It makes me incredibly proud. And as a result, when people bring up this conversation, it doesn’t affect me. I’m just happy that it remains a conversation about up and coming artists from New York, and I go to bed at night knowing that not just me, but the entire station does an incredible job [supporting local artists]. The fact that Cipha Sounds plays Bodega Bamz at 7:30 in the morning is incredible! I would love for people to go check out our sister station in [Los Angeles]; you can check all over the country and check to see how much you see that with local artists. It almost never happens. Amazingly, we’re the only station that gets beat up for it because, let’s be honest, when it comes to breaking Hip Hop music, we’re the only station that matters.
Peter Rosenberg: Fab doesn’t count. Nicki Minaj doesn’t count. Now French Montana doesn’t count. A$AP Rocky doesn’t count. People that are famous, you move them off the list of supporting local music.
Cipha Sounds: Oh, I see. Got it.
Ebro Darden Recalls Offering Angela Yee Role On Morning Show
DX: Page31 released an interview recently with Angela Yee discussing the circumstances with which she decided to take the job with [The Breakfast Club] over [The Morning Show] at HOT 97. One of the things she mentioned was that once Cipha left Sirius for HOT 97, it was just assumed that she was coming as well. She ended up turning it down because she wouldn’t have been a named part of the show and would’ve had to take less money. Is that how it played out?
Cipha Sounds: I mean, that’s what she told me. I told her she would make less money because you had to get your foot in the door. I wanted her to come with me.
Peter Rosenberg: I think we mostly assumed that she would probably at some point come with us because of the relationship Ciph had with her.
Cipha Sounds: They gave her her own show on Sirius so she looked at it like…
Ebro Darden: “I can have my own show…”
Cipha Sounds: … I could be a sidekick on one show or I could have my own show on another station.
Peter Rosenberg: At the time she was doing her Lip Service show, too. She was enjoying it.
Ebro Darden: She told me when I offered it to her that she was very loyal to Paul Rosenberg, too. I’m back to what Rosenberg was saying. I’m glad that that’s still a part of the conversation. We’re honored.
DX: Rosenberg, I was a big fan of your interview series you did at 92Y in Tribeca [New York] where you interviewed Pete Rock, for example. You carried it over to South By Southwest a year or two later with Nas. I think, Ciph, what you’re doing with improv is genius. If the arc of where journalism looks to be going is to be more visual, more interactive, while still providing relevant information, I think both of you have provided great examples of how to do it before everyone else entered the space. What advice do you have for aspiring journalists, or radio personalities, or people looking to create a lane for themselves that might not exist?
Peter Rosenberg: I would say just copy what me and Ciph did verbatim. You don’t have to come up with your own idea. You can literally take exactly what we did and put your name on it and then you got yourself a good little program.
Cipha Sounds: It changes over time. Instead of finding a dope deejay that’s on the radio and carrying crates and interning for him, you kind of have to work on getting your social media up before you even approach the radio station because you want to show that you have followers before you even get there. It’s really just putting your boots on and doing the hard work. I worked for [Funkmaster Flex] as a slave—I mean an intern—for years. Now it’s all these different ways to get poppin’ but whatever way you pick, do it all day. Put your work in. Rappers are like, “Yo, how do I get on the radio?” Make good songs and go work. And get out of the studio.
Peter Rosenberg: I think it’s easier to copy what already exists.
This Is HOT 97 airs Mondays at 10:30 PM on VH1.