"A Rational Conversation" is a column by writer Eric Ducker in which he gets on iChat or Gchat or the phone or whatever with a special guest to examine a music-related subject that's entered the pop culture consciousness.
Hip-hop is a competitive world, and who reigns supreme is determined by a fan base that tends to believe you're only as hot as your last track. To check in on where, at the top of 2104, things stand with the music and the culture that surrounds it, Ducker called up and sent some emails to Ebro Darden, the program director of New York City's Hot 97 for the past decade. As one of the first hip-hop radio stations on the planet and one that serves the city that birthed rap music, Hot 97 remains a key institution in hip-hop and Darden is an important gatekeeper. Raised in Oakland and Sacramento, Darden began working in radio in Northern California in 1990 when he was still in his teens. After a stint in Portland, Oregon, he started as Hot 97's program director in 2003.
In recent years he's become an increasingly public figure as part of the station's morning show and its Internet presence. In 2013 he took part in several notable interviews, grilling Riff Raff on his persona, confronting Rap Radar's "B. Dot" Miller over Miller's intimations about payola at Hot 97 and imploring Mister Cee to return to the station after the midday disc jockey resigned when audio of him negotiating prices for sex with a transgender person hit the Internet (the latest in a handful of similar incidents). Because of his strong opinions, Darden has become a magnet for criticism — whether from the Twitter users whose insults he RTs or from recognized rappers unhappy with how he programs Hot 97 — but he rarely holds his tongue.
ERIC DUCKER: As the program director of Hot 97, what are your day-to-day responsibilities? What do you control at the station?
EBRO DARDEN: I oversee all music and content, including what the jocks talk about, the music they play, the contests, commercials and imaging. Whatever you hear through the speakers and see online, I manage it.
What are your feelings about rap music right now?
Things are going great in rap music. There are a lot of young superstars. Someone like Kendrick Lamar, as amazing as his last year-and-change has been, I believe that there's still anticipation to hear his music. That's good, because he's only had one real commercial release. J. Cole is still promising — he's touring, he's selling out shows, people want to see him. Drake, while he's four albums in, he's still considered young in the game. People are still enjoying his music, and he's got hits. We'll have another showing from Nicki Minaj this year at some point, and that's always entertaining and interesting and compelling. I believe we'll have another album from Kanye West this year. I was quoted as saying that his last album [Yeezus] saved hip-hop because of how brave it was and how it changed the sonic possibilities of where we are in hip-hop. New York has a lot of promising MCs that are really ready to start to show and prove.
Who do you think are New York's most promising MCs, and what will they have to do this year to really impress you enough for Hot 97 to make a major push behind them?
The ones we are currently playing are the most promising: A$AP Mob, Bodega Bamz, Action Bronson, Troy Ave, Chinx Drugz. Building in late nights there's S.B.O.E., Joey Bada$$, Flatbush Zombies, B.I.C., Ransom, Kris Kassanova and Vinny Cha$e. Once we play them, their music must [go through] research and then we see if it stands the test of time by heightening rotation and exposure.
There's this joke of you being the old man in hip-hop, so why is it important to have young superstars?
It keeps the culture and the musical genre vibrant. Yeah, I'm the old man because I've been doing this 23 or 24 years in radio. And I'm old relative to a lot of these cats coming up. I'm not afraid to remind them that I'm their senior, and I'm not afraid to remind them that I've seen things happen and I've seen things come and go. I'm not going to fall for the shenanigans of someone saying, "This album's a classic" every time someone drops an album with four or five songs that are great. That doesn't make a classic album. My perspective and how I go about expressing myself is why people started calling me the old man; plus my knees are really bad.
Is it hard to be an old man in hip-hop?
It's hard if you try to continually be accepted by people under 25, but that's not what I'm trying to do. As a matter of fact, I want to be the target for people under 25, so they can show me that I'm wrong. Prove me wrong.
Do you think that it truly is a necessity to put in your time and pay your dues in hip-hop?
Absolutely. I feel like that's absolutely a necessity in almost all competitive things. That's life, you got to pay your dues.
How do you reply to the argument of a young artist who says, "You want me to go through a system that's obsolete. You want me to do things that don't even really matter any more."
That may be true if someone is asking you to go through something that doesn't matter, but if you're not currently performing live and selling out shows, and if you haven't been consistent over an extended amount of time, then you're not paying your dues. You need to pay your dues. I'm not saying you need to sell records as paying your dues. Some people might say that, I don't say that. That's a part of a process of creating revenue opportunities for yourself, but there are plenty of artists out there who have paid their dues who are mainly live performers.
That's for me. Now if you're 19 years old, yeah, of course you're not concerned about anybody paying their dues, because you don't want to pay your dues. Your little young ass wants a shortcut. And, yeah, because of social media, we've got to listen to these little pooh butt ass 20-year-olds who ain't paying their dues saying, "It's not fair." Man, shut up. Pay your dues.
How much distance is there between the rap Internet's understanding of hip-hop and the reality of hip-hop? There have been instances where people have said, "This artist is hot, this artist is blowing up," because of his or her presence on the Internet and the response to him or her on the Internet. But that artist may not be able to actually sell music and the shows may not be well-attended because of the disconnect between the digital world and reality.
I believe it's just like anything. There are big radio artists, they have big songs on the radio — and this has happened for forever and ever and ever — but they can't sell shows and they can't sell albums. There is the same thing for the Internet. There are artists who are big on the Internet, but they don't sell out shows and they can't sell albums.
I don't think that means they don't have songs and content that people like, that means that they don't have the complete package. It's relative to what you're comparing them to. Someone like J. Cole is big on the radio, he sells out shows, he has big hits and in hip-hop he's respected as an MC. Some artists hit on all the important ingredients and some artists don't. I don't want to discredit something just being popular on the Internet.
It also goes the other way. There are artists who seem like they get bashed a lot on the Internet, but they do well other places.
Let's take Wale. Wale may not be the Internet's favorite rapper today, but he damn sure has some hits and his shows do damn well.
There's always this talk about buzz. There's Internet buzz and there's street buzz. Artists who previously made it big off of street buzz range from Nas to 50 Cent to Young Jeezy. Does street buzz still translate into successful artists?
I think it does. Our most recent example of that is French Montana, who was a DVD street artist who ended up having radio hits. He does pretty well. I'm sure there are others with that I'm not familiar with that are outside of New York.
Speaking of New York, there's been some controversy because of comments that Trinidad James made last year about the decreased relevance of New York, and I know you discussed aspects of this issue with Talib Kweli, but do you think that New York has to be the center of the rap universe?
If you're asking a New Yorker who loves hip-hop, they're gonna say yes. If you're asking a person who doesn't live in New York, they probably don't give a s---.
What do you think?
Because I live in New York and because I care about New York and I like the MCs that come out of New York, I think that New York having a vibrant hip-hop scene is crucial to the maintenance and balance needed in hip-hop. The perspectives that come from living in New York are unlike anywhere else on Earth, and those perspectives are necessary to the balance of hip-hop. I also think that the environment of living in New York and the sounds that come out of New York are necessary to the hip-hop experience. I'm not from New York, I grew up in the Bay Area, so the sounds that came out of New York are part of the total package of hip-hop that I grew up enjoying. I had hip-hop from everywhere when I grew up, and it helped tell a story about an entire experience in America that hip-hop has helped convey.
What's the most interesting trend in music you're seeing as someone who has worked at Hot 97 for ten years?
Because it's at the forefront of my mind, the most interesting thing is looking back at crunk music and other types of trendy southern types of music — people really loved to party to it, but they didn't like it more than the bonafide mainstream hits. Those songs only reach a certain level at Hot 97. People like them, but they're not bigger than the Jay Z records, the Beyoncé records, the Eminem records, even the Daft Punk records or the Robin Thicke records. People like music for certain things. There are songs that people literally love in the strip club, but they don't love them on radio.
Was there stuff from 2013 that is analogous to the types of songs you are talking about?
Did you think those songs were going to do better, or did you expect the level of success that they have had?
I didn't think that they were going to do better, but if you listen to the noise of the Internet and the noise of the clubs, then people were swearing that they were the biggest things ever. But they're not to the passive audience who are not in the clubs or on the Internet all day.
How do you know what the passive audience is feeling?
We research the passive audience through Nielsen meter data on how people behave when a certain song is played, as well as hiring research companies to do research. This happens weekly.
Two of the most notable interviews you did in 2013 were with over-the-top rapper Riff Raff and New York DJing legend Mister Cee, the latter of which I think is going to be considered a landmark moment in the history of hip-hop. The linking ideas between those was the concept of truthfulness.
What you were saying to Mister Cee was that as long as he tells the truth and is honest with the fans, what he does in his private time can't hurt him professionally. And it seems your issue with Riff Raff is that you can't tell if he's telling the truth and that he wasn't being straightforward about who he really is. In hip-hop there is the concept of keeping it real, but there's also an element of performance and costume. Take N.W.A. In 1989, they seemed like the realest dudes, but a lot has come out that indicates maybe they weren't.
They obviously were not gangbangers. That was their attire, but they weren't shooting anyone.
What level of truthfulness does there have to be in hip-hop?
If you go back and listen to N.W.A., even in their anger and gangsterism, it was a metaphor for either teaching you something or telling you what's going on in our neighborhoods. That's different to me than a Riff Raff who is trying to put on an outfit. Or take Snoop Dogg dressing up like a pimp. Is Snoop Dogg really a pimp? Not technically. Is pimping part of a metaphor for a character he's playing? Yes. Is it my favorite metaphor? No. But I get the costume part, because we know Snoop and we grew up with Snoop; we know he's putting on a costume.
I don't know Riff Raff and was trying to learn about him, actually. But in my effort to try and learn, I couldn't discern whether it was an act or not. At which point I was just like, "Yo, the braids and the teeth and the diamonds and all of that are synonymous with some ghetto s--- that I really ain't with." I didn't know if he was from that or not, but that's a black stereotype that I don't like, and because he's white, I needed to know if he was joking or not. That's just where I'm at with it, and maybe that's because I'm old. I didn't think that makes him a bad person. I think he's a nice person, I think I said that several times. He seems like a guy you want to hang out with and crack jokes with. But when it came down to him rapping, I didn't think he was good. That's me. He claimed he could freestyle, and I said to freestyle, and he was saying gibberish.
On the Mister Cee situation, do you think hip-hop has come to a place where if, for instance, a respected female MC who was a lesbian started rapping about what it's like for her being a lesbian (like what type of girl she's looking for in the club), do you think people would have problems with it, or would be OK with it because she's being honest?
First off, there will be people who like it and people who don't like it. Just like with Mister Cee, there are people who are OK with it and people who are not OK with it — it's not a universally accepted thing. The thing with Mister Cee is that he's not a pundit, he just plays music. It's not like he's trying to convey a perspective, he's just playing songs to make people have a good time.
But on Throwback at Noon doesn't he play a bigger role than that? He helps identify and commemorate what are the key recordings in hip-hop's history, and his tribute mixes cement who are the figures that have influenced the genre.
That's helping people have a good time. What you are saying, I oversimplified. Your version sounds better, go with that.
So you think it should 100% not matter to people?
I would think. That was my perspective. He's a DJ, he's not Bill O'Reilly. He's not even, like, me, for that matter. Because he's on Hot 97 and because people know his name and because there's so much homophobia around hip-hop and specifically the black community and even more specifically around the Caribbean community, it became a big interest.
How has the response been after that interview and after he returned to Hot 97? Has there been an acceptance?
Yeah, people don't care.
Do you think that's because of his history in terms of what he's contributed to hip-hop over the years, like DJing for Big Daddy Kane and the Notorious B.I.G.?
It's partly that, but it's also like a family member. It's someone people listen to every day for 20 years. It's like your uncle if he showed up to dinner and said he was gay. Are you not going to be cool with your uncle? You're going to be like, "I love this guy."
Do you not think it's a big deal for the music world in general, and specifically for hip-hop, for Hot 97 — a highly rated station in a major market — to support someone who has said publicly that he has engaged in and enjoyed activities that some would consider homosexual?
Big deal to some, not to others. I don't think so. We are just human beings.
One of the things that has been interesting to me about rap music is how unpredictable it can be in terms of who might emerge as the new superstars and who might fall off. With other genres, if you're familiar with the infrastructure and the players, you can sort of anticipate what's going to happen with different artists. After doing this for 20 years, do you think you have a sense of what's going to happen in hip-hop 2014?
I have my own predictions, but I'm sure I'm wrong most of the time. The filter I use is based on the content of the music, how musical the music is and also how hard and smart the artists work. Are these people that people want to do business with over a long period of time? If you're an artist that's disorganized, hard to work with, late all the time or disagreeable, what corporate sponsor — what Live Nation or AEG, what radio station, what blog for that matter, what magazine — who is going to want to do business with you?
What is one thing that happens in hip-hop that you don't think people call bulls--- on enough?
I don't think people call bulls--- enough on the frequency with which we hail someone as great, and I don't think we give people who have longevity and consistency as much appreciation as they should get. In hip-hop we are so quick to tear down someone like Jay Z or Nas who have been doing it for a long time just because they are easy targets. We love to exalt someone who has not paid their dues and who doesn't have the amount of consistent content.