With a mind blowing 3.314 million listeners a week and a history synonymous with Hip Hop itself, Hot 97 has undoubtedly served as the backbone for every act and trend to rise from the genre.
From their hand in introducing The Fugees‘ ‘Killing Me Softly’ to defining what has become today’s sound, the Emmis owned station has no doubt been the ‘promised land’ for many up & comers over the years. Up & comers, which included Biggie Smalls, Eminem, Jay Z, Nicki Minaj, Aaliyah, Drake & Nas.
So, as to celebrate the entity, That Grape Juice caught up with its radio programer Ebro Darden for a lengthy interview on a number issues, including the decline of R&B, Frank Ocean‘s controversial letter and the ever debated, ‘payola culture’.
Check it out below…
TGJ: For those who don’t know, what does your job at Hot 97’s Programme Director entail?
Ebro: Overseeing everything you hear on-air. Yes everything.
TGJ: Who determines what makes/ and how is the Hot 97 playlist determined?
Ebro: Me, I determine everything that gets played, that doesn’t get played- when it gets played. It’s all me.
TGJ: How influential would you say Hot 97 has been to sales generated by Hip Hop & R&B in the last ten years, and if it has been- how?
Ebro: Very. I mean, that’s acccording to recording labels and artists, I guess they could be blowing smoke up our ass though….Ha!
TGJ: (Laughs) One of the biggest acts to debut in the last decade has been Drake- who is oft criticized or accused of being ‘too soft’ for Hip Hop. Nonetheless, this hasn’t stopped him from being one of the genre’s biggest cash cows. Why do you think some Hip Hop sects haven’t taken to him?
Ebro: Cause they don’t want to. I mean who gives a shit, you know you are doing it right when people are hating. Drake needs to do Drake and he’ll be fine.
TGJ: As is the case with all stations, some cuts get spun far more than others- prompting talk of ‘payola’ especially when the names of dominant acts are thrown into the mix. Is payola stil a prevalent part of radio culture and if so- what barriers does Hot 97 have in place to combat it?
Ebro: I hear payola still exists. At HOT 97 our playlists and songs played our checked by me and the President of the company. Every song played in high rotation has to perform in research. spins are not based on what the labels/artists want. I am paid to get ratings, if I don’t I am gone. New music doesn’t pull ratings as well as familiar hits. I wouldn’t jeopardize my career for some artist or label cat. F*ck outta here (laughs).
The architecture of a station is based on listening patterns. Research shows people, on average, tune in 5 times a day and for 11min per tune in. So, we make sure the biggest 5 songs appear at a ration to heighten the possibility of a listener being exposed to it.
TGJ: Unfortunately for R&B, recent years have seen it struggle to launch new artists that can move numbers like Wayne, Nicki and Kanye do in Rap/Hip Hop? Why do you think this is and where do you think labels are going wrong when pushing its old and new R&B signings.
Ebro: R’n’B takes a different type of talent to be truly great. The thing about it is, performances from R&B entertainers are expensive to put on, so when labels got short, so did R’n’B releases. Notice there aren’t R’n’B groups around anymore? They’re too expensive.
TGJ: Frank Ocean recently revealed that he had been romantically involved with another man when he was 19. How do you think- more specifically your audience- has responded to it? Ie, has his pull on Urban radio been hurt by it in any way?
Ebro: It’s interesting. No one seems to care with regard to his music. We have had a lot of success with his music. Rosenberg actually broke his music off his mix tape on HOT 97. People will always spew negativity and jokes, but that doesn’t mean they don’t like the music.
TGJ: Nicki Minaj is often belaboured with ‘sell out’ claims, especially after the release of her Dance heavy second album. As a station who helped to introduce her to the world, what are your thoughts on Brand Minaj in relation to Hip Hop audiences today, and where do you think she has gone right or wrong?
Ebro: I think if she makes music that sonically appeals to the core Hip-Hop fan, they will rock to it, if she doesn’t they won’t. Nicki loves theatrics, so her style reflects that. Let’s see where she goes next with this new album.
TGJ: On the topic of Nicki, we never got to hear your side of the story with regards to last year’s ‘Summerjam’ fiasco? Exactly what happened?
Ebro: There’s only one side and I did speak about it on the radio after it happened. They (Nicki & Wayne) didn’t like what Rosenberg said regarding her song “Starships” on stage at Summer Jam, so Wayne went on Twitter and announced she wouldn’t be performing. She called me and was willing to perform, but didn’t want to go against Wayne.
She asked me to call Wayne. I did. He talked slick, so I hung up the phone. I could tell he wasn’t thinking clearly. And I went on with the show without her. We received about 4 complaints from ticket buyers. People forget that Summer Jam is a big party to celebrate Hip-Hop in NYC and the people that for the spectacle of it. This gave them some drama, so it worked for us. I would have preferred it not to go this way, but I won’t allow any Rapper ever to think they are gonna “ride” on us, not on my watch.
TGJ: In an interview prior to this one you discussed ‘radio research’. Could you run us through the process a song goes through before making it to radio?
Ebro: It varies.For a rap record we look to clubs for early response.
If it is not a club record we start playing in our mix shows. All the DJ’s here talk about the music they like. We pick the records everyone agrees on. We also make a serious effort to support NY rappers that have created a buzz and a release plan. It takes about 8 weeks for us to research whether a record can move from mix show to the next level which is “light rotation”.
For RnB we look to RnB stations having success with a particular song, or if we truly feel the song is so awesome it needs to be heard. We also try to support NY artists like Alicia Keys, Bridget Kelly, etc.”
TGJ: Right…and with ‘testing’?
Ebro: Each week we take the hooks of 30 songs and pay an extend company to find people that fit our target listeners. They play them the hooks and have the rate them on a scale. We take this data and combine it with the behaviour of listeners. We can see who turns off the radio when each song is played on-air. The songs that keep the most listeners and get the best research and these are the songs that get played the most.
le=”text-align: justify;”>TGJ: You’ve seen acts come, go, come back again and in some cases disappear? What advice would you give to a seasoned Hip Hop act trying to break in today’s market?
Ebro: Remember why people love you, or loved you. Give them that feeling. Do shows, small, whatever and invest your money in making sure your live experience is something people want to attend over and over again. Don’t chase trends, make great music and market yourself properly.
TGJ: Blackground Records are planning to release a new posthumous LP from Aaliyah, what are your thoughts on that situation and has ‘Enough Said’ been getting any spins?
Ebro: Yeah, we played Enough Said for a while, but it didn’t perform well in research after we played like 150x, so we stopped.
TGJ: As it stands, who are Hot 97’s Top Ten ‘most played’ female artists are and which of them bring in the highest ratings?
Ebro: The girls come in this order:
TGJ: That’s really interesting. So, as a respected member of the industry, could you ever see yourself managing artists or fronting a label in the future?
Ebro: You know, I’m not interested in either today. As you know no one does the same thing forever, so I may have to try those other career paths in the future.
TGJ: Ebro, thanks for speaking with us.
Ebro: No problem at all. Thanks for reaching out.
(Interview by David Asante- That Grape Juice: London)