Even if the New York Post stopped running full page, sensational headlines about them, Hot 97 would still be the most famous hip-hop station on earth. They nearly cornered the market in the ’90s with their top-notch talent, but in the last five years—since their competitor Power 105 has started giving them a run for their money—they’ve become more known for drama than for music. Three rapper-related shootings have occurred outside the station, most recently when Brooklyn rapper Gravy was shot in the rear in April. As a result, police have said they will install a surveillance camera outside the West Village studios, and the station’s landlords have started an eviction process.
Hoping to get an inside perspective, XXLMAG.COM reached out to the guy behind the guy, 31-year-old Ebro Darden, the station’s Assistant Program Director and Music Director. Prior to joining the station in 2002, this Oakland, CA native made major moves in Sacramento radio. Today, Ebro spends his days deciding what music will be played on the station, along with writing promos for events, helping on-air personalities with their focus and planning the station’s direction, which includes their recently launched Hot 97 Throwbacks channel, a new HD radio station that plays hip-hop classics 24 hours a day. While the lawyers were definitely watching, we managed to get Ebro to sound off on stupid rappers, judging music and why New York keeps hating on the Bay.
Were you in the building when Gravy was shot last week?
I arrived 10 minutes after the incident. I’m on call 24 hours a day. We didn’t realize anyone had been hurt.
How do people at the station react when there’s a shooting?
Everything comes to a standstill and it’s very serious. Personally, it’s very frustrating and sad. Hot 97 is trying to help young artists have a profile and a platform, but I guess shame on us. We never censor artists or try to dictate what they should be or should not be talking about in their music, but we definitely do not condone this stupidity that rappers seem to think makes them relevant.
Do you think the fact that there will be a police camera outside the station will make certain rappers more hesitant to visit Hot 97?
We’ve always been under the microscope because we’re authentic and real. When have the authorities ever wanted young minorities to have a platform to vent their frustrations, heartaches, desires and fears? So just because the NYPD hasn’t placed a camera outside [before], don’t think for a second that this studio hasn’t been under surveillance.
Why do you think New York radio thrives on drama so much?
I think New York City has a lot of drama, so of course a radio station that is a part of the lifestyles of the listeners and the music will reflect some aspects of real life in New York.
The local New York City media seems to love kicking Hot 97 around. Do you ever feel like they target the station unjustly?
I feel like drama sells and we have the most popular, recognizable brand in radio, so newspapers and media outlets know we garner interest and sell newspapers. It’s a gift and a curse.
The station came under a lot of heat last year during the “Tsunami Song” controversy. What kind of social responsibility do you think a radio station has to its community?
First, the “Tsunami Song” was dumb. Second, we have a large [sense of] social responsibility, which is why we are the only young hip-hop station that has a community talk show that plays in primetime. “Street Soldiers” with Lisa Evers comes on at 9 p.m. on Sundays [when] the entire city can hear it.
When deciding what music to play, how do you distinguish between your “personal taste” and your professionally trained “ear”? It seems like they might be the same thing in a lot of cases.
Of course personal taste plays a part in anyone’s decision, but most music is picked by me, Mister Cee, Angie, Funkmaster Flex and DJ Enuff. We talk daily about music. Plus, I talk to Kay Slay, Absolut, Camilo, Jazzy and Coco, Cipha Sounds and Envy about the things that are breaking out of the streets and clubs, to be ahead of the trends. We look at sales, we look at downloads, ringtone downloads, video airplay, and just general market exposure on a song. Everyone here is very active in clubs around the Tri-State, so we can get a gauge there as well. My personal music tastes really don’t fit mainstream tastes. We do get Talib, dead prez, Common, The Roots, Nas, Jay-Z and things that I like in rotation. But, generally, the mainstream hip-hop music tastes don’t include [most of] those artists. I do like the music we play, but the content gets redundant sometimes.
It must be weird working at a major New York hip-hop station at a time when there aren’t a lot of New York artists really popping, compared to Southern artists. How do you deal with the conflict between repping the City and presenting music that’s popular nationally?
We pick and choose carefully, based on sonic appeal and our gut feelings. We’ve successfully helped many NY artists break mainstream in the last couple years, but NY is in a music transition. Young artists are working to become hot, and older, more familiar artists are working to stay important to young people. There’s no conflict for us ’cause we always make sure NY artists get on, as long as they have the proper marketing plans and we feel that the mainstream audience will be able to identify with them and support them. This is very important because we want to be able to research a song’s progress, and we’ve found a correlation between videos, marketing and the response our audience has to music.
You’re from Oakland. With Bay Area rap undergoing such resurgence lately, do you ever feel compelled to put people up on the music from your hometown?
I’ve been bringing Bay hip-hop to Flex, Enuff, Green Lantern, Kay Slay and Cipha since I got here. They show it love. The majority of our listeners aren’t really feeling it. Every time we bring E-40 up on “Angie’s Music Meeting,” they shoot it down or vote on something else to be played instead. So NY as a whole is still not completely feeling the Bay. NY is not even completely embracing the South either. NY has always been that way. They have their own artists and own sounds, so outsiders have to work extra hard if they wanna get embraced here.