How Ebro Darden Went From Fish Mascot to Hip-Hop Gatekeeper
On-air colossus Ebro Darden has become one of hip-hop's most polarizing forces thanks to an unwavering candor that has made enemies of young rappers like Kodak Black and 6ix9ine. But, will the Hot 97 shock jock tone down his act as he enters a new phase of broadcasting with Apple Music?
Words: Kathy Iandoli
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
“Man, I used to dress up in a fish outfit!” Ibrahim “Ebro” Darden remembers of his early radio days. The man most known for offering his brutally honest opinion via New York’s mammoth morning show, Hot 97’s Ebro In The Morning, was once known as Jammin’ Salmon, the mascot for Sacramento’s KSFM 102.5. “I was fuckin’ 15, 16 years old. Got my lil’ minimum wage. I think I was making $4.25 an hour.”
Now a certified veteran in the hip-hop space, Ebro, 44, first cut his teeth in broadcasting nearly 30 years ago. While working as a stock boy at a trendy retail clothing shop in Sacramento, shelving brands like Cross Colours and Guess (“I had the plug!” he recalls), he would network with local DJs until scoring an internship in the programming department at KSFM in 1990, thanks to a connection with a former classmate. In the entry-level role, Ebro was tasked with calling house-to-house to survey music listeners about their favorite songs. The resulting information would inform the programming choices at the station. “We used to do all that manually,” Ebro remembers a time when analytics were primitive in comparison to today’s computerized number-crunching. “I changed my name because my name was too ethnic.”
In addition to cold-calling homes, Ebro would dress like a salmon for the station’s marketing and street team department. “I once lived on a billboard for like two to three days to raise money for multiple sclerosis or something,” he remembers. “I did all them stunts, man. I did radio-radio, not just playing records. I did radio—skits, stunts, all of that shit.”
All of this backstory is to say that Ebro has paid his dues, and as such, he’s earned his place as a hip-hop gatekeeper, grumpy as some may perceive him. He now also serves as global editorial head of hip-hop and R&B at Apple Music, where he directs content (including playlists) for the streaming service’s 50 million-plus listeners while retaining hosting duties for his show on Beats 1 Radio. It’s easily the most delicate balancing act of his career: How is an unfiltered radio bigwig renowned for getting under the skin of today’s crop of hip-hop underclassmen to successfully serve as one of Apple Music’s most powerful and, by nature, diplomatic figures?
Approaching his fourth decade in the game, Ebro sat down with XXL to look back on his time in hip-hop and consider his place in its continued evolution.
XXL: What do you see as the primary difference between your role at Hot 97 versus your responsibilities at Apple Music?
Ebro: Well, if an FM radio station is doing its job, the primary concern is the local audience. Within that local audience it’s obviously broken down by age, different demos—some radio stations are focused on women, some are focused on men, etc. So that’s what a radio station is doing: Focusing on a particular audience. Apple Music is focusing on giving people a pathway to consume as much music from all genres as possible, for whatever you’re listening to on planet Earth. That in itself is a fundamental difference: Apple Music is bigger, broader, more dynamic. It’s not like a linear situation. There’s on-demand video content and audio content, playlists, algorithmic radio stations, a live, free radio station, you can customize your own playlists, celebrity-hosted playlists. It’s just a different way to consume content.
Nowadays, the average new hip-hop artist looks at FM stations like the enemy, the place to sound off, complain or be complained about. Then you come to Apple Music and it’s their playground. Considering your reputation for being brutally honest—especially to this newer generation—how do you reconcile that?
I think at both places, everyone is welcome. The—let’s call it “shelf space”—is broader at Apple Music, so I can help you better. It’s not about how I feel about you; it’s about your desire to reach an audience and our ability to give you tools to reach an audience. In radio, you have much less shelf space, because it’s live and there’s only 60 minutes in an hour, 24 hours in a day. How people consume it is very, very small. It’s done on average [in], like, 12-minute chunks. Of course, there’s people who listen more and people who listen less. There’s just much less space, so it’s gotta be focused around the consumption habits of New York City. That’s the filter we put it on. It’s much more stringent in that regard. There’s also when I am challenged with entertaining that audience that consumes that. I’m trying to connect in many ways to that person. Same thing at Beats, too; it’s just more about a global perspective and discovery versus hip-hop in New York City at Hot 97, which is much more of a gladiator sport. That's just the nature of the beast. Even in the most aggressive of settings—let’s call it, at Hot —if you’re hot in the city and I think it’s doo-doo, I’m still gonna play it because that’s what the people are talking about. I’m still gonna say it’s doo-doo but I’m gonna play it.
Do you do that at Apple Music, too?
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. If it’s my opinion.
That’s a unique position to be in. So many times, people are censored, but you were hired with the understanding of who you are and what your brand is, which is being honest.
Yeah, but it’s not about being malicious either. It’s about opinion, right? And one of the great things about hip-hop—and the reason that it’s lasted so long and is still one of the dominant genres—is that honesty and being critical is a part of the culture.
The feelings are harder now, though.
That’s because we have social media. Trust me, in the 1990s, your shit wasn’t leaving the studio. First of all, you weren’t even in the studio if you were shit. You didn’t even have a microphone. Nobody was paying for your studio time. It wasn’t like everybody got a chance. Somebody had to be like, “Yo, this shit is fuckin’ fire and I’m putting up some money to record. Then when I record it, I’m gonna do something with it.” So, you weren’t even in the studio if you weren’t on fire. Now everybody has a shot. Which is a gift and a curse. There’s things you may have never heard of before because it was too outside the box or whatever that you would get exposed to now. And that’s dope. I love that.
Was there an artist in recent years that you initially thought was doo-doo when they first came out, but then you were like, “I was wrong about this one”?
Migos! First I time I interviewed Migos, I was like, “I literally don’t know what you’re saying.” There’s a video of it online.
Do you know what they’re saying now?
Yeah! I can follow them better now. I think they’ve worked to get better. I’ve maintained a good relationship with them through all of that. I was like, “I don’t get it. I don’t understand.” But, I knew they had a hot record so I still played it. Young Thug, I was like, He’s doing something. There’s something musical happening. It’s incoherent, but…when I met him and I heard some of his other shit that was straight-ahead bars, I was like, “Oh, he can get busy. He’s just opting to do this other thing that’s working on the internet and the streaming services because he understands that world, the way they consume and why they consume.” He gets that. He’s from that. I’m not from that. So, I ended up getting there with some of his material.
You have a reputation for telling the truth… Well, my truth. How I see it.
Sometimes people don’t want to speak on how they feel because they’re afraid of getting devoured over social media. You’ve had to defend your own opinion on a lot of things. When Kodak Black guested on Ebro In The Morning in December, you asked a simple question about his sexual assault case and got a complex exit.
Looking back at it, I don’t even think I asked a question. I gave an invite to come back and acknowledge that what he’s going through should be taken seriously. People interpreted it as an accusation of guilt or trying to somehow incriminate himself, when really, what I was trying to do was give him an opportunity to say, “Yeah, I take it seriously, too.” That’s really it. At least that way, the victims would see, “Okay, this guy knows that this is serious and it’s not a game,” without actually having to incriminate himself or talk specifics about a case that can’t be talked about. But, if I see someone is facing double-digit years around sexual assault of a woman, that can’t just be glossed over. Not only am I the son of my mother who was beaten by my father, I’m also a dad of a daughter. Not only that, but there’s plenty of women that I love that have been in their own abusive scenarios as young women. It’s complicated and I get why people are mad. I don’t have a problem with them being mad. I get why people’s fandom trumps the humanity of a woman. I get it. It’s misguided but it’s not a new phenomenon.
Did you apply that same logic to your situation with 6ix9ine? His fan base was so rabid and quick to defend him.
Yeah, I thought he was messy. I thought he was setting a bad precedent for how to behave in a way that’s conducive to doing business with a corporate entity as an artist. So, you know, I’m not a street dude. I work at a couple of companies, so when something gets hot in the street, I try to evaluate it based on, “How much can we actually help this individual with their dreams, and in what ways is their life outside of or within the music and art they’re creating going to spill over into these opportunities that are given to them?” I don’t believe he was that talented. The producers and engineers who made his music were more talented than he is. He made some catchy things but a lot of his profile and brand was driven by the spectacle. So, I was open about that. But once again, it didn’t mean I didn’t play his music. He also had allegations and things going on that we talked about. Again, once you get convicted of a crime and things are more clear on what took place, then we can pass judgment. Tekashi [6ix9ine’s] thing came and went fast. We all tried to warn him behind the scenes. I tried to warn him behind the scenes, in front of the scenes. I tried to provide opportunities behind the scenes.
Opportunities behind the scenes?
Yeah, we were trying to get him on Summer Jam, but he was seen by the state police and the people who enforce the rules at MetLife Stadium as problematic. So, when he decided he wanted to go on social media and proclaim he was going to be on Summer Jam prematurely, it created a circumstance where they had already asked me if we planned on having him because we’ve been doing that show there for a long time. We’ve had problems before, so every year we sit down and talk about the artists we’re thinking about having. The FBI, the state police, everybody’s involved. It’s not a joke; they know everybody’s business. “This guy right here has these problems and these problems—we would rather you not have him here.” So, that was the mandate on him. Then, he jumped on social media because he wanted to be a part of it. What I was trying to do was get him to quiet down, and then closer to the event let them know that he was going to be coming. Instead he had another situation that was all over the news allegedly involving a gun. That didn’t help anything. Then when we were trying to navigate it, I was telling his people, “If he comes by himself or maybe with one person, we could probably make it happen really quick, in and out. No pre-promote, gotta keep it quiet.” His team was like, “Nah, we gotta come with as many people as we need to come with.” I was like, “ Man, look. It doesn’t work like that.” Then he tried to cover up his tattoos and show up anyway outside the back gate and start problems with the state police! So, what are we doing, man? All of that is documented. People can see all of that.
He’s like, “It’s not me, guys!”
Social media, man. Let’s have a real talk. Most of the people on social media that’s poppin’ all that shit for their favorite artist, A) A lot of them accounts are fake. B) They’re fuckin’ 16, 17. They don’t know shit, they’re just fans on the internet. While I’m glad they’re consuming content and having an opinion and a passion about hip-hop, it doesn’t affect me in that way.
You’ve witnessed so many different generations of hip-hop. Did you have a conversation with yourself about understanding where the responsibility is to maintain a standard for the culture, but also having to loosen the gates so you didn’t slip through the cracks as a curmudgeon?
I don’t think these guys coming up want me to be like them. Other than me giving them an opportunity, I don’t think they want me to try and be down with them. They have their fanbase, their communities. I’m not trying to be like, “Yo! I’m into this new thing.” I’m trying to provide opportunities to young creatives that wanna be great. If I see people loving something, I’m paying attention. If I see significant movement, I’m paying attention. I’m not really trying to be a part of their shit. I’m trying to help them as somebody who’s been doing it. That’s my approach to it. That’s what I’ve always done. Even when I got on social media. I wasn’t even on social media prior to 2012. I only got on social media on Twitter because Lil Wayne was calling me out because of the whole Nicki-Minaj-at-Summer-Jam shit. We live in this transparency/reality show era, people was talking. So, I came out and started talking. Since then, I’ve used it to continue the conversation around a myriad of things. My handle’s @OldManEbro. I’m not trying to be 16 [or] 17. I’m trying to be me.
Check out more from XXL’s Spring 2019 issue including our Dreamville cover story featuring interviews with J. Cole, J.I.D, Bas, Cozz, EarthGang, Lute, Omen and Ari Lennox; Show & Prove interview with Flipp Dinero and more.
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