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Hot 97's Programming Director Ebro Darden Talks Summer Jam

Ebro speaks on Summer Jam history, the line-up selection process, and the VH1 show 'This Is Hot 97.'
May 30, 2014, 4:45pm

For hip-hop fans in the tri-state area, the summer doesn’t officially start until Hot 97’s Summer Jam takes place. The annual concert, now in its 20th year, takes place this Sunday (June 1) at MetLife Stadium, in New Jersey.

This year's lineup includes Nicki Minaj and Y.M.C.M.B., Nas, 50 Cent, The Roots, Wiz Khalifa, Trey Songz, Y.G., DJ Mustard, Ty Dolla $ign, Kid Ink, Sevyn Streeter, Action Bronson, Bunji Garlin and Noisey’s artist of the year Troy Ave. That’s quite the set of talent.

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To get the scoop on what went into pulling it all together, I hopped on the phone with Hot 97’s hyper-opinionated program director-turned-morning show host Ebro Darden, who in addition to booking concerts, just wrapped up a stint on the VH1 show This Is Hot 97.

Noisey: Summer Jam has a diverse lineup this year. What was the most exciting part of putting it together?
Ebro Darden:I’ve been working on this Nas 20th anniversary of Illmatic thing for two years. Even though we had him in a surprise form [two years] ago with Lauryn Hill. I been working on The Roots for a couple of years. People on the internet, bloggers and shit, talk about how they’re real hip-hop, [but] ain’t nobody up here kicking and screaming saluting The Roots the way we should. One of the original live performance acts in our culture is the band for the legendary Tonight Show. We take that for granted. Meanwhile we’re celebrating some motherfuckers with some mixtapes. We got a band called The Roots on their 16th album, and someone up here is talking to me about someone with one fucking single!

A few years ago you had Public Enemy perform. Last year it was Wu-Tang Clan. Summer Jam has recently tried to nod its head toward the past, which is historically something that hip-hop has not done well.
The bands obviously have to have some relevance and importance associated with them. Public Enemy was— I don’t want to say mainstream, in terms of radio play— but one of the first hip-hop bands that was a big touring band. A touring group that was counterculture and underground, but had mainstream awareness. If we can bring back these elements of our culture that raise the bar and set standards, it helps remind ourselves how important we are. And I like to have that at Summer Jam.

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Right.
I agree that most of the critics or even the people who are the consumer don’t appreciate it. But that’s another reason to even do it. It puts it in everyone’s face that we’re greater than just the last year’s worth of music. We mean more than that. Maybe that’s my personal thing. But I do get a lot of feedback from fans and people who buy tickets that they like coming to a show that no only entertains them but reminds them of some great memories.

Has the audience been receptive though? Like when Wu-Tang was on stage last year, was the crowd familiar?
Some and not others. There’s people who are part time fans. They may know one song but they don’t know a whole album front to back. But that’s just what mainstream is. They’re not going to know everything. I think last year when Wu-Tang was on Summer Jam there were some people who loved it and some people who didn’t know what it was. If you were 20-years-old when 36 Chambers came out, you’re 41 now. You’re running out to Summer Jam, to hang with 20-year-olds?

Have you ever been uncertain about how an act’s performance might go over?
I don’t really take chances on that main stage. That stadium stage, that ain’t no little boy. That’s a real thing. That’s not junior varsity. This year, putting Action Bronson out there, he’s not really a radio act. But we’ve done Slaughterhouse, and they’re not really a radio act. But they rap, and people come out to see rap and hip-hop. They know what it is.

Nas and 50 have historically not gotten along. Will there be any fireworks?
They’ve met and talked recently. Fifty met with [Funkmaster Flex] and talked about it. They’re grown and rich, that’s the status. They don’t care about that teenage shit.

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Iggy Azalea has the number one record in the country, but she’s playing earlier in the day on the smaller festival stage. What’s up with that?
When we booked her to do the show, the album wasn’t even out. We got lucky with that one.

Switching gears, you just wrapped up the VH1 show This Is Hot 97. In a lot of ways it seemed like you wound up being the star.
I don’t know about all that. It wasn’t planned. It was supposed to revolve around the radio station. I think because of my role at the station, I’m involved in a lot of things, so I think that’s fortunately or unfortunately how things happened. The other thing was that it centered around the back office, not the on-air part.

Will there be a second season? The finale centered on that.
When we started this show, we never intended to become a TV series. Mona Scott-Young wanted to do a show about the radio station and this is what we decided to do. They want to do a second season but we didn’t really make a lot of money on this and we obviously all have regular jobs. So now the conversation becomes not only do they want to do it, but do we want to do it? The other problem I have is that I don’t want to be on Monday night. I don’t want to be on rachet black Mondays, because that’s not the type of show we’re doing. I know those shows are successful but I’m not predicating my success in life on acting like that on TV.

Behind the scenes, other people who’ve had shows on VH1 have said the same thing about airing on Monday nights.
Like, this is our Black program night. And look that’s fine for what they need to do. If those shows are your biggest shows, I understand why you would put them all together on one night. But you would think they would do it not based on ethnicity, but on the type of content. We’re doing comedy, we’re not doing black people fighting each other. That’s part of having some integrity in life.

Did they approach you with anything you didn’t want to do?
The original [idea], they wanted to do a reality show on Hot 97. But this is a business. It’s not like we up here fighting. [Emmis Broadcasting] is a publicly-traded company, not a strip club. Nah, we want to get the friction between the DJs. Ain’t no friction between no DJs. We’re not packing pistols and selling drugs. We have jobs.

How much of that stigma is a carryover from ten years ago?
I think that perception is a carryover from the way Hot 97 has been characterized by being associated with the music. If 50 Cent had drama, it wasn’t because of the radio station. That was 50 Cent, it just landed on our doorstep. If Mobb Deep and Lil’ Kim had a disagreement outside the radio station, that was just because they came to visit the radio station. That’s not us.

Paul Cantor is a writer living in New York. He's on Twitter - @PaulCantor