Changing of the Guard: Hot 97’s role in defining hip-hop culture
There is a thick line between a successful music artist and a superstar music artist. That thick line is radio play. That is not to say that great success cannot be had independent of broadcast radio, but even Macklemore’s “independent” success can be largely attributed to his popularity on radio. Take a look at the Adeles, Eminems and Beyoncés of the world. The common thread to their success is generally 500 plus spins a week.
New York radio, existing within the long established mecca of hip-hop, has been pioneering, essential and defining to the culture. However, in recent years the Big Apple has not been the forefront of popular hip-hop music. Part of that change has to do with the changing landscape of the music industry. As people consume more and more music digitally, the geographic boundaries are shrinking. The last bastion of the old regime is radio.
Beyond the music, Hot 97 made a large mark on the culture.
In the early ’90s WQHT changed formats and brought on a young DJ by the name of Funkmaster Flex. The station’s ratings were low and hip-hop’s resurgence after the initial boom in the late ’80s meant it needed a home. Personalities like Wendy Williams were brought on board as well as Angie Martinez who started off as an intern. For a while things were great. The station was back on top and 1993 to 1995 could be considered some of the best years in hip-hop music.
Beyond the music, Hot 97 made a large mark on the culture. Its annual larger than life outdoor concert, Summer Jam, has been a place for monumental advances in the culture. Jay-Z has continually made headlines at the event for everything from his infamous “Dancing Prodigy” slideshow to bringing out the late, great Michael Jackson. Summer Jam continues to be one of the top festivals for rap every year.
But lately Summer Jam has been making waves in the industry for different reasons. Peter Rosenberg’s tongue in cheek criticism of Nicki Minaj served as a catalyst for a Twitter lashing that lasted months. After a heated exchange on the Hot 97 morning between Minaj and Rosenberg, she headlined this year’s event. A corporate burying of the hatchet if you will.
Even through all the controversy there have been barrier-breaking moments that really display what Hot 97 means to the culture.
And that same Summer Jam became a point of contention for Rosenberg and an even larger personality in the hip-hop pantheon: Chuck D. A few ill directed words turned into a tirade. The discussion did highlight cultural deficiencies such as questions of ownership and even racial issues. Ultimately it ended with an apology from Rosenberg on air, but even that may not have been enough to quell the disturbed waters.
Even through all the controversy there have been barrier-breaking moments that really display what Hot 97 means to the culture. After years of accusations, Mister Cee announced his retirement on air due to candid audio clips of the legendary DJ soliciting sexual acts. In an honest display of solidarity, the station’s on-air host, Ebro Darden, convinced Cee to face his decisions and ultimately stay on the air. It could be argued that the purpose for the reconciliation was self-serving, but with hip-hop often being accused of deeply ingrained homophobia, it was a bold step in the right direction culturally.
As Hot 97 continues to try to regain its foothold in this new landscape some may be wondering how long the home of hip-hop will last.
There have been a few high profile people leaving the station over the years. Wendy Williams used her firing from the station to propel her own brand to dazzling heights and, while Funkmaster Flex is still dropping bombs, Angie Martinez left the station after decades, for rival Power 105.1 no less. This signifies a true changing of the guard for New York Radio. Power 105.1’s The Breakfast Club has been making smart deals including partnering with Puff Daddy’s RevoltTV. While it may not be breaking records and taking chances under the watchful eye of Clear Channel, the station’s programming segments have been culturally defining in this new age of digital mediums. Adding Angie to the station adds a level of credibility and insidership that will prove very valuable.
As Hot 97 continues to try to regain its foothold in this new landscape some may be wondering how long the home of hip-hop will last. It begs the question: is the music being broadcast through the famous frequency really just the violinist valiantly serenading the Titanic or will the station return to the heights it once enjoyed?
Words By. Sean Watson