Ebro Darden didn’t expect a job in retail would lead to radio. But being a stock boy at clothing stores in his native Sacramento was the connection to DJs who wanted first dibs on shipments from then-trendy lines like Karl Kani and Cross Colours. The young teen became friendly with local TV personality and former KSFM radio DJ Mark S. Allen, who introduced him to the station’s research director, Sonia Jimenez. She eventually offered him a job as an assistant. “Sonia wouldn’t hire dudes to do phone research because their voices were too low [and intimidating],” he recalls. “But she said, ‘If you use a different name and change your voice, I’ll give you the job.’ So my name was Cameron and I would raise my voice an octave.”
These days, such niceties aren’t a priority for Darden, whose baritone voice and assertive demeanor are a trademark of New York’s hip-hop powerhouse WQHT (Hot 97) and, since June 2015, Apple Music’s Beats 1. Darden, 41, came to Hot 97 in 2003 after stints at KBMB Sacramento and KXJM Portland, Ore., and through the years his roles have included DJ, music director, program director and even a TV star (playing himself) on the short-lived VH1 reality show This Is Hot 97.
These days, he’s assistant program director and host of Ebro in the Morning, ranked second in its time slot in the New York market among the key demographic of 18-34, according to its parent company, Emmis Communications. He also wrangles the big-name talent for the station’s annual Summer Jam concert, which during its 23-year history has become not just a platform for the year’s hot rappers — the 2016 edition, taking place June 5 at New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium, features Big Sean, Pusha T and ASAP Rocky — but also for headline-grabbing guest appearances and stunts. (In 2001, Jay Z brought out Michael Jackson and humiliated Mobb Deep rapper Prodigy by displaying a photo of him as an adolescent in a dance costume.)
Billboard caught up with the single father of a 2-year-old daughter after his morning stint at Hot 97’s Tribeca office. Afterward, he ducked back home to Jersey City, N.J., for a quick nap before reporting to Apple Music’s Chelsea headquarters for his Beats 1 show in the evening.
How do your shows on Hot 97 and Beats 1 differ?
The songs we play on Hot 97 are researched; we know they’re popular. Every now and then, I’ll take some content risks and talk about things that aren’t so popular or acceptable, like my [left-leaning] political stance. On Hot 97, I can play Tupac records and talk about Afeni [Shakur, Tupac‘s mother and a Black Panther, who died May 2] and the Black Nationalist Movement because most of the audience will know what I’m talking about. Now, Beats 1 is global, so people in Croatia or Germany may not be attuned to that, so I’m going to let the music speak for where I’m trying to go. But [musically] at Beats, I’m going to take more risks and play underground records and artists you never heard of because that’s why you’ve opted in to that service.
What brought you to Beats 1?
They actually came and asked me. They didn’t really have to sell me; I’ve been in radio a long time and I know people at the top of the organization, so it was a matter of me wanting to extend what I do at Hot 97 and also be able to curate music and get involved with breaking new artists.
Who are some of the artists you feel you helped break?
To me, breaking an artist means you started playing it and then they got picked up on an international level. Leon Bridges, for sure, went mainstream — he sounds a lot like Sam Cooke, real throwback soul, and he played live in the studio. It was just amazing. Anderson Paak I had on first on Beats 1 right around when [he appeared on] Dr. Dre‘s Compton album. Now with his own album, he’s critically acclaimed and really getting a lot bigger. And while we support on Hot 97, I got him played on an international level on Beats.
What is the most difficult issue you have had to handle at Summer Jam?
The time R. Kelly wouldn’t get off his tour bus and get onstage [in 2004]. He’s a weirdo. I don’t know what he was doing — it messed up the flow of the show and we had mad downtime. It was the same thing as when that shit with [Hot 97 DJ Peter] Rosenberg and Nicki Minaj happened. [In 2012, the rapper canceled her headlining performance after Rosenberg described her song “Starships” as “bullshit” early in the show. Minaj and the station have since made up.] Fortunately, I had Lauryn Hill and Nas backstage, so they came out and ripped.
You had trouble with the crowd in 2015 — 61 arrests and 11 injured police officers after fans rushed the gates. How do you ensure those things don’t happen again?
Well, I don’t believe the people who were trying to throw things at cops had tickets and were just waiting to get in like normal folks. We encourage security to ask people without tickets to leave.
Some people are skeptical about radio’s future. Where do you see it going?
It’s going to continue to grow. The business model is shifting, but the number of people that consume it — through the FM dial or via streaming on their phones or through YouTube channels — is massive. Being able to connect with other humans and hear other voices and share is not something that an algorithm or a computer can replace. I don’t think that’s ever going to die.
This article was originally featured in the May 28 issue of Billboard.