Earlier this month, Drake, a Canadian artist, stood on New York City soil at Madison Square Garden and dissed New York’s once flagship hip-hop radio station Hot 97. “You see, they tellin’ lies on Hot 97, that’s how it goes,” Drake rapped in a freestyle on-stage. “I told ’em fire Funk Flex and then I’ll come and do your show.” The comments stemmed from a seemingly strange three-way beef involving two major characters at Hot 97, Ebro Darden and Funkmaster Flex, plus Drake himself. While Ebro name-dropped Eminem, suggesting that the “rap god” was plotting a diss record against Drake following the Joe Budden fallout (contrary to that, Slim Shady then appeared at the Summer Sixteen tour stop in Detroit to perform alongside Drake), the public war of words was the not the first in what has been a streak of on-air attacks from Hot 97’s aggressively vocal insiders.
For a station that prides itself on the tagline “Where Hip-Hop Lives,” is that even true in 2016? Since first playing M.A.R.R.S. “Pump Up The Volume” in 1988, WQHT New York (better known as Hot 97) has evolved from a local rap radio station to a global touchstone for hip-hop’s monumental moments on and off-air, becoming the first New York-based radio station to incorporate hip-hop music into its rotation. By 1995, the transition into a full-fledged hip-hop powerhouse arrived at the same time as hip-hop’s so-called “Golden Age,” an era marked by the release of rap classics like 2Pac’s Me Against the World, Raekwon’s Built 4 Cuban Linx and Mobb Deep’s The Infamous.
Before the Internet, artists often hand-delivered their records to be premiered on the station or made a pit-stop to air out their grievances. When the LOX (Jadakiss, Styles P and Sheek Louch) wanted to be emancipated from their Bad Boy deal with Puff Daddy in 2005, they took their “Free The Lox” campaign to Hot 97’s Angie Martinez and Puff ultimately set them free (both parties settled their publishing dispute in December of that year). Several shootouts—reportedly deriving from beefs between Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown and years later, between 50 Cent and Game’s—would occur within steps of the radio’s headquarters. Beyond the mic, Hot 97’s annual music festival Summer Jam also hosted fiery hip-hop moments, like Jay Z showing a young photo of Mobb Deep’s Prodigy at the height of their feud.
Over a decade later, the station has shifted the spotlight from rappers to talent. In 2014, VH1 aired one season of the reality series This Is Hot 97, which dismantled the “face for radio” business model by making hosts TV stars. Darden, who held an executive position as vice president of programming at Emmis Communications (the corporation that powers Hot 97), found reality TV fame, transitioning from exec to radio personality as co-host of the morning show Ebro in the Morning alongside Peter Rosenberg and Laura Stylez. That same year, the “Voice of New York” and Hot 97 matriarch Angie Martinez parted ways with the station, moving her show to the station’s competitor Power 105.1. Power jumped to 3.9% of listening audience as Hot sat at 2.8%, according to Nielsen ratings. Power 105.1 also surpassed Hot’s morning show ratings as the The Breakfast Club (hosted Charlamagne Tha God, Angela Yee and DJ Envy) continued to pump out in-depth interviews. The ultimate act of shade, though, was Hot purchasing Power 105’s online domain in 2014. http://www.power105.com still links to http://www.hot97.com to this day. Hot reportedly owns it until 2017. (A rep for Hot 97 declined to comment for this piece.)
Look to Hot 97’s recent relationship with rappers, though, and it’s been a rocky one. Funkmaster Flex acquired a few new on-air beefs from Dame Dash (he accused the hip-hop mogul of being a “hip-hop culture vulture” and said “you didn’t adapt to the game” in 2014) to Jay Z (he called the rapper’s Life + Times site “trash”). He also inserted himself into Drake’s battle with Meek Mill, releasing several alleged reference tracks from rapper Quentin Miller. After Drake’s Hot 97 freestyle at MSG earlier this month, Flex also dropped alleged truth bombs by revealing that Drake’s team had allegedly gave the reference track to Meek and reportedly pushed the station to release the video of his 2009 Funk Flex freestyle where he reads rhymes off a Blackberry to support a “writer” image. In 2012, Peter Rosenberg also made headlines for calling Summer Jam headliner Nicki Minaj’s “Starships,” a Hot 100 pop hit “wack,” which caused Lil Wayne to pull Minaj and the Young Money team from the lineup.
On-air, Ebro has shared allegedly private conversations with the likes of Drake and Kanye West while also taking umbrage with rappers’ lyrical abilities. He’s taken acts like Rae Sremmurd and Lil Yachty to task on-air (Darden said Yachty had “high school bars” last month which caused a mild Twitter rant from Lil Boat where he tweeted then deleted “F–k Hot 97”). Earlier this year, 50 Cent questioned Ebro, a Sacramento native, about leaving out New York rap in Hot 97’s rotation. Darden said that New York rap had lost its home court advantage. He then drummed up more controversy when the host suggested Eminem would prepare a diss track against Drake. (To note, Ebro and Flex are not the only ones to bring drama to work, especially in New York radio. Power 105.1’s Breakfast Club recently saw an interview go awry when guest Birdman walked out and told the crew to “put some respek on my name.”)
Hot 97, a station that would often diffuse beef before it erupted, has now turned into a sounding board for rap purists despite the prominence of pop records in its daily rotation. Throw in the sideline drama and the rise of its New York competitor Power 105.1 as well as streaming services like Apple’s Beats 1 (where Ebro holds a hosting gig) and it’s tough to pinpoint Hot’s place in 2016 hip-hop. As hip-hop drifts further from its origins, due to the prevalence of West Coast and Southern rap stars as well as production credits making as much noise as the lyrical content, Hot attempts to play both guard of the art form while inserting themselves into current headlines. On-air jocks are currently at a vantage point for more fame, oftentimes eclipsing their subject matter and perhaps tarnishing a good standing with the rap community that took decades to build. Whether the trending topic is Rae Sremmurd writing their raps or Drake allegedly ditching the pen, it seems radio can’t kill the hip-hop star, even though hip-hop made radio.