By Rory Winston
A hotbed for talent, a hothouse for urban sounds, Hot 97 is the temperature and temperament of NY. There you have it: one last overcooked shout-out about just ‘how cool Hot can get’. But I’ve slung my last slogan and swung my last hyperbole.
Admittedly, it’s hard to avoid catchphrases while attempting to describe a contemporary rhythmic FM station – especially one that has retained integrity of vision without having sacrificed commercial viability.
If that sounds like a backhanded compliment, try reconciling the odd juxtaposition inherent in the station’s appeal: global penetrability with local street cred. In an Internet age where radio has devolved into a venue for chart-topping hits, it is a refreshing sign of unflagging devotion to see a massively popular crossover format leave room for the discovery of both local and niche talent.
Having established a reputation as an irreverent and intermittently risqué talk show host on Scandinavia’s most renowned independent urban radio station, I am no stranger to controversy. Nevertheless, when news first broke that Ebro Darden – Hot 97’s long standing programming director - refused to accept Mister Cee’s resignation even after the DJ publicly admitted to having sex with transgender women, I was agape with admiration. American Hip Hop audiences were, at least by European standards, notoriously homophobic. And here was the veritable flagship of that specific target audience willing to take an ethical stand regardless of possible repercussions to its ratings.
To ensure that I was neither judging a book by its cover, nor – as is more apt today - judging a ‘cover’ by its number of hooks, I decided to pay a visit to the Tribeca home of the station where, reputedly, ‘Hip Hop lives’.
EVERYDAY SHE’S HUSTLIN’
Hankering for the unadulterated perspective of a new convert, I sought out the one outsider-gone-insider whose candor, sense of urgency, and literary-edge had long since captivated me in Blog form. There, set adrift amidst a flotilla of papers, laptops, and vibrating cell phones, sat the Caucasian version of a young Judith Jamison - the self-avowed Sisyphus of the programming department, Karla Stenius (aka Karlie Hustle).
As my colleague and I entered the office, Karla rose to greet us - her wide rimmed spectacles remaining politely fixed on us, while the large dark olive eyes that lay behind them helplessly careened towards the ostensible clutter that was her desk. With choreographic precision, Hustle’s right hand fired off an email while her left silenced her phone; all while her broad smile beckoned us to be seated. This was multi-tasking set to music – the music being Bodega BAMZ‘s Strictly 4 my P.A.P.I.Z droning from her earbuds.
“It’s true”, she responded. “I had left radio all together … at the time it was to do any number of projects –working with foster kids, homeless kids, teaching music at Phoenix College, throwing parties and documentary screenings. By the time Ebro called …I was done with radio; but this particular platform… it suddenly gave me the chance to be creative on many different levels.”
In Karlie’s case, each of those ‘different levels’ was manifold universe onto itself. Her work detail included: running the sold-out Who’s Next Showcase at SOB’s each month - where she had Red Hook newcomer, Kris Kasanova, open for Talib Kweli while introducing Vinny Chase (incidentally, months before he was signed); organizing the line-up for Summer Jam Festival - where she made sure that 8 of the 9 hip hop acts were local; bringing newly discovered artists like Chance the Rapper, Troy Ave (Brooklyn-based) and Action Bronson (Queens) onto the Mix Show and regular rotation, respectively; and regularly checking the effect of her choices on the ratings. For her recreation, she scouted new artists, wrote comprehensive pieces on subjects from gender to race to the role of media, and did her best to stay fit, both mentally and physically. In short, her life consisted of championing the underdog while preventing the station from becoming one.
“Yeah, we have the advantage of being a standalone station. In a system that relies on streamlined programming - with one guy doing the playlist for like 50 stations - I’d say we serve the community”, Karlie clarified while giving in to a text message she had done her best to ignore.
Punctuating each word with the accelerating clicking of her keyboard, she asserted, “We program our own playlist right here in NY. We each go to bat for the artists we want played… And we pay heavily for errors. The stations that have it easy are the ones with ‘happy music’ all day long – the ones you can play when your kids and your grandpa are in the car, the ones where they talk rabbits and puppies and play songs everyone knows by heart… a world without bitches and drugs and hardships; not the stations that want to play upcoming genius without the lights going off.”
Karlie admitted that radio was no longer in the business of scouting talent. “Internet’s replaced us in that respect… nowadays, internet buzz is what actually alerts us about those with growing followings and those with nuance – after which, it’s our job to advise them, nurture them and get them to the next level …and that’s way before they’re ready for airplay and getting signed. Sure there’s a lot of youthful-yo-how-come-we’re- not-being-played-entitlement, but if they haven’t got a brand, an image, a fan base and a strong direction, we wouldn’t be doing them, ourselves or anyone a favour. Most people simply tune out when songs they’ve never heard… by artists they haven’t heard of yet… are being played. Getting marginalized talent the attention they deserve is one thing, playing a one-off product is just plain short sighted.” Her wide-framed glasses in place, Karlie Hustle – true to her moniker - hustled us down the hall.
The Odd Couple
The door to the Broadcast Studio gently closed behind us. We were being taped. Earphones. Mics. Juan Epstein. Yes, the dynamic duo whose namesake derived from that goofy Jewish Puerto Rican character trapped forever on Welcome Back Kotter reruns cordially sat there waiting. Cipha Sounds (Juan) and Peter Rosenberg (Epstein) were the two elements that made up radio’s Blackrican Jew singularity. Feeling every bit as articulate as Vinnie Barbarino, I realized I was about to interview the very couple that had spent most of their own lives interviewing others – meaning, everyone from Justin Bieber to artists like Souljah Boy, Jay Z, and MIA to stand-up comics like Jim Gaffigan to writer-directors like Keenan Ivory Wayans. To make matters worse, they held the distinction of hosting the longest running and most prolific podcast in the history of music – one that kept the likes of Big Daddy Kane, Q-tip, Kool G Rap, Rick Ross and Eminem speaking openly for hours on end. So what serendipitous moment fused the fates of Rosenberg and Cipha, the team behind Hot 97’s Morning Show?
“Honestly, nothing brought the two of us together except… our boss”, opined Rosenberg with mock resignation. “But on a personal level” he added sprightly, “comedy is what bonded us”.
“90’s Hip Hop and Comedy”, Ciph embellished in his usual laconic manner.
To intimations that it was an arranged marriage, Rosenberg riffed, “yes, we only fell in love afterwards. It wasn’t easy – the sex for the first few years was disgusting. I almost forget how strained… – but then we had so many unpleasant relationships with other people since then… that I don’t remember when we were the unpleasant relationship. “
“I say it on air openly” Ciph jibed, “you need therapy. I referred so many people to my therapist, she’s about to give me five months free.”
Shifting away from the repartee, Ciph went on to admit that therapy - along with acting in improv theatre – had genuinely changed his demeanour. “I mean I’m still very quiet but now when I get to a club I’ve learnt to let myself go. As they say nowadays, I turn up” (as in, let loose).
That, along with Ciph’s penchant for getting names like Troy Ave and NY Giants Victor Cruise to ‘turn up’ (as in, show up) has converted the East Village’s otherwise under-the-radar UCB improv venue into a place filled with expectation.
When asked if he started developing his comedy while working for Funkmaster Flex, Ciph is quick to note, “No, that was where I lost it”. With a pensive air, Ciph’s mellifluous voice rumbled on, “Lost it trying to be the serious Hip hop guy”.
“Dave Chappelle thought you were funny”, Rosenberg interjected.
“Yeah”, admitted Ciph, “I DJ’ed for him for a while …I used to warm up the crowds and play funny music. So, one day Chappelle says ‘hey, you know, you’re a funny guy’ and I was like: Funny….? Funny how?”
In my head I am seeing Joe Pesci menacingly announce the same words in Goodfella’s just moments before jabbing a pencil into someone’s throat.
But Ciph had moved on. He spoke with longing about trying to create a new scene for Hip Hop oriented youths, “‘Improv. I mean, Improv shouldn’t only be for white college kids. I know lots of guys on street corners making people laugh all day long; and they don’t realize that improv’s what they’re about. Back in the day, I looked for talented rappers, musicians, whatnot – now, I’m more about finding young funny people”.
Being aware of Ciph’s extensive priors in music, I asked about why he had abandoned producing. “I sucked”, uttered Ciph with candor.
Just as abruptly, and without the slightest agenda, Rosenberg came to his rescue, “Not true. You were good. He was really good”.
“Nah”, pleaded Ciph, “Bottom line, it wasn’t good”.
“I liked that joint you did with Lil’ Wayne”, Rosenberg vehemently insisted.
It was clear that despite the sarcasm – or perhaps as a result of their mutual fondness for it – these two cared for one another a great deal.
“This guy is fearless in pursuing his potential”, Rosenberg continued.
Hoping to cast the light elsewhere, I asked Rosenberg what he – after all these years of interviewing different people – would ask himself if he were suddenly in the position.
“What did I do wrong to get stuck with interviewing Rosenberg?” – came the snappy response. The contest for self-deprecation had begun.
Unlike Ciph who was both heavily into improv and was working on two new TV show formats, Rosenberg reassured us that he would doggedly stick to what he felt were ‘manageable areas of expertise’, namely radio and Hip Hop: “Ciph was born into this scene. Me - as the white nerd outsider - I was always studying… I had to work at it. I wanted to own it… I prepared my whole life for this job. And then being at this radio station – not just any old station – I’ve become that rare thing, the outsider that’s become an insider.”
He had arrived. Although Rosenberg eschewed mafia terminology, he was as proud of his honorary credentials as any ‘made man’.
Besides his famed interviews that included musicians, rappers, stand-up comics and professional wrestlers, Rosenberg regularly released Hip Hop compilations – ones that brought artists like Action Bronson to public attention.
“It’s a great buzz being able to discover someone and get the word out”, asserted Rosenberg. “When I was young we lived in DC and every weekend we drove in to NY to visit my grandparents. My brother and I spent most Fridays and Saturdays listening to legendary radio DJ’s like Marley Marl, DJ Red Alert, Chuck Chillout”
It was on these inner city outings that he learnt of artists like Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. “I got dragged in deeper and deeper”, Rosenberg explained. “Bringing that world to someone else – well, that’s all I ever really wanted to do”.
“Doing anything else conflicts with his nap time”, Ciph interjected with feigned languor.
“I do take naps seriously”, Rosenberg preened while pretending to ponder the idea. “Ciph on the other hand, he has this sick weird obsession of keeping busy. His calendar is always filled”
“You know what Freud said”, retorted Ciph, “everyone needs a father, a mother and a therapist.”
The Hot in Hot
The conversation had come full circle, each seemingly random detour no more than a cadenza in an elaborate sonata of what had been a solitary radio event. With recurring motifs, free associations, and clever segues immaculately woven into a well-honed structure, this was radio at its best - radio with the rhythmic precision of comedy; radio with the highly evocative sensibility of music.
The ability of the Juan Epstein duo to improvise such high calibre broadcasts on a daily basis is a testament to their talent and dedication both as performers and creative artists.
It was more than evident that Hot 97 was not just one of those ‘chill stations’ aimlessly floating on the given zeitgeist, wary of any turbulence or atmospheric change. The Hot as well as the 97 in the station’s name were uncanny reminders of the warm-blooded personalities around which the brand was built. As for the fans they warrant… Let’s just say, New York’s enthusiasm should remain at fever pitch.
*Rory Winter is a published author who has - under various pseudonyms - written for TV, Film and Radio. He is also a lyricist, talk-radio host, and reviewer who served as the Creative Director for the Scandinavian-based radio station Spin FM.