NEW YORK – Ebro Darden lives at the epicenter of a contentious music conversation.
At issue: Whether New York’s Hot 97 – perhaps the nation’s most prominent and influential hip-hop radio station – is doing enough to promote burgeoning artists.
It’s a topic that’s heated up over the past year, and it’s the Sacramento native who fields the calls, emails, tweets and Instagram posts challenging him. That’s because he’s the station’s “Old Man,” its éminence grise, a maker and breaker of careers new and established, the tall, bearded face on the billboards advertising Hot 97 around the city and beyond.
As the former program director and current morning show host – positions he recently held simultaneously – Darden, 39, takes pride in upholding Hot 97 as a place that plays only artists and music that matters.
In other words, he’s the guy who grabs the microphone and tells the audience their favorite underground artist’s songs weren’t up to snuff or weren’t testing well in the ratings. So they’re kept out of rotation.
“There’s only so many minutes in an hour and there’s only so many hours in a day,” Darden said. “If we’re going to play your song, it better be something meaningful to the audience. We gotta figure out ways to make it matter. Either you make it matter in the community and (on) the Internet by doing your own promotion, or you need to have a name for us so when we put it on the radio, we’re like, ‘Here’s why you should care.’ ”
Darden’s knowledge of what makes compelling radio and quality hip-hop didn’t come from his time in New York, which started in 2003. Or Portland, Ore., before that. It came from Sacramento and KSFM 102.5, where Darden began his career, working as a part-time research assistant and nighttime intern.
David “DJ Davey D” Hickman first met Darden while pacing the halls before his interview for an on-air position on KSFM in 1992. The pair – with Darden sporting a cardigan sweater and Gumby-fade hairstyle – conversed about popular records and practiced on turntables in a nearby mix room.
As their conversation wrapped up, Darden, then an El Camino High School senior who also spent some of his formative years in Oakland, bluntly asked Hickman: “Can I be your intern?”
“I thought, this dude was the real deal,” said Hickman, now a DJ for private events in Central California. “We were both young. You know how Jay-Z talks about ‘the hustler’s spirit?’ He always had that vision.”
Hickman obliged the then-assistant/intern who had worked with DJ Mark S. Allen, allowing Darden to sit in on his show and ultimately putting him on air to pull from his knowledge of Sacramento’s parks, high school mascots and malls.
“He always struck me as the kind of guy that by the age of 22 would be able to teach a college class on what to do right in this business,” said Allen, now a “Good Day Sacramento” entertainment anchor. “At a time when traditional broadcast radio was full of phony, formulaic and manufactured sound, Ebro was honest and organic and real.”
In early 1998, Darden became program director of KSFM rival KBMB, then a newly launched station, after meeting with its owner and showing he was qualified to develop a hip-hop focused sound.
Darden insists he didn’t focus solely on the ratings, but the results showed: Within 18 months, a combination of the syndicated “Doug Banks Radio Show” in the mornings and mix programs yielded a win over the more established KSFM in the ratings.
“I remember everybody at KSFM saying, ‘Ebro can’t pull that off,’ ” Hickman said. “ ‘E ain’t no programmer.’ I remember that specifically, and I used to say to them, ‘Ya’ll tripping. Ebro is going to put his foot in our (expletive).’ ”
Since his time in Sacramento, Darden’s influence has moved beyond radio. He recently made the leap to TV, appearing in “This Is Hot 97,” a VH1 scripted comedy that premiered in March. Darden said he had previously turned away other reality TV offers because he felt that conflict-driven concepts would represent the station and hip-hop culture poorly.
“I think we represented our brand and represented ourselves in a way where people who thought we were ‘some ghetto, street ignorant individuals because it’s Hot 97’ got to see a different look,” Darden said of the VH1 show, which featured Darden and other personalities from the station.
Darden also helps plan Hot 97’s Summer Jam, an adaptation of a summer concert started by the Bay Area’s KMEL in 1987. This year’s concert, the 21st, saw 55,000 spectators fill New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium on June 1 for acts such as Drake, Nas, 50 Cent, Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj.
“I don’t get to enjoy any of (it),” Darden said. “I enjoy hearing the crowd get excited. I enjoy artists being onstage on time. I enjoy seeing people have a good time, artists’ staff included. And I enjoy finishing and going home without any craziness.”
But perhaps Darden shines most when it comes to managing difficult situations. After Hot 97 on-air talent Peter Rosenberg publicly insulted Minaj at Summer Jam 2012, Darden helped smooth over the squabble.
When Mister Cee, a respected Hot 97 DJ, resigned following the release of an audio clip in which he appeared to solicit sex for money from a transgender person, Darden didn’t accept it. Instead, he brought Cee back the next day for an emotional on-air discussion about sexuality in hip-hop.
Darden, however, isn’t without his critics, some who fault him for being too mainstream. Darden argues that he’s invested in new musicians, having resurrected the “Battle of the Beats” concept where the audience decides between two songs on a given day. In addition, he’s helped grow Hot 97’s “Who’s Next Live” concert series for up-and-coming artists.
But the bottom line is that hip-hop has never been a place for the thin-skinned. And if people get upset at the Old Man’s remarks, he feels it means they care as much as he does about the music. And his disapproval makes a young artist work harder, that only strengthens the genre’s culture.
“People that hear a song 1,000 times and still love it, that’s a hit,” Darden said. “That’s what we’re looking for. That’s the major leagues. The minor leagues are songs that just fly by night. Here today, gone tomorrow.”