"Is it 'Scenario (Remix)'?" the DJ and radio personality Cipha Sounds wonders in a dimly lit studio at Hot 97's downtown Manhattan offices. "They say 'BLS and KISS.' There's 'Hot 9-7 every day that's my word.' Puff and 'the Benjamins.' But I'm sure it's before that. Biggie said 'Flex' … "
Cipha's lanky white producer quits futzing around on the computer to chime in. "Biggie? He says 'Hot 97' in the … "
" … 'Get Money' remix."
"'Hot 97 rhyme-ready!' That might be it!"
The "it" in question is the very first time a rapper shouted out the words "Hot 97" in a song.1 Junior M.A.F.I.A.'s "Gettin' Money (The Get Money Remix)" was released in 1995, but only a few years earlier the New York station with the call letters WQHT primarily played the Latino-birthed dance music subgenre known as freestyle. When the format slowly shifted in the early '90s, it would prove a momentous programming switch. Rap music — specifically the raw, smart, mind-boggling stuff coming out of the Big Apple, including Biggie, Nas, Jay Z, and the Wu-Tang Clan — would grow in concert with the station, and a healthy symbiosis developed. If you wanted to break records, you went to Hot 97. If you wanted to start beef, you went to Hot 97. If you wanted to talk your shit, you went to Hot 97. The station had an easy grace with its stature, fomenting a familial but never pandering vibe. It was a proving ground, and it was home.
Little by little, things changed. Between the industry's continued atomization and New York rap's own stultification, the music became marginalized. And while Hot 97 is still your favorite (New York) rapper's favorite radio station, the numbers have long since dropped. In January's Nielsen Portable People Meter report, Hot 97 rated 14th out of 37 New York stations. Rubbing salt in the wound: Power 105 — long Hot 97's annoying upstart kid brother — has been winning the head-to-head competition.
None of this drama is even remotely hinted at on This Is Hot 97, the "unscripted comedy" that ends its first season this week on VH1. Produced by Mona Scott-Young, who's building an empire on the bedrock of her Love & Hip Hop franchise, the show averts traditional reality show histrionics in favor of good-natured workplace high jinks. That means it's a more natural extension of the station than you might assume, with the cast — DJs Cipha Sounds, Peter Rosenberg,2 Angie Martinez, Laura Stylez, Miss Info, and Funkmaster Flex — playing jokey onscreen versions of their already exaggerated on-air personas.
But it is still, oddly enough, a Hot 97 reality show on the same network that brought us Celebrity Rehab, The Surreal Life, and For the Love of Ray J. And that, for those who revere the station as a hip-hop bastion, is a slippery thing to grasp.
For more than two decades, Hot 97 has been a unique cultural entity — a radio station that meant something. But times have changed. So, what now? Can Hot 97 stay special? "We're both different than we were when New York was running hip-hop," says Rosenberg. "Sure. I wasn't here for that era. It sounded awesome. But at the end of the day — New York is still New York, and Hot is still Hot."
On the day I visit the station, a bare-bones camera crew is in the office to shoot pickups. Running the operation is Ian, a smiley suburban goofball with a slight paunch. As the rank-and-file of Hot 97 quietly go about their business, the crew meander, waiting to shoot Funkmaster Flex. He's running late. Meanwhile, Ian kibitzes with me about working with rappers: "Everyone's game. Not everyone's good. French Montana was maybe … lacking."
Cipha Sounds, pencil in hand, is studiously examining a questionnaire about his viewing habits (the VH1 website needs some fun facts). "I don't watch any ratchet Love or Wives show," he says, thinking out loud. "Except Bad Girls Club. Because I don't need the nonsense. I don't need the frills. 'Oh, I hope he picks me!' Tsk. Just fight!" Of the hand-wringing engendered by Hot 97's own entrance into the realm of drunken haymakers and violent hair pulls, Ciph professes, convincingly in his heavy-lidded manner, to not give a fuck. "We make fun of people on reality shows all day. Then as soon as they dangled the carrot in front of us, we were like, 'All right!'"
In the downstairs cafeteria, Rosenberg, Ciph's excitable morning show partner — dressed today in brown corduroys and a Celtics T-shirt — is enjoying a lunch of soup and diet ginger ale. As a Jewish rap nerd from suburban Maryland, Rosenberg grew up dreaming of working at Hot 97, and still reveres it. "I always complain that we don't sell nearly enough merch," he says. "We're the only radio logo anyone would wear. What radio station has fans?"
As Hot's go-to gadfly, Rosenberg accomplished his crowning achievement in the summer of 2012 — the Nicki Minaj Incident. While broadcasting from the smaller side stage of the station's annual Summer Jam mega-concert, Rosenberg casually insulted Minaj's "Starships," one of the Queens rapper's biggest, most pop-leaning hits. Nicki, scheduled to headline, abandoned the show upon being relayed the news. The spat soon became a referendum on rap ethics. The two later patched things up, in an intermittently awkward on-air interview that featured Hot 97 at its best: candid, tough, ultimately joyful when discussing the culture and exploring its bounds and possibilities.
Recently The New Yorker profiled Rosenberg, positioning him, largely in the context of the Nicki incident, and so somewhat awkwardly,3 as a citadel of true hip-hop. ("If rap music were healthy, would it need a defender, much less a white one?" a photo caption summarized.) Tellingly, in a 5,000-plus-word piece, This Is Hot 97 is never mentioned. Neither is Rosenberg's stint hosting MTV2's schlocky Hip Hop Squares, or his à la carte parody videos (most recently: "I Luh My Puppy"). And that's understandable: To shoehorn a retro-leaning narrative of Rosenberg as a purist-outsider, acting as the last line of defense for "real" hip-hop, you would have to willfully ignore his gung-ho dive into goofy reality television.
For Rosenberg, though, it's one and the same. Hot 97 is good for hip-hop; the reality show could boost Hot 97. Ergo, reality TV is good for hip-hop. "Radio's getting smaller," Rosenberg says, spooning up the last bits of soup out of a paper bowl, "and for Hot 97 not to take advantage of the brand? To say, 'No, no, no, all we do is radio'? You gotta think, what other money streams can we get? What else can we do? And, hey — we're a halfway decent-looking bunch!"
Finally, Flex arrives. He apologizes to Ian. "I know it doesn't help: I overslept. You wanna say, 'This is bullshit.' You want minimal mistakes." Ian, charmed, banters back instead. "You never make mistakes anyway, Flex."
Angie Martinez, fresh from makeup room primping, has shown up looking glowing; meanwhile, Flex calls to a coworker, "You wouldn't have any lotion? No? I'm fucking up. I'm fucking up." A no-nonsense PA chatters directions into her shoulder-strapped mic ("We are shooting the hallway scene … everyone back in … I don't speak Spanish"), and the cargo shorts–sporting crew members amble in from the back, ready to roll.
Earlier, Ian Gelfand, a veteran of American Pickers and House Hunters International, filled me in on his craft. "All reality is scripted. I'm sure you know that, to some extent. It's not like they just hang out with Kim Kardashian and then something happens. I wanted to push this show to a more sitcom-y place, but the network has issues with scripted. They'd have to pay union [wages]; there's a lot of issues. So they'd never call it scripted, no matter what. And there is no script: They ad-lib all the dialogue. But most shows do have some elements of what you call 'producing.'"
Now I see him in action, setting the scene: Angie has been cooking healthful food to improve the office's poor diet, only Flex is convinced everyone's complimenting her on it simply out of politeness.4 "So when do I start giving her shit?" Flex asks. "Right away!" Ian directs. And despite background chatter and random folks obliviously cutting right through the set, the cameras begin to roll.
"You're saying we got yes-men up in our home?" Angie asks.
"Might be a couple lingering," Flex answers.
"I hate a yes-man!" she faux-rages.
After one take full of riffing, Flex cracks up: "Ang would never say that!" After more takes, Angie pretends to fling the empty plates at Ian's head. "It's not your fault, Ian! It's what you represent!"
For a fan of a certain age, Angie and Flex represent a specific era in rap music: namely, the fattened-up pre-Napster days when the (surely never-ending!) commercial swell of the industry grew so much that it could birth high-profile Angie Martinez solo albums, complete with their own Jay Z verses and "tear the club up" music videos.
Things have certainly changed. The last time The New Yorker took a deep dive into Hot 97, it was 2006, on the occasion of Jamal "Gravy" Woolard getting shot in the ass and still completing a freestyle for Flex.5 And it wasn't so long ago that Tracy Jordan told us "shooting people at the Source Awards is a tradition. It's like Christmas. Or shooting people outside of Hot 97." Compared to that once nefarious reputation, today's Hot 97 is far calmer, and almost quaint. Angie and Flex work as a comforting, stabilizing through line — they're not only the station's longest-tenured talent but also, impressively, still its biggest names.
Angie manages it with a timeless, loving big-sis vibe; check out her very real, non-judgmental concern as Schoolboy Q detailed to her his demoralizing addiction to lean and understand why folks still feel comfortable opening up to her. Meanwhile, Flex stays relevant by not budging from his winking loudmouth shtick. Helping him out here: having apparently secretly and magically figured out how to reverse the aging process. In person today, in his black hoodie and black snapback, a Coach duffel by his side, it's hard to believe he's creeping up on 50.6
After shooting his scene, while carefully chewing on some Domino's bread sticks, Flex explains his ambivalence toward This Is Hot 97: "What's a good way for me to put it? I think VH1 put together a great, comfortable zone for us to do something cool. But I'll be honest, it's not something I plan on doing again." When I suggest that there's no way a Hot 97 reality TV show would have happened in the station's early-2000s heyday, Flex doesn't deflect. "Absolutely right," he shoots back, chomping on another breadstick.
Now there are cops here. There are only two, and they are smiling and strolling slowly through the hallways, and so things can't be all that serious. But still: There are cops here.
Ebro Darden, the programming director turned on-air talent, takes charge. He asks the VH1 crew if they perhaps unwittingly pushed the panic button in one of the back studios. It couldn't have been them, they promise: They've been out of there for the last hour and a half. Channeling the spirit of "911 Is a Joke," Ebro does not see this as a valid argument: "What'd you expect? It's Hot 97! It's the hood!"
With his general air of displeasure and a tufting quasi-biblical beard, Ebro (or Old Man Ebro, if you prefer) has earned his resident big-brother status. He's a bit of a scold, which means he's not most people's favorite Hot personality. But within the ecosystem, he's a necessary force. And never was that more evident than during the Mister Cee conversation.
Last fall, over an emotional half-hour, Ebro carefully coaxed Mister Cee — who'd resigned from his beloved "Throwback at Noon" slot after being arrested, repeatedly, for soliciting transgender prostitutes — back to work. For the first time, Cee admitted his dalliances, and discussed how difficult that was to own up to, not only within hip-hop, but also within the notoriously conservative Caribbean community in which he was raised. With a firm paternal touch, his friend Ebro refused to let him quit, reminding him again and again that nothing he does in his personal life takes away from his gift for spinning records.
On the day of the shoot, Mister Cee lopes through the office, stern, imposingly tall, and looking, understandably, just the slightest bit suspicious of the whole thing. Because while he is still gainfully employed by the station, he's not taking part in the show, nor will his dramatic personal story be mentioned. "It wasn't off the table," Ebro says. "But we share with the audience every day on the radio, and Mister Cee wanted to share that moment with the people he performs for. I don't know if we need to do an episode about this incident."
During creative negotiations with VH1, Ebro acted as the de facto spokesperson for the crew. And the goal, as he relays it, is commendable: to focus on the ordinary, humdrum camaraderie at the station, and so to serve as a reminder that the concerns of regular people are just as "hip-hop" as any tired "Royals"-esque signifiers.
"None of us are drug dealers, none of us are in strip clubs every night throwing money, none of us are gold-chain wearing, flossed-out dudes," Ebro says. "We play the music by these celebrities. But we have jobs. We have jobby jobs. We come to work every day." And if anyone were to take the opportunity to attempt a breakout, like some hip-hop David Brent? "We'd all be like, 'Yo, motherfucker! Settle down, man.'"
For as much as we've concerned ourselves with the motivations of the staff of Hot 97, the truth is, the show wouldn't exist if it weren't for the whims of Mona Scott-Young. In 2011, Scott-Young, a former co-owner at the late Chris Lighty's famed Violator label, created Love & Hip Hop, originally conceived as a celebration of rap music's girlfriends and wives. Since then, Love has sprung a spinoff for Dipset capo Jim Jones and two more iterations: Atlanta, which is up and running with the likes of Waka Flocka Flame's girlfriend and Lil Scrappy's paramour; and Los Angeles, which is around the corner. Explaining the seeds of her swelling success, Scott-Young says, simply enough, "I spent 20 years shoveling the girlfriend out the back door while shoveling the wife through the front."
We're in the barren, far western reaches of Manhattan, but the offices of Scott-Young's Monami Entertainment look like the kind of cozy post-Victorian parlor at which Hemingway wouldn't mind getting tight. There are exposed wood crossbeams and tropical potted flora, and even a view of the roiling waves of the Hudson River, complete with a small, shuddering boat and a watermill. There are also a bunch of white Macs.
Walking past the editing bays and glass-paned conference rooms, we observe the humming Love & Hip Hop empire in a Benetton-coalition flow, with white dudes in Yankees caps, European-looking fellows in tieless suits, and black women in floral dresses all variously engaged in meetings and spirited walk-and-talks. With her chunky rings and easy smile, her wavy hair cascading out of a newsboy cap, Scott-Young runs the place like a kindly expansionist dictator. Of her plan to sprawl Monami over into the presently occupied office space below hers: "If I walk around in heels enough, I'm hoping the people downstairs will wanna move."
When it comes to the "revered showrunners" club, Shonda Rhimes, as a black woman, is positioned as a famous exception. But she's not alone. Just last month, Businessweek profiled Mara Brock Akil, the creator of BET's hugely successful Being Mary Jane,7 positioning her as something of a secret powerhouse, a black woman getting unfairly lost in the shuffle over the attention funneled toward the same cast of follicularly challenged white males.
Applying the same "secret black female powerhouse" label to Scott-Young is a trickier business, because there are other looming considerations. Namely: Yes, reality TV has swallowed pop culture, but critics still ghettoize it. Those who know and love the genre, though, recognize the imposing shadow cast by Scott-Young.8 Which means she has enough capital inside the building to get the suits to let her roll the dice on a show she says was inspired by, wonderfully enough, early '80s staple WKRP in Cincinnati.9
The ratings for This Is Hot 97 have been anemic — last week, it just edged out Chrisley Knows Best — but that doesn't hinder the master plan. Scott-Young can survive the show's struggles. There are story meetings, in-house edits, production, set visits, and new-show development; she's eyeing scripted, maybe a procedural, but selling an international format would really be ideal.
There's also Myx Fusions Moscato, the wine line she runs with Nicki Minaj, out of a second office just around the corner. "Who could have told me two years ago that I would have been standing in front of sales teams talking about launches of a consumer brand?" she says, in a surprisingly winning bit of corporo-inspirationalism. "I have afforded myself the luxury of doing whatever the hell I feel like. And I'm not only willing to roll up my sleeves and do anything but, fuck around, can do anything if I set my mind to it."
Scott-Young's husband is a stay-at-home dad for their two kids. Her assistant, a young fellow who goes by the name of Mike Smooth, is with her "from the moment I get up to the moment I go to bed." She works constantly, with energy to burn; while we talk, she alternates between checking her perma-buzzing BlackBerry and tidily tearing a small bit of white paper into neat strips. And she doesn't lead off with it or force it, but, with a little bit of prodding, she's quite adept at selling herself as the delightful ball buster.
"When I left Violator, I stepped out on air, to go and be happy," she says. "And every single day I knew I was alive — whether it was from experiencing pure bliss from having closed a deal to sheer fear from having lost one, I felt alive. And so I go hard. I know that. I've broken a lot of women. And my husband is somebody who's gonna stand right beside me and allow me to continue to be everything that I'm supposed to be while I'm breathing on this earth. When I take my last breath I can say, 'Goddammit, there was nothing else left to be done. I did it all.'"
The conversation has accelerated quickly, from the minutiae of TV production to corporate retreat rah-rah. But it's undeniably effective. I'm stirred. And by the time I reach the cobblestoned streets of west Manhattan, I'm ready to sign up for a marathon.
Back at Hot 97, the crew is hanging around the reception desk, bullshitting before another scene. Ebro tries to get a conversation going about how he advised 50 Cent to slow up on the free music giveaways, but Cipha Sounds pivots to the topic of his dream interviewees: "If we can get Jim Gaffigan" — the doughy family-man comedian who traffics in jokes about Toblerone and Auntie Anne's — "that'd be hot." Rosenberg excitedly seconds it, and Ebro cuts them down: "You know what you guys are?" "Nerds?" Rosenberg offers. "Fucking nerds," Ebro shoots back. Somehow the conversation takes a sharp turn into the theoretical sex acts one would perform on a leading national fast food chain's lovable mascot.
In this upcoming scene, Miss Info, while investigating Tinder for an on-air segment, happens to come across a rapper looking for love. Right now, the role of said rapper hasn't been cast, and so they have to shoot it a couple of times, subbing out a few different names. Eventually, the spot will be filled by Action Bronson; on the episode, he and Info will play out a few whimsical scenes of light rom-com miscommunication. Of her heightened onscreen persona, Info deadpans: "I think, maybe, the story line is that Miss Info is insane? Maybe this whole thing is kind of an intervention? To tell me, 'You need to take a lemon drop and chill the fuck out'?"
"I don't feel like it's a black show and it's not quite a white show," Scott-Young says at her office. "It's a brown show!" Info — a Korean American woman, standing just a few shades over 5 feet in her neon Nikes, one gold tooth proudly glistening from her lower mandible — is a perfectly obvious example of what Scott-Young's talking about. Her rap bona fides are impeccable: As any Hot nerd would certainly be able to tell you, as a Source intern, Info was the one who gave Illmatic its five mics. But she's not exactly concerned with upholding her image: She name-checks Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Larry Sanders Show as comedic inspiration.
At one point, I raise the idea of the theoretical hip-hop puritan to Scott-Young, the person who'd look at This Is Hot 97 and scoff while carefully cradling his "Eric B Is President" 12-inch. She starts her defense softly: "We're taking a chance, and maybe doing something that sparks something. I think that probably might be at the core of the definition of progress, right? That's how we make progress." Quickly, she gets going, waving a ruler high above her head: "And anyone who thinks that a business entity shouldn't continue to grow and change with the times is someone very naive. Someone stuck in the Dark Ages. Someone in danger of going the way of the dinosaurs." Finally, she brings that ruler down, with a wonderfully hard whap: "And the culture has continued to evolve on that person, and now Macklemore is hip-hop, and so that person is somewhere committing suicide! I mean what are we talking about here?!"
Info has a more pacifistic take. "If I think about it too much, I'll never sleep again," she says. "Or I can just embrace doing this with my family, and stay away from the WorldStar comments. I know how hard I've worked for how many years, and what I've done, and I don't think this diminishes from that at all. I haven't really found the one thing that's gonna ruin everything that I've done."
She pauses. A comic beat. "But maybe that's what TV's all about? Searching for that one clip that ruins everything?"
- The real first appearance is probably Biz Markie's "On and On," from 1991. ^
- Full disclosure: Rosenberg is the cohost of Grantland's wrestling podcast, Cheap Heat, which records at Hot 97's studio. ^
- Minaj, on a bevy of very good recent mixtape tracks, has returned to her punch-you-in-the-mouth rap roots. ^
- It all ties back to Angie's upcoming cookbook. Synergy! ^
- Gravy: "What was I supposed to tell a powerful influence like Flex, at Hot 97? 'You know what, Flex? I'm sorry, man. I can't do the show. I was standing downstairs — got shot in the ass.'" ^
- Insert a Flex bomb wherever you'd like. ^
- Its February finale nabbed "5.8 million live-and-same-day viewers … more than the numbers for the finales of HBO's True Detective and Girls combined," noted Businessweek. ^
- When I told Grantland reality wiz Juliet Litman about my sit-down with Scott-Young, she fired back: "Wait, WHAT? Mona Scott basically runs VH1." ^
- That theme song! ^