Hot 97 will host its annual Summer Jam in Rutherford, NJ, this Sunday, for the 22nd year running. The one-day festival was launched in 1994 year, as a self-celebration for New York’s premiere hip-hop station and the thriving rap scene that supported it. Today it’s an evolving event, reshaping its identity to match a changing radio landscape, welcoming out-of-towners and, increasingly, crossover stars to the stage.
Kendrick Lamar leads 2015’s bill, which also features Chris Brown, Big Sean, and Meek Mill. (There’s one local headliner, too: Fabolous.) “It's a hip-hop based event, but we don't always just have rappers out there,” Hot 97 host Peter Rosenberg explain over the phone in April. He said the set he’s most excited for this year is Ty Dolla $ign’s, the California R&B singer whose current single “Drop That Kitty,” featuring Tinashe and Charli XCX, he really likes.
This is an unmistakable sign of evolution for Rosenberg, who caused a stir in 2012 when he publicly disparaged Nicki Minaj’s “Starships.” “I see them. I know there are some chicks here waiting to sing ‘Starships’ later. I’m not talking to y’all right now,’” he said on a pre-show stage. “I’m here to talk about real hip-hop.” In response, Minaj pulled out of her headlining set.
Below, Rosenberg and Hot 97 On-Air Host and Assistant Program Director Ebro Darden discuss the changing face of Summer Jam, and why it’s still important after all these years.
If Ty Dolla $ign brings out Charli XCX for “Drop That Kitty” on the main stage, what will that mean for Summer Jam’s reputation as a premiere hip-hop event? PETER ROSENBERG: That would be fun. I’m a big fan of “Drop That Kitty.” I don't know how much people know that record, but I really like it. To me, "Drop That Kitty" is nothing like "Starships," which is exactly what a very commercial hip-hop record sounds like. I think people invest a lot more in the fact that Charli XCX is on the song than I do—I just don't think of that being this line in the sand of: it's now a pop record. EBRO DARDEN: I think it's a big misconception about Summer Jam is that it's just about rap music. It's about popular music, with a hip hop base to it, obviously. We put a lot of emphasis on hip-hop, but we had Pitbull out there in 2005 and he was doing his reggaeton thing, or we've had reggae acts out there. It's not always just about rap music. ROSENBERG: It's a hip-hop based event, but we don't always just have rappers out there is my point.
How is each year’s lineup determined? ROSENBERG: The lineups get made based on what we believe is the most popular at the time the tickets go on sale. There are probably four or five artists in any genre of music that people will actually pay to see at a concert in a space the size of an arena. And this is in a stadium, so this is three times the size of an arena. In hip-hop, obviously you have Jay Z, Eminem, Kanye West—those are like the big three. Then after that you have Drake, J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar. And then you have Big Sean and Meek Mill after that. So Jay and Kanye and Eminem have all done Summer Jam already, so we always try to embrace what's new or new-ish. Last year we had Drake and Nicki and Wayne, this year we have Big Sean, Meek and Kendrick. DARDEN: We try to keep in tune with what hip-hop is talking about. Before Hot 97 put Kendrick at the top of the bill, hip-hop did. Other than J. Cole and Drake, he's one of the most sought-after newer rappers in the game. ROSENBERG: On the [pre-show outdoor] festival stage, we try to be in tune to what people are responding to.Everyone there has a thing going, has a movement already by the time they even get to the festival stage.
What are you favorite personal moments from past Summer Jams? ROSENBERG: I was not there for it, but Jay Z/Michael Jackson [in 2001]. That is a crowning moment in Jay Z's career, in my opinion. If you look it up on YouTube, the only footage you can find, you can barely see Michael. The camera is like upside down. Now, if this would happen, everyone hanging out would have a great view of Michael Jackson and an iPhone. DARDEN: I really enjoyed when Fat Joe did "Lean Back" with Remy Ma and the entire stadium was doing the dance—I'm not even exaggerating. I also enjoyed having Lil Wayne there, his first show after he got out of jail, just vibing with his live band. That was dope.
Is Summer Jam still something you look forward to? DARDEN: I don't get to have as much fun as other people, because I'm working. I get anxiety because I can't wait for it to be over, and mostly because I just want the fans to have fun. I just want it to be over and done and good. I don't want any drama, I don't want any problems, I just want a great show so that the people who paid their money are highly entertained. I get a little frustrated because the internet wants something dramatic, but I know that fans just want to sing their favorite songs and see their favorite artists. So it's a little annoying to watch when everyone is like, “Summer Jam! Yo, it was boring! Yo, nothing happened.” Because it's like, yeah, that's great! No one got hurt, it was not a problem. Summer Jam is one hundred percent for the fans. I just want people to see their favorite artists doing their favorite songs and have a great party.