An Honest Conversation About Hot 97 With Cipha Sounds

The radio jock explains why he left a New York rap institution after 17 years

February 11, 2015

In January, Cipha Sounds announced that he was breaking up (or, as he put it, "changing my relationship status from 'It's complicated' to 'Single'") with New York rap radio institution Hot 97. The laid-back DJ and comedian had worked at the station for 17 years, and spent the last of those in a sort of limbo. Most recently, he was in charge of holding down the station's evening commute show Afternoon Drive in the wake of Angie Martinez' June 2014 departure. In January it was announced that Afternoon Drive would be taken over by Hot 97 newbie Nessa. Ciph was out two weeks later.

Now, Ciph is "kinda freelance-ish," spending his days prepping for comedy shows and pitching television projects from a busting workspace a few blocks south of Times Square. When I stopped by last week, two young women manning the front desk were debating which Kanye West song was their favorite, and the conference room where we met was littered with yoga balls.

"Hot 97 is not the same as it was," Cipha said. "Things just grow and change, and I respect that." For an hour, he spoke about the station's staffing turnovers, changing culture, and the "downswing" in his own radio career. "If they were like, 'You're gonna do a show and you're gonna play all new street music,' I'd come back for that—that'd be cool. But that's not an option," he said," speaking honestly, with no bitterness but perhaps a little nostalgia. Below, he talks about two decades of radio, and starting over.

How did you get your start in radio? I wanted to be a DJ and a music producer—I worked as an A&R for a few different labels, like Star Trak and Rawkus. I tried to produce but I was never that good. So I would always manage and produce groups. I wanted to be the big DJ on the radio and produce in the daytime. When I started [at Hot 97], I was an intern for Funkmaster Flex and the station was just our home base. I thought I'd be Flex's successor—that he'd retire or move on, and I'd take over—but I realized that he was never going to leave, so I had to come up with other goals. I'd fill in for Flex sometimes and my boss was like, "You say funny stuff, I'm gonna make you a jock." I was like, "I don't wanna be a radio personality, that's not my goal." But my boss said, "You're gonna do it, or I'm not gonna let you in the building anymore." So I learned to love it.

What was Hot 97 like back then? There was a lot more freedom to be silly and funny on the radio. We were hanging up on callers, giving out fake prizes. I felt like I was just talking to my friends. With Hot 97, we never had to be "radio proper." We were a cool, different kind of station. At the time, we were excited about the fact that we could play all the new artists, break songs, and watch them go from the radio to the club. Picking records was the exciting part.

Do you think Hot 97 still has the power to "pick a record"? Not in the same way. It's not Hot 97's fault—the market and the culture has changed. People would wait for us to play something exclusive, but now everything's on-demand. They get alerts when their favorite artists have new songs. It's not the same experience. One of the most famous moments was when Flex premiered Nas' "Hate Me
Now" and played it for an hour straight. The whole city went out that night and talked about it. Now, you put a song on a blog and you tweet it. It's not the same.

Has the business of radio has changed? A lot of people want to do radio, to the point where they'll even go to college for broadcasting. There's a "proper" way to do radio now. At Hot 97, we were hip-hop fans that happened to get on the radio because we were the only ones playing hip-hop at the time. We didn't have any proper training. Eventually we all learned how to make good radio but, like, Angie was on the streets, I was Flex's intern, Flex was a club DJ that liked to play records and they gave him an on-air personality position. It was on-the-job training.

What was it like when Ebro started dropping in on the morning show? It was awkward having our boss in the room, especially because I didn't know he was going to take my job. First, he was there a couple days a week. Then, every day. One day, he was like, "I'm gonna start sitting in the head seat." It was definitely awkward, but I was also relieved, because Ebro's very good at certain things and he added to the show. I'm a very laid-back person, and Ebro's an "alpha male," you know? That's the role that we needed. I don't have an ego, so when people were like, "Yo, why is Ebro talking more than you?" I was like, "I like it!" A lot of people were hatin' like, "Oh, they took your jobs" and what not, but it was cool. Plus, the nickname of the show was "A Black, a Puerto Rican, and a Jew," and the black girl got let go, so we needed a black voice.

What happened when K. Foxx was cut from the morning show? She didn't fit in the budget. It wasn't personal, but K. Foxx definitely takes things personally. She's gonna take me saying that personally, but I like her! I'm the one who recruited her from Miami. She didn't like me very much during the show. You'll find people's true selves on a morning show. It's 5AM, they're cranky. It's every day in the same room and you're performing. If you don't have that right chemistry, morning shows are rough.

How else has the morning show changed since you started? When we started, it was a comedy show. Hip-hop is based off drama, and if you bring drama, it gets reactions, so someone decided that we needed more drama. I'm not good at drama. I tried, but it's not in my nature.

Were there any other big turning points for the station? When we merged with WBLS [in 2014], that's when things got weird. A lot of people got let go, including the general manager that loved me. Now there's a new GM, who I think liked me, but I don't know for sure. [Emmis Communications SVP and Market Manager Deon Levingston]'s a cool dude—I'd met him before at radio conventions and I didn't know he'd be my boss one day, but he's a cool guy.

I don't want to talk bad about the station, because instead of firing me when we merged, they demoted me to the morning show mixer. The show became Ebro's, and I wasn't talking a lot, so I started feeling undervalued. Nobody was saying, "Oh, Ciph's still gotta tell his jokes!" They were saying, "Play these four songs every hour." I was like, "Huh?" I started feeling unhappy, like, "Do they really want me here? Are they trying to be nice and save my job? Are they trying to bury me?" I didn't know. I started thinking, "Maybe I should leave, I don't know, what could I do? I'm doing so much comedy, I could find a way."

"Everyone was happy for [Angie Martinez] because she got a big check. She seemed like she felt that the station was weird, too. It's still run properly, but it's just not the same."

What was it like when Angie left? It was bad. Everyone was happy for her because she got a big check. Everybody in this game wants to get rich, we come from the hood. But she was definitely my big sister at the station, and I was also sad to see her go. She seemed like she felt that the station was weird, too. It's still run properly, but it's just not the same. Like, if I walked through the halls of my high school today I'd be like, "This is weird." But it's still the high school, you know?

Her leaving also opened up an opportunity for you, because you took over the afternoon time slot. Angie left, and I just took her spot. Like, "Oh no, what are we going to do? I'll just do this for now." I think some people felt I just kinda took it, and other people felt, "Hey, he deserves it, with all the craziness that's been happening in the morning." But whatever, I was on some new shit—I always hold the door for other people, figuratively. But this time I was like, nah, I'm going in. I just took it. The new boss and I worked through our differences, he started air-checking with me every day, and he told me, "You have it until further notice." We turned that into a big joke, "till further notice."

When did "further notice" come? I was doing good. My ratings were good, and I was beating Angie in the beginning, but then my boss was like, "Oh, they don't know if they're gonna make it official." It had been months at this point. They said I was not going to be doing the show anymore, but they didn't say who was coming. I had to call some agents I knew to find out. They offered me other positions, part-times or mid-days, after the morning show and before Nessa. But it was still unclear—like, could I make it my own thing, or not? I considered it but I decided I didn't want to do it anymore. At the end I was like, eh, I think I'll just take the severance. I'm doing so much other shit anyway. When I decided to leave, it was very liberating, very much a weight off my shoulders. I just thought, "Fuck it, I'm gonna take a chance."

You were ready to make the jump from radio. I don't want it to sound bad—if my main goal was to only do radio, I would've done mid-days no problem. I's a good slot, I would've just taken it. But I'd already done the morning and the afternoon, and there's no place else to go. I don't know if I'd ever go back to the morning show, unless Ebro left or something. But if I ever want to do radio again, that muscle is always there. I can do it five years from now, it's in my blood.

What were the terms of your leaving? I didn't want to leave on bad terms or anything. They said that Nessa was starting Monday and that someone would need to fill-in for mid-day. I thought, oh, maybe they want to do that so that there's a week buffer between me going on afternoons and the mid-days. I don't know how corporate shit works—maybe that's a thing they do? So I just filled up my week with shit to do. My agent was working out the particulars, and then the station comes back like, "So you're gonna start Monday?" And I said: "I thought I had that week off?" I decided on Tuesday to leave, so I never even started, and I never went back to work. Mind you, I know I have communication issues. It could've been my mistake, but I just thought that they said there would be a buffer, a week of someone else filling in mid-days. But then it just got weird, with the Juan Epstein episode.

Do you regret anything you said on that episode? No, I don't regret anything ever. They didn't fire me because of it. I don't know if my boss got upset—maybe they took it a certain way—but I don't know. My whole career it's like, "Speak honestly!" And then I speak honestly and they're like, "We don't like what you said."

You sounded pretty bummed during that conversation. Had you already decided to leave? Not when I recorded that. We recorded that on a Thursday or Friday, and the weekend was just turmoil. But I always sound bummed on the podcast, that's what broadcasting is! Yes, that podcast was about me and how I was feeling, but there are a lot of other podcasts about me and what me and Rosenberg feeling! I've talked about being depressed about my weight on the podcast so many times. People were like, "What'd you say on the podcast?" Nothing that I haven't said before!

So it was an amiable split. At the end of the day when I did my pros and cons, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to leave. What I hate is people on my Instagram saying stuff like, "Fuck Hot 97." I never said that! I have no bad feelings. I don't want that to happen because of me.

"To have a weekend show at the UCB Theatre is like having a morning show on Hot 97. It's a fucking accomplishment."

Why do you think there has been so much turnover at the station in recent years? I don't think it's any sort of conspiracy. Radio is a business based on advertising dollars. Radio advertising dollars have gone down significantly. When you were once rich and you begin to lose your fortune, you scramble. It's just natural.

What was it like when Mister Cee quit? Cee quit on the air. I think he was walked out of the building. It felt like "Oh my god, what's happening here." There was a lot of chatter. I don't know exactly why he left, I never asked him, but I know around the time he left that we'd gotten a new boss. And the music was changing a lot— we got some new DJs, they changed around a lot of the hours the mixers were on. There are certain things we can and can't play. They took Cee off of Friday nights and they put Bobby Trends on, and I guess he'd had enough. He loves playing new club music and stuff like that, and he'd had enough.

So Hot 97 has changed to some extent. The brand of Hot 97 is so strong and has so much history, so it's still a bit nostalgic. People want to play New York street hip hop. That's what we like to play on Hot 97, but they're telling us that isn't the "business of radio." Early on, there wasn't any competition. We were the only ones around. Then we got some competition, but we were still in the foreground. And then hip-hop just became so pop that everyone started playing it: the 50 Cent, Ja Rule era. Now every major radio station in New York plays hip-hop. Lite FM plays some R&B songs with hip-hop drums. And the business of radio has come into play, so we have to play the hot songs more often. It's a never-ending saga: DJs who want to bring new music and break new music, opposed to the program department that has to get the ratings. So now we have to play the same songs over and over. For years we were lucky to avoid that.

And Hot 97 has started playing pop, like Nico & Vinz. That's not the problem, we like playing those songs. We play all those songs in clubs. Nico & Vinz are two African kids with some soulful tunes—it's not that different from DMX's "Slippin," how that went pop, even though that's a depressing, slow song. But now they're like, "You can play these pop songs but you can't play these new hip-hop songs."

Should fans be worried about Hot 97? I don't think so. It's a successful company. Radio is just a different game now. Things have changed. The internet used to be the wild west, and now there are marshals. You used to be able to watch YouTube all day, now there's ads in front of everything. Things just grow and change, and I respect that. Hot 97 is not the same as it was. It's something new, and that's it. Your regular fans are just regular fans that listen to the radio. And someone like Angie leaving will jolt them for you two days, but they you go back to life! I'm sure there will always be new fans. I'm sure Nessa will bring all her Girl Code fans.

What's your relationship with Nessa like? I like Nessa, she's dope. I called her and said "Yo, I'm going through some weird shit at the station, it has nothing to do with you, please don't let it effect your start, please don't let anyone say that I said anything bad. I don't want there to be any confusion." And she said, "Oh, you're so nice, thank you so much, next time I see you I'm gonna give you a big hug." I still haven't gotten that hug by the way, I still haven't seen her.

She seems genuinely excited to be doing the show. That's how it's supposed to be. That's how I feel about the other things I'm doing. I've been in radio for 17 years—I don't know how much more exciting it can be. So that's why I said, "Let me go get excited." If the station was like, "You're gonna do a show and you're gonna play all new street music," I'd be like "Ooh, I'm excited!" I'd come back for that, that'd be cool. But that's not an option.

Who supported you these past couple months? Laura Stylez, she was my friend before she was on air at Hot 97. But she's new to the station, so she's on her upswing there. Rosenberg is still fairly new and has a good position and is still on his upswing. My upswing started way earlier and now it's a downswing. And I would call it a downswing. But that's life. This particular pendulum seems like it's slowing down, but my comedy game is on an upswing, you know?

So, what now? Hot 97 was my main job, and it had a steady salary. Now I'm kinda freelance-ish. I do my improv shows on Friday nights, which is incredible, to be at the UCB Theatre. To have a weekend show at the UCB Theatre is like having a morning show on Hot 97. It's a fucking accomplishment. Then I started working at The Stand—where I snuck in thru the back door, same way I did at Hot 97—and now I perform there like, 10 times a month, which is a lot. And I've been working on this TV show with Alicia Keys. We're already in negotiations with a couple of networks. I got a new agent, lost 50 pounds. There's just a ton of things changing. So, like, when people ask me what my next move is, I tell them, "I'm already doing my next move!"

An Honest Conversation About Hot 97 With Cipha Sounds