When he steps into the makeshift production offices of Beats By Dre's The Shop, Ebro Darden is in the midst of scarfing down two fresh pizza slices. He’s been slowly sipping on tequila, he explains, and that, paired with the shooting schedule, his regular morning show duties at influential New York hip hop station Hot 97 and a bumpy afternoon flight into Toronto has got him yearning for a hot meal and a warm bed.
Standing between him and the hotel, however, is a slew of events for NBA All-Star Weekend. As the host of Hot 97’s Ebro in the Morning and the voice of New York on Apple Music's Beats 1 radio station, a person with Ebro’s status may dream of cuddling up to watch the latest episode of The People v. O.J. Simpson, but when Drake summons you to his mansion party, you’re expected to show up.
The sacrifice is all part of the hustle. Over the past half a decade, Ebro, who’s half Jewish and African-American, has earned his reputation as a musical insider; a man who has Aubrey Graham, Kanye West and Jay Z in his contacts while also keeping in the gossip slipstream and staying wise to the genre’s deep underground. It's the reason he was tapped, in 2015, to be one of three prominent voices -- along with Zane Lowe and Julie Adenugad -- to launch Apple's Beats 1 streaming radio service, where he's gone on to premiere new music by the likes of Janet Jackson, Kendrick Lamar and Akon. And why, when West held a private listening session for his his label and close friends, Darden was the only radio host to get an invite.
For now, Toronto is still fresh territory and, as we sit down, he catches the OVO Owl logo on my iPhone case and wonders in somewhat hushed tones if Drake really is that meaningful to the city of Toronto?
I think it’s safe to say Drake has done more for Toronto’s international reputation than any person. We wouldn’t be sitting here right now if it weren't for him. That’s the reason he gets the key to the city – no artist has single-handedly put a city on the map like he has. Can you think of one?
Well, there was Snoop and Pac in L.A., HOV [Jay-Z] in New York, Outkast in Atlanta, but definitely not at government level. Even with HOV, the mayor's just not like, "We gave HOV a key to the city." That's just not happening.
As a person whose job it is to stay current and keep an ear to the ground at Hot 97 while also being the public face of something as mass scale as Beats, how do you separate those two roles?
Hot 97 isn't a discovery platform. It's drive time New York City, it's nasty. With Beats, I'm trying to have fun finding music with the audience. It's almost like I'm not even really trying to take a stance about what I like, it's about I heard this was cool. It's 100% about everybody else. I'm just finding the stuff.
There are some things that musically feel contrived and forced and I don't prefer that, but just because something has mainstream appeal doesn't make it not real. It's real to someone. It may not have enough grit or authenticity to someone else who lives in that genre but I don't process music that way when I'm curating.
Since we're in Toronto, I wanted your take on the recent Canadian chart domination this year.
I love it, I'm all for it. All the way back to Bryan Adams and Celine Dion. Let's not act like Canadians haven't been putting it down.
Sure, but not on this level.
Yes. But Drake spends a lot of time in New York, too.
Earlier this month you made some waves over songwriting credits. I wondered if you had an opinion on the Drake- Meek Mill beef?
I personally feel like, when it comes to writing radio songs, turn up songs, that aren't really personal ... you look at the songs that were supposedly ghostwritten, they're not about anything. "10 bands, 50 bands, 100 bands, f--k it man," it's like, what are you saying? Now, in hip-hop you're going to get dinged for that because you didn't write it yourself but it doesn't make me like Drake any less. Because I know when he wants to rhyme or really go in on something, like "6 PM in New York," he will. Then when he was tested in a battle and they messed with him, he bodied your man. He bodied Meek Mill. Meek knows it. We talked about it. He knows he got an L. And he shouldn't have messed with dude. Dude's been waiting.
If you listen to Drake's music, he's been waiting. He was a cornball growing up, he knows he was a square. I'm a mixed kid with a Jewish mom, we all got picked on. I'm from that. I know the anger that Drake harbours in his heart for having to prove himself. So somebody messed with him and he had some sh-t waiting for him.
Like I said, everybody collaborates in studio. I think Drake is frustrating for a lot of artists because he is so big. And he should be frustrating, that's what happens. HOV went through that. People came for HOV too. HOV went at people. Hell, LL Cool J went at people. He's been in mad battles. This won't be the last time this happens. It's just that this moment was so big because we had social media involved. And hip-hop has never been as big as it is right now. It is a music culture that was seen as a fad. Even in the '90s with Pac, Snoop and Dre, it was seen as street rap. It wasn't getting mainstream or Top 40 accolades because it was considered gangster. Even Eminem, as big as he was, would still talk ill about mainstream radio. Now you have somebody like Drake come around and make melodic records that make it to Top 40 radio, collabs with Rihanna. You have Kendrick Lamars and J. Coles, an onslaught of superstars in the format. And we haven't even gotten to Drake and Future. The fact that literally since 2009, every year, Drake just throws out a record that's like, out of here. He knows how to make records. And it's his crew. And that should be a testament to other rappers: it's not just about how great your rhymes are, it's about how great your songs are. How great your music is, despite your rhymes.
So the mainstreamization of hip hop is a good thing, in your eyes?
I'm fine with it. It makes everybody else go underground, which is good for rap.
As I see it, as hip-hop slips toward the mainstream, there's a bit of confusion about the way artists and brands interact. Contrary to indie rock’s idealism, it appears acts like Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar court brands like Calvin Klein and Adidas to associate with. Do you see that as a contradiction?
We're all contradictions, at some point. Kanye's got his deal with Adidas. His deal is real.Your deal is not. But that's just some b.s. That doesn't carry any real weight. At the end of the day, Kanye is trying to find brands to finance his creativity and monetize that. He's running a business. Is his creativity genuine? Probably. We think it is. We feel like it is. If he co-opted things that already existed and blended them with other things that already existed and took them to an audience and monetized that... that's what all businesses do, in some ways. They bring a bunch of things together – this zipper, this lining – that already existed but put it together differently and then take it to an audience. A car manufacturer does the same thing.
What was your take on Kanye’s Yeezy Season 3 fashion show/listening session?
Kanye at MSG felt like Kanye invited everyone to an art installation where, in his mind, it was the moment they decided to put black and brown people in [concentration] camps in some end of the world craziness. And then he plugged in his laptop and decided to have a listening session.
How did that compare to the private listening session?
The listening session was more spontaneous. It didn't feel planned. But he definitely had his crew there. The label was there hearing the album for the first time.
Sounds a bit awkward. Who is in charge there?
With Kanye and the label ... it's Kanye West. It's Kanye West, [so] what do you have [to do]? Play your album and we'll figure out a way to get it into people's hands. They don't really have to do anything. And he's going to come up with his own marketing plans and he's got Adidas and he's got his wife and himself. All of these people who can get his word out so it's not like the label has to sit in a boardroom for hours to figure it out. I think their biggest stress is when do they actually get it in their hands.
I’d pay a lot of money to have seen the label rep’s faces when he raps, "I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/ Why? I made that b--ch famous."
Well, according to Kanye it was all good. According to her people it's not. Who do we believe? I don't really think they want us to know. I think artists now are smart enough to know that a story helps everything.
Kanye's been trolling people for a hundred years. You go all the way back to some of his early works, he was always saying inflammatory things or making statements. All the way back to Hurricane Katrina when he said George Bush doesn't care about black people. [He was trolling] the president!
Why do you think he gets away with it?
It's not a crime. He's not getting away with anything.
Culturally speaking, some would argue it is.
That's what people want. They love inflammatory stuff. He hasn't put his hands on anyone. Well, he beat up some paps but he had to pay the price for that one. He doesn't sell or do drugs, he's not trafficking guns or keeping an entourage around him that beat people up so what's he really going to get in trouble for? You can talk all the crap you want, really. And honestly, he's not racially insensitive or inappropriate. He's very open to the fashion world, being multicultural, all of that. So because he goes after a pop star? That's some hip-hop sh-t. That's just loose. That's the stuff you say when you're drunk. I don't believe that he thinks it's true and I don't think his wife would approve, but we don't know what they're into. Maybe Taylor's down? We don't know. [laughs]
Follow Jon Dekel on Twitter: @jondekel
This story was first posted on Feb. 19, 2016