a long talk

It’s Peter Rosenberg’s Job to Be Polarizing

The HOT 97 host knows you hate him or hate to love him. He prefers it that way.

“I’m there to be a funny, polished radio jock. That’s not what I think of as my legacy in hip-hop.” Photo: Natalie Amrossi
“I’m there to be a funny, polished radio jock. That’s not what I think of as my legacy in hip-hop.” Photo: Natalie Amrossi

Either you like Peter Rosenberg or you don’t. No one is on the fence. Either you think the longtime Hot 97 personality — co-host of the weekday a.m. tentpole “Ebro in the Morning” and the weekly mix show “Real Late” — is a dedicated, knowledgeable hip-hop head making room at terrestrial hip-hop radio for a new class of underground artists who deserve the leg up, or you see a bridge-and-tunnel “culture vulture” creating problems for himself by speaking out of station. High-profile disagreements with Nicki Minaj and Chuck D have at times overshadowed the ways he has helped to push artists like Action Bronson, A$AP Rocky, Earl Sweatshirt, and Danny Brown. For many, you’re either advancing the culture or you’re standing in the way of its continuing evolution. But a few things can be true at once.

Real Late, Rosenberg’s debut studio album, out now, mirrors the late-night show it’s named after in its flair for raw, timeless boom bap. It’s a moment, not unlike the Funkmaster Flex and DJ Clue releases of the late ’90s and early aughts, where the past, present, and future of hip-hop convene. Nineties innovators like Wu-Tang Clan’s Method Man, Raekwon, and Ghostface Killah mingle with aughts and ’10s movers and shakers like Jim Jones and Roc Marciano; longtime New York indie-rap fixtures Homeboy Sandman and Smoke DZA show out, as do more recent figures like Westside Gunn, Flee Lord, and Stove God Cooks; beat-makers Buckwild, Disco Vietnam, and others provide brash and intriguing sample chops. Rosenberg, 41, can be both a bridge between the underground and the radio and a self-avowed sometime contrarian whose wilder moments of playing devil’s advocate turn people off, a guy just trying to make sure the good he does offsets the times he puts his foot in his mouth. I spoke to him on the phone last month about piecing his album together, how he sees himself in the general scheme of hip-hop media and radio at large, and navigating the business of talking for a living without getting himself canceled.

For people who aren’t necessarily familiar with the process, talk about what your role is as someone who isn’t an artist but has created an album.
The most common question is “What did you do?” I get it from everyone from trolls on Twitter to my mother. The process worked for me like this: I received beats from a lot of producers, some that I knew and some that were recommended to me by my friend Mark Rosado, a.k.a. Top Shelf Premium. We both got beat packs from producers. I would listen to beats and think about what artists came to mind, what inspired me when I heard the music, and sent them to the artists to see if they liked anything. If anyone liked something, I’d say, “Okay, what could you do to this?” It’s sort of a puzzle. That’s the fun part, really, putting songs together with my friend Kenny, who mixed the album. There’s stitch work in some cases, like adding vocal samples and scratches and things like that to make it come together as a complete song.

When I started working on the music, I was making stuff that was kind of commercial. I made some progress and got a record done that I really liked that was, like, a cool, commercial record. And then it just didn’t really make very much sense. Would they even want this from me? During the pandemic, I realized I have all these artists that I’ve been supporting that I’ve been excited about over the last couple of years. I had a period of being kind of … I don’t want to say bored with my late-night show — I always enjoy doing the show — but I didn’t feel particularly inspired. Then I started getting into these newer underground artists, and they were inspiring me more when I did the show. So I was like, Instead of chasing down commercial artists to try to do music, why don’t I just do music with the artists already in my lane? An album is much easier to do when you’re working with artists who already want to be involved with what you’re doing.

There has been some fuss over the years about drive-time New York radio, at least before the recent commercial resurgence of the city, about Hot 97 and stations like it not having much space for local artists.Real Late” and mix shows in general are important rungs on the ladder to success for unknown, unsigned artists. What goes into keeping the door open for underground artists in a business that’s run on a commercial mandate?
So first of all, yeah, there is a commercial mandate. I originally got the show in the first place, years ago, for that exact reason. I think Ebro [Darden], at the time he hired me, thought I could be a useful way to kind of keep Hot 97 in tune with the underground. But things have changed even more since I came here in 2007. The station — and in many ways, mainstream hip-hop itself — has gotten even more commercial and more pop since then. On top of that, radio’s significance is different because streaming services and the internet are more of a thing now than they were then. When I started doing “Real Late,” [music discovery] was all about blogs. Now, that’s dead, and you’re competing against streaming services. Not only do you have to deal with the station, whose priority is really popular records and playing them as often as possible, but on top of that, you have artists who don’t even care much about getting on the radio. It doesn’t mean the same thing to them. The first crop of artists that I helped get on the radio, like Action Bronson and A$AP Rocky, talk about me with this real reverence that I deeply appreciate for playing their songs on Hot 97. I don’t know that this would be the case anymore with a commercially successful artist. So it’s just, like, it’s really weird.

It used to be that you mustered enough support to get records in the hands of DJs and records played on radio and then radio would put you on the audience’s radar. But now, the audience often finds the artists first, and hip-hop media is scrambling to figure out what they’re listening to. What kind of work goes into staying up on what’s next? 
The reasons I got reinvigorated by my show at a point where I was overwhelmed by finding new music? I think I still feel that way, to be honest with you. When Real Late started, I would go on the blogs; I would go to NahRight and 2DopeBoyz, and I would download everything that I liked. Artists would also send me new music and exclusives sometimes; labels would send stuff out. Jump ahead to now, and the audiences already exist, and the artists already seem popular. I didn’t know where to go, bro. I use SoundCloud in the perfunctory adult, old-person way, but I don’t, like, live on SoundCloud. I certainly don’t live on TikTok in the spaces the music is coming from. So for a while, I was just sort of playing new singles by artists I already knew or unpopular cuts from artists who were popular. I wasn’t super-passionate about it. And then I started paying attention to what Mark Rosado was doing. Mark has a clothing shop, and these artists were coming by, doing freestyles in his shop. I’d be like, “Who’s this guy?”

Mark started putting me onto this underground sound, a lot of which lives on my album. I was familiar with the biggest pieces of that underground. I was familiar with Griselda. I was familiar with Roc Marciano. I was familiar with the people who were really making an impact, but what I didn’t realize was that there were all these other artists. Mark started actively telling the artists, “Rosenberg wants your music and is going to play your music.” Around a year and a half ago, I started getting music directly from artists again. Smaller promoters and artists would send Mark music, and I’d get stuff cleaned for radio right away. I started playing everyone’s stuff on Sunday nights. To Hot’s 97 credit, as much as I wish other stuff got supported more and I wish my own singles got supported more, for those two hours on Sundays, I have freedom. It’s completely free-form. To answer your question, I’m now just connecting with artists again, getting music through them and people they know. I don’t operate in the spaces where kids are finding music.

Because it feels impossible, growing up the way we grew up. It’s not a way that I would typically consume music. I’m grateful to Mark for putting me onto people because I don’t know that I ever would’ve stumbled onto them on my own.

Now that there are playlists on streaming services attempting to operate, I would say, in a capacity that terrestrial radio stations’ rotations always have, do they feel like a looming threat on the horizon for someone working in traditional broadcasting? 
No, the importance of breaking music on radio has already been diminished. But there’s two things I would say: No. 1, radio is not critical for having a career in music anymore; however, if you want to be, like, a straight-up superstar, then it’s critical. Radio is the difference. Doja Cat would be a great example. The internet knew Doja Cat. They were all into the cow song. They knew all of her silly internet stuff. And then Doja Cat gave a radio star. I’m sure she could pinpoint a difference in her life between when she was really big on the internet with her fans and when radio started playing her. To me, radio’s not the difference between make it and break it anymore. You can’t make someone’s career by giving them a couple of spins on radio. And I don’t think you can break it by not supporting one song. But I will say it’s the difference between being someone who has a fan base and being someone who everyone knows.

Simultaneously, radio’s impact is also somewhat understated, just in general terms of how it operates as a medium. Because of streaming services, people end up deriding the impact of radio, but radio numbers, while they’re down from what they used to be, more people are consuming radio on a daily basis than are consuming podcasts. Take it from someone who makes their living talking on the radio. You can feel the impact that you have doing radio. It’s just more about conversation and personality now than it is about music. When people go to hear us in the morning — let’s be honest — they’re not really tuning in for the music at this point. They’re tuning in to get your spin. There is a way to get the music you want, and you don’t really need a radio to tell you what that is anymore.

You’re on the air most days of the week, and that’s enough time to get yourself in trouble. The way things are on the internet right now, the more you say, the more you put yourself at risk of getting someone legitimately upset or making someone angry who simply has it out for you. How do you mitigate saying the wrong things when you’re talking all day? 
It’s such an important question in my life that isn’t really something people think about, and it’s not relatable to most people. But yeah, I have two shows. One’s four hours, and one’s four and a half. I’m not talking for all of those minutes, obviously, but it’s an obscene amount of time to speak extemporaneously. As time has gone on, this skill of doing radio has now become a mix of knowing how to be entertaining and knowing how to keep your job. I don’t say that with any bitterness or regret. I enjoy my job. But when I’m working for the WWE, people don’t appreciate how hard the job of being on-air is. They’re looking at you to just give opinions. They forget about the fact that you’re part of the show, right? Even if you’re previewing a pay-per-view, you’re still operating in the world of the show. So you can’t just speak and say, “Oh, this story line stinks,” because you’re operating within the story line. That skill set required to do WWE really helped me everywhere. You can no longer be as freewheeling as you were.

I have a tendency in my life to argue against whoever I’m in a space with. I tend to be somewhat disagreeable with the people that I am in a room with. Being on Hot in the morning, I’m the only white guy on the show, and there are times when I naturally want to play foil to the groupthink in the moment. Ebro has an incredibly strong personality, so if Ebro’s going hard on an issue, even if it’s a controversial subject related to race, I want to play the other side sometimes, even though [if] I was in a room with other white people, I would absolutely be making the point Ebro’s making. In that room, for me, naturally, as a broadcaster and a person, the interesting conversation is to sort of push. “Well, what if this isn’t racism? What if we’re jumping the gun here?” And Ebro is great. The group is great for that conversation. But I’m not gonna lie: I’m just not quite able to do that the same way in 2021 as I would have in the past. And that’s okay. There’s a lot of progress that’s been made that has led to people being more self-aware. But there is also a level of hypersensitivity to the point that if I say something in conversation in a group with my friends on the air, it sounds like I’m representing a view that’s different than the room I’m speaking in. That can be enough for me to get dragged to hell. That doesn’t mean I avoid it, but there are times where you’re like, This one’s not worth it. I’m going to lay low and think this one through. Back in the day, I would have just kind of let my no-filter honesty this-is-what-I-do go for it. Everyone knows my intentions are good, so we can present a good argument here. These days, I might be more apt to be like, This isn’t an argument I need to have on the radio right now.

There’s no longer a presumption of good intentions. Whenever you slip up, all your worst old takes are trotted out in perpetuity. Certain people don’t like you. At times, you make a good case for yourself, and at times, you don’t. How does it feel to have a reputation tied to bad takes from a year ago or even five or ten years ago? 
It’s a pain to have people hold on to things you’ve said for a long time. It’s hard. But listen, this is what the job is. You wanted this job. But there’s a real difference between the Twitter streets and the actual street.

Oh, 100 percent!
Twitter streets remember every negative and throw it at me. I’m on the Drink Champs podcast this week, and I knew I would get hate for that. It wasn’t gonna be “Let’s give Rosenberg his flowers. He’s been putting on for underground hip-hop for so long.” No. It’s “Rosenberg, I don’t know, man … Culture vulture. I remember what you said about Chuck D.” “Culture vulture” implies swooping in to eat off of this culture while not contributing. I have given more than I’ve gotten back financially from hip-hop. I do live off of hip-hop to a certain extent, and I’m super-grateful for my morning show. But I’m there to be a funny, polished radio jock. That’s not what I think of as my legacy in hip-hop. That is my Sunday-night show. That’s this album. That’s my Peterpalooza concert. To me, if I was a bad guy, living in the time that we live in as the sort of edgy white dude on the radio, wouldn’t I have come down in 13 years? Wouldn’t the proof positive that this dude sucks have come out after my being pretty aggressive in my takes about a wide range of social issues? You would think that people have to know who I am. If the worst things you can find about me are these missteps—

And there are some missteps. I have made light of things that I wish I hadn’t, friends I made jokes about and artists I might’ve talked about cavalierly who I really am fond of. I’ve been critical of projects in a way that wasn’t tactful. Certainly, in the Chuck D situation, I was self-righteous, and I cared way too much about defending my company and didn’t think enough about the reverence Chuck deserves. I always apologize for [my missteps]; I wish that would make people give you the benefit of the doubt. But at the same time, the sad truth is if you’re not making people feel something, you’re not really doing your job. I try to do that the way that’s not cheap. I don’t do it with inauthentic takes. I don’t do it with takedowns of people who are undeserving. But listen, not everyone’s out there focusing on my whole life. I understand that. They see the little pieces they see on the internet, and people are going to make decisions based on that.

The bar to entry in hip-hop media is not where it was. You can build a large audience just by being a funny person and suddenly have people coming to you for smart industry takes that you may not necessarily have, or seeing you as a visionary voice in a business you may not necessarily fully understand. Is it frustrating to you that people who don’t always know what they’re talking about have massive platforms now?
I don’t have a problem with them. I have a problem sometimes with how they use their platform. And I know people would say that about me. I try to be understanding of that. Even though I do an unpaid show on Sundays playing underground music that would never get played otherwise, I understand that people still like, “What do you do every morning? You sit there and yuck it up.” I get it. I don’t want to be overly judgmental. But the bar of entry is not the same in the music, and it’s not the same on the broadcast side, either. You can come up with a wacky YouTube channel or a witty Twitter profile and seemingly have more influence than people who are knowledgeable and have been in the business for a long time. It’s not that it upsets me; it worries me. Look, I know people find Ebro and me annoying. They find us curmudgeonly to a certain degree. And there’s a little bit of “Who do you think you are?” Especially for me.

Well, part of that comes from feeling like our morning-show guys aren’t locals.
There’s definitely an aspect of that to it. And I love that. Had I been born here, that would have made me worthy of where I’ve been in the last 13 years, but since I was born in Maryland and spent my weekends listening to the radio here, that is not enough. I get it. People certainly want to feel like their hometowns are being represented, but this is the hip-hop I grew up on. Listen, I’m sure there were a lot of people who, with good reasons, thought, What are this guy’s credentials? I worked my ass off for a very long time. And before it was work, my hobby and life was being committed to learning, to watching, listening, and learning. At that time, you couldn’t just type “hip-hop” on Spotify, and have a playlist come up. To be interested in and to truly care to know about hip-hop literally required work and learning. You had to buy magazines. You had to buy music. You had to find time to watch things when they were on. In my case, it required coming to New York and recording the radio. There was a certain effort level you had to put in.

So by the time I got to my mid-20s and was having conversations with Hot 97, I think there was already a feeling that while people might not know me, and I might rub some people the wrong way, it’s like, This guy is really passionate. He’s made this his life for a really long time. Have the people commenting on the culture now made it their life, or are they just into hip-hop and into video games and into MMA and on a YouTube channel and just good at talking? But the irony of it is that that’s what some people think of me. The artists who I’ve been around and whose careers I’ve been a part of in some way don’t think that, and the ones who didn’t like me but maybe grew to like me over time understand that I’m about more than that. But the average person doesn’t. It’s a very weird world to be in at times, hated by both sides of people that definitively hate each other but would both agree to hate you.

That is a more respectful assessment than I expected. Who are the broadcast heroes that made you want to get into radio? 
Bob Costas. He used to have a syndicated show called Coast to Coast on Sunday nights. It was an interview show that aired late at night across the country on Sunday. [Funkmaster] Flex was a gigantic influence. I’m talking about early Flex, the mid-to-late ’90s. Flex was a huge influence on me. I really wanted that job. That was my dream, to get nights.

He ain’t leaving.
I’ve moved on. And that’s funny too, because after many years, I was like, Wait a second, why did we always think that in hip-hop you just had to go out to pasture at 40? If you look back at the history of radio and all the big names who were famous for being record-breakers, going back to the Dick Clarks and Casey Kasems, they did the job until they were 80. Hip-hop is the only genre where we insist that when you’re past 40, you need to die. I’ve come to appreciate that Flex held on to this spot. He’s still passionate about it. We all go through ebbs and flows in our passion, but right now, he certainly seems dialed in. So I would say Flex. When I was in high school, it was definitely Howard Stern.

I was waiting to hear Howard’s name.
Yeah, Howard definitely is one. There were things that I always felt a little iffy about with regard to Howard; I always found him problematic in a variety of ways. But I found certain things that he did to be undeniable. “Oh God, you have to hear this.” When he was having a moment on his show, you felt that everyone was listening. That’s the way I think of Hot in our greatest moments historically: the greatest Angie moments; the greatest Flex moments; hopefully, some moments that we’ve had on “In the Morning” over the years, whether it was the conversation with Mister Cee or those Hot 97 moments where it feels the world is listening. But in real life, when you walk around, it feels like you’re just a local radio host who makes people laugh in the morning.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

It’s Peter Rosenberg’s Job to Be Polarizing