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Hot 97’s Summer Jam: A Referendum On Hip-Hop

Hip-Hop – In 1987, a vanguard Top 40 radio station in the Bay Area put on a concert called Summer Jam. KMEL 106, under program director Keith Naftaly, played pop next to hip-hop next to dance and R&B, an ethos evident in that first year’s headliner Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam.

The next year, Pebbles played and LL Cool J took top billing. Naftaly booked like a champion, bringing together line-ups that today look miraculous.

In 1992, the first year Summer Jam was a two-day festival, Ice Cube, Salt ‘N’ Pepa, Hi-Five, Too Short and Heavy D played. The next year, most of those acts came back, and the festival added Nice & Smooth, Mary J. Blige, Mint Condition, Das EFX and A Tribe Called Quest.

The point of KMEL’s Summer Jam was to root the station in its listenership. Its tagline was “The People’s Station,” and booking the acts that people really wanted to hear — instead of telling them what’s good — made the concert a huge success. The concept spread to Top 40, rhythmic and urban stations around the country, and took hold at one station in particular: New York City’s Hot 97, where its Summer Jam went up for the first time in 1994.

The station booked Wu-Tang, Nas, SWV, Queen Latifah and Gang Starr. Biggie and Blackstreet played the next year. Traditions formed, like starting or settling beefs, or surprising the audience with special guests. In 2001, Jay-Z brought out Michael Jackson.

New York City is the birthplace of hip-hop and it’s the biggest market in the country. Every year, there’s a reason the rap community can’t ignore New York, and every year, Hot 97 is involved somehow.

If you listen to the radio in the Tri-State area, if cars drive down your street with the windows down and the volume up, if you talk to people in the businesses you frequent, you know this. The station is a little drunk with power, and it’s flush with money. On June 2, Hot 97 hosted its 20th consecutive Summer Jam at the metropolitan area’s largest concert venue, the Meadowlands in New Jersey.

Because it’s promoted as such, and because there’s some truth to the station’s posturing, Summer Jam feels like an annual referendum on hip-hop. Who’s winning? What do we care about right now? How is hip-hop being performed? What’s the future? What happened to our past?

It’s not a squeaky clean business. Sponsorship is endemic at the concert, and the cheapest seats cost $60. Hot 97 has never booked local acts exclusively, or even directly off its playlists. The process by which songs are added to commercial radio remains fraught, and the flaky hosting on Sunday night reinforced a feeling of insecurity I often have listening to Hot 97 — maybe I’ve been hanging on too long.

On Sunday night I was in Section 333, the nosebleeds. When Angie Martinez took the stage (chewing gum, as she does), I felt like, finally, somebody I know. But she was rote and introduced Chris Brown, with his dead eyes and skeleton shoulders.

Read the rest of this story on NPR

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