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Peter Rosenberg

Over the past 40 years, hip-hop music has gone from underground phenomenon to global commodity. But as The New Yorker's Andrew Marantz explains, massive commercial success is a tightrope walk for any genre of popular music, and especially one built on authenticity and “realness.”  Hip-hop constantly runs the risk of becoming a watered-down imitation of its former self - just, you know, pop music.

Andrew introduces us to Peter Rosenberg, a guy who takes this doomsday scenario very seriously. Peter is a DJ at Hot 97, New York City’s iconic hip-hop station, and a vocal booster of what he calls “real” hip-hop. But as a Jewish fellow from suburban Maryland, he's also the first to admit that he's an unlikely arbiter for what is and what isn't hip-hop.

With the help of Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest and NPR's Frannie Kelley, we explore the strange ways that hip-hop deals with that age-old question: are you in or are you out?

Special thanks to The New Yorker who let us do a radiophonic version of their piece. If you've got a New Yorker subscription check out Andrew Marantz's stellar written version here. If you don't, well you should get one, but you can also watch Rosenberg crate digging and spinning records here


Frannie Kelley, Andrew Marantz, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Peter Rosenberg

Comments [9]

Jill Johnson from Huntsville, Al

I thought this was a great episode but I wanted to comment on one thing that struck me during the Nicki Minaj portion of the story. Ms. Minaj points out that she has spent most of her career having men trying to tell her what to do. As a woman in her 50s who, like most women, has spent my life listening to men tell me what to do, I was struck by Mr. Rosenberg's comment that when he first met Ms. Minaj he told her he though she could be the "greatest female rapper of all time." This is the kind of thing many men don't seem to notice. She is already "out" in his mind. I can't deny that being a woman is embedded in any woman artist's practice, but it's just annoying to here this kind of casual sexism ignored in a story that is even talking a bit about sexism.

It may seem small, but particularly in this political climate it really bugger the Sh*t out of me.
Just a though from another feminist killjoy.

Nov. 13 2017 10:48 AM
Mark Nason from Bangor, ME

This was one of those episodes where I sat in the car until the story was over. Great storytelling.

Nov. 11 2017 06:23 PM
Pasquale M from UK

Starship is most definitely NOT hip-hop.

Talk of white people co-opting black music is disappointing. Many musical forms in America have undoubtedly been pioneered, in the large part, by black people. But to say that they are exclusively 'black music' that has been 'co-opted' over the years by white people, does a massive disservice to those pioneers.

From jazz to funk to hip-hop, the early pioneers were black, white, and latino, male and female, straight and gay. No single demographic can claim dominion over an artform.

What defines hip-hop is not the colour of the musician's skin, but the structure of the music they are creating. That "boom bap" term is the crucial thing here. It's an onomatopoeic term to describe the breakbeat nature of hip-hop beats. They are not ordered in a regularly structured fashion (like the 4-4 time signature of EDM), but in a variable syncopated manner - the boom bap, the boom boom bap, it very different to the boom-tick-boom-tick of techno or the boom-boom-clap-boom-boom-clap of house.

All of these musical forms are DEFINED by the structure of their beats. They are not defined by musician skin colour, or what the listener would like to believe they are listening to. There are categorical ways of differentiating these different forms and, I repeat again, Starship definitely doesn't fall under the hip-hop category.

It has nothing to do with hip-hop 'realness' it is because the song is in a 4-4 signature. You can't play a waltz and claim it's a polka, the time signature is the decisive factor.

Feb. 18 2016 07:40 AM
Austin from Washington, DC

Loved this episode! I grew up in New York and was familiar with "Hot 97" as a youth in the late 80s/early 90s. To hear about it now - about 25 years later - was very enjoyable. The "culture clash" between the PR and NM was quite interesting as it brings up numerous issues that enough people care about - gender, race, and cultural representations. I'm not expert about any of the above, but I appreciate NPR for sharing such stories! Given PR's reference to the song at his wedding party, quite amusing:

Jan. 17 2016 01:25 PM
Jana from Seattle

I was only able to listen to the Peter Rosenberg story and found it very disappointing. There was no intellectual inquiry or sociological analysis. It deviated from your typical narrative arc of questions and answers ... I didn't learn very much. This story about one man's experience in the music industry would be better suited to a radio show like Sound Opinions from WBEZ Chicago.

Jan. 16 2016 05:43 PM
janice from Brooklyn

I have mixed feelings about the white folks making this story with a white subject (person) about a black art form. However- my point is not that--it's about teasing out the genre from the artist. If there is a pure form of hip-hop, and some artists who write and perform hip hop also perform edm, I guess there's a strange feeling of sell-out that could be associated with it... and I guess there could be a more intense feeling of betrayal with hop hop as representative of racial identity in a bigoted culture; but fans and listeners get past and get over. Dylan transformed himself over and over. Singers and song writers should be supported and recognized for versatility as an enhancement, not a liability. Some artists delve deeply into one topic, one art form, for their entire lives, others branch out horizontally and explore and try things on and do or dont' continue to find success. Okay--money has something to do with it. The music business is just what it is.

Jan. 16 2016 01:10 PM
Mike Jordan from Atlanta, GA

This was a good show; don't get me wrong. I love that NPR and its partner programs/podcasts are finding ways to bring appreciation to hip-hop and urban culture. That being said, what this show also quietly confirmed is that even NPR and Radiolab are not above the unfortunate nature of white people being the curators of hip-hop now. We heard an interesting discussion on whether or not white people are appropriating hip-hop vis-a-vis Rosenberg at Hot 97, but what I noticed was that all of the cultural critics interviewed for the show (besides Ali Shaheed Muhammad, who doesn't really count since he's a member of A Tribe Called Quest above any role he has at NPR Music or elsewhere in media), were white people hired by major media outlets to be, at least on some level, experts in hip-hop. I like Rosenberg; I think his heart's in the right place. I'm not familiar with Andrew Marantz, and I know of Frannie Kelley because I'm an avid public radio listener, but... sigh.

It seems as if the unnoticed message is that readers of The New Yorker, or listeners of NPR and shows like Radiolab, need a white person to explain all this hip-hop stuff to them. Or at least that's what editors or hiring persons think they're saying.

Black people can explain hip-hop too, folks. Ask Kris Ex, or several other folks I know. I'd love to be asked myself, actually. Sorry; it's just bugging me out that I'm asking for a little diversity in representation on a topic like hip-hop, particularly after hearing a show about appropriation. Irony, I guess.

Nov. 09 2014 09:37 PM
Malika from Los Angeles, CA

I loved this segment. I was excited to see Radio Lab approach such a prevalent issue in pop culture and connect it to the very real, if uncomfortable or controversial, realities about the intersections of race, art, and authenticity. Discussions of this nature are thought provoking and lead me to consider my own allegiances and boundaries around the media I consume.

Nov. 09 2014 08:10 PM
Sebastian Helm from near Seattle, WA

Usually, I enjoy your show a lot, especially when you explain complicated things with your typical light hearted humor. But this show was the opposite: It celebrated needlessly complicating the world. It's no news that there are tribally minded people who complicate the world by setting up boundaries and fences for their own reasons - there always have been since the beginning of humanity. The show didn't go beyond just presenting the people with their often very narrow minded opinions - to quote: "Why should I care?" There was no exploration, no analysis, no look at applicable sciences such as sociology, and nothing that helps the listener deal with that sort of attitude. Why should I care, indeed?

Nov. 07 2014 11:47 PM

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