Most New Yorkers will ride the NJ Transit into Jersey on a Sunday for only two spectacles: Odell Beckham Jr.’s New York Giants, and Hot 97’s Summer Jam. This Sunday, they’ll flock to MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford for the latter. Despite the station’s reputation as an elderly guardian of hip-hop, it’s nonetheless trying to cover all of the bases with this year’s show. The concert’s smaller platform, the Festival Stage, will mainly be a showcase for young New York rappers like Young M.A and A Boogie Wit da Hoodie—a good look for a station frequently criticized for not supporting its hometown artists—but also features Lil Yachty and D.R.A.M. The Stadium Stage lineup consists of Summer Jam regulars (DJ Khaled, Trey Songz, French Montana), dancehall artists like Charly Black and Konshens, and the flaming-hot Migos.
But this year’s lineup does also reveal some of Summer Jam’s limitations. One of the concert’s main attractions is Chris Brown, whose star has flamed out amid tepid singles, suspected drug addiction, and his history of alleged abuse. Out of everyone who will take the stadium stage, Migos, French Montana, and DJ Khaled are the only ones with a Billboard Top 20 hit over the past six months. Summer Jam’s Atlanta analogue, Hot 107.9’s Birthday Bash, also features Fat Joe & Remy Ma, D.R.A.M, and Migos, but whenever the latter launch into the indelible chorus to “Bad & Boujee,” it will be an assertion of Atlanta’s continued commercial dominance in rap. It owns the cachet that New York, and by extension Hot 97, has spent many years trying to reclaim.
After reigning for decades as hip-hop’s premier annual concert, Summer Jam is heading into its 24th year as an underdog. For one, after consistently trailing rival Power 105.1 in ratings since 2012, Hot 97 is still fighting to regain radio supremacy in its own city. Summer Jam has also had to contend with the rise of high-budget music festivals around the country, as well as the dwindling influence of the radio as a gatekeeper in the streaming era. According to Billboard’s boxscore reports, Summer Jam’s ticket sales have taken a slight dip over the past two years after selling out for at least the prior eight. But publicly at least, the thick-skinned optimism of Hot 97’s main personalities hasn’t been punctured.
“I think a radio station such as Hot 97 has a way of keeping to the pulse,” says the station’s longtime DJ Funkmaster Flex. “And I think why it has survived so long is you know the radio station knows what artists are on the cusp or on the come up, and they always know the legends that people wanna see.” This year former Hot 97 DJ Mister Cee will be one of those “legends” as he’ll perform in a Notorious B.I.G. tribute set fronted by Faith Evans. (“I’ve gotten literally hundreds of comments on my Instagram saying ‘I haven’t come to Summer Jam in years and I’m coming because of that Biggie tribute,’ Mister Cee tells us.)
After being at the station since the early days, Flex can be thought of as Hot 97’s fulcrum. He is a respected and energetic bastion of New York hip-hop’s legacy, but also, more often than not, the antagonist in debates that might not exactly endear the station to a younger generation. Flex traded verbal shots with Drake to little end, while fellow oldhead Ebro Darden—who co-hosts the station’s morning show, and served for seven years as its program director— has been proudly frosty toward ascendant stars like Migos, Rae Sremmurd and Lil Uzi Vert. Neither host was too hot on Lil Yachty, who despite appearing on a number of Billboard hits over the last year, is being relegated this year to the Festival Stage, which is positioned out in the stadium’s parking lot.
Their animus towards the newer generation has generally softened, though, and both personalities claim that Yachty was not added to the lineup reluctantly. Flex says he only took issue with Yachty’s dismissive comments about the Notorious B.I.G., while Ebro argued that his sparring with Yachty was part of a healthy discourse. “That’s just like two people on a basketball court,” Ebro contends. “It’s not like we dislike each other. We both love the culture of music and hip-hop, and we’re approaching it from two different places.”
Still, it would be short-sighted to attribute Summer Jam’s problems strictly to ideology. When Jay Z popped up on the debut episode of Frank Ocean’s Beats 1 show, blonded RADIO, he spent the duration of his appearance decrying the state of modern radio.“You take these pop stations, they’re reaching 18-34 young white females,” he said. “So they’re playing music based on those tastes. And then they’re taking those numbers, and they’re going to advertising agencies and people are paying numbers based on the audience that they have.”
The dynamic he describes has bled into Hot 97’s programming, which in recent years has folded in hits by white pop singers like Justin Bieber and Ed Sheeran. But Jay Z is complicit in that construct, too. A couple of months after those comments, Hov signed a 10-year deal with the entertainment company Live Nation for a reported $200 million. 16 years after bringing out Michael Jackson for what’s been regarded as Summer Jam’s most memorable moment, Jay Z is now set to headline a slate of 2017 festivals—his own Made in America, as well as Meadows Music & Arts Festival and Austin City Limits—that are all under the Live Nation umbrella. But unless he is brought out as a surprise guest, New York’s preeminent rapper will be skipping the city’s preeminent rap festival.
He’s not the only star with a conflict. Kendrick Lamar, Travis Scott, Drake, and Chance the Rapper have all been on recent or ongoing tours promoted by Live Nation. Future, as popular a rapper as any right now, played Brooklyn just last month on his Live Nation-backed mega-tour. Although Ebro isn’t quick to raise his fists at corporations (which would be disingenuous since Hot 97 is owned by one, too), he does acknowledge that they are obstacles to putting on an ideal Summer Jam.
“More artists are on tour, more shows are happening because of [entertainment presenter] AEG and Live Nation being publicly traded companies, and they gotta fill up these venues out here,” Ebro says. “There’s a couple of artists that maybe we can’t get because they have touring conflicts, or contractual obligations. So we do run into that.”