Ebro Darden is a name synonymous with hip-hop radio. For nearly 30 years, the California-born, New York-based DJ has been filling the airwaves with the best beats and rhymes America’s had to offer. Starting his radio life at a small Sacramento station at just 15, Ebro worked his way through the ranks to become the programme manager at New York’s legendary Hot97 radio station. As the head of the station’s morning show, he became one of the leading voices in New York and hip-hop. Then he got the call to join Beats 1 and went from heading up a legendary local station to broadcasting worldwide as one of three anchors. He still holds down a slot on Hot97’s breakfast show though. You can try and take Ebro out of New York, but he’s not going to let you.
Change is inevitable though, and where once Ebro was a kid with a Monday midnight slot on terrestrial radio, he’s now broadcasting across the world on radio and countless other online platforms. “The amount of different content distribution platforms that we engage with while doing a broadcast has been the biggest change,” he says of his career. “We’re doing the show, but we’re also on social media, and that can be Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Instagram Stories… and at the same time, we’re putting video on the internet. You’re taking on four or five different platforms simultaneously to try and give people good content and engage [with] them.” It’s an approach Beats 1 has mastered, having not only streamlined its own social media but also figured out the knack for getting the blogs to post in real time about the shows. If there’s a new Frank Ocean song on blonded RADIO, you can bet it’s not just going to be Beats 1 posting about it.
Over the years both on Hot97 and more recently on Beats 1, Ebro has gained a reputation as a man with strong opinions. He’s instigated and moderated plenty of feuds in the hip-hop world thanks to his brutal honesty and vision about what the genre stands for. Most recently he fell out with half the hip-hop community over the success of Lil Yachty who he deemed a “high school ass rapper”.
Ebro is a man of the people though, and while he still doesn’t particularly care for Lil Boat’s particular brand of SoundCloud rap he’s been playing his music on Beats 1. “Just because I don’t like every song you make or think there’s room for improvement doesn’t mean I don’t support you as a person. I think Yachty’s a great guy actually. I think he’s smart, I think he’s a nice guy, he’s a positive influence on young people.”
His strength of conviction is a skill that lends itself perfectly to his latest role as Beats 1’s man in New York. Much as Julie Adenuga represents the sounds of London on her show, Ebro champions the multitudes of NYC on his, playing a considered mix of emerging hip-hop and bigger, more chart-friendly hits. It’s an approach extended to his guests as well, and over the past two years, he’s had everyone from Khalid to A$AP Mob. While Beats 1 puts particular emphasis on personal taste and prioritises new music, Ebro recognises that sometimes it’s important to give the people what they want. It’s all about balance he says “We support each other. If Zane’s playing a record, I’m playing it. If Julie’s playing a record, Zane’s playing it and I’m going to as well. Then we layer in what’s happening in our ecosystem. All of our shows are created with that in mind; what’s popular and what people want to hear and what each of us thinks is awesome or any of us think are awesome.”
How did you manage to get your own radio show at 15?
I was on the street, and I was one of those kids that were everywhere. I had an internship at the radio station which I got through my high school. I had great grades, and I played a lot of sports, so my high school used to give me credit to go to the radio station. I used to go after school, and then I got a job and worked my way up. I was telling the programme director at the time that everyone was just listening to hip-hop and didn’t want to hear this other shit they were playing. After me annoying the shit out of him, he gave me a show. It was on Monday night at midnight, so I’d have to stay up all night then go to school the next day.
Do you have an equivalent of that kid annoying you now?
They’re annoying me on Twitter and Instagram and making podcasts. I don’t think most of corporate America has developed an opportunity to let these kids make mistakes and learn the craft or give them a path to find and navigate success, so that’s why it’s all on the internet now.
If another Beats 1 DJ was going to take over your show for a week who would you pick?
I would probably say Run the Jewels; they’re curmudgeons just like me. Not just elders, just irritable.
If you could dedicate your show to any city in the world, not New York, then where would it be?
I would probably say Lagos, Nigeria. West Africa has been a part of bringing music to the world. There are people who came from that region and worked all over the world through slavery and imperialism and colonialism and that music and heritage travel, so I just recognise what that region of West Africa means to music around the world. The notion of telling a story over a drum is a very ancestral African thing.
Who do you think deserves a radio show that doesn’t have one?
Barack Obama. I’ve seen his playlist before; he’s got diverse music taste, generational taste, so he has perspective. He obviously has international heritage from Kenya and America, so he’s worldwide. We’re Beats 1 worldwide, and who’s more worldwide than Barack Obama a man of mixed cultural heritage who became president of the United States and has generational music taste?
Name three qualities you need to be a good radio presenter?
You need to be able to make fun of yourself. You need to be humble because the audience will make fun of you and you need to be open to critique.
Listen to Ebro Darden’s Beats 1 show Monday – Thursday at 11 pm BST.