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Hot 97’s Morning Jew: An Interview With Peter Rosenberg

Peter Rosenberg, rap purist and host of Summer Jam, talks about the music he loves and his Jewish identity

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Peter Rosenberg, 2012. (Deneka Peniston)
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On the seventh floor of a sullen brick high-rise on Hudson Street, a few blocks east of the river, are the offices of Hot 97, the most popular hip-hop station in New York. The door to the studios is shaped to resemble the exterior of a bank vault. Inside, the corridors are lined with gold-framed Nielsen citations and signed pictures of the top talent—Funkmaster Flex, DJ ENUFF, Cipha Sounds, and Peter Rosenberg.

Hot 97’s coveted morning show belongs to three personalities: Rosenberg, Cipha Sounds (whose real name is Luis Diaz), and the African-American DJ K. Foxx. The trio has dubbed themselves the Black, the Rican, and the Jew—sometimes shortened to Black Rican Jew—and every morning, from 5 to 10, they play rap and R&B tracks and bicker about music, relationships, sex, and race, often in decidedly un-politically correct terms.

Although Ciph and K. Foxx are big talkers in their own right, it is typically Rosenberg, a 33-year-old resident of the Upper West Side of Manhattan, who drives much of the conversation on the morning show. Rosenberg, the son of a Capitol Hill staffer and a public-school teacher, grew up in Chevy Chase, Md., and was introduced to hip-hop by his older brother; by the late 1990s, when he graduated from high school, his passion for the genre had become all-consuming. He ran a successful hip-hop radio show at the University of Maryland, and after college he bounced around from one smaller station to the next, before landing, in the summer of 2007, at Hot 97—the most listened-to hip-hop station in the city where the music was born.

Aside from his morning-show duties, Rosenberg, who is short and densely built, with dark, restless eyes, also co-hosts the spectacularly good podcast titled Juan Epstein—guests have included Jay-Z and Eminem—and handles hosting duties for the MTV program Hip-Hop Squares.

But last year, he made headlines of a different sort when he climbed on stage at the annual Hot 97 Summer Jam, which traditionally takes place on the first Sunday in June, and insulted headliner Nicki Minaj, the rapper behind the Top 40 track “Starships.” “I know there’s some chicks here waiting to sing ‘Starships’ later. I’m not talking to y’all right now,” Rosenberg said. “Fuck that bullshit. I’m here to talk about real hip-hop shit. People here to see A$AP Rocky today. People here to see ScHoolboy Q on this stage. That’s that shit I represent.” Rosenberg later said he had no personal problem with Minaj and that he was only attempting to hype some of the lesser-known artists on the Summer Jam bill, including Kendrick Lamar and A$AP Rocky. But Minaj was furious enough to cancel her appearance at Summer Jam; she was replaced, at the last minute, by Nas and Lauryn Hill.

The contretemps wound up cementing Rosenberg’s reputation as a champion of true hip-hop—he has not retracted the comments about Minaj, instead opting for a kind of non-apology apology—and he has cultivated many committed fans who believe rap has become far too poppy.

In April, Tablet spoke to Rosenberg, in the studio where he and Cipha tape the Juan Epstein podcast. In person, he is largely indistinguishable from his on-air personality—outspoken, wise-cracking, affable, occasionally caustic. At one point, the station director, Ebro, who is half black and half Jewish, poked his head in the door.

“This is the Jew interview,” Rosenberg told him.

“Passover’s coming,” Ebro said. “How many Seders are you going to? I’m a horrible Jew. Are you a good Jew? I’m a bad Jew.”

“That’s part of the conversation,” Rosenberg said.

“That’s always part of the conversation,” Ebro said. “How good of a Jew are you?”

After a moment, Ebro shut the door. Rosenberg shook his head, laughed, kicked one bright red Nike sneaker up on the desk, and munched contemplatively on a Twix bar.

So, how about it? Do you consider yourself a good Jew?

Yes. I celebrate the high holidays, Passover, Hanukkah. Hanukkah, as you get older, come on—Hanukkah’s kind of a joke, let’s be honest about it. It’s not a real holiday. Once you’re not, like, 8 years old and you don’t have parents to give you gifts anymore? I light the candle, I eat a latke one night.

Now, I’m sure people who know the lifestyle I live—those people look at me and don’t even think of me as Jewish. However, I would always say that those people, they live in a world that’s completely Jewish. The only thing they know is being Jewish. For my entire career, I have operated in a world where I’m not very religious, but every day, I’m known as “The Jew.”

So you tell me who’s more Jewish: The person who’s totally observant but for whom being Jewish is a foregone conclusion, or the person who’s everyday reminded: Jew, Jew, Jew. I know that I’m proud of being Jewish. I enjoy being one of the torchbearers in hip-hop. It’s a big part of who I am.

Were you observant when you were growing up?

We went to synagogue every week, and it was a Conservative synagogue. We were kosher in the house. My parents are still kosher in the house. But then as the years went on we stopped going to synagogue so much. After bar mitzvah, you know, we did Hebrew school two days a week, plus Sunday school, so a lot of my friends only did like one day a week; I was there like three days a week. And then my brother went to Jewish camp. I went once and I hated it, I hated camp. I was a homebody.

Can you describe your parents’ attitude toward Judaism?

My parents, neither of them grew up religious. They actually got more religious when they got married.

My mom was actually born in a displaced-persons camp in Germany, and her parents, when they moved to America, my grandpa went to synagogue some, but they weren’t religious. Seeing as how they had just dealt with the Holocaust and just lost family members, being Jewish was just a part of who they were. As for my dad’s parents, they weren’t religious at all. When I was a kid we’d go to my grandmother’s and have cheeseburgers.

Were your mom and dad supportive of your interest in hip-hop?

I don’t know whether or not my parents understood it any more than any parents ever understand a teenager’s obsession with music. But they knew I was passionate about it, and they liked that and they facilitated that. So, I always felt supported by them in that regard. There were arguments we would have, like my dad didn’t want me to buy Biggie’s album—Biggie’s second album—and he didn’t want me to get Snoop’s album.

When they heard something about it like it was supposed to be particularly dangerous or violent or something, they’d be like “I don’t know about this.” But by and large they let me spend my money on records; I’d be listening to it in my room all the time. I saved up for turntables; I got a job just to save up for turntables. They were always supportive; even if there were things they didn’t fully understand, they let me do my thing.

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surfer_dad says:

Sounds like one of the good guys!

Mitchell in Oakland says:

Out here in Oakland, the reality is certainly multiracial and multicultural, but I miss the NY attitude. Gentrification has provoked a style of bickering that amounts to a nasty turf war. I wish this guy would come out here for awhile; people could stand to have more of his sort of down-to-earth sense of humor.

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Hot 97’s Morning Jew: An Interview With Peter Rosenberg

Peter Rosenberg, rap purist and host of Summer Jam, talks about the music he loves and his Jewish identity