Hot 97’s Morning Jew
Peter Rosenberg, rap purist and host of Summer Jam, talks about the music he loves and his Jewish identity
Was there hip-hop playing at your bar mitzvah?
Oh, yeah, my brother rapped at my bar mitzvah.
What was the track?
Well, he rapped over the beat from Grand Puba’s “360 (What Goes Around Comes Around).” It was just a nice song about me and how he was going to college soon and it was really sweet. I remember, I started—I sound like such a bitch in this story—but I started crying the second he stopped rapping. It was so emotional for me.
And then all the little hot girls at my bar mitzvah—because I invited all these hot chicks that I wasn’t actually going to hook up with at the time—they thought it was all adorable and they started hugging me.
Do you remember your first show?
My first hip-hop concert was Tribe Called Quest at University of Maryland in 1994. Previous to that I wasn’t really allowed to go. I wasn’t much of a rebel. I was a cool kid—I was known for being social and funny. But I didn’t drink, and I wasn’t the kid who was sneaking out to clubs. So, the first time I went to a concert, my mom took me. Dropped me off and picked me up.
You say you weren’t much of a rebel. But it seems like a lot of hip-hop is music of rebellion.
Well, I think the rebellion for me was dressing hip-hop. The rebellion for me was driving around in my parents’ Dodge Intrepid blasting hip-hop at ridiculous volume in my suburban town even though I was a nice kid and didn’t start problems. That to me was the rebellion. My pants always being baggy and hanging off my ass and I was wearing Triple 5 Soul and wearing Polo and Timberland.
Can you identify exactly what it was that appealed to you about hip-hop?
Looking back at what intrigued me, I think I was fascinated that it wasn’t made by suburban middle-class white people. I think I was intrigued by the fact that it was made by other people whose experiences were so different. But it’s hard to remember anymore because what you feel now is just knowing you love it. I don’t remember anything now except knowing how it makes me feel when I hear it.
It just feels like me. It just feels like what I am. I don’t know anything else. It really sounds cheesy, but there’s this Def Jam movie, The Show, and one of the old legends is talking about hip-hop, and he’s saying, “It’s more than just music. It’s the way I look at the world, it’s how I feel when I wake up, it’s who I am, it’s everything.”
Obviously there’s a strong storytelling tradition in Judaism. Maybe that was part of the initial connection, too?
If there’s anything that ties in my Judaism and my love of hip-hop, it is the tradition of Jews being the underdog, and supporting the underdog, and supporting social justice and being patrons of the black arts. Those are all the traditions that I think really factor in. When you look around hip-hop even now to this day, there’s always lots of Jews around. And I’m sure there are some anti-Semites out there, people who would think that there are some money-grubbing reasons for that. When we know the real actual reason is Jews love the arts, have always supported the arts, and are patrons of it.
This is something you thought about doing, for a long time, being a DJ at a big station.
Oh, no. This was very directly what I wanted to do. I dreamed of being on Hot 97 specifically. I wouldn’t say I had tunnel vision about it. But if you said well what’s the number one thing, well—Hot 97. I kind of just begged and nagged until I got a meeting. I drove up just for the day. It was very clearly my goal was to be like Funkmaster Flex. I copied it, emulated it, recorded it in my house, pretending to do it.
You guys talk about race very openly on the show. Where does that ease come from for you?
I got it from my dad. My dad is too casual talking about race. My dad, sometimes I tell him, we have to explain to him, “Dad, not everyone knows the joke.” And I have to tell myself the same thing, ’cause I’ll meet people and say stuff just, like, “Well, you know black people.” And then I’ll catch myself, and think “Oh, you don’t know who I am, sorry, you don’t hear my shtick every day.” I am very comfortable talking about race.
So, I do get some of it from my dad, and I get some of it from who I am and the fact that I was always so sincere about what I wanted to do and my passion for this culture that I never felt like I could be questioned about it because my intentions were so pure. And on top of that if you never really say anything bad, you don’t really get in trouble.
The history between blacks and Jews in New York is pretty loaded.
I know. It’s super weird. I don’t get it. For however many people there are who don’t give a shit, there’s like these fringe people on both sides who really are filled with a lot of venom. And I do think it’s fringe people. I think it’s the extremists on both ends. It trickles down probably into the less-extreme people who have slight misgivings, but it’s not so strong.
Do you believe that the way you guys talk about race on air can help change that?
I believe that wholeheartedly. There are people who get offended by what we do. They’re like, “Oh, you guys are always talking about race.” But listen, people think and talk about race quite a bit. It’s real and it affects everyone’s life. Even for those of us who are liberal and open-minded, most people—black, white, Hispanic—grow up in a somewhat segregated world. Even in New York our world ends up being kind of segregated.
Our show allows there to be a conversation where everyone’s in the room together talking. It’s not common. Even if you were to change the dial, if I was to go to our competition, all our competition, our direct hip-hop competition, the pop station, the sports talk stations, you tell me where they’re having a comfortable conversation with multiple ethnic groups represented all the time. And this isn’t a fake show where there’s a token black guy. Everyone here is who they are.
I think it’s special. And I think that if you’re someone who really thinks, you’re going to understand it.
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