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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

Matthew Shaer
May 28, 2013
Deneka Peniston
Deneka Peniston
Deneka Peniston
Deneka Peniston

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.

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 loveit. I don’t remember anything now except knowing how it makes me feel when I hear it.

Which is?

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.

“When you look around hip-hop, there’s always lots of Jews around.”

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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