Hot 97


Rap music is a very young genre when compared to rock, jazz or pop music.  With this being said it should come as no surprise that WQHT and the FM radio frequency 97.1 is much older than rap itself.  The radio frequency 97.1 was initially owned by NBC who first broadcasted on it in 1940.  The station was initially used to simulcast what was being played on NBC’s flagship radio station at the time, WNBC-AM.  The station would go through many re-brands as the station could not maintain a steady stream of listeners.  The station even experimented with talk radio and country music in its time, searching for an identity. While some formats worked better than others none truly had the staying power necessary to compete in one of if not the most competitive radio markets in the world.  [1]

The stations call letters would also be changed several times throughout the years from W2XWG when it first went on air in the 1940s to WNBC-FM in 1949.  The last name change occurred in 1988 when media conglomerate Emmis Communications

Hot 97 Logo

bought NBC’s New York area radio stations and the station went from WYNY to WQHT.  Emmis swapped the stations, they made WQHT into a pop station again and moved the previous country format to 103.5 FM.[2]  Long term success would be tough to find again as the competition among pop stations in New York City was intense and this would lead WQHT to once again re-brand their station to better fit the city.  This re-brand was different though, as this would change WQHT forever.  For this re-brand to take place, however, more racial progress had to be made as Dan Charnas stated in his book The Big Payback: The History of Hip-Hop: ”Record companies still maintained ‘Black music’ departments, despite the irony that all American pop music descended from African-American culture.  But radio was even more backwards than the record companies.”  Record companies for years did not help promote the black artists they had signed, this made it even easier for radio stations to discriminate based on race.  Radio stations would group all black artists as funk and disco artists as to avoid playing their records on the radio.  Radio would continue this discriminatory behavior even past TV’s capitulation to allowing black artists on MTV.  This is why New York, although the birthplace of Hip-Hop, cannot claim to have the first Hip-Hop radio station.  This distinct honor would belong to KDAY in Los Angeles which started in the early 1980’s.  For Hip-Hop to break into the New York City market it took a combination of factors not least the fact that WQHT was struggling in the Pop genre.  With “Yo MTV Raps!” piercing the television market and a vast amount of Hip-Hop radio talent networking throughout the city it was soon evident that Hip-Hop was worth taking a chance on.[3]

While Emmis was willing to take a chance on Hip-Hop it decided to be risk-adverse in who they were bringing to run the show.  In the early 1990’s Emmis gathered what now looks like the who’s who of urban radio.   In 1993 the station decided to directly capitalize on the success of  “Yo MTV Raps!” by hiring it’s hosts Ed Lover and Doctor Dre.  After hiring them the transformation into a rap station was complete.  Hip-Hop finally had its way of imbuing its sense of style and swagger onto the average person through a morning radio show.  With this step, Hot 97 was now ready to compete with the juggernauts in the area.  Hot 97 would also go on to hire other notable people such as Funkmaster Flex, Wendy Williams, and Angie Martinez early on in their respective careers.  With some of these changes underway, success was already palpable inside of Hot 97 even before the ratings had officially came out.  The Vice President at the time Judy Ellis said   Artists soon too latched onto Hot 97 as a fixture in their communities dropping in on the station as the pleased.  This led to high profile artists such as LL Cool J and KRS-One actually having paid positions at the station.  Rappers would come by and interact with the hosts as well as record promos and bumpers to be played on air.  This would also lead to some classic impromptu performances by these artists called freestyles. [4]

[1] New York Radio Guide – Station Information for WQHT-FM. Accessed November 15, 2017.

[2] New York Radio Guide – Station Information for WQHT-FM. Accessed November 15, 2017.

[3]  Charnas, Dan. The big payback: the history of the business of hip-hop. New York: New American Library, 2011.

[4] Boehlert, Eric. “Hip-hop takes Manhattan, with help from Hot 97.” Billboard, September 17, 1994.

Descriptive Narrative:

As the radio station continued to grow in size and stature in the early 90’s, Hip-Hop exploded.  Rap music had become more and more popular becoming less ofa sub-culture and more pop culture.  Within hip-hop though the sounds were mainly divided by where someone was from (East coast, West coast, South, etc.) and how seriously they took themselves (political rap, radio rap, or dance rap) so Hot 97 played mostly East Coast Hip-Hop in the 1990’s as that’s what its audience was accustomed to.  This led to the New York sound to be defined by the imaginative raps of The Wu-Tang Clan of Staten Island, crime rap from Queensbridge by the likes of Nas and Mobb Deep, Mafioso inspired rhymes by Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z from the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn.  New York would continue to define its own sound well into the 2000’s with groups such as The LOX, The Diplomats, and 50 Cent’s G-Unit redefining gangster rap for an East Coast audience.  Rap music was at pop culture’s doorstep at this point and with 50 Cent, Jay-Z, and Ja Rule selling millions of records and always premiering them first on Hot 97 it seemed as though nothing could get in the way of Hot 97 or New York’s success in the rap game as a whole.

Musician Swizz Beatz at Hot 97’s Summer Jam 2007.

Another important aspect of what Hot 97 brings to the New York City community yearly is its “Summer Jam” concert series.  Started in 1994, Emmis once again took no chances.  Emmis booked some of the biggest Hip-Hop acts that New York has ever seen such as Wu-Tang Clan, Nas and many more.  Banned from the first Summer Jam were West Coast artists such as Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg as well as Public Enemy who are from New York.  This decision was made by The Meadowlands’ management to prevent any especially violent encounters as the East Coast-West Coast rivalry was in full-swing.  New York being no stranger to violence or riots has seen a fair amount of controversy over the years at this event.  Notably, 50 Cent had chairs thrown at him by associates of a rival Queens rapper while on stage.  The Summer Jam stage has had many legendary nights, the most important of which was in 2001.  Jay Z decided to air out his fellow New York rivals Mobb Deep on stage in a stinging freestyle, to add insult to injury he displayed an embarrassing photo of his rivals on the billboard screen.  This moment would also include a diss at another Queens legend, Nas  which would in turn lead to more disses in freestyles and songs played on Hot 97.  Jay Z, quick to show off that he truly had gained status in the rap game, decided to stun the crowd at The Meadowlands Arena by bringing out Michael Jackson on to the stage.  While Michael Jackson didn’t perform it was a show of power to this day not forgotten.  The reach of Hot 97 and Hip-Hop was truly global.[1]

The music, clearly inspired by daily city life and its pitfalls, were earning artists millions.  It also had a profound effect on the listeners.  Listeners from the poorest parts of the city’s boroughs could relate to what these artists were saying on every line.  An excellent example of New York and its relationship with Hip-Hop is the Jay Z song “Empire State of Mind” a tribute song to the city from its most successful rapper.  A quote from the song perfectly shows New York’s  influence on Hip-Hop and vice versa.  “Welcome to the melting pot, corners where we sellin’ rock. Afrika Bambaataa s–t, home of the hip hop”.  The quote represents some of the urban based struggle in Hip-Hop and references a key player from the birth of Hip-Hop in NYC.  The music took a more patriotic turn after 2001 when the attacks on the Twin Towers took place.  Groups such as The Diplomats and G-Unit wore exuberant amounts of American flag themed clothing and spoke of how the Twin Towers falling had changed their lives.  Anyone who lived in New York at the time could relate, as life truly was not the same after that fateful day in American history.  The radio station itself had a way of changing your habits so that you didn’t miss anything important.  This meant listening to Funkmaster Flex scream over a track and play it repeatedly.  Changing channels however was not an option as anything said by one of Hot 97’s superstar DJ’s could be the topic of conversation on the subway or in the barbershop.  The music has also shown the more positive side of the city such as in Jay Z’s “Empire State of Mind”.  The station’s energy and demeanor has always tried to match the music they play, that hasn’t always worked in their favor though.

[1]  Golianopoulos, Thomas. “The Oral History of Hot 97’s Summer Jam.” Complex. September 20, 2016. Accessed November 15, 2017.



While Hot 97 had enjoyed unparalleled success in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, there were struggles as well.  To some, Hot 97 is not considered a positive influence in the community.  Hot 97, while becoming synonymous with Hip-Hop radio over the years ,has also become a magnet for controversy.  So much so that a paragraph probably doesn’t do it justice. Alas, there are a few scandals and controversies that serve most fitting as to encapsulate the negative environment Hot 97 can be at times.  Hot 97 for one could be considered a bad neighbor of sorts, having earned the nickname “Shot 97” for the sheer amount of individuals who have been shot outside of station.  Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown’s entourages got into a gun battle outside of Hot 97, a battle which would send Kim to jail on a perjury charge. Popular DJs Wendy Williams and Angie Martinez had a very public falling out resulting in Wendy leaving, leading her down her path towards television where she has been dominating for years.  Mister Cee has been arrested several times with transsexual prostitutes, forcing his resignation.  This arrest also showed the ugly homophobic underbelly of the Hip-Hop community that still exists today.[1]

Hot 97 has had a profound effect on New York City today.  It allows people to hear the music that got its start in New York City in the 1970’s and has slowly gained pop culture relevance ever since.  Hot 97 has served to amplify New York artists’ voices louder than ever before.  Hot 97 has pushed both D.J.s and rappers alike to superstar status overnight due to the exposure of being on the station.  The station, which had been a failure for more than half a decade was becoming a cultural icon and ratings darling in its later years and it has truly seen the difficulties of the radio industry combined with cutthroat New York business.  Hip-Hop has benefited greatly from this exposure to the largest media market in the world.  With that much exposure there have surely been some missteps by Hot 97 throughout its history.  Hot 97 will continue to represent the voice of the people as long as Hip-Hop culture is at the center of pop culture itself.

[1]  McGrath, Ben. “Hot 97’s Turf Wars.” The New Yorker. June 19, 2017. Accessed November 15, 2017.