Ebro Darden: the DJ who curates the sound of New York on Beats 1

"Beats 1 worldwide. Always on," Ebro Darden's voice booms on the radio. A little over three months ago, Darden became the voice of New York on Apple Music. When the service was announced, Apple was already late to the music-streaming battle. But it hoped to gain some ground, and listeners, with a human edge. In addition to streaming music on demand and personalized playlists, Apple threw Beats 1 into the mix. The radio station would offer "human curation" in the form of three distinctly different DJs in music capitals of the world. But it also promised a star-studded lineup of hosts who would share their own playlists. Ever since, Drake's OVO Sound Radio has dropped exclusives; St. Vincent's quirky mixtapes have struck a note with fans sending in personal snippets; and Elton John's Rocket Hour has often taken listeners back to a pre-streaming era.

Darden's two-hour spot on the radio, however, is programmed for a diverse range of listeners. On any given day, he plays a heady mix of chart-toppers and obscure tracks. But for the most part, his eclectic tastes reflect the city he's been chosen to represent. While he switches between the likes of J Balvin, Fugees, Fetty Wap, Justin Bieber and Beyoncé, his sensibility remains clearly rooted in hip-hop. His interview with Chvrches, for instance, sounded like an awkward first date, but his recent interaction with Skepta, a London-based artist often called the "King of Grime," felt like a private conversation between two friends.

"I get scared; I've been scared for hip-hop several times," Darden told Skepta on-air. "I get scared that, you know, obviously when it goes mainstream, it goes pop; it gets watered down, right? And I know that's a part of the process. But I always trust that in hip-hop the essence of it is street. So there's always gonna be someone who wants to ram their stories over music, so I know it's never gonna be gone; you know what I mean?"

Darden's been on the radio since the early '90s. After his first stint at a station in Northern California, where he was raised, he worked his way to Hot 97, a popular New York-based radio station that's dedicated to hip-hop. "[He's] a real radio veteran, who knows every single side of it," says Peter Rosenberg, who co-hosts "Ebro in the Morning" with Darden on Hot 97. "He's a classic radio guy in that sense, he's been on the air and behind the scenes in multiple markets and lots of different stations so you get someone who really understands that side of the business."

Over the last decade, Darden carved his niche with his unabashed opinions and personal insight into the world of hip-hop. While he presented legends on-air, he kept his ear to the ground for the next big names. As the music director and, later, program director of Hot 97, he became well-versed in the dynamics of the industry, where labels, MCs, DJs and clubs come together to make artists. "He knows all sides of music breaking in [the city]," says Rosenberg. "You get someone who has a complete view of the music landscape."​ This view made Darden one of three DJs, along with Zane Lowe in LA and Julie Adenuga in London, who were chosen to be on the front lines of Apple Music's multibillion-dollar gamble on Beats radio.

Now, three months in, post-free trial, Apple Music's fate hangs in the balance. Whether or not its human DJs and star guests will help convert free listeners into paid customers has become a question that's more pertinent than ever. Even so, while the tech giant's music aspirations are abundantly clear, its operations and consumer base have been hidden from view.

I recently caught up with Darden while he hosted his evening show on Beats 1. In between frequent pauses -- where he stopped to queue the next track, shared snippets about an upcoming artist or dropped his hashtag (#EbroBeats1) -- he talked about his love for hip-hop and his role as the gatekeeper of New York sound.

As someone who represents New York on Beats 1, what would you say is the sound of New York?

If you go around New York, you have everything from the Ramones to disco to electronic, which became house music, became hip-hop music, became freestyle. You know, obviously, you have the break beat bands of the '80s, Malcolm McLaren and things like that, which all kinda play into this overarching idea of hip-hop that we've fallen in love with. [It] pools music samples from all formats of music, and people tell their stories about being New Yorkers over that music whether it's singing or rapping.

New York's music sound is really diverse. It's as diverse as the cultural roots here. Today while you have hip-hop, you also have Dembow, which is going on in the Dominican clubs. You have reggae music and Afrobeat; there's a big Nigerian population here and Afrobeat's really popular. Then you still have soca music, which is big and, all the while, there's been pop music; like disco was pop music. You know you gonna go to a club and you're gonna hear all of that music. That's what we try and create everyday on Beats 1 -- the things that are popular internationally, nationally and then things that are popular locally. It's like artist discovery ... discovering new artists from the local scene, whether they're pop artists or indie bands or indie hip-hop -- whatever it is.

You're one of the most recognizable voices on Hot 97. How do you go from a hip-hop-centric station to Apple's more global, mainstream radio? In what ways are the two formats different for you?

You must know, to be in love with hip-hop, in its truest sense, you have to be in love with music first. Hip-hop pulls from all formats to create sound. If you look at A Tribe Called Quest, their records are basically jazz samples. If you look at Run-DMC and Beastie Boys, that was rock and roll. If you look at even what Jay Z has done, there's rock samples and soul music. The basis for all that music pulls from other places. In hip-hop, when I was growing up, it was not only about enjoying the songs that are available, but doing research to know the original song that's been used. Hip-hop, to me, was loving all formats.

I started in radio in 1990 when I was 15 years old. [Back then] hip-hop was not allowed to be played on the radio before 6PM or [it was] only on weekends. It wasn't mainstream; it was seen as aggressive. Obviously as the '90s progressed, hip-hop formats became more common. Working in a multi-format radio station is where I started.

But in terms of format, on Hot 97, there's a lot of room for you to set the record straight or come in strong with your opinions on many hip-hop issues. Are there some things that you can and cannot do on Beats 1?

You have to know your audience; I think that's anywhere. If you're live in a club, you gotta know who your audience is so you're always aware of what they're coming to you for and what their expectations are. Also keep in mind: We're in over 100 countries. You wanna be careful about subtle things like cultural nuances country to country. You wanna keep things just about loving the music and [not] get into things that are not about the music.

There are a lot of opinions about Beats 1 -- what it does and doesn't do -- but there's been very little insight from the curators and the company. What does it take to build a daily show for a global audience? How do you decide what goes on the air?

The first is what's popular, no matter where it's from. Is it popular with a large quantity of people on Earth? So that's kinda the first thing: Is the song popular or is the artist popular? Let's expose that. After that, you wanna throw in things and hits from the past that people already love. And then layered on top of that is, "Hey, you like these songs and you fell in love with these songs many years ago; here's some new music that falls in line and has a level of cohesiveness with all of these things you already love."

For each [of us], whether it's our London crew, our LA or New York crew, we have a collective of people. We get together each week and talk about music that we're hearing and love and things we believe are ready -- you know, cause you wanna make sure an artist is ready for the opportunity. Like I may fall in love with a song from an artist, but they're not prepared for me to say, "Hey world, check this guy out," because if that song kicks off they may not have a manager or an album prepared; they may not be able to see that moment, go on tour. Here comes this moment; this song becomes super popular and now the band is not able to connect with the consumer and then that moment is gone and the band loses out on that opportunity. So we really try to be in step with the music that the artist is creating as well as give the consumer enough time to digest the things that we're exposing them to.

What makes human curation such a big part of what Apple Music wants to do?

In the simplest terms, people like people. Social is the world we live in. Human curation is in and around someone that you trust or someone you just met. It's like walking up to a bar to have a drink or sitting next to somebody listening to something. That's what we're trying to create: a gathering moment, sitting around discovering music together. If I haven't heard a song that Julie in London or Zane in LA [dropped] and I just walked in ... I'm like, "You know what, let's play it and let's all listen to it together; hear it for the first time together." It's about having fun, listening to music and connecting to people in a real way. I don't believe it's more complicated than that.

Your playlists on Beats 1 often introduce new artists to listeners. Is that a personal choice as a DJ or is it something Apple Music wants to do?

That was our mantra from the beginning. We wanted to be the place that's helping artists contact consumers as well as helping the consumer have discovery. That is the basis of what we're doing, creating a place for people to discover music. It's what we set out to do.

Broadcast radio has been around for decades. But with internet radio, there's a sense that "radio" is somehow new. What's new about this format and what's old?

The old and traditional is that we still call everything radio. Even though streaming technically is not radio, [because of] our love for what radio means to our culture and music, you know, we call everything radio. Even though it's not necessarily a broadcast.

I would also say human curation is also not a new concept. Radio stations got so corporate that they began to get watered down by the desire to chase advertising. Like everything that goes mainstream -- broadcast television or radio -- everything gets repetitive and redundant and watered down in its effort to simplify and garner the biggest audience that you can. There's some still human curation pieces to that. I would say what's new is the fact that we at Apple and Beats 1 have knocked down format barriers, knocked down the structure and format of repetitive radio and broadcast. So we're giving a larger sample of what's available daily. There's still some repetition, because obviously people are coming in and coming out sampling their product, but all in all we're taking more risks and breaking more acts than traditional radio is. So that's new.

Even though you've been on-air for years, would you say the Beats 1 format is challenging for you?

I would say the only challenge today is not knowing the exact data on usage, so we don't know what's working [and] what's not, technically, other than the fact that we're getting a great response. Because we're new, we can't actually see how people are consuming the platform just yet. We wanna know what's working, so we can make the product better and do a better job.

Beats 1 DJs, from left, Julie Adenuga, Ebro Darden and Zane Lowe

What about the impact of playlists on individual artists? Whether it's humans or algorithms curating them, what do you think playlists bring to the listeners and what do they take away from the experience of an artist's catalog?

If a consumer wants their music that way, who can say it's wrong? I'm sure an artist that creates an album might not be happy that their album has been plucked apart, taken out of order and placed in a playlist because they created something and they want it that way. But you know, it's up to the consumer to decide what they want. There's no one right answer on that.

I'm not the guy who wants to tell people how to consume their entertainment. I believe people [who like] an artist will go buy an album and buy concert tickets and a T-shirt, et cetera. For people who don't have that deeper relationship with an artist, they won't buy an album. That choice is amazing for the consumer; it may not be so amazing for the artist and the creators of content because they have less control. But I'm in favor of the consumer having the choice. Power to the people; that's just the kind of person I am.

What inspires you to stay on radio decade after decade?

First, I was raised around music -- the instruments, the melodies and stories. I love great voices and great soulful music -- I mean heartfelt, not specifically just a soul sound; really just the human spirit. Next after that, being able to put something together that would allow someone to escape from their problems or be connected in a real way to someone else who's going through a similar problem. That's kinda how I fell in love with radio ... creating something for someone that's helping them through their day.

[Image credit: Robin Marchant via Getty Images (top), Beats 1 (center and bottom)]