This Sunday, MetLife stadium will hold the 2013 incarnation of what’s become hip-hop’s most reliably controversial night, the Hot 97 Summer Jam. The 20th annual Summer Jam, it’s seen the genre’s biggest stars perform and game-changing moments happen. One man whose seen just about every Summer Jam is New York’s living legend “Video Music Box” host Ralph McDaniels. We spoke to “Uncle Ralph” about what the annual concert has meant to hip-hop and what he’s looking forward to this weekend.
Prior to Summer Jam’s inception in 1994, do you recall New York having any major annual summer hip-hop events?
There was the Budweiser Superfest, but that wasn’t really a hip-hop show. There might have been some other acts on that.
Do you recall what made those early Summer Jams different than going to other hip-hop shows at the time?
Well, I think what Summer Jam brought was that it was a hip-hop audience. It wasn’t an R&B audience or Pop audience with hip-hop included. It was hip-hop first. So, it just felt like a big party, which was different from concerts before that because it was presented as a hip-hop party. We had been doing big parties, but it was never a big thing like that.
Being it started in the mid-90s at the height of the east coast-west coast feud, do you recall any of those early shows reflect the New York hip-hop anti-outsider mentality?
I’m sure it did. There are certain artists that I feel always cross that barrier. Dre always crossed it, Snoop always crossed it. Eventually, OutKast did. I don’t think they ever had a problem at Summer Jam. But it was definitely an East Coast kinda thing. There were enough artists here with enough presence on the charts to fill it up.
While every radio station in a major market has their big annual summer or holiday concert, Summer Jam’s always felt like the one that gets talked about nationwide. Do you recall the first Summer Jam that felt like such a monumental event?
I think 2000 was pretty big. You had Eminem, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Jay-Z on the same show. You also had Ca$h Money on the bill, who were getting really popular. I think the show was bigger, it was a lot of artists.
Yeah, that show was the charts. That and 2003 with 50 Cent, Nas, Eminem, Busta Rhymes and Nelly just seem colossal.
Well 2003 was a big year because that’s when we moved to Giants Stadium. Prior to that it was at Nassau Colosseum, which was a big difference. Nassau was maybe 20,000, but Giants stadium was 50,000 and you realized this was huge. I can remember it was also when they were moving away from hip-hop to just rap. It was not quite what the old timers were used to and people felt left out. But times were changing, the audience was younger and into different sounds. Maybe guys you would see backstage at the other shows in the early 90s weren’t there anymore because they didn’t feel they were a part of that scene. You really see a changing of the artists.
What do you think gives the show such a different vibe?
You just kind of shared the stage with whoever the headliner was, and if they had any special guests, they would pop up. I remember, one year, Alicia Keys brought out some of the guys from Wu-Tang and, I think, the Lox because they had a remix [together]. People would do remixes just so the radio would start to play them and then they would do the remix at the concert just to include them at the show, which was pretty ill.
You’re responsible for the most-seen footage of one of Summer Jam’s most memorable moments, in 2001 when Jay-Z brought out Michael Jackson. What do you remember about the atmosphere that night?
Probably waiting for Michael Jackson. Jay-Z was on stage, and everybody was like “Michael is coming,” so it wasn’t like Michael was backstage or anything. Then, Jay-Z onstage was almost like, “Is he here yet?” Just waiting for this moment to happen. Then, finally Michael Jackson got there and the whole back was cleared out like if the president was there. Michael seemed out of touch with what was going on. They had a close-up of him on the screen, and the crowd was in awe of what he looked like close-up. It was scary, but it was exciting. It was one of those moments where “was that good or bad?” For Jay-Z, it was a big moment because he brought Michael Jackson to what was his world.
I think that moment might have the exact point when Jay-Z took off into that superstar realm.
It was like Michael Jackson would never go to Summer Jam, but he was smart enough to know the importance of hip-hop and was smart enough to do it with Jay-Z. He came and he stood next to Jay-Z, and then they brushed him off stage and Jay-Z kept performing.
And then the interview after with the Roc looking oddly stoic for guys who were just on-stage with Michael Jackson.
I went backstage and waited for Jay to come off stage and said I needed to talk to him about this moment. He said “OK, just give me a second.” And I waited and waited, and then finally when I went to do the interview he said “I don’t want to talk, let them talk.” Dame Dash was all “Michael Jackson! Michael Jackson! Michael Jackson!” and the other guys really didn’t know what was going on because Jay wasn’t talking, but he only said that to me. Nobody knew what to do, and didn’t know what to say because they didn’t know what Jay was doing. The atmosphere was pure madness, and Jay was overwhelmed. Thank God Dame Dash was so in that moment.
Do you recall any other chaotic moments like that?
I think [in 2002] when Nas didn’t perform. Everybody was kind of blown away by that. Nas went to the rival radio station because Hot 97 wouldn’t let him do what he wanted to do. So, realizing the headliner wasn’t performing, that was weird and the fans were pissed off.
How about the fallout of the Nicki Minaj-Peter Rosenberg incident?
I was there when he said it. We really didn’t think too much of it, it didn’t seem like a big deal. I found it really strange to hear “Lil Wayne was Watching a Feed.” and that he said no Ca$h Money artists would be performing. I happened to be standing next to Busta, who had just signed with Ca$h Money, and I think it hurt Nicki before it hurt Hot 97. She was hot, but [it] wasn’t “we’re gonna die unless Nicki Minaj is on-stage.” They tried to work it out for the fans, but it just didn’t come together. I have a picture of the setlist with her name on it, but she never performed. I don’t think it had anything to do with what Lil Wayne saw, I felt it had to do with something else.
After so many years, do you recall any performances that just stand out and define what Summer Jam is?
I think 50 Cent in 2003. That was a pretty cool show because 50 was just so hot. And then Eminem on top of it was a superstar. You could tell there was state police, FBI, CIA, everybody came out when Eminem came out. It was just crazy, and you realized the difference between other artists and him. And, at 50’s show, Yayo had just come out of jail, and they were starting with him. And 50 just murdered it with so many hits, then right behind him came Em. That was a big moment and it was the 10th anniversary so a lot was put into it. Also, when Kanye brought Jay out to do ‘Diamond Are Forever” in 2005, nobody knew he was going to come out.
Ralph McDaniels can be found on Twitter at @VideoMusicBox