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How the HOT 97 Summer Jam Became a New York City Hip-Hop Staple

Last Updated: July 1, 2023
To celebrate of the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, HOT 97 is saluting The LOX with a tribute at UBS Arena on Long Island — learn more about the business behind the event from the leaders who make it happen.

When it comes to summers in New York City, you can expect fire hydrants gushing on the sidewalks, music blasting from top-down cars, extremely hot subway platforms, Mister Softee trucks rolling through the projects, and music festivals. More specifically, the most iconic music festival in the tri-state area: Summer Jam.

Bringing it back to Long Island’s Belmont Park at UBS Arena following a stint at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, HOT 97 Summer Jam 2023 is returning home on June 4 with a boast-worthy lineup including GloRilla, Ice Spice, Lil Tjay, Lola Brooke, Coi Leray, Fivio Foreign, and more, with French Montana serving as festival pre-show host and the Bronx’s own Cardi B as the headliner. Sponsored by Smirnoff, Black Girl Sunscreen, and Warner Records, Summer Jam is also hosting a Warner Records Stage at HOT 97 Summer Jam afternoon pre-show featuring some of the most buzzworthy emerging artists to keep on your radar including NLE Choppa, Kenzo B, 2Rare, Sha EK, McVertt, and TQ.

“HOT 97’s Summer Jam is a hip-hop staple and we are excited to bring the most electric show of the summer back to New York for hip-hop’s 50th anniversary.” Bradford Tobin, President, Chief Operating Officer, and General Counsel of HOT 97’s parent company, said in an official statement. For Tobin and the HOT 97 team, Summer Jam is more than just a festival — it’s a staple in the New York City culture that continues to give the people what they need — an ear to the streets for fresh new hip-hop talent and paying homage to the veterans in the industry that started it all.

In an exclusive interview with Boardroom, Rahsan-Rahsan Lindsay, Chief Executive Officer of MediaCo Holding, Inc., which oversees HOT 97, WBLS, and Fairway Outdoor, noted the cultural significance of HOT 97’s Summer Jam, especially as it returns back to New York City.

In addition to the undeniable power of the annual HOT 97 Summer Jam Festival, Lindsay praised the authenticity of the festival while not “watering down” the essence of HOT 97, Summer Jam, and hip-hop culture through its confirmed acts. “It’s gonna be somebody that is so steeped in what hip-hop is that of course makes sense of the Summer Jam, but you’re not gonna see us have some random person or artist that isn’t really part of the Hot 97 brand and the hip-hop community,” he said.

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In addition to celebrating the 50th anniversary of hip-hop as a sound and an art form, Summer Jam will be saluting Yonkers trio The LOX on the main stage with a special tribute performance to illustrate the impact of Jadakiss, Styles P, and Sheek Louch the industry at large — all to continue to unify the community of New York’s hip-hop scene. “We really want to continue to grow how Summer Jam as a brand actually goes beyond New York. Summer Jam in and of itself is a brand that has very clear New York roots, and you look at our lineup and it’s real, real New York this year,” Lindsay said. 

“You could say what you want about other shows, you could say what you want about other stations, but there is a right of passage to be able to come to HOT 97 and say, yes, I got interviewed by Ebro, or whatever it is. Because at the end of the day, it means something to come through this place and it means something to be on that Summer Jam stage. When you get to the Summer Jam stage, now can say you shared a stage with Michael Jackson, with Jay-Z, with Biggie, with Nicki [Minaj], with Cardi, with Drake, with Kendrick [Lamar], with Weezy. Do I need to keep going? I feel like I rest my case.”

Cardi B performs on stage during the Hot 97 Summer Jam 2019 (Photo by Manny Carabel/Getty Images)

Before the big day on Long Island, Boardroom connected with MediaCo Holding, Inc. head TT Torrez, who also serves as VP of Artist and Label Relations and host of “Tap In With TT” at HOT 97, to discuss all things Summer Jam 2023 and the legacy of New York City’s hip-hop scene. Ahead of the long-awaited festival, Torrez and Lindsay shared their thoughts on the femcee-forward lineup, the business behind Summer Jam 2023, and the 30th anniversary of the event in celebration of five decades of hip-hop.

D’SHONDA BROWN: How has Summer Jam become a lynchpin of NYC’s hip-hop scene over the years?

TT TORREZ: Well, you know, this will be our 30th year, and obviously, Summer Jam has been a part of New York lifestyle for many, many years. There are people that have literally grown up on the Summer Jam brand, and now their kids are attending the show, so it’s about bringing families together, bringing communities together, giving back to our audience who supports us 365.

That’s the great thing about New York. As we see what happened with the pandemic, a lot of these venues in New York have been impacted and closed down, so a lot of artists don’t get a chance to perform — especially New York artists at these concert spaces — because some of ’em either have struggled through the pandemic and no longer exist. This is, like, their place where they can actually perform for their hometown.

D’SHONDA BROWN: What excites you the most about the 30th anniversary of Summer Jam, and what makes this year’s festival special compared to other years?

RAHSAN-RAHSAN LINDSAY: I don’t wanna sound too sappy, but when you grow up on something like I grew up on, it means a lot to me that it’s not marginal music. It means a lot more than it meant even when I was growing up because we’ve branched off into different styles of hip-hop. It’s been across the country for a long time, but it’s very international. You see the effect that not just the music has, but the culture has on our overall culture, our US culture, world culture.

I think our lineup is crazy. I’m happy to be back in New York. When you’re actually at an event, whether it’s a community event or something like Summer Jam, you’re with your actual fans. These are the people who ride with you, that the people who listen to the station, [and] they’ll tell you when they don’t think you’re doing something right.

Everybody expects to have fun, [but] when you go to a concert, what are the unexpected things [that] are gonna happen? That’s the thing to me that makes it so fun and so beautiful that, and honestly that’s why you notice that live music, by and large, people are still going. In terms of concert-going, people still wanna see live music. There’s a special kind of experience and not obviously not everybody gets to do it, but if you do get to do it, it’s awesome. Summer Jam is accessible for most people right there. There’s a ticket level that most people can afford and it’s convenient to public transportation.

DB: How far in advance do you have to plan for the execution of Summer Jam 2023, and what are the important logistics that happen behind the scenes?

RRL: It’s a little chicken-or-egg sometimes. Sometimes, you wanna get your anchor, like that main piece, and then you fill in the blanks and sometimes we’ll figure out the other part later. We probably start in earnest a few months after Summer Jam. We’ll start talking about it like right away. One of the things that’s really important for Summer Jam is [that the] artists have to be really relevant in the moment. Not even last year; you gotta be relevant now, so you can’t do it too early because there may be something that hits and you’re like, I gotta have that. You don’t wanna be fully locked. I would say like around the end of the year prior, so after this Summer Jam, probably November, December, we’ll hopefully have our first acts kinda locked in.

Logistically, this year we actually move into a new arena. Typically, that’s not the case, so the only thing you’re really doing from an arena standpoint is making sure you have the date locked down immediately. If there’s anything that happens immediately, like the week after, we’ll try to lock down a date. Now, if we feel like we wanna move to a different venue, then we might lock down multiple dates at multiple venues, but that’s not typically the case. It really is about the artists. This is an artist-driven show. Obviously, we hope we make money on it. Obviously, we wanna grow our brand. It’s important to HOT 97 that Summer Jam be successful and that it continues to be a staple for New York and beyond, but if the artist lineup isn’t right, it doesn’t work.

By the way, y’all will let us hear about it, ’cause you know how y’all are.

French Montana performs during the 2017 Hot 97 Summer Jam (Photo by Taylor Hill/WireImage)

DB: In addition to having bomb talent gracing the stage, what’s the importance of having a great team to bring Summer Jam all together?

RRL: That goes without saying. I always say if you really wanna understand what it takes, watch the end credits of a movie. Marvel has a thousand names, probably maybe more sometimes. It’s not quite that number for us, but you’re talking about a lot of different parts, right? The actual live production is one thing, so there’s a lot of planning that goes into it, and that’s a smaller team, but the actual execution is huge. You need lots of people to pull it off, everything from staging and lighting and sound and handing out bracelets or other kinds of things that you do to decorate. Then, having the digital team that’s not just marketing, but also promoting but also creating content that aligns with sponsors and creating branded content. 

It’s not just us; you do have partners in this endeavor. The fact is the people who are producing our show have been producing it basically for 30 years. Most of the team here has been here for at least five years, so we have a lot of institutional knowledge. Those things are important not only to ensure that people know how to kind of put one foot in front of the other, but ‘we did this before so let’s not do it again so soon.’ All of that knowledge is super important and a lot of what we do obviously is planning, but there’s a lot that happens in real time. There’s a lot that happens spontaneously. If something happens in the news cycle pops up or an artist unfortunately is unavailable that you thought was gonna be in a lineup, now you gotta pivot and figure out how to make that work.

Things happen, but you just have to keep it moving. That’s also the beauty of it. When you have a great team, when you have people who have experience, you don’t panic when something becomes difficult.

DB: I noticed that there were a lot of women on the main stage this year. There’s Coi, Lola, and of course Cardi. Was this intentional to give a lot of femcees the spotlight this year? 

TT: I think it’s a reflection of what’s been dominating on the airways and what we’ve seen in the culture you see over the past few years — that these ladies have just been carrying it for hip-hop. Some of the biggest discussions when we talk about hip-hop are surrounded by women. We see just how far we have come in conversation when we talk about female emcees competing in this space and just how far we’ve come from women executives and artists. It’s about having that reflection on that stage that represents what’s happening in the culture now. To be fair, these women have been putting in work and they’re super talented. I’m just super proud of them.

DB: While Pop Smoke didn’t have the opportunity to really demonstrate his true potential since he was gone too soon, how would you say that Lola Brooke and Ice Spice are continuing the genre legacy of NYC’s drill movement at Summer Jam?

RRL: One of the problems with drill, I think people sometimes associate it with violence. It’s not right. It’s a style of music. It’s a style of hip-hop. It’s the way they deliver.

When you think about a Lola Brooke, when you think about Ice Spice, it is clear that the levels are here. They’re bringing their A-game. I don’t know anybody who can say they really don’t like it because it’s so prevalent and there’s a reason why, because of the way these artists are delivering — not just delivering the message the way they deliver, but there’s artistry to it, and I honestly think that sometimes that gets lost. People don’t understand the artistry that goes into being able to deliver music, and I should actually say deliver the words with a certain rhythm or a certain tempo, being able to switch that tempo up. You think about drill, you’re talking about very high BPMs, so you have to really be able to stay on the beat and that takes skill. I think what people are gonna see on Sunday is people who are really at the top of their craft right now.

DreamDoll performs onstage during Hot 97 Summer Jam 2021 (Photo by Johnny Nunez/WireImage)

You bring up Pop Smoke and you think about how amazing that first album was for him. Ice, I feel like, is on that same trajectory. She has maybe you could say four bona fide hits already, and she really hit the scene eight months ago. Obviously, she’s been out there, she’s been making music, she’s been doing things, but in terms of her getting to this next level, the tough thing for her is I think she’s set up an expectation now. ‘We expect this from you. We’re waiting [and] we wanna see what’s the next thing because the expectation is that you’re gonna always bring it.’ When you come out the gate like that, you can’t now half-step; you gotta come strong every time.

DB: How is Summer Jam paying homage to hip-hop’s 50th anniversary this year? 

TT: Oh, I’m really excited. We are celebrating 50 years of hip-hop with The LOX, so I’m really excited about that. The LOX are going into rehearsals this week. I’m sure they are cooking up an amazing show for us, and they’re always good to watch, perform live, and they’re so professional. They’re like the most professional hip-hop group that I’ve ever dealt with for all these years of putting together Summer Jam. They’re just so on point with their business and these guys are just amazing and what they’ve done and what they have put in a culture and how they diversify their businesses. It’s just simply really good to watch.

DB: How important was it to pay homage to a group like The LOX for the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, and what can we expect from the performance?

RRL: I wouldn’t say we’re paying homage to The LOX. I would say we’re paying homage to the 50th anniversary with The LOX because we have to be mindful that the 50th anniversary of hip-hop isn’t like a thing. It’s not a slice of something that we no longer are building on. It’s still building. So, when you look at 50 years of hip-hop, yes, it includes the origins of hip-hop, but it also includes current hip-hop. I’m gonna tell myself a little bit, but when that Verzuz happened with The LOX and Dipset, trust me, I’m a LOX fan, but if you asked me who I thought was going was kind of going take it, I felt like Dipset would take it. 

I feel like The LOX just always come with, like. a million percent energy, and I feel like Dipset kinda smoothed it out a little bit. Then, you just forget how many hits [The LOX] have. Those dudes bring it. I’ll watch these guys live every single time. They always come [and] obviously we’re expecting ’em to bring some special guests. I can’t tease, [but] I don’t really know. They don’t tell me anything and I try to stay outta editorial and the programming people’s business ’cause I don’t want them to think I’m trying to influence anything.

The other thing is I’m a fan. Yes, this is my job, but I love going to this show, and to be able to see these acts that I like and obviously with somebody like The LOX, it’s amazing.

DB: Why is it important to include New York in the center of conversations about hip-hop? 

TT: New York is the mecca, you know what I’m saying? It all started in the Bronx. As we celebrate the anniversary of hip-hop, we will forever be the Mecca [and] the birthplace of hip-hop. We have to keep the culture growing, we have to keep supporting new emerging artists and keep building stars keep putting the spotlight on those artists coming out of New York.

Lil Wayne performs during the 2018 Hot 97 Summer Jam (Photo by Taylor Hill/WireImage)

I think it’s amazing to see like somebody like a Cardi being who has had such major success with her debut album, and then also having on that same stage someone like Ice Spice who’s newer than all of them and able to perform in front of her town. People from the Bronx are gonna come out and watch her and Lola Brooke, someone who came up on our “Who’s Next” stage and has been putting on work for a very long time to finally be able to touch that stage. That’s an amazing feeling and it’s a representation of the grit [and] the grind that New York is. New York is all about the grit, the grind, [and] it’s the concrete jungle. You either hate it or you love it.

DB: How has Summer Jam balanced not only serving as a platform for respected artists like Lil Wayne and Biggie, but as a spotlight for upcoming artists as well?

RRL: One of the things I like to think is it’s not just about the festival stage, but also the openers for the main stage. They’re not always the biggest names. They may only have one or two bona fides, but at the end of the day, you see that potential. You see this person is gonna be next and a lot of people that you’re talking about, they are legends now, but they weren’t necessarily legends when they hit the Summer Jam stage. They clearly had some cred and had done some things, but not like what they did afterward. When I look at, you know the Warner Record stage this year, frankly, there are a number of them that are already starting to really pop, but these are the next artists who are on that precipice.

Maybe it’s not next year, but I guarantee several of the artists that you’re gonna see on the stage will be on the main stage, not in 10 years, but in a few years — possibly next year. We’ve had somebody go from the festival stage to the main stage in one year. What can happen to your career if you really catch fire? The great thing is when fans like you, they like you. If they’re there for you, they’re really pushing your music, and think of how much free promotion you get now? You think about socials and every post has to have a song on it, that is something that can make someone grow exponentially faster than what you used to see.

That’s probably why Ice has gotten to this level because it’s not just a one-trick. It’s not just the radio or just streaming. It’s everything. It’s digital. It’s social. It’s all of those things.


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