Rap beef doesn’t get weirder. In one corner, a Jewish hip-hop dork from Montgomery County. In the other, an azalea-coifed visionary from the top of the charts.
It’s been a strange 362 days since New York radio personality Peter Rosenberg clashed with rap superstar Nicki Minaj at Hot 97’s Summer Jam, the most talked about summer hip-hop concert on the planet. Onstage, Rosenberg denounced a Minaj song for skewing too pop. Backstage, Minaj harrumphed and pulled out of the radio station’s annual megaconcert. Blogland convulsed. In the course of a Sunday afternoon, a dude from Chevy Chase had become the most controversial figure in the hip-hop universe.
This week, Rosenberg finally lured Minaj back to Hot 97’s Manhattan studios to talk it out. Water flowed dutifully under the bridge, but Minaj managed to leak a few drops of poison into the currents.
“I never found you funny. I never found you entertaining. I never found you smart. I just found you annoying,” the rapper and recent “American Idol” judge said. “You don’t have enough of a résuméto make those comments.”
Had Rosenberg printed up a copy, Minaj would have seen a résumé crammed with gigs the 33-year-old landed for being funny, entertaining and smart. Ego, pluck and imagination helped, too.
“The only reason I’m on Hot 97 now is because I knew it’s where I wanted to be 15 years ago,” Rosenberg says. “If you’re in hip-hop radio, this is the station to get to.”
His DJ dreams started in the mid-’90s in a MoCo bedroom, where he would post up behind his turntables, pretending he was live on the air at Hot 97.
Two months before his first class at the University of Maryland, he snagged a slot at the campus radio station. He eventually joined WJFK’s talk radio scrum but was swiftly ejected after squabbling with shock jock Don Geronimo. And in 2007, he made a surreal leap — from DJing at the McDonald’s in Adams Morgan to DJing at the most revered hip-hop radio station in the country.
On Sunday, when Hot 97 hosts its 20th annual Summer Jam at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., Rosenberg will take the stage with a much bigger, much different reputation. Originally hired to play the role of Hot 97’s resident rap enthusiast, he’s now seen as some kind of cultural sentinel. Or, worse, a scold.
“A lot of people come into the station now. . . . It’s like, ‘Watch out for Rosenberg!’ ” he says. “But I’m the geeky hip-hop dude! I was trying to be the good cop!”
Rosenberg catches himself: “Maybe I shouldn’t compare myself to a cop in hip-hop.”
At 5:58 on a recent Monday morning, he spins through the revolving doors of 395 Hudson St. in Manhattan — teal Nikes, Redskins T-shirt — up the elevator and into the studio, where he lands in a swivel chair at 6 on the dot and instantly starts gabbing with his co-hosts, K. Foxx and Cipha Sounds, about rumors of a new Beyonce baby bump.
“He’s a fan of the culture and he’s funny,” Ebro Darden says during a break. As Hot 97’s program director and Rosenberg’s morning show co-host, Darden says he hired him because “there are people from all walks of life here, and he brings that other perspective.”
That “other perspective” represents urban radio’s sizable suburban listenership — a demographic Rosenberg epitomized growing up.
“If you go back and watch home videotapes my dad took when we were young, I’m not in them at all,” says Rosenberg’s older brother Nick, 38, a lawyer. “Peter just had so much personality. I always found him super amusing.”
The little brother credits the big brother with turning him into a rap obsessive: “Unless I’m talking to my brother or Questlove, there aren’t many other people who I’m worried about showing me out in a hip-hop conversation.”
Childhood summers were spent with their grandparents in Queens’s Rockaway Beach, where they would tape hip-hop legend Marley Marl’s broadcasts on WBLS. During the summer of 1989, Peter dialed in to win the new cassette single from rap duo EPMD. “Peter from Maryland!” the voice shouted over the telephone line. “My man called long distance!” Later, Rosenberg would smoosh “Peter from Maryland” into “PMD,” the DJ name he’d use until he arrived at Hot 97.
As a teen, he snapped up the latest rap singles at 12 Inch Dance Records in Dupont Circle and Tower Records in Rockville. He read Rap Pages and the Source like scripture. When he was asked to DJ the Sadie Hawkins Day dance at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School his senior year, he prerecorded his set so he could attend the dance, too. (He had to flip the cassettes throughout the night.)
The July before his freshman year at College Park, he launched his underground rap show “From Dusk ’Til Dawn” on WMUC (88.1 FM). It aired from 3 a.m. until dawn. His reputation spread across campus, and years later, he met his wife — Alexa Datt, now a sportscaster — while spinning at Lupo’s Italian Chophouse on Route 1. “The first chick to hit on me while I was DJing, I married her,” he says.
Sophomore year, Rosenberg landed an internship with WPGC radio personality Big Tigger. “I remember he walked in, like, ‘Hi, Mr. Tigger,’ ” says Rosenberg’s mentor, who now works at Atlanta’s V103. “There was something about his enthusiasm for the music.”
Rosenberg spent his 20s bouncing from WPGC, to WHFS, to XM, to talk radio on WJFK, where Geronimo of “The Don and Mike Show” seemed to enjoy hazing his rookie colleague on the air.
“So in my hip-hop mind, where I see everything as potential beef, I started taking shots at him,” says Rosenberg. After ignoring a few warnings, he was fired.
“I saw that coming, but Peter is Peter,” says Daryl “Quartermaine” Francis, Rosenberg’s friend and co-host at the time. “You can see him stepping on the land mine, but you can’t stop him. He’s really real.”
Things got really realer in the months that followed when Rosenberg took a gig playing hip-hop for sloshy Saturday night crowds at McDonald’s on 18th Street NW. “I’m 26 years old, and I have my own show on WJFK,” Rosenberg says. “Then, I was podcasting from McDonald’s?”
But before long, Hot 97 called. Rosenberg spent his first day on the job interviewing the likes of Rick Ross and T.I. backstage at Summer Jam 2007.
“I got to the stadium and they gave me a microphone with a Hot 97 flag on it,” he says. “My co-workers were like, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ ”
Five summers later, he was onstage at Summer Jam 2012 introducing Kendrick Lamar, a Los Angeles rapper with the type of lyrical dexterity that Rosenberg champions on his Sunday night broadcasts for Hot 97. Trying to hype up the crowd, Rosenberg took a jab at Minaj’s glossy, sing-songy new hit “Starships,” using unprintable words, then pivoting: “I’m here to talk about real hip-hop.”
When his remark provoked Minaj to bail on her appearance, Rosenberg worried about his job security “for 10 minutes,” he says. “Then I go to Twitter and see ‘Peter Rosenberg’ trending worldwide. And I knew it was going to be fine.”
Everyone was talking trash. The pop star was thin skinned and tantrum prone. The radio bro was a bully, a traditionalist, an out-of-touch gatekeeper. Rosenberg was glad to see his name in pixelated lights, but he still feels his words were misinterpreted.
“When people make the argument that ‘you don’t want hip-hop to expand’ — really? Is that what that song was?” Rosenberg asks. “Stereogum, the New York Times — they all killed me. . . . I’m on a mainstream outlet consistently bashing [bad music], putting up good [music], doing everything I can to fight the good fight. And those guys point at me as [a jerk]? It’s absurd.”
Since then, Minaj’s dabblings in pop and television have slowed her momentum in the hip-hop community (she’s rumored to be renewing her vows with rap by appearing at Summer Jam on Sunday), while Lamar’s career has turned molten-hot. In a way, Rosenberg’s weird year has been vindicating, too.
“I’m proud of him,” Big Tigger says of his protege. “I think it was a moment for him where he learned the power of Peter and what his voice means.”
And while Rosenberg is still learning how far that voice carries, he knows what he wants it to say.
“I feel fortunate-slash-egomaniacal responsible,” Rosenberg says. “I don’t think Kendrick Lamar happened because of Peter Rosenberg, but I think the pieces add up. I play a role in reminding people about great hip-hop.”