NEW YORK — “You want to start off talking about weed and Tupac, or you want to get to that later?”
It isn’t your typical opening question for a presidential candidate, but on this July morning, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) is appearing on “The Breakfast Club,” — Power 105.1’s popular nationally syndicated radio show hosted by Charlamagne tha God, Angela Yee and DJ Envy — and she knows what to expect. It’s her third time here.
The question (from Charlamagne) jokingly refers to a much-debated exchange from Harris’s previous interview on the show, in February, when the former prosecutor admitted she smoked marijuana in college and talked about her fondness for music by Tupac and Snoop Dogg. Some listeners conflated her responses to separate questions, leading critics to pounce on the chronologically impossible suggestion that Harris, who graduated from Howard University in 1986, had listened to the rappers, both of whom debuted in the early ’90s, while smoking marijuana in college.
Amid questions about whether Harris — a California native whose father was born in Jamaica and whose mother was born in India — can truly speak to issues concerning African American voters, she was accused of pandering for their support. “That was misconstrued,” Charlamagne tells Harris. “Of course it was,” she agrees. “But it had a little shelf life of its own.”
“The Breakfast Club,” which debuted in 2010 and went into national syndication three years later, has been known to generate viral, long-tailed moments — mostly in interviews with hip-hop heavyweights and other pop-culture figures. But amid a crucial, and crowded, presidential primary race, the show has increasingly hosted politicians, becoming a valued stop for Democratic candidates, including South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and Cory Booker (N.J.), who want to connect with black voters — and seem undeterred by the show’s freewheeling format and brash hosts.
Envy, born Raashaun Casey, likens the show’s atmosphere to the barbershop, where black Americans have long held frank, uncensored discussions. It’s a large barbershop — the show averaged more than 750,500 weekly listeners in the previous three months, according to Nielsen Audio data. Of those listeners, 62 percent are black; 79 percent are under the age of 50. The show, which airs on 80 stations nationwide, also courts a sizable YouTube following, with more than 3.8 million subscribers. The hosts say their approach is the same regardless of whether they are interviewing a popular rapper or a presidential candidate — no questions are off the table.
“If you want to come by here, there are no rules and regulations,” Envy says in an interview after Harris’s taping. “We’re going to have real conversation.”
“Plus, they’re politicians” Yee adds. “They should know how to answer and evade questions.”
Envy, Yee and Charlamagne, born Lenard Larry McKelvey, are all in their early 40s, with ample social media followings and backgrounds in hip-hop radio. Yee, a graduate of Wesleyan University, cut her teeth at Shade 45, Eminem’s SiriusXM Radio channel. Envy is an alumnus of the storied New York hip-hop station Hot 97 and — as he frequently reminds Harris — her alma mater’s (friendly) rival, Hampton University. Charlamagne, the show’s most recognizable personality, got his start in South Carolina and later became a protege of shock jock Wendy Williams.
In his 2017 book “Black Privilege: Opportunity Comes to Those Who Create It,” Charlamagne is forthright about his wayward adolescence, which included periods of drug-dealing and several jail stints. He traces his controversial candor to a brutal beating he received at 16 — after trash-talking a neighbor. “If I survived that, there was no way I was censoring myself at all,” he wrote. A line from Notorious B.I.G.’s 1994 song “Unbelievable,” became his mantra: “If I said it, I meant it / bite my tongue for no one.”
Incidentally, those who refuse to appear on “The Breakfast Club” usually cite Charlamagne. “I don’t do the Breakfast Club ‘cause Charlamagne is shameless / That’s the only one I leave out when I run my bases,” Logic raps on “Clickbait,” a track released this year.
The pushback against Charlamagne turned more serious last year when an online petition called for his firing after a rape accusation from 17 years earlier resurfaced. Charlamagne, who denied the sexual assault allegation in a 2013 interview and in “Black Privilege,” was arrested in 2001 and pleaded guilty to contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He cast the incident as a turning point in his book.
And the controversies haven’t stopped listeners from tuning in or 2020 candidates from dropping by.
"The Breakfast Club" is recorded in a small studio nestled in the corner of an office inside the iHeartMedia building (the company owns Power 105.1) in Tribeca. The day starts early for the show's hosts and the small team of producers — who are mostly in their 20s. It's particularly cramped on the day of Harris's visit, which has attracted reporters from various media outlets. The studio features a well-stocked bar, artwork (one painting depicts the hosts in superhero costumes, with Yee as Wonder Woman, Envy as Superman and Charlamagne as the Caped Crusader) and a gold-plated YouTube button marking the show's more than 1 million subscribers.
The show has aired on Revolt TV, Diddy’s cable network, since 2014, which means listeners can also watch the most bonkers moments unfold. On YouTube, the most popular “Breakfast Club” video is a two-minute clip of Birdman (also known as Baby) confronting the hosts, in 2016, over how they mocked him on past shows, prompting the rapper to demand, indelibly, that they “put some respeck” on his name.
The hosts are quick to point out that pop culture and politics are not mutually exclusive. (“We’ve got the executive producer of ‘The Celebrity Apprentice’ as president,” Charlamagne says). After Soulja Boy ranted about “Draaaake” in a “Breakfast Club” interview, “Saturday Night Live” parodied it in a “Weekend Update” segment about “Truuuuump.”
And political culture and pop culture converged in an unexpected way last week when Harris entered the Power 105.1 space only to find she knew the guest who had just come out of the studio: actor and former MTV veejay Bill Bellamy. “Are you kidding me?!” he said, as the two hugged. He told Harris she had been on her “A-game.” (A spokeswoman for Harris said in an email that they have been “friends for a while.”)
The hosts have a knack for getting their guests to divulge unexpected details. “The Breakfast Club” is where you might learn that rapper Wiz Khalifa likes to eat apple slices or that Hillary Clinton keeps hot sauce in her bag.
But as the Harris weed controversy showed, this can be a double-edged sword for presidential hopefuls, whose previously unexplored enthusiasm for rap (or hot sauce, in Clinton’s case three years ago) might be viewed as inauthentic.
Charlamagne says he has found the candidates to be genuine, with the caveat that he doesn’t know them personally. He cites Buttigieg as an example. “I don’t think Mayor Pete can make up the fact that, ‘Yo, I really do like Eminem,’ ” he says. “Just because you’re talking about rap on a hip-hop station doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s pandering.”
Charlamagne recalls Clinton’s capsaicin confession: “People said that was pandering.” “But,” Envy interjects, “it’s been known that she carries hot sauce.”
These viral moments occur in wide-ranging interviews that often clock in at 30 minutes or longer, but they have a tendency to overshadow the hosts' more shrewd political questions. In her most recent appearance, Harris talks about the heated exchange she had with former vice president Joe Biden over civil rights-era busing and discusses her $100 billion plan to close the racial gap in homeownership. One aspect of that plan would add rent payments and cellphone and utility payments to credit ratings, which Harris has touted as a way for people without access to credit cards or other assets to establish good credit standing.
“Some people might feel that’s not beneficial,” Yee says. “What about people who may have some issues [or] miss some rent payments and not want that on there?”
“That’s a good point,” Harris says, before further explaining her plan.
Charlamagne hopes Buttigieg returns to the show so they can delve into the policy framework the mayor — who has faced increasing criticism from black South Bend residents — unveiled recently. “The Douglass Plan is a specific black agenda, named after Frederick Douglass, tackling systemic racism to boost the lives of black Americans,” Charlamagne says. “I would love to have that conversation with him right now.”
Elizabeth Warren spent a great deal of her May interview discussing her policy plans. But the most talked-about moment happened while Charlamagne was questioning her about the controversy surrounding her heritage. “You’re kind of like the original Rachel Dolezal,” he told her. He was praised for frankly confronting Warren on her controversial claim to Native American ancestry. But Charlamagne’s critics were quick to point out that he had once defended Dolezal, a white woman who falsely portrayed herself as black, and that he had clumsily compared Dolezal to Olympic gold medalist Caitlyn Jenner, a transgender woman. (The show’s coverage of transgender issues has made for particularly uneasy listening over the years.)
Most mornings, the show's topics are less controversial, and they've developed a reputation as cultural arbiters. That's part of the reason they've risen as media gatekeepers in this campaign cycle.
“ ‘The Breakfast Club’ is like ‘Morning Joe’ for the hip-hop era,” said Joshua DuBois, a political commentator who served as an adviser, on race and faith, to President Barack Obama. “It is the place that people in the know, in the culture, go to find out what’s relevant — from what people are listening to and watching to what issues are on the minds of African American young people.”
That’s invaluable in a crowded primary field — where name recognition is key, DuBois said. “Even when you have a challenging viral moment, I don’t think it’s trite to say at least people are talking about you, they’re engaging with you, they’re weighing in with their perspective.”
The campaigns seem to recognize that — the hosts say the candidates are the ones reaching out to “The Breakfast Club” and not the other way around. And the hosts have upped their political engagement in other ways — bringing on Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez and Democratic activists and commentators, such as Angela Rye and Tamika Mallory.
Yee is slated to broadcast from Power 105.1’s sister station in Detroit during the Democratic debates this month. And a producer for the show said they are in talks with other candidates about stopping by, including Biden.
Harris, for her part, seems at ease in the studio — pushing her policy points and playfully sparring with Charlamagne as he teases about her heritage.
“I’m traveling our country,” she says in response to a question about the economy. “Yes, people are working. They’re working two and three jobs. And in our America, people should only have to work one job to have a roof over their head and be able to put food on the table.”
“You know why that’s big when you say that,” Charlamagne says. “Because you’re Jamaican. For a Jamaican person to say that people should only have one job, that’s pretty big.”
Harris laughs and gives a nod to her own pop-culture knowledge. “He’s just living ‘In Living Color,’ ” she says. “Bless his heart.”