Hi, my name is Andy and I’m a rap podcast junkie.
For as long as I’ve owned an iPhone, I’ve spent an unhealthy amount of time listening to rap podcasts—soaking up the stories, learning about the behind-the-scenes players and getting weird looks on the train when I burst out laughing, like that time a certain Roc-A-Fella co-founder spent all of 10 minutes clowning his label’s former star producer for wearing fake jerseys (sorry, Just). With so much history and hilarity just a download away, this is one addiction I’m not trying to kick.
Seriously, no meme has ever spoken to me as deeply as this one.
Like most rap podcast junkies, my first hit was Juan Epstein. Launched in 2007 by lifelong hip-hop heads and former Hot 97 colleagues Cipha Sounds and Peter Rosenberg, Juan Epstein is the original rap podcast; the Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show of the rap blog era. Ciph and Rosenberg not only combine chemistry, comedy and a true rap nerd’s approach, they’re the only podcast hosts to have interviewed Jay Z (2010), Eminem (2011) and Kanye West (2013)—in addition to countless other legends.
“We don’t wanna talk about your issues with paparazzi; we want to talk that real shit,” Ciph reminded Kanye before quizzing him on the MPC versus ASR, his love for Dilla and that time Rawkus Records passed on signing him because he “wasn’t official enough.” It was the Kanye West interview I—and everyone else who was sick and tired of him screaming at Hedi Slimane—had been waiting for.
As the great scholar Rich Boy once said, though, good things don’t last forever. During a rare episode last month, Ciph and Rosenberg announced they’re putting the podcast on hold—partly due to scheduling issues (Rosenberg juggles roles at Hot 97, ESPN and WWE while Ciph has transitioned into comedy full-time) and partly due to dwindling relevancy. “Our fans have been amazing over the years, but it became something that people are so used to I think it just kinda sits in people’s iPhones,” Rosenberg admitted. “We’re not the podcast of the day.”
Juan Epstein may have said “goodnight” (for now), but there are plenty of podcasts who are—and have been—carrying the torch that Cipha Sounds and Peter Rosenberg lit a decade ago. Reggie Ossé’s The Combat Jack Show and N.O.R.E. and DJ EFN’s Drink Champs bring hip-hop nostalgia to the barbershop, Frannie Kelley and Ali Shaheed Muhammad’s Microphone Check and Shawn Setaro’s The Cipher have the in-depth interviews on lock, while ItsTheReal’s A Waste of Time With ItsTheReal delivers witty puns and even better stories from people in and around the industry. Joining the fun will be rap radio legends Stretch and Bobbito, who are set to return with a new podcast on NPR this summer.
If Juan Epstein arrived when podcasts “didn’t mean anything,” the format is flourishing more than ever in 2017. “I think rap podcasts are in a really good space right now,” says Jeff Rosenthal, one-half of A Waste of Time With ItsTheReal. “About a year ago, a lot of people—including ourselves—were competing for the same guests, and that wasn’t as healthy. But I think we’ve all found our own lanes, our own voices.”
The rise of rap podcasts hasn’t come without casualties, though. Elliott Wilson and Brian Miller’s Rap Radar Podcast recently bowed out after 100 episodes (Wilson now works as editorial director at TIDAL while Miller joined Epic Records as Senior Director of Editorial & Playlists), Jeff Weiss and Nocando’s Shots Fired is on “long term hiatus,” and DJ Semtex’s Hip-Hop Raised Me has struggled to find consistency amidst his other roles as a DJ, presenter and writer.
For reasons completely unrelated to sponsorship, scheduling or streaming numbers, the rap podcast game also lost its leading pundit, Tax Season host Taxstone, who was arrested in January for his alleged involvement in the deadly Irving Plaza shooting (in which Troy Ave’s bodyguard Ronald “Banga” McPhatter was killed) last May. If convicted, he faces a maximum of 10 years behind bars.
As Juan Epstein and others have discovered, standing out in an oversaturated market is tough enough; it’s even harder when podcasting isn’t your main hustle. “Here’s the hardest part for me and Ciph: it was never our job. At all. The most money we’ve ever made has been money I still have never seen,” Rosenberg explained during a recent appearance on No Jumper, an all-encompassing “cool kid” podcast hosted by Adam22, who’s interviewed everyone from XXX porn stars to XXXTentacion. “By the time Combat [Jack] got real serious and was on his shit, I was like, ‘yo, we’re finished out here.’”
The arrival of The Combat Jack Show in 2010 didn’t quite kill off Juan Epstein right away as Rosenberg feared, but Reggie Ossé has consistently risen above these challenges and remained a pioneer of the podcast evolution. In 2013, Ossé teamed up with radio producer and author Chris Morrow to launch Loud Speakers Network, home to popular shows like Kid Fury’s The Read, Charlamagne Tha God’s The Brilliant Idiots and Angela Yee’s Lip Service. That same year, The Combat Jack Show enjoyed a brief run on Complex TV.
Ossé’s latest attempt to “raise the bar” is Mogul: The Life & Death of Chris Lighty, a Spotify-exclusive podcast series focusing on the beloved hip-hop executive who tragically took his own life in 2012. Featuring interviews with Lighty’s family, friends and famous clients, the series is the first of its kind as a narrative-driven rap podcast. It’s not only moving on a personal level but could move the needle for the podcast format.
“The future of rap podcasts is rapidly heading towards more heavily produced shows,” explains Matt Raz, Operations Manager at Loud Speakers Network. “There used to be a debate between the idea of ‘raw versus cooked’ — and we found our listeners gravitated towards the more casual barbershop talk style. As listenership grows and both more talent and advertising dollars enter into the space, you’re starting to see more scripted series and other production value.”
“I’m really interested in how Combat Jack’s Mogul podcast will open up people’s imaginations in terms of format,” adds Jeff Rosenthal.
Juan Epstein will be missed, but the rap podcast world Cipha Sounds and Peter Rosenberg built is being left in good hands. “There are still things out there I want that I didn’t get, but I felt a little better about it after I saw that your shit was happening,” Rosenberg told No Jumper host Adam22. Besides, “goodnight” doesn’t necessarily mean “goodbye”; Rosenberg is planning to syndicate old Juan Epstein episodes through Loud Speakers Network, unearthing essential history for new listeners and setting the podcast up for a future return.
I'm sure I can feed my rap podcast addiction in the meantime.