‘King Troll’ Ebro Darden on the Future of Apple Music and Terrestrial Radio

The morning DJ you love to hate shares his vision for the future of radio and his plans to further the Apple empire.

Ebro Darden

Ebro Darden

Ebro Darden

Ebro Darden has been known to New Yorkers for years as the self-proclaimed “King Troll” of hip-hop radio. Currently the host of Hot 97’s Ebro in the Morning with Laura Stylez & Rosenberg show, the 43-year-old has also expanded into other arenas in recent years. Most notably, Darden has been playing an increasingly large role with Apple Music since joining Beats 1 Radio as an anchor in 2015.

Now, he’s journeying further into the Apple universe with a new job as global editorial head of hip-hop and R&B for Apple Music. The new gig will find Darden, the company says, “manag[ing] a team of hip-hop and R&B editors as they build out editorial plans for artists, albums and song releases.”

To find out what that actually means, and to hear his thoughts on the future of Apple Music and terrestrial radio stations like Hot 97, I called Ebro while he was in Accra, during the final moments of a trip to Ghana. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Congratulations on the new title at Apple Music.
Thank you.

The title is kind of a mouthful: “global editorial head of hip-hop and R&B.” What exactly is the job? What does that title mean?
It means that I'll be overseeing the strategy and direction of all of the hip-hop and R&B for the globe. I’ll be working to make sure that Apple Music is focused, directed, and organized on the right sounds and things and supporting the right artists and being on the ground in the communities where the music's being made. I’ll be helping people have the tools and the resources and the correspondence from Apple Music that they need to get their music out and helping the audience, the consumer, find the music that they love.

I know that will involve playlists, but what else does the “editorial” in your title mean?  Will you be writing articles?
I won't be writing, but we have a great team and a great staff. “Editorial” inside Apple Music is anything with a voice, whether that's written, spoken, audio, video. All of that is editorial.

How seriously do you take the “global” part of your title? How much of your time will be spent searching out non-American or non-English-language music?
It all depends on where our audience is consuming the music. I'm just going to be looking at the heat map and to see where people are engaging with the platform, where we see potential for growth opportunities, and digging in. Hip-hop and R&B is a global phenomenon unlike any music we've ever seen before. It's going to be really about looking at where the music's being made and finding great music.

Do you view yourself as an advocate for artists? For consumers? For listeners? For Apple as a company? Who do you have in mind as you go about your job?
I'm an advocate for hip-hop first. When you're an advocate for hip-hop and the culture of it, locating the next superstars and helping artists as well as consumers, you sit at the crossroads and you're trying to get as much done for all parties as possible. It takes all of those categories you named to exist and to be successful. You can't do one without the other.

Beyond the algorithmic stuff, we do a lot of things that are created by humans to connect with the audience in a deeper way.

So much of what streaming services do in terms of playlists is algorithmic. They'll see what you like and automatically feed you music that has things in common with it. Why is it important to have people making playlists also?
Beyond just serving up things that sound alike, humans have the ability to not only make people connect better, but also give context better. What we've tried to do with Apple Music and Beats 1 is merge those concepts. Inside Apple Music, you can get an algorithmic radio station for sure. You can get playlists that are tailored to certain moods and sounds and vibes. But you can also get Beats 1, which is a live radio station inside Apple Music. You can get mixes from DJs inside Apple Music and music videos inside Apple Music. I don't think even people understand the capabilities that are available, the things that they can do.

There are on-demand interviews via video and on-demand radio shows. I mean, if you want to listen to OVO Sound, if you want to listen to Pharrell, if you want to listen to Travis Scott shows, Frank Ocean shows, if you want to listen to live things, they happen live. You can also get the playlists of those shows. One of the things we're going to be doing in the years to come is make that stuff easier to find and easier to use. Beyond the algorithmic stuff, we do a lot of things that are created by humans to connect with the audience in a deeper way.

What kind of changes do you think streaming services need to make to stay relevant? They're on top right now, but things change so quickly in the music business.
It's really about consistency over an extended period of time. Streaming services are doing a lot of things right, which is why people are excited about them. Refining that, just like any great consumer interface does through its lifespan, is how you stay relevant. That’s why we have the human capabilities that we have at Apple Music. It helps us have living, breathing people interfacing with the consumers so that we stay relevant. We have the data, we have the behavior, we have the consumer, we have the humans curating shows, pulling that all into one place. Being able to evolve in real time with the audience as much as you can is how you stay relevant.

In the statement you made about the job, you talked about helping communities. What kind of community outreach or community service do you have in mind?
I want to visit those communities where the music comes from first and see what they want, what they need, and ways that we can support. To assume I know the answer to that without visiting would probably be the wrong posture. I want to go visit and listen first and see if we can provide tools. Apple as a company is a great tool provider. They provide human beings things to improve their lives, make things easier, share their creativity. That's what Apple's always done with its hardware. I would love to be able to do that on a global scale and figure out ways to provide tools to communities so that they can continue to make their voices, ideas, and art be heard.

You've been in terrestrial radio pretty much your entire professional life. What kind of future do you see for it?
I think radio is like network television: the large brands will be around for a long time. They have brand awareness. They have connections with their local communities. They have great personalities and DJs. How it's monetized by the corporations I'm sure will evolve, but the idea that you can pick up a signal in your local community and hear people who are living like you and near you, I don't see that going anywhere.

Why stay on Hot 97 with all these other gigs? Why keep the morning show?
It keeps me in touch with New York City. It keeps me in touch with one of the most active media markets in the world. Staying in touch with that audience is important.

You have three jobs—your two radio shows and now this new position at Apple Music. Do you think that any of those jobs suffer because of a lack of time or focus? Do you think, for example, you'd be better on the Hot 97 morning show if that was all you did?
I don't know. I mean, I've been doing mornings since 2012. At that time, I was vice president, program director, and the morning host. With the evolution of the business, I don't know anybody that's at an executive level that's just doing one job, unless you are chairman or CEO or something like that. A lot of people are covering multiple jobs right now. I don't think that's uncommon.

I think radio is like network television: the large brands will be around for a long time.

In your statement to Billboard, you said, “Black music comes from the community. It's music made by people living real lives and artists speaking out or speaking on behalf of those real lives.” Why was it important for you say that right off the bat?
Because I think that black music is black people's natural resource. It has told their story since the story was being told, all the way back to ancestors playing their drums and telling their stories. I want to make sure that's not lost.

You had a rather contentious recent interview with Kodak Black. In your job at Apple, you'll be in charge of promoting all sorts of artists, including people who have had alleged or confirmed cases of abuse and other legal issues. Can you see yourself taking an artist's behavior into account when deciding whether to promote them on Apple Music? Would you promote, say, Kodak Black?
I think those [issues] are all up for discussion, for sure. Apple Music is a service provider first. When an artist uploads their music using a digital distributor, obviously it goes into the service and we provide that service. What we do beyond that, we'll deal with it on a case by case scenario and have those discussions as we need to have them.

I wrote a few months ago about Spotify extending direct artist uploads to a few trusted artists, with plans to extend it further. Has anyone at Apple Music, to your knowledge, talked about artists uploading right to the service?
We have not. Obviously, we're working with our label partners. We're working with our independent label partners. Our posture is always trying to be a service provider. If there's demand for it, I think that Apple and the guys that lead those teams will make the pivot if they feel like it's necessarily. Right now, we're just trying to be the best service provider we can for people who are using streaming services. We want to be dynamic. We want to have depth. We want to be in touch. If that conversation becomes a larger one, I'm sure you'll be hearing a lot about it.

As someone who’s spent years in terrestrial radio where stations are connected to specific communities, what is it like to work at Beats 1, which is a radio station that doesn't have that kind of geographic center?
It's really amazing because you're dealing with people who are actively seeking out new music from all over the world. They’re feeling connected through those songs and through the conversations that we're having on Beats 1. It's a unique audience because it's global and it's live and it's happening in real time. It's unique in that regard, but what I've found is a lot of the conversations that are had on the local level, whether it's in New York City or any other place, are the same conversations people are having all over the globe.

How they go about having it, the words, the energy that's being put behind it may vary based on culture. American culture's a lot more aggressive than other cultures around the world. We tend to be politically more outspoken and more demonstrative. But it's the same conversation.

Finally, people talk a lot these days about trolling. As someone who is...
Being a troll.

Being a troll.
King troll number one right here, baby.

What does trolling mean to you? Do you do it?
I absolutely do it. I do it most of the time because for me, it's almost research. I get to see how people feel about a topic.

What does trolling mean to you?
It's talking shit. It's meaningless. I think most of the time, people know when you're doing it.

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