Today, Minya Oh is the linchpin of Hot 97, rap’s most influential radio station. Getting there only took 20 years.
On a winter-cold evening in late March at a comedy club near the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan, a DJ and aspiring comedian named Cipha Sounds takes the stage for a short set before a screening of the first episodes of a VH1 show called This Is Hot 97. In the audience, music insiders and fashion bloggers mix with television suits. Ebro Darden, Angie Martinez, Funkmaster Flex, Peter Rosenberg, Laura Stylez, and Miss Info – radio personalities from the iconic New York hip-hop station Hot 97 who, together with Cipha Sounds, comprise the show’s cast – sit at front-row cocktail tables.
All the black folks in the house, make some noise! Cipha Sounds says, to applause from the crowd. All the white people, make some noise! All the Latino people, make some noise! Other? he asks. The room falls silent. Anyone else in the house? Miss Info? he says. This draws a handful of laughs.
At Hot 97, where she’s worked for 10 years and is now the news director, the Korean-American Miss Info is used to being the only Asian person in the room. She started her career in hip-hop as an outsider – a young Asian-American woman new to New York – but since she’s become one of the most respected and unlikely voices not only in New York radio, but in hip-hop.
Since 1994, Miss Info, whose full name is Minya Oh, has flouted prevailing notions about what sort of background a hip-hop expert should have. She’s helped reshape the content and tone of hip-hop journalism, with her own brand of meticulously researched celebrity gossip, emotionally revealing artist interviews, and explorations into tech and style. Starring in a VH1 show isn’t exactly like writing album reviews, but Info has gamely evolved over the years, working in magazines, television, radio, and on the internet. She’s now seen by fans and peers as an all-around spokesperson for hip-hop, but for all her success, Oh seems to still feed off a deep inner well of curiosity. No matter what she knows, or is able to uncover, she’s eager to learn more.
Then the episodes play – there is a sketch in which Martinez and Flex bicker about who’s better on Twitter, and a Macklemore cameo. Miss Info gets in a good line, calling on-air partners Rosenberg and Cipha Sounds the rap Teletubbies. Afterward, Info sits with her colleagues onstage, taking questions from the moscato-fueled crowd, whose members wonder why would Hot 97 would want to make a goofy, unscripted office comedy.
Since it became one of the country’s first hip-hop stations in 1993, Hot 97 has become as legendary as the artists it’s promoted. This is the place where Biggie debuted records, the proving ground where a freestyle could make you a king or burn your career, and where hip-hop lived. So what’s with all of the jokes? Ebro Darden, the station program director turned full-time on-air talent, responds with a gentle scold: Hip-hop people work and have families too, he says, not for the first time. At his side, Oh tenses her face, seemingly trying to avoid rolling her eyes. To her, this is a tired question with a simple answer: Hip-hop adapts to survive.
Twenty years deep in the game, Info knows this better than most. But as Darden answers the fan, she doesn’t jump in to support him. Straight-faced, she blinks and nods; she’s not shy, but quiet. Some radio personalities get off on confrontation, but Info is not one of them. She’s a scalpel, not a bulldozer. In the overlapping, loudmouth worlds of hip-hop and media, her success is strange, and hard-won.
Minya Oh didn’t start from the absolute bottom, but she had to fight a lot on her journey to the top. She grew up in Chicago, where she says she was a nightmare for her immigrant parents – even though she went to a hardcore academic school and played competitive piano on weekends. Still, she was straddling two worlds: She skipped class to listen to Too Short and do wildly unsafe things like partying, driving under the influence; her prom night was a disaster because her mid-level gang member boyfriend got sent to jail.
I don’t remember why he got picked up, she says in March over salad at the Butcher’s Daughter, a yuppie-hippie East Village cafe. When she speaks, she tends to pause, carefully choosing her words. I think I was kept out of the mix – which is why I was planning prom dresses and limo reservations, as if I was dating a regular high school student. She took the SAT prep classes her parents insisted upon and got into Columbia.
Oh arrived in New York around ’93 or so, during what’s now considered a golden era for the city’s rap scene. It was the best time to be a hip-hop fan. It was archaic, stone age. Imagine how hard the caveman worked for one meal? That’s how you felt as a hip-hop fan: ‘I walked 8 miles in the snow and and killed my own prey, just to find this one Ron G mixtape!’
Even as a kid, Oh preferred to become consumed with something rather than casually enjoy it. Back in Chicago, she was obsessed with horses. So she found a stable, took a bus, and rode horses whenever she could. In college, she got into motorcycles, located a cheap bike on Long Island, and then, without any real prior experience, rode it back to her apartment in Harlem.
Her passion for hip-hop was just as encompassing, and while she was still in college, she wrote letters to the editors at The Source, and eventually convinced them to let her work as an unpaid intern. Instead of staying up all night working on the sociology paper that I was supposed to be working on, I’d rather go downtown to the The Source and sit up all night listening to mixtapes and writing about why Outkast is so important.
Oh transcribed interviews and made copies, and started to pick up assignments from Source editors Jon Shecter, Reginald C. Dennis, and James Bernard. All of the people that really believed in me and mentored me were men, Oh says. A guy is just like, ‘I need this. This person is gonna get it done for me.’ Her bosses saw her as an industry outsider capable of writing impartial, accurate album reviews. In 1994, with their blessing, she famously awarded Nas’ debut Illmatic five mics, The Source’s super-rare, highest award.
Her review closes with this line: If you can’t at least appreciate the value of Nas’ poetical realism, then you best get yourself up out of hip-hop. This year, celebrating the album’s 20th anniversary, she suggested that statement wasn’t an attempt to neatly define hip-hop’s borders, but rather, a cry for hip-hop to acknowledge its own diversity – and her.
At The Source she was an alien, and unpopular with her female co-workers. It was that classic I see you in my rear-view mirror and I don’t like it, and I might swerve a little to try and drive you off the road, she says. When you’re the only Asian-American girl in an office, you don’t have the luxury to say, ‘You have to listen to me because I’m different.’ You have to get in where you fit in. You have to show that you’re not just in it for the glamour, or ’cause you wanna party, or ’cause you love black guys. To prove her mettle, she tasked herself to research twice as hard as her peers. I don’t think it is anymore, but hip-hop was then a black music genre. And if you don’t have respect, or a desire, to learn more about black culture overall, people are gonna see right through you. You have to learn context.
After graduating from college and The Source, Oh started working at Vibe in the summer of 1998. This was hip-hop’s shiny-suit era, when major label budgets were fat and black rap and R&B artists dominated the charts. Oh would later describe this period as a sort of puberty for rap: The roots of the music are very ‘street,’ she said in 2005, observing the decline of The Source. But that has to get along with its newer role, which is very big business.
At Vibe she profiled Mase and wrote an ethnography of popular New York club The Tunnel, but didn’t do a lot of formal album criticism. Instead, she kept a column about new tracks that now reads like a proto-Pitchfork, and focused on seemingly peripheral stories that showed how rap culture influenced the mainstream. She talked to Diddy about being jealous of Jimmy Iovine’s home theater in 1999, 15 years before Apple’s acquisition of Iovine’s Beats Music made Diddy’s venture into cable television, REVOLT, look slight.
Oh made the leap from print to radio after a stint at MTV, where she produced segments and wrote copy for the news department. Our hip-hop coverage was fucking groundbreaking, says Sway Calloway, a California native who hosted one of the first rap-centric radio shows, on San Francisco’s KMEL, as a teenager, and later worked with Oh at MTV. There, the two collaborated on a personality-driven feature series called All Eyes On (early subjects: Beyonc, Kanye West) and a newsmagazine series called My Block, which introduced mainstream audiences to underground regional talent like the Neptunes, Paul Wall, and Mac Dre.
In 2003, Hot 97’s popular morning show host Star stormed out, and the station called Sway to fill in. It was supposed to be a week, Sway says. I said, ‘Do you have a team?’ There was nobody there. ‘Do you have a budget?’ No budget. I was like all right, shit, well, let me have fun with it. Let me get somebody who I know knows hip-hop that I think could add a different angle to radio in New York City, let me stir up the pot. Minya, that’s a funny-ass person. She’s very sarcastic, and she’s like an egghead. She would come with her notes and we would show her how to make news sound proper for radio. It was Sway who gave Oh the name Miss Information: an admiring nod to her reporting skills, but also pegging her to the stereotypically Asian role of bookworm. Eventually, she shortened it down to Miss Info, for clarity and cool.
Sway says that while West Coast audiences were familiar with the idea of an Asian-American hip-hop expert, in 2003 New York, putting Oh on air still felt like a risk. After she started, I would always try to get her to come out. But it took her a second before she was ready to show the world, ‘This is who I am, this is what I look like.’ ‘Cause mentally there was maybe a small concern that people might react because she was Asian.
Those early years on the mic were awkward. I was hysterical. My voice is like a dog whistle, it’s so high-pitched, and my entire body was clenched, she says, speaking with a picked-up-from-the-air New York accent. At one point, when I was doing the morning show, I developed nodes on my vocal chords from talking so much. I was used to typing, my body just rejected it, like, ‘Shut up!’
Oh eventually loosened up, but her reservedness and atypical entry into radio were not always welcomed by her Hot 97 colleagues. In January 2005, a parody of We Are the World aired on the morning show. Called The Tsunami Song, it mocked victims of December 2004’s massive Indian Ocean tsunami with lyrics like: So now you’re screwed / It’s the tsunami / You’d better run, or kiss your ass away / Go find your mommy, I just saw her float by / A tree went right through her head / And now your children will be sold into child slavery. Oh, then a morning show host, publicly denounced the song. After doing so, she fought on air with co-host Miss Jones, who admonished Oh for not being a team player. You feel superior, probably because you’re Asian, she said. Why do you always have to make it known that you’re separate? But I forget, you’re a journalist, right?
Occurring just a few years before the era of quick-spreading Twitter outrage, the incident generated critical calls and emails from listeners. Hot 97 parent company Emmis Communications suspended, then fired, Miss Jones, and gave over $1 million in apologetic donations to tsunami relief.
That moment was only the culmination of a long history of tiny terrorism, Oh says. Lots of little comments: You should be so thankful that we allow you to be in hip-hop because we all know the only reason why you really wanna be here is to sleep with rappers. You think you’re better than us. I almost felt like it was a test: Let’s see whether we can push Miss Info to do what she knows is not right.
Following the controversy, Oh was temporarily put on a sort of probation, or a leave of absence, because the program director [John Dimick] felt I was in the wrong. So she hired an attorney and waited. She eventually returned, and was reassigned to Funkmaster Flex’s afternoon drive-time show. In 2007, she took on a second, solo show on Saturday afternoons and launched a blog, Missinfo.tv. There, with the chance to directly address the audience who’d come to her defense after The Tsunami Song, she stretched her legs.
At the time, the internet was becoming a music scene of its own, incubating would-be outsider rappers like Soulja Boy and Wale, and pushing them from obscurity to the center. Oh dove into internet culture, aggregating viral dance YouTubes and writing about a new Juelz Santana track and the coffee her sister sent her from Portland in the same sentence. Early on, I was live-streaming from my living room while watching Lost and eating bok choy. There would be 30 other people, and we’re all just sitting there, reacting, she says. Other hip-hop bloggers of the day – like then-college student Andrew Nosnitsky, muckraker Byron Crawford, and Atlanta’s snarky Freshalina – wrote about rap in a personal, entertaining way, but no one on the web combined approachability with access in the way Oh did.
Hot 97 didn’t interfere with Oh’s web venture; the station barely even noticed. At that time, there was such a disconnect between traditional and ‘new’ media that blogging was seen as an unnecessary but fun diversion, she says. For a time, there was a policy against shouting out your MySpace handle on the air. But some of Oh’s scoops were better suited for the internet than for radio. I reported a scoop on my Saturday afternoon Hot 97 show, about Jim Jones blasting his Dipset co-founder, Cam’ron. That was the first time anyone publicly acknowledged tension within the group. But our talk breaks on air were less than two minutes at the time, so I could only touch on it, and then say, ‘I’m posting more of the details on my blog.’
Seven years after its launch, the site employs three round-the-clock writers, and with around 250,000 unique visitors in the past month, it’s more popular than MP3 feeds like Rap Radar and Nah Right. It still uses its original blog roll format, and has a header banner with a dead Myspace profile URL. (Oh says the site’s so outdated that it’s got an air of normcore cool, but that a redesign is coming soon.)
Missinfo.tv doesn’t compete with more robust music and culture sites like Complex or Pitchfork, but it’s a well-trusted news source for those hubs, who regularly borrow videos her team captures or news they aggregate faster than anyone else. And true to its roots too, Missinfo.tv is bigger than hip-hop, covering EDM and R&B, sports news, and tech rumors. There’s a lot of people who’ll full-on spazz out on an indie-rock song or a Waka Flocka song, Oh says. I’m just happy that this day in age, we have lots of people that will understand us.
For this lucrative market – the twentysomethings who read her blog, go on rave cruises, and can find something poetic about both Nas and Chief Keef – Oh is in a unique position to become a figurehead. Recently, she’s been tapped by VitaminWater, Uniqlo, Red Bull, and Hennessy to host genre-blending events and pose for campaigns. This year, she brought on TMWRK, the management team that handles Diplo, to help her expand her profile.
The new opportunities can feel daunting. It’s all about fighting that voice inside who says, ‘What the fuck do you have to talk about? No one wants to hear you.’ You’ve got to itemize the reasons why your inner Debbie Downer is full of shit, and know when you should ignore them, and when they might have a valid point.
After all, even for Jay Z, it’s tough to get old in hip-hop – and for women in the industry, it seems especially fraught. The people who championed the genre in its first generation now struggle to define what rap is, or how they should participate in it at middle age. So it’s remarkable that Oh has remained at the center of that conversation as long as she has, and outlasted lots of the names that once appeared alongside hers on print mastheads. (There are a handful of others who’ve managed this kind of longevity – former Vibe writer Eliott Wilson founded the rap news site Rapradar.com and hosts a popular live interview series; Sway still hosts on satellite radio and MTV.)
The fact that her relevance has only increased as time has passed really makes her an aberration and quite a big deal, says Noah Callahan-Bever, a longtime friend of Oh’s who’s now the editor-in-chief of Complex. Writers who were killing it in ’93 and ’94, those guys pop up at parties, and I’m sure that they’ve moved on to other interesting pursuits, but they are no longer voices within hip-hop culture that matter to 16-, 17-, 18-year-olds. For the young journalists who walk through Complex’s doors, Callahan-Bever says, Minya is absolutely a point of aspiration.
Maybe that’s because she acts more like a young writer than a vet. (Oh declined to disclose her age for this article, though a back count suggests she’s 40, give or take a year or two.) Everybody’s older than they say, she says. But women, if you’re young, you kind of have to downplay it, ’cause you feel like people aren’t gonna take you serious. If you’re older, you have to downplay it cause people start wondering why you aren’t locked down. I’m 85 years old in many ways and 14 in others.
When Oh got her start in media, hip-hop fans largely considered themselves a united front, standing up for a shared set of values. But a generation later, the people who identify as rap fans are a fractured bunch, without common tastes. Peter Rosenberg, for example, promotes local acts with mixtapes and makes silly internet videos, but accurately or not, he’s best known as a shit-slinging purist. In summer 2012 on a side stage of Summer Jam, the station’s annual marquee concert, he insulted Nicki Minaj’s pop-leaning single Starships, prompting her to hastily cancel her headlining performance. The two made up on air a year later, but Rosenberg stands by his positions that rap benefits from clear-cut bounds. Nicki was supposed to be one of ours, he told the New Yorker in April. I didn’t want young kids looking at this dance-pop song, going, ‘This is what rappers do.’
By contrast, Oh is less interested in defining what rappers should do than she is in forecasting what they might do next, and why. Her hip-hop world has room for rappers who are in bands, rappers who wish they were born in the ’90s, and rappers who design capes – each of them fair game for loving, sarcastic critique. She’s kind, and that’s different from nice, says Mary H.K. Choi, a producer of the TV newsmagazine Take Part Live, who previously worked as an editor at Missbehave, XXL, and Complex. But the loyalty she inspires is crazy. So many different people trust her with high-level, FBI rap-files shit.
For Choi, Oh is a model of success not only because she’s earned so many people’s confidence, but because she’s been able to do so without compromising her happiness. Her existing made me feel better about my decisions, Choi says. I moved to New York at 22 and took this back-breaking job. And then met someone who was Korean but also super cool with all the credibility. And she didn’t throw me any of that ‘Oh, here you are, this other Korean lady’ shade. And not only was she really hot and all the guys sweated her, but [they did] from afar, because they respected her. There’s just that unique quality that successful people in New York have where they can stay hungry. Not greedy, but really intellectually curious. The work didn’t destroy her. She didn’t shortchange every other aspect of her life.
Today’s Hot 97, where hosts talk about going to therapy on podcasts and Lorde has entered heavy rotation, would be unfamiliar to early listeners. Angie Martinez, Hot 97’s anchoring voice of New York, was thrown on the air when she was 18. The station switched formats in 1993, becoming one of the first stations devoted exclusively to hip-hop, and she was the most hip-hop-seeming person in the building. Now, she’s pragmatic about how the tastes of Hot 97’s listeners have changed. Everybody wants to be like, ‘This is real hip-hop,’ she says, but at some point the younger generation coming up, the way their world is set up on the internet, there’s not those types of hard lines between genres. People don’t want that shit.
Since 2003, Hot 97 has been steered by Ebro Darden, who’s tried to mature the station to welcome a more diverse audience (and high ratings) while honoring its roots in traditional rap – stuff with complex lyrics and kick drums. Via Sway, Darden brought in Oh, and he hired a female music director – Karla Stenius, who goes by Karlie Hustle in the industry – to take his place when he was promoted.
There really are not a ton of female music directors in radio, Stenius says. Particularly in hip-hop. I’ve gone to many conferences and ultimately, it is a boys club. I don’t appreciate being the only woman in a room of male decision-makers.
If women in boys club industries are sometimes masters of pretense – holding desires close to their chests, pushing toward advancement while working not to seem pushy – radio is a male-dominated environment that explicitly does not reward pretending. At Hot 97, success is given to agitators who shout what they really think. (Or, at least, people with the savvy to calibrate their personas to appear honest and uncompromising.)
You can’t be a soft little prissy girl working here, Martinez explains. You can have emotions, yes. But you can’t be sensitive. People talk loud here. People are aggressive here. We all want to get shit done.
In this only-the-strong-survive atmosphere, Oh is something of an exception. Ebro can be pretty rough on the team, but he’s not that rough on me, she says. I think he can read that I’m always gonna be my biggest critic. If he plants a seed, I’m gonna water it and cultivate this huge tree of blame and then I’m gonna try and work on it. The very demanding and disciplinarian way I was raised still lends itself to who I am now.
Oh has distinguished herself not by having the loudest voice, but by asking, and answering, questions others overlook.I’m not built for shouting matches, and contests on who’s gonna be the most ignorant. I’ll lose that every time, she says. Around Hot 97, she’s known as a super-smart, sourced-up veteran who’s still in touch with what kids are talking about.
She would do the typical radio stuff [on her solo weekend show] for awhile, Cipha Sounds recalls, but it just never really fit. Ebro put her on as the news director, and she’s on top of every rumor, anything going on. Every time you talk to her, she tries to juice you for information. Peter Rosenberg suggests she’s become, for her peers, a figurehead of thoughtfulness. Her role is the serious voice of hip-hop news. There are not a lot of people like that, who report on it in a serious way. She’s arguably the main person like that in all of hip-hop.
On This Is Hot 97, Oh plays a blown-out version of herself: Miss Info, the smartass with a gold tooth and huge rolodex. But, off-air, she can be unreasonably self-effacing. While making the press rounds for the show, Rosenberg called himself the Jewish Johnny Carson in the New Yorker. Meanwhile, taking stock of her own 20-year media career, Oh gave herself no such title. I feel weary at times, and I also feel wildly immature, she says. I need to get my shit together.
A couple years ago, Oh moved from her adopted neighborhood of Harlem to quieter Fort Greene, in Brooklyn. Outside the office, she hangs out with a family of friends – some writers, some industry bigwigs, some regular people – goes to art fairs, and posts meals at hip restaurants on Instagram. She keeps her romantic life private. I’m the secret dater, she explains. People have wondered if she once dated Cam’ron, the Harlem rapper, a misunderstanding that arose after she dated one of his friends. One of Cam’s mentors was a guy that I was in a serious relationship with. So my friendship with Cam instantly had a brother-sister bond. In over 15 years of friendship, Cam has never made the slightest innuendo toward me, nor tolerated anyone else making me feel uncomfortable or objectified. He’s always had my back.
On a January episode of Juan Epstein, a podcast by Hot 97’s Peter Rosenberg and Cipha Sounds, Oh tells the story of a nightmarish drive through Nicaragua with an unnamed beau, whom she called a cool guy. In a world where everyone is screaming how they’re the greatest, Callahan-Bever says, she wants the work and the reputation to precede her.
At the moment, though, neither she nor Hot 97 can really afford the luxury of aloofness. Oh previously declined an offer to appear on another reality series, Gossip Game, but she said yes to This Is Hot 97 because she, like her co-workers, wants people to turn on the radio. Hot 97 is no longer the city’s indisputably top-ranked rap station. Ratings from Nielsen SoundScan show Hot 97 falling just short of rival urban contemporary station Power 105.1 in cumulative listeners since 2011, then ekeing out a narrow lead in 2014. Meanwhile, Nielsen still ranks Power 105.1 as having a 3.2% average share of the New York radio market to Hot 97’s 3% share.
Does it suck to lose? Yeah, says music director Stenius. Does it suck to be neck and neck with someone that you think you’re better than? Yeah, that’s the worst. But in Hot 97’s new underdog role, Oh’s nerdiness and journalistic chops aren’t attacked as attempts to make herself separate. It’s not that her manner or interests have come to blend in with the rest of hip-hop’s, but now that’s seen as an asset, not a threat.
People are becoming more open-minded about people who look different than them, act different, like different things, Oh says, waving two hands forward as her voice rises an octave for emphasis. We’ve all grown into really well-rounded people. Married, or having side projects. It wouldn’t have been the same before. We would have all individually been a little more antagonistic. But that’s also hip-hop. It’s just great when you have people fighting with you, instead of against you.
Read more: http://buzzfeed.com/naomizeichner/miss-info