Summer Jam, the annual stadium concert thrown by New York rap-radio giant Hot 97, has been a tradition around the city since 1994, when its lineup included Arrested Development, SWV, and Black Moon. In the nearly 20 years since, the event has grown into a rap-scene circus that serves as an in-that-instant Polaroid of everything happening in the rap music overground at that particular moment. Summer Jam sets are the moments where artists, if they’re so inclined, make statements: Introducing high-profile guests, say, or launching campaigns against other artists. In 2006, I watched Busta Rhymes use the Summer Jam stage to crown himself the King of New York, which was ludicrous then and even more ludicrous now — but then, he did pick the exact right venue to snatch at grandeur.
Last night, Nicki Minaj handed Summer Jam its biggest story in years simply by refusing to show up. At the apparent behest of label boss and planned guest Lil Wayne, Nicki canceled her star-packed headlining set because Peter Rosenberg, the early-morning DJ, made fun of her on an outdoor festival stage early in the day. This was a bad look for everyone involved, but it did give the show a sharp injection of drama, one that will probably reverberate more widely in the weeks ahead. Nicki’s no-show, though a big deal, isn’t exactly the biggest scandal in Summer Jam history. Below, we’ve listed some other tense, memorable, ridiculous moments from the show’s previous incarnations.
5. Kanye West Kinda Freaks Out (2008)
This moment is rarely remarked upon, but it’s the only one on this list that I was actually in the building for, and I couldn’t shake it from my mind afterward. In 2008, Kanye West, fresh off of Graduation and the triumphant Glow In The Dark tour, was serving as the show’s headliner, performing on an elaborate scaffold with more stagecraft and pyro than I ever saw at another Summer Jam. But he had the misfortune to perform immediately after Lil Wayne, a few weeks before the release of Tha Carter III, had pretty much leveled the stadium. Kanye was getting big reactions, but he apparently felt like he’d been definitively upstaged — cutting songs off midway through, muttering that he needed to spend more time in the studio so that he could hit us in the head next year, telling the crowd and himself that this was Wayne’s year and that he’d just have to deal with it. In a way, that set showed the power and mystique of the Summer Jam stage. Kanye couldn’t simply revel in the fact that he was delivering a seriously exciting performance. Someone else had just delivered a more exciting one, and with rap’s various competitive rivalries on direct physical display, he just couldn’t deal with it.
4. 50 Cent Gets In Chair-Throwing Brawl, Storms Offstage (2004)
In 2004, 50 Cent was an unstoppable commercial force in rap, but the squabbles and feuds that had energized his rise to fame came back to haunt him when he and his G-Unit crew were onstage at Summer Jam. The crew’s set started off rough when associates of the rival Queens rapper Bang-Em-Smurf threw chairs from the audience to the stage, not stopping the show but apparently throwing 50 off his game. As the show went on, 50, apparently dissatisfied with his own response, mocked R. Kelly, who was scheduled to go on after him, and he ended his set by throwing down his mic and stomping off the stage. He’s been banned from the Meadowlands and, by extension, Summer Jam ever since. (The year after, the former G-Unit associate Game attempted to launch a big campaign against G-Unit by beating up a guy dressed as a rat and repeatedly screaming “G-U-not.” He mostly got booed for his troubles.)
3. Wu-Tang Clan Disses Hot 97 (1997)
It’s generally accepted that the headlining set at Summer Jam is the one that comes second-to-last. To beat the utterly abysmal Meadowlands traffic, a huge chunk of the crowd usually leaves while the final act is performing, so the station usually doesn’t schedule big acts to go on last. (For context, I watched Jim Jones close out three consecutive Summer Jams.) But in 1997, the then-dominant Wu-Tang Clan somehow ended up as the final act on the bill, and they were not happy about it. Flipping the station’s tagline that it’s “where hip-hop lives,” Clan members repeatedly called it “where hip-hop dies.” They also shouted out a rival station: “Fuck Hot 97, we listen to KISS-FM!” KISS-FM, it should be noted, no longer exists.
2. Nas Refuses To Show Up (2002)
When Nicki no-showed last night, two of her guests stepped in instead, as Nas and Lauryn Hill became the de facto headliners. But Nas had his own big no-show a decade earlier. While the iconic Jay-Z/Nas rivalry was still burning, Nas was scheduled to headline the 2002 Summer Jam. But he was incensed when the station, quite sensibly, wouldn’t let him burn Jay-Z in effigy. The station recruited Ja Rule as a last-second fill-in, and it’s hard to even conceive of a time when that guy would’ve been a remotely acceptable substitute. And while the concert itself was ending, Nas was on the air at the rival station Power 106.1 complaining about the situation.
1. Jay-Z Debuts “The Takeover” (2001)
Jay-Z has had plenty of big Summer Jam moments. In 1999, he dissed the then-relative-unknown 50 Cent from the stage for the first time. In 2009, he debuted “D.O.A. (Death Of Auto-Tune),” though the song’s efficacy was dimmed a bit when a mugging T-Pain, on the spur of the moment, surprised him by running out to stand next to him onstage. But Jay’s biggest Summer Jam set, and the biggest set in Summer Jam history, came in 2001. At that show, he brought out Michael Jackson to wave to the crowd, generally overshadowing everything else that could ever possibly happen. And he also debuted that song that I’d argue is the greatest dis record in rap history. In its original incarnation, “The Takeover” devoted most of its energies to targeting Mobb Deep, and Jay threw the group’s career off-track for years by showing a photo of a young Prodigy in dance-class clothes. And he also ignited the bubbling Nas feud with one line: “Ask Nas, he don’t want it with Hov!” Things, obviously, would escalate.