EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — On Sunday afternoon, a few hours before the beginning of Hot 97 Summer Jam 2012, Peter Rosenberg — one of Hot 97’s morning hosts — was speaking on a small stage in the parking lot of MetLife Stadium here, faulting what was going to happen on the big stage inside the stadium that night.
“I see the real hip-hop heads sprinkled in here,” Mr. Rosenberg told the crowd. “I see them. I know there are some chicks here waiting to sing ‘Starships’ later — I’m not talking to y’all right now,’ ” he continued, referring to the Nicki Minaj hit. “I’m here to talk about real hip-hop.”
Hip-hop is many things, depending on who is drawing the boundaries: sometimes it’s a walled-off fort, sometimes a steady fountain of invention and change. At the 19th-annual installment of the Summer Jam showcase, Ms. Minaj was scheduled to be the marquee performer, an unmistakable sign of evolution. But a couple of hours after Mr. Rosenberg’s remarks, word came that she had backed out, at the behest of her Young Money label’s boss, Lil Wayne.
Mr. Rosenberg is a classicist, and also a curmudgeon, an avowed defender of hip-hop as it once was, impervious to commercial realities and evolving taste. That Hot 97 (WQHT, 97.1 FM) has given him so much bandwidth says a great deal about hip-hop’s rapid and unpredictable shifts in recent years, and the radio station’s struggle to adjust its mission accordingly. With Mr. Rosenberg preaching traditional values, the station has wiggle room, though not much.
He has previously derided “Starships” as “the most sellout song in hip-hop history,” as if selling out were still an issue. The idea that art and commerce are at odds is a remnant of an old culture war: dogma presented as forward-thinking but really just protecting an outmoded status quo, leading to the unusual and very modern spectacle of a white man deriding a black woman for insufficiently upholding hip-hop values.
But no genre has reconciled art and commerce more aggressively and with more flair than hip-hop, which also sustains several underground wings. That was demonstrated by the Summer Jam preshow, which was a who’s who of recent hip-hop comers, driven heavily by Internet success, not radio play: the mesmerizing Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q, both from Los Angeles, and ASAP Rocky of Harlem, probably just a step away from a main-stage performance.
Undoubtedly, “Starships” is soft, lighter even than a Katy Perry record. It’s produced by, among others, RedOne, a chief architect of the recent dance-pop explosion. And “Starships” doesn’t jibe with the sometimes brawny, almost always male sound of Hot 97, where women are often relegated to R&B. (Mr. Rosenberg’s comments also came after the set of the Harlem rapper Azealia Banks, the only other woman featured on Sunday.)
But to reject “Starships” is to reject the idea of hip-hop as a big tent with room for multiple ideas and micromovements and polarities. That creates the sort of boundary designed to discourage outsiders, innovation and difference. It is the kind of tactic once deployed to keep hip-hop as a whole at arm’s length from the mainstream.
What’s more, the comments shattered the ostensible neutrality of radio stations, which prefer to be perceived as meritocratic spaces, even though playlists are built from a toxic combination of influence, groupthink, money and, occasionally, idiosyncrasy.
Frankly, though, Summer Jam — where squabbles between rappers have long been started, and sometimes finished — needed the drama. Outstanding sets by Waka Flocka Flame, Young Jeezy and Meek Mill notwithstanding, this year’s lineup was the least impressive in years, packed with mediocre if loud performances by middling artists: Wale, J. Cole, Tyga, Big Sean. None were as electric as 2 Chainz, who in a couple of brief appearances — on “SupaFreak” during Young Jeezy’s set and on “Mercy” during Big Sean’s — showed off how he achieved something like folk-hero status.
This was the first Summer Jam in many years with no true superstars, although Rick Ross came the closest. There was also no emphatic New York presence, despite a manic set by Maino, from Brooklyn, early in the evening, when the stadium was half-full. ASAP Rocky was the day’s hometown hero, but he had to make do with the headlining slot on the much smaller preshow stage and a blink-and-you-missed-it moment during Maino’s set.