The Titan Of Talk: Up Close And Personal With Angie Martinez
It’s hard to write anything about radio veteran Angie Martinez without mentioning WQHT’s Hot 97 FM. The New York station long hailed as a cultural cornerstone by many older heads is “Where Hip-Hop Lives” today. Martinez may have jumped ship to Hot’s direct competitor WWPR’s Power 105 FM in 2014, but not before spending the better part of her career building on the legacy of rap music, documenting hip-hop radio as the “Voice of New York.”
On a dreary Friday morning, Roc Nation, the management label Martinez signed with the same year she left her original radio home of two decades, is en route to VIBE‘s headquarters as Editor-in-Chief Datwon Thomas and I move around some furniture and clear the way for a makeshift studio. The Manhattan sky stretching down 5th avenue, laden with overcast, has drawn fear of rain ruining what would otherwise be a rare photoshoot with the former rapper and now New York Times bestselling author of My Voice.
In all the years of listening to Martinez act as an expert interviewer in the radio booths of our imagination, she never once graced the cover of any music publication. I’m nothing short of cracked open to the feels to come sharing time and space with a luminary whose early narrative is awfully similar to mine.
A third generation Puerto Rican, Martinez, born in the Bronx, fell in love with hip-hop at the tender age of eight when she first heard The Sugarhill Gang’s 1979 hit “Rapper’s Delight” oozing from her grandmother’s vintage record player inside a prewar apartment in Washington Heights. “I was completely mesmerized,” she recalls in her new memoir. “I didn’t know what I was hearing, but the beat and the rhyming lyrics were infectious.”
At the VIBE office, the air is stifling an hour past call time. Martinez is late and running behind a tight schedule. I think, “She’s not coming” just as a bevy of women burst through the doors. Martinez trails behind them, a dark cloud of apprehension in tow. She removes her shades to expose a concerned look. “I thought we were going outside,” she says, not sure of what’s happening anymore. I think to myself, “Was something lost in translation? We’re afraid it’s going to pour…” Her team scurries beside her, realizing that a new backdrop and different lighting means a rearrangement of everything, from makeup to wardrobe.
I consume a gin spritzer concocted stealthily by the office refrigerator, away from everyone, so as to remedy the angst (it hasn’t even struck noon yet). Allowing intuition to guide me, I offer Martinez a cocktail of her own. Seemingly overwhelmed with anxiety at the thought of being in front of a camera as opposed to behind a microphone, she happily accepts. “Please?” she asks with blunt integrity. I oblige, and someone throws on Jay Z’s debut album Reasonable Doubt before a wave of much-needed chill vibes ensue.
After some time was dedicated to setting the right outfit and poses, we start to shoot just as the sun begins to pierce through the clouds. As we finally wrap inside, Martinez throws on a jacket and, with less than 20 minutes to spare before needing to go live on the radio, hurries downstairs for an impromptu outdoor session.
In the crook of a nearby Protestant church, she and photographers Karl Ferguson and Katie Piper flash away, even as a silver-haired clergyman threaten to call the cops on us for “trespassing.” In the end, we get the shots—if only a select few. In the blink of an eye, our lady of the hour is hailing a cab. “Dinner next Tuesday,” she yells over her shoulders, “We talk then!” Some of us staff members collapse on the sidewalk stairs of our building in disbelief, but relieved we at least got one leg of this project done. Moments later, we find ourselves in a local watering hole across the street, knocking back shots of whiskey in sheer celebration.
Añejo is in downtown Manhattan, nestled on the corner of Church and Walker Street, and appears vibrant under the New York twilight. Upon entering, the music—ping-ponging between ‘90s hip-hop and old school salsa—is booming. The walls are covered with various Tequila bottles, and the ceiling is a sea of dangling chandeliers. The wood-and-brick Mexican eatery, a scene for the perfect casual dining experience, is alive with rackety chatter and the heavenly aromas of 100 percent agave. I am patiently waiting for Martinez to leave her office down the street at Power 105.1, as a friendly waiter brings me a tall menu.
In just a few moments, a fresh-faced Martinez walks in, clad in chic sweats, appearing a little more at ease than the last time we crossed paths. She fully removes her cloak of uneasiness the moment she spots me. I get up with my bag to sit directly across from her, and joyfully jump right into the interview.
I think it’s important for women to know that you don’t have to compromise your dopeness. —Angie Martinez
A first batch of sinfully appetizing guacamole, topped with pomegranate seeds, is placed between us. Martinez, a minority investor at the establishment, fancies their El Buho Mezcal margarita. “Are you drinking?” she asks while looking over at me, “Because you have to try this one!” I, of course, follow suit. I can’t help but be impressed with her aura of bright energy on days as long as this one. She had been recording the last of her day’s work and was still going to meet with a close girlfriend in the same restaurant after our chat.
In her newly-released book (now available in audio on iTunes and Audible), Martinez details a multitude of stories that are so bizarre, they almost seem like borderline truths. If you are too young to remember or too old to relate, some chronicles will prompt the most cursory of Google searches for a little confirmation. Like when she and former Hot 97 DJ Wendy Williams got into a war of words after Williams made a snide comment about Martinez dating A Tribe Called Quest’s frontman Q-Tip. That situation ultimately led to a scuffle, and the two were suspended from the air. “I lost my f*cking mind,” Martinez writes. “Before I knew it I was swinging at her. It was a quick scuffle. It took only a few seconds for me to realize that she wasn’t really hitting me back—she was just trying to get me off of her.”
Even though the two haven’t spoken since, Martinez—an advocate of letting bygones be bygones—has no beef with the current media mogul. “I watch [The Wendy Williams Show] sometimes and she has really mastered her lane. I find myself watching and laughing out loud. I don’t have any ill feelings toward her.”
Martinez’s greatest contribution to her personal narrative, besides catapulting readers into the thrilling hip-hop days of yesteryear, is gathering all her lessons and quiet miracles (during the crack epidemic, she smoked crack without knowing what it was). “I didn’t want to tell a story just to tell it. I wanted to tell stories that I felt were important in terms of documenting. But I also wanted to talk about the experiences I learned from most, ones that changed me or evolved my life.”
By sharing this meal with Martinez everything feels refreshingly open. I get to ask her things that I wouldn’t otherwise: “What legacy do you want to leave behind?” She ponders. “What role does your fiancé play in your life, what space does he fill?” She smirks coyly. “Do you want anymore children?” She answers some inquiries with a smile, others not as easily, but all with intense fervor. The woman loves being her full self, a dance she took years to perfect, well before she entered a relationship in which she’s finally experiencing mutual happiness and a powerful sense of identity.
“I think it’s important for women to know that you don’t have to compromise your fullness, your dopeness,” she says on the topic of love. “You can be everything you want to be. If you are a woman with this full life, who is incredibly ambitious like I am, you have to find somebody who is into it, respects it, encourages it, and celebrates it because he loves that about you. Otherwise, you’re going to feel like you’re muting yourself. You don’t want to do that. You want to be as big as you want to be, and not worry about your partner feeling insecure. You want to be able to have that and your person be into it, and supportive of it. For me, that was something I had to really learn.”
When asked if she wants more children, she instantly replies, “Oh god no. F*ck that. I love my kid. I love my family. But I can’t think about potty training anybody else anymore, ever in life. [Laughs] I’m all the way good. I have a very full life—whatever god has planned, yes, of course. But by choice? No more for me.”
Her answers are equally undisguised as they are humorous. Her brutal honesty concerning motherhood is an invigorating change of direction. Women are so often pigeonholed based on gender biases, which Martinez in some respects, managed to defy, as women in hip-hop have rarely emerged as autonomous personalities or emcees. She climbed through and excelled in a male-dominated industry, first as a fairly inexperienced, yet eager girl behind the radio board, and then, as a full-time mother and leading voice behind the mic. In between that she even took a stab at rapping professionally, dropping two full length studio albums: Up Close and Personal (2001) and Animal House (2002) via Elektra Records. And while it’s not her burden to prove she can embody various principles and ideologies, Martinez has taken the reigns on cultivating and harboring a space for her complexities to exist.
“It’s a constant thing,” she notes. “It’s having to constantly adjust, maybe carve a different path to somewhere new. It’s not like one day I’m going to wake up and be like ‘Oh, I got it!’ No, it’s constantly adjusting, learning. I’ve been working in this way for years.”
I would have asked Pac what was his agenda, what was his intention. —Angie Martinez
With “Work Out” now playing in earshot, and after a second round of guac and margaritas are ordered, I’m prompted to ask what she really thinks about J. Cole’s foreword (“Hip-hop today is afraid… The people who document hip-hop today are cowards too,” Cole writes boldly in My Voice) and Genius.com Artist Relations manager Rob Markman’s interpretation of it, which “hurt” his heart as he took it to mean shame on today’s music journalists.
“We’re all guilty. We’re all worried about how many hits, how many clicks something gets. [But] that never used to be the case,” she says with gusto as the last bit of sun melts away behind us. “You did this sh*t because you loved it, and you wanted everybody to know how dope something was. You weren’t trying to compete with something or someone. What [J. Cole] is saying is truthful. If that hurts somebody’s feelings, then they don’t understand the difference from then to now. That’s not to say you can’t be in it now and be for the culture and come from a good place and have a genuine love for it. That’s just saying the culture in general is different, hip-hop in general is different.”
She continues: “In reading it, honestly, I didn’t take into account how somebody who is up-and-coming now would take it. I took it as, in general, the culture in general is that way. And it’s true. I have to remind myself… this whole process, the book, has reminded me of why I love the culture. I’m so grateful for the side effect of it all, because I am being reminded of why I really do this sh*t, and why I love it so much.”
Throughout 20 plus years of cracking the mic and breaking news, some of Martinez’s interviews would prove to be more than just milestones in her career, but the planted seeds of genuine bonds with some of rap’s foremost legends. Her words of authenticity, in a time when the hip-hop industry was still becoming, would crawl into the ribcages of and make a home inside people like Jay Z, Mary J. Blige and Q-Tip. Her no frills attitude and down-to-earthness resonated with the likes of Sean “Puffy” Combs, The Lox, Nas, Chris Brown, R. Kelly and even the late, great Notorious B.I.G., all of whom have approached her desk side with their deepest concerns or greatest accomplishments.
Tupac Shakur, another fallen hero in hip-hop history, embraced Martinez like he would his next of kin. In a previous cultural climate riddled with turmoil that saw two entire coasts at odds (the aforementioned Brooklyn-based rapper Biggie Smalls and L.A. based rapper Shakur as focal points of the feud), Martinez’s 1996 invite to ‘Pac’s California mansion was received with great caution and uncertainty. She accepted to many people’s dismay, but the aftermath of it all would turn the tides in her career as a radio personality. In that now-famous exchange with Shakur, it was the first time the rapper would echo his gripes off wax and in person. “One day, I’ll let you hear [all of] it. He was phenomenal. He was such an amazing human. Even outside of the interview,” Martinez says in a gentler tone, almost somber. “Hopefully I showed that, because he was really kind to me.”
What Martinez ultimately wound up doing was releasing only snippets of their conversation out of fear that some of what ‘Pac had said would further fan the flames of conflict.
“Had I been more seasoned, a little more grown up and experienced, I would have blocked out all that f*cking noise—a lot of opinions, a lot of ‘You gotta say this, you gotta ask that, find out about this’—and let him lead the conversation,” she says mulling over what she might have done differently if she could go back in time. “I went there with a particular energy. I went there with an agenda. My agenda came from a good place, my intention was good, and it was to get him to say something that would cool sh*t down. But I still went there with an agenda, you know what I’m saying? Me now, I would have not. I would have been there and let him lead the conversation. I would have asked him what was his agenda. I would have asked him what was his intention. And why [speak out] now? Why me? I just would have given him a chance to just tell me who he really was.”
She would go on to inform listeners at Hot 97 of Shakur’s passing, after he died from the gunshots he absorbed while riding in a car on Las Vegas’ famous strip. As a memento from her time with ‘Pac, Martinez saved a pack of Newports with four cigarettes in it, which would make for a noteworthy tidbit in the upcoming All Eyez on Me biopic, with actor Lian Amado portraying Angie herself.
As our waitress hovers over, the self-deprecating parts of me begin to reject the oft-beckoning idea of turning “jaded by now,” and “so afraid of losing their jobs,” as Cole so eloquently continues in his foreword. It’s easy to get caught up in the rat race. It’s easy to lose sight of why you started something in the first place. It’s easy to feel victimized when you’re exploring new, and sometimes treacherous territory. Yet, so much of how Martinez moves in the world is dependent largely on faith and intuition. And I suppose she, who time and time again had to open doors of opportunity without ever fully knowing what was on the other side, has some things figured out by now. My guess is when she’s feeling lost in the world, she makes sense of change, plunges into it, and joins the tide.
“The beauty about my career is that none of it was really calculated,” she reiterates with talking hands. “It’s calculated in the sense that I made a decision to just work hard. So if I set a goal of 10, for example, I’m going to shoot for 20. That part is calculated, where I’m competitive and ambitious. But my moves were never calculated. I never said, ‘Yo, I want to be in a position to do this or that.’ I just knew I had to do good sh*t, and I had to do it big.”