Summer Jam, the Nicki Minaj–Funkmaster Flex Throwdown, and the ‘Real Rap’ Debate

Kevin Winter/Getty Images Nicki Minaj

New York City radio station Hot 97’s annual concert, Summer Jam, is important. Once a year, some of the most popular artists in hip-hop and R&B use the platform to perform songs, bring 30 to 40 of their peoples onstage, and at times start legendary beefs. This year’s beef quota was no different, by way of negative comments from one of the station’s radio personalities, Peter Rosenberg, directed at headliner Nicki Minaj, causing her boss, Dwayne “Lil Wayne” Carter, to pull her out of the concert. In the time following the “Young Money Ain’t Doing Summer Jam” declaration, verbal jabs have been exchanged and the matter was finally “discussed” in an hour-long back-and-forth yell fest between Nicki Minaj and Hot 97 DJ/radio personality/beef sparker/bomb dropper Funkmaster Flex.

Before getting into the beef (which you can listen to and read about), which extends far beyond a simple diss and a dislike for the song “Starships,” I would like to say that there were some happy times had at Summer Jam and I, for one, had a marvelous time attending. Take a brief trip down memory lane with me, will you?

There Were Hustlers in the Parking Lot

As I walked around, aimlessly, around the outdoor area, I noticed a crowd had gathered around a man equipped with only a cardboard box, three cards, and a fat stack of cash.

Three-card monte had unofficially become a main attraction of the 2012 Summer Jam Tailgate.

The legendary con was quite beautiful to watch, even though I did feel bad when that lady lost $1,200 in three minutes. At Summer Jam. In the parking lot. My heart goes out to you and your undoubtedly soon-to-be-evicted self.

There Was the Summer Jam Catwalk

On the lower level, between two large groups of concertgoers, there was a path that served as a catwalk. Yes, it was a way to get from one side of the stadium to the other and usually dance while making the trip, but its most hilarious function (especially for those with a bird’s-eye view) was that of a fight-breaker-upper-and-now-you’re-getting-escorted-out-of-the-arena catwalk. There were some good fights, and after the second one in about five minutes of taking my seat, it seemed appropriate to start a tally.

The brawls started off at a feverish, Basketball Wives–esque pace, but quickly tapered off once people started realizing that fighting and getting kicked out meant that you’d actually get kicked out.

And There Was the Star of My Section

This man, who came in with 30 other dudes, completely dominated a section, and knew every word to Maino’s set (leading me to believe that they must know Maino) was the most animated character spotted at Summer Jam. He stood on a chair for about five straight hours, sometimes with a shirt on, sometimes not, but he was always having the best time ever. Some other things you should know about him:

  • Spent the majority of his evening rapping along with his back to the stage, because he was at Summer Jam to perform for us.
  • Unlike his friends, who sagged the pants to show boxers, he sagged his shorts to show his not-boxers.
  • Spent one entire song mimicking a chef and by the end of the song had made a full sweet potato souffle.
  • Most commonly repeated move was an invisible jump rope, which at especially tense parts of a song, he would use at triple and even quadruple time.
  • Fell off the chair he was standing on onto other people more than 15 times.

He won Summer Jam. Landslide victory.

And Things Happened Onstage. Like the Moment When Big Sean Brought Out “the Person Who Believed in Me When No One Else Did” and Instead of Kanye West Brought Out His Mom

I love mothers, but this was just unsettling. It completely ruined the illusion that mothers are completely oblivious and/or unsupportive of what their sons rap about and simply take the homes and cars that have suddenly fallen in their lap without asking too many questions. Thanks, Big Sean, for ruining everything. You couldn’t even wait until your mom got back to the soundproof Mom Green Room before you started back into talking about putting your thing places while being high and having guns and disrespecting people not on your record label or not from your city. Ugh.

And the Moment Nas Started Playing “Hate Me Now” and You Start Freaking Out Because Diddy Might Come Out But Then He Didn’t

Horrible. Just a horrible moment. The idea of puffy coat Nas reuniting with puffy coat Puffy almost sent me into hyperventilation, but when it didn’t happen I was just sad. It was also disheartening how few people knew every lyric to “Hate Me Now.” I know we aren’t supposed to love that era of Nas’s career, but that song is unreal. There’s really nothing quite like Nas’s “Jesus” phase. Not even Kanye’s “Jesus” phase.

And the Moment “Ready or Not” Starts Playing and Ms. Lauryn Hill Came Out and Then Stayed Out for Two More Songs and It Was Good

I’ve been on a Ms. Lauryn Hill boycott after a few bad experiences at her concerts over the past five years, but seeing Lauryn next to Nas was a beautiful thing. The five-minute period where Angie Martinez introduced Nas and then Nas brought out Lauryn was just nostalgia gold. Also, watching Nas defer to Lauryn for two songs (“Ready or Not” and “Lost Ones”) while being her hypeman was a classy move on his part. And then they reunited for “If I Ruled the World,” which was something I figured I’d never see. It feels good to be back on Team Lauryn. It’s been a while.

And the Moment “Feel So Good” Started and Ma$e Came Out But Then Didn’t Perform “Feel So Good”

Confusing. Seeing Ma$e come onstage during French Montana’s set was awesome, but then when his classic hit cut out and Ma$e launched into his verse in the “Slight Work (Remix),” it was a sizable bummer. It was great to see Mr. Betha, though, especially since he still does that side-to-side shuffle dance from 1998.

And Both Moments that 2Chainz Slowly Strolled Out Onto the Stage, Rapped His Verse, Screamed “2CHAINZ,” and Then Left

He’s perfect.

And the Moment Both “Amen” and “Stay Schemin” Started Playing and You Prayed Drake Disobeyed Orders From Father Wayne, but Then Didn’t Because He’d Get Grounded

The best to way to find out how much you love Aubrey is by gauging your emotions when his verse is skipped in a song. Sad times for me on both of those songs. Oh, Aubrey. Why have you permeated my soul so?

And the Moment You’re Exhausted Because the Concert Would Seemingly Never End, but Then “Ima Boss” Came On

“Ima Boss” is the most exciting rap song in a long time, and that’s simply through headphones. Live, it’s just insane. I couldn’t even begin to describe those four minutes of chaos. Easily the highlight song of Summer Jam, which is even more impressive because half of the crowd was beginning to fall asleep.

And Finally the Moment “C.R.E.A.M.” Came On and Raekwon Walked Onstage and Started Rapping and Then Summer Jam Ended and You Went Home

I still don’t understand what happened. You might not like “Starships,” but teasing 60,000 people with a Wu-Tang set, and then telling everyone to go home three minutes later is just cruel. Method Man was onstage and had a microphone, but never even got to rap. So yeah, I don’t know what that was, but I guess it was realer than “Starships,” which is what’s really important. I guess.

But unfortunately, none of these moments got the attention of the evening. Because these events were based in positivity, and happiness never stands a chance against beef.


When Funk Flex and Nicki Minaj finally got on the phone together to talk about all things Summer Jam, it began an hour-long circular discussion/talk-over-each-other conversation where few things of substance were said with regard to creating peace between Minaj’s record label and Flex’s radio station. The point of the conversation was to address the negativity surrounding “Starships,” Wayne’s decision to pull Nicki from Summer Jam, and this notion of “real rap,” but somewhere along the way a few deeper issues were accidentally unearthed. One exchange between Nicki and Flex, almost an aside in the sea of yelling, illustrated a bigger issue plaguing not only rap, but music and the act of producing content for audiences as a whole.

Flex: “To sell the records that you have sold, you have to then think outside the hip-hop world. In making records that sell to not just the hood. I’m so clear on that. And you make records for the hood and you make pop records, we get it.”

Nicki: “Thank you.”

This is the part that’s bigger than a Summer Jam beef. From Flex’s side, he’s presumably speaking “on behalf of the hood” and throughout the phone call there’s a sentiment that those at his station feel as if Nicki has “sold out” with pop smashes like “Starships.” People who like rap seem to like Nicki, the rapper, because it’s hard to deny her talent for stringing words together, but when she decides to not rap, and that decision translates into popularity that launches her into the stratosphere, she becomes the target for ridicule from many of those who claim to stand for hip-hop in its purest form, whatever that means.

It’s all very interesting, because rap and hip-hop are pop music. They are popular and we all know that. But the apparent distinction, which is made clear from Flex and Nicki’s full conversation and the aforementioned exchange, is that there’s a difference between making music that organically becomes popular to the masses and going out of your way to make music for different audiences (“the hood” and “pop records”). When you are acknowledging your motives (motives that everyone who graced the Summer Jam stage has, to some extent) for crossing over (see: Nicki’s “Thank you”), that’s where the criticism and backlash come from. And by Flex ending his statement with “we get it,” it seems as if he does, but it doesn’t come off as a “we respect it.” Not one bit.

This is all very problematic, and as I mentioned earlier, it extends beyond music. It all comes down to the people consuming content (whatever that content may be), what they look like, and/or how they identify.

Around this time last year, I found myself in Los Angeles at an event titled the Black Weblog Awards. I had a blog, it was doing decently well, and I was excited to meet some interesting people and, perhaps, have a trophy to brag about upon my return to New York City. As I waited for the awards presentation to start, I sat at a table with four other people and we discussed our blogs. When it came to my turn, this exchange took place:

Lady: So what’s your blog about?
Me: Oh well, you know … pretty much whatever pops in my head the night before … I write about music, my friends, topical things, race, New York, Atlanta, I make lists, I do other random stuff, it’s pretty scattered.
Lady: That’s cool. And like all with a black angle, I guess? I gotta check that out.
Me: Well, not really. I mean, I’m black so I guess that’s my angle, but I’d say as many non-black people read my blog as black people.
Lady: Really? Why?
[End scene.]

And that was the moment I learned the difference between being a Black Writer and being a Writer Who Is Black, at least in the minds of others. This was my “real rap” moment, because in one short conversation, I had been outed, based on my target audience (which in my mind lacked a target, but was assumed to be deliberately mainstream), as not “real.” The content that I was writing about interested her, but once it got to the matter of audience, we were no longer peers and not on the same team. Somehow, we had become two individuals with common hobbies, fighting two separate battles. This was eye-opening to say the least, especially for someone desperately trying to figure out his voice.

Interestingly enough, I had forgotten about this encounter until the early stages of Summer Jam.

When I arrived at the concert venue and made my way to the press area to receive my credentials, I was initially confused because I given a different set of materials than many of the media comrades I had traveled with. No wristband, no fancy lanyard, simply a seat in the arena. I wasn’t complaining, because I would still be able to watch the concert (and ultimately was thrilled, because of the characters in my section), but after doing a quick scan of who was getting which levels of clearance, the only conclusion I could come up with was that I wasn’t “hip-hop” enough. It could have been coincidental, but I wasn’t convinced. Maybe they noticed my nine hours of listening to One Direction. Or maybe it was that time we ran a Killer Mike story and for 10 minutes the picture was accidentally David Banner. Or, God forbid, they saw my declaration that I was coming to Summer Jam for “Starships” from two weeks prior:

While these could have been true, it became clear that this wasn’t simply about me and my overall lack of street cred. It was my outlet and its audience. And between seeing the individuals who were seemingly strategically in the hip-hop skybox and the mainstream stadium seating area, it again seemed slightly too much of a coincidence. This notion of audience, content, and credibility was again coming to the forefront. While the Nicki-Flex situation and my two vignettes are all inherently unimportant, what they are all based in says a great deal about the ways parts of the culture (hip-hop culture and, to a slightly lesser extent, black culture) is terrified of change at a rate that it cannot control.

I cynically doubt the Flex-Nicki debate will take such a productive turn to talk about things beyond #TeamHot97, #TeamNicki, what’s “real” and what’s “not real,” but I really hope I’m wrong. This cynicism doesn’t stem from the fact these conversations won’t happen, but more from the fact that the people in the skybox and the people in the seats don’t sit in the same section enough.

Filed Under: Nicki Minaj, We Went there

Rembert Browne is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ rembert