One of three faces of Beats 1, Ebro Darden speaks to Helen Herimbi about radio, rap and relating to the world

It’s silly, but I am still expecting it. The Black Beats headphones with a gold ‘b’ on each side and the African continent outlined in gold on them. Maybe slung around his neck. Or even on his ears. But when I answer Ebro Darden’s FaceTime call, he’s wearing his signature fitted cap and his lush salt-and-pepper beard matches his accented A Bathing Ape jacket.

No headphones.

No worries, though. He’s probably keeping them safe since the only people in the world who have this particular pair of exclusive custom headphones are him and British boxer Anthony Joshua. “There was one pair made for him,” Ebro tells me. “It was a special pair made for him. I saw them, and I was like: ‘yo! I need those!’ So they made me a pair. But they didn’t make more. Hopefully, there are conversations taking place to make more because there are major things happening on the African continent.”

Over the past few years, Ebro, as he is simply known, has made a name for himself as the perpetually grumpy guy that the breakfast show on prolific New York radio station, Hot 97, is named after.

But three years ago, he managed to become known worldwide, and not just by hip-hop heads, when he was announced as one of three faces of Beats 1 Radio. Ebro, along with Julie Adenuga and Zane Lowe, became a part of a trio that spearheaded the cool that Apple was looking to sell through taking traditional radio formats and flipping them on their heads through streaming.

“I felt like it was home right away because there was no precedent for it,” he tells me. “It was whatever we made it. It’s our team, and it felt comfortable right away. We continue to stay hyper focused on our role within the ecosystem of Apple Music –which is to bring context to and find the music and communicate around the world to different areas. What’s become more evident is people are discovering how deep and layered Beats 1 is.”

Since Ebro’s show – which focuses a lot on new music, and particularly new music from Africa and Latin America – launched, shows by popular artists like Pharrell and Frank Ocean have also found their niche on Beats 1. So far, Ebro has interviewed South African acts like Sjava and premiered songs by artists like AKA and Anatii, Shekhinah and more.

“I know the world is enamoured by the culture here in America,” Ebro shares. “But I want to give people something else. I want everyone to enjoy the best of music from all of these different places all the time. Whether they call it Afrobeat or hip hop or gqom in Durban – which to me, sounds like house music that came from Chicago and Detroit but has a more aggressive energy to it and has some elements that are native to Africa – we’re all related. I’m trying to build those bridges. That’s my personal mission.”

I ask him which interview with a South African was the most profound for him. “I feel like when Cassper (Nyovest) came, I didn’t really understand how big he was in South Africa,” he says quickly. “I didn’t understand how unprecedented it was for a hip hop artist to do a concert like his Fill Up (series) and it was an honour to speak to him about that. We got to hang out, and he’s a great guy.”

“The Sjava interview was big to me because Black Panther is such a big deal here in America,” he continues. “I hope artists from here continue to go to South Africa and East Africa and all these places that are going to be able to compete in the world economy.”

Ebro’s name is synonymous with New York-based hip hop. He’s championed it and been caught in the middle of some Nicki Minaj rumours that he’s been scrutinised for not ironing out. But while rap has always been a part of his life, radio wasn’t always the plan.

“I was actually an intern from 4pm after school, but then I would stay ’til like 8 or 9pm,” he remembers. “It wasn’t until I was like 17 years old – maybe in ’92 or ’93 that I started doing a midnight show. It was one of three hip hop shows on the West Coast. It was where we gave rap music from all over the country a platform.”

I ask him how his parents reacted to their teenager staying out until the wee hours of the morning to host a radio show.

“That didn’t go over well,” Ebro laughs. “I was still going to school for anthropology and sociology, but I didn’t finish school because I started doing marketing for parties when I was 18. Then my schedule got so busy, and I started focusing on media and radio, even though I didn’t know where it was going to take me. I just knew I was making more money than my counterparts.”

His focus has taken him to the world stage.

Ebro has seen both sides of the radio business: on air and behind the scenes as a music head and programme director. And in the entertainment industry, the older one gets the more it seems they are disposable. So does Old Man Ebro – as the 43-year-old calls himself – have a retirement plan?

“So far, the run isn’t over,” he grins. “I’m still running. They haven’t tapped me on my shoulder to tell me my time is up yet.”