Apple launched its long-awaited streaming service last week with a catalog of 30 million tracks and a big emphasis on helping you figure out which one you want to listen to next. There are tons of playlists, the new Apple Music app learns your music taste, and Siri is now much more musically inclined.
The most ambitious new discovery tool, though, is Beats 1 Radio. It’s a live radio station with live DJs playing one song at a time all over the world. If you tune in to Beats 1 and hear The Weeknd’s “I Can’t Feel My Face,” listeners in Belgium and Belize and Botswana are hearing the exact same song at the exact same time. If you hear an exclusive world premiere, so does the rest of the world.
Former BBC Radio 1 DJ Zane Lowe, former Rinse FM DJ Julie Adenuga, and New York Hot 97 morning host Ebro Darden are the three lead programmers and DJs on Beats 1. During the first week they have played tracks from a huge variety of genres, brand new and classics, megastars and emerging artists.
Darden, who hosts a two-hour block weekdays at 6 p.m., spoke to Playboy about Beats 1’s programming philosophy, recaps the station’s first week on the air, and recommends the artists he’s most excited about this week.
Beats 1 is on the air in a hundred countries. Was that first sign-on pretty intimidating?
Absolutely. It’s the first time anything like this has been done, so I definitely wanted to be prepared for it and understand the magnitude of it as an opportunity for someone like myself who’s been on the radio for the last 25 years.
There have been other streaming radio stations. What’s the biggest difference with Beats 1?
The people involved — the DJs, the people doing the specialty shows. The way the interface works on Apple Music is a whole new thing. Apple Connect, Beats 1, and the other streaming options integrate together.
How did the first week go? Any hiccups?
For myself, Zane and Julie, this is the first time. We’re making this stuff up. As far as on-air hiccups, no. Behind the scenes, just getting the right versions of songs and being ready to go live in three different cities at the same time, there were technical things that had never been done before.
I’ve heard Beats 1 play hip-hop, pop, R&B, EDM, alternative, and some retro stuff. Are you concerned that there’s an audience for all of those different genres but maybe not for all of them on one station?
There’s definitely an audience for all of them. I’m a fan of all of those forms of music, and there’s some relatability between them. Hip-hop is pulling from electronic and has always pulled from R&B and blues and jazz. For the generation that grew up with all of those types of music together, it’s all on your iPhone. If you look at people’s consumption habits, they’re listening to things from all different formats.
Are you and Julie and Zane trying to develop a rotation of songs, or are you all on your own as far as what tracks you’re playing?
We’re all in sync. If Zane breaks a record, I want to make sure that people can hear it on my show and Julie does the same as well. And when we’re not on, there are other things on the station that maintain a level of cohesiveness. We’re all trying to make sure we’re in step.
I’m sure there would be a big market for a pure hip-hop station. Is that something you’d like to see Apple Music do for a second station down the road?
Yeah, I think so. Even now with iTunes Radio when you see Beats 1 at the top, you still have the targeted radio stations below. And we have shows, like Dr. Dre’s show, that are specifically targeted for hip-hop.
How did you find out that Apple was developing Beats 1?
I had worked with [co-founder] Jimmy Iovine and [senior director] Ian Rogers at Beats, helping them with marketing and other things. When Apple acquired Beats, I heard some rumblings. But I didn’t know it was solid until they asked me to be a part of the team.
When you first heard about Beats 1, was the idea basically the same as it is now?
Oh, yeah. The plan all along was to unite the world in one place with multiple genres of music. For music discovers and enthusiasts to be united in one place. That’s been the plan all along.
A lot of the tracks I have liked during the first week are things that I was hearing for the first time and a lot of them from new artists. Vic Mensa’s “U Mad” with Kanye — will that be on Kanye’s new album?
No, I believe that will be on Vic Mensa’s album. He’s a young guy from Chicago who’s been working in the scene for a long time. He had a mixtape out that was popular in the hip-hop world, and he’s been working his way up doing the festivals. Chance the Rapper and he come from the same hip-hop crew in Chicago.
Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen” is still fairly new, but you’ve been playing “679” too.
“679” is a big record in the clubs in New York City. I brought it in — as I represent for the New York City area — and I wanted to bring that some of that club appeal to Beats 1, so I have made sure to get that song in.
Skepta’s “Shutdown” is probably the song I’ve heard the most over the last week. Do you think Americans are ready for hip-hop with a British accent?
Yeah, don’t forget Slick Rick — who had huge American success — is originally from London by way of the Bronx. He rapped with an accent. Monie Love also rapped with an accent, and she was on Tribe Called Quest records. I don’t think it’s as much the accent as making sure those records are dope.
Since Beats 1 doesn’t depend on call-ins and sales charts to decide what to play, how long do you think a song like “Shutdown” will stay in rotation?
Honestly, I don’t have an answer yet. We have music meetings here in New York City, and they do the same in London and LA, and then we take our best of the best and come together as a collective group. We look at sales, we look at social media response, we look at any tool available, and we come up with critical decisions on the best songs that represent the Beats 1 brand. We can go deeper than what’s in rotation, but we always have a center of gravity in the main Beats 1 idea of bringing the world together in a multi-genre format.
Are there any artists besides the ones we’ve already talked about who have been getting a big platform on Beats 1?
There’s a group we really like out of Tennessee by the name of Bully. They’re a four-piece rock back, and the lead singer is a young lady [Alicia Bognanno]. Statik Selektah’s songs with Action Bronson and Joey Bada$$. There’s an artist out of Sweden named Seinabo Sey has a record called Hard Time. It’s an amazing song. Santigold has a new song “Radio” from the soundtrack for the movie Paper Towns. I don’t even have my playlist in front of me!
You’ve been doing one thing that’s pretty interesting — and Zane Lowe has too — of playing a track and then playing maybe an older song that the sample came from or an older song by the same artist. That’s something you don’t hear much on commercial radio.
A commercial radio station that’s more beholden to Nielsen takes fewer risks. We want to go deeper for the music enthusiasts who want to both discover the origins and be where the music is headed.