“I wanna start this shit off straight,” said Birdman, the Cash Money Records mogul most famous for signing Lil Wayne, in a now-infamous face-off with the hosts of The Breakfast Club, the Power 105.1 morning radio show, in April 2016. “I’m telling all three of y'all to stop playing with my name,” he continued as he and his crew stood like sentries in front of the soundproof panels that lined the studio’s right wall. The Breakfast Club’s three hosts — DJ Envy, Angela Yee, and Charlamagne Tha God watched in suppressed amusement. Then DJ Envy responded to the escalating situation the way any veteran reality TV show producer would: “Let’s go on air. Let’s go!” he said, talking more to his camera operator than to Birdman.
“Stop playin’ with my fuckin’ name. Period,” Birdman fumed.
“Let’s go,” Envy reiterated.
“Let’s do it on air,” his cohost Charlamagne Tha God chimed in.
“Stop playin’ with my fuckin’ name,” Birdman said again. “I ain’t gonna say it no mo',” he finished, his voice wavering. Then he pulled out his chair to sit down.
After months of speculation fueled by frank talk on The Breakfast Club — that Birdman didn’t pay artists, that he made bad business deals with Lil Wayne, that there was more to the story of his infamous kiss with Wayne than a show of respect from Wayne, that he had a role in the shooting of Wayne’s tour bus — Birdman had had enough. He removed his chewing gum before saying into the mic, “I wanted to come look you in your face like a man and tell you how I feel.” He slipped off his glasses and looked at Charlamagne, who had previously talked on the show about Birdman’s controversies. Then he said the words that would birth a new meme and make him lingua franca among hip-hop heads and white suburban teens alike:
“When y’all sayin’ my name, put some respek on it.”
“But I’m the radio guy!” Charlamagne said. “Why pull up on the radio guy? Don’t act tough with the radio guy!”
“I hear you, my nigga. Y'all finished or is y'all done? I ain’t got no mo’ talking,” Birdman replied. Then he stood up and commanded his crew to leave the studio.
A day later, the video was up on The Breakfast Club’s official YouTube channel and several of its fan pages. Shorter clips of the interview made their way to Instagram and Twitter, and memes proliferated. Pusha T tweeted crying-laugh emojis and joked about Birdman’s wavering voice. Ten days later, the video had garnered more than 8.5 million views, and approximately one year later, it’s got more than 11.5 million plays, The Breakfast Club’s highest official tally to date for an individual clip.
At 2 minutes and 22 seconds, the interview is the shortest in the show’s seven-year history, but its popularity proved how moments on The Breakfast Club could go insanely viral. Shortly after the interview spread online, the mogul turned that instance into a song, “Respek.” By the end of the year, “Birdman” was one of the top 10 most googled memes of 2016.
The Breakfast Club does what few widely syndicated radio shows do today: It asserts the importance of letting black people of all types speak, at length, for themselves.
Since the show began in 2010, the trio’s interviews with various hip-hop artists, public intellectuals, and politicians have amassed millions of views and prompted the post-internet equivalent of watercooler conversations.
It was on The Breakfast Club that comedian Damon Wayans uttered the profane line about Bill Cosby’s accusers being “un-rape-able bitches” and saw his national stock go down. It was on The Breakfast Club, in February 2016, that pharmaceutical bro Martin Shkreli threatened to smack Ghostface Killah, a member of the Wu-Tang Clan, the group who’d made the album he’d recently purchased for $2 million. Kanye West acknowledged the show’s power in a February 2015 interview: “That’s why I respect this show, because this is a voice to society. This is the voice of, I’d say, of the barbershop. This is a voice of the streets.” Writer B Dot of hip-hop news hub Rap Radar called The Breakfast Club “America’s Radio Show.”
In its heterogeneous array of interview subjects, from the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan to Future, The Breakfast Club does what few widely syndicated shows do today: It asserts the importance of letting black people of all types speak, at length, for themselves. Nowhere else can you find interviews with black nationalist gurus like Umar Johnson alongside Hillary Clinton and Justin Bieber. The Breakfast Club has become must-listen radio. It’s at the vanguard of black culture, and it crucially moves the needle. But how did the show get there? And now that Charlamagne, its runaway star, has made appearances on mainstream television shows like The Dr. Oz Show, The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, and The View, and has a regular perch on MTV, will the thing that makes The Breakfast Club special lose its luster under the mainstream, and white, spotlight?
Left to right: DJ Envy, Charlamagne Tha God, and Angela Yee.
Jared Harrell / BuzzFeed News. Hair and makeup for Ms. Yee by Paris Guy.
“What do you get when you take Ciph’s old sidekick, Wendy Williams’ old sidekick, and mix in Miss Jones’ old sidekick?” asked Hot 97 radio personality Peter Rosenberg during a 2012 segment. I’ll tell you what you get — nothing,” he said. “Two jackoffs and a runt who mean nothing in this town.” Although he didn’t mention them by name, his question clearly alluded to his radio-industry competition Angela Yee, Charlamagne Tha God, and DJ Envy.
“You’re dealing with three people who all worked with somebody that was the main personality,” Envy told me in an interview in January 2016. “We kinda know how to play second fiddle. So we allow each other to get our emotions out or get our nuts off or say what we have to say in any interview or on any topic.”
The Breakfast Club started in December 2010, but had been in the works for months. Geespin, Power 105.1’s former program director, came up with the idea after deciding to replace The Ed Lover Show, which was hosted by the eponymous media personality.
Once he had decided on the show’s mission, he needed to find the right hosts. Coincidentally, the three hosts he found appeared to have stumbled into radio. The college-educated Raashaun Casey, aka DJ Envy, 39, grew up in Queens, the son of a police officer. The Brooklyn-born Angela Yee (she declined to give her age) graduated from Wesleyan and spent years working in marketing, then interned for the Wu-Tang Clan, and was a rap manager before she made her way into radio. And Charlamagne, born Lenard McKelvey, 36, grew up in Moncks Corner, South Carolina, and sold crack and spent time in prison before interning at a radio station to stay out of trouble.
Geespin attends Power 105.1’s Powerhouse 2015 at the Barclays Center on Oct. 22, 2015, in Brooklyn.
Johnny Nunez / Getty Images
Geespin met with Charlamagne first. “Cadillac [Jack], who was the program director at the time, and I had discussed bringing Charlamagne into the fold. I had introduced [Cadillac] to Angela and he loved how she sounded as well. So, we got those two on board first, and Envy was the last one to get on board, because he had done morning radio before over at Hot , and he was doing well in his afternoon slot at Power. He wasn’t overly enthralled at going back to morning drive. But he had had a good relationship with Charlamagne, and a good relationship with Angela, and that was kind of it.”
After cycling through names, like “Three the Hard Way“ and “The Big 3,” they settled on The Breakfast Club. Geespin thought it worked because of the “misfit nature of what the [John Hughes] movie was and how they were. … The Ally Sheedy character just kinda stuck out in my mind for Angela, almost like this genius misfit … and then I guess Charlamagne would’ve played like the crazy guy on there or something.” If you google The Breakfast Club, the radio show is now the first hit, topping the film’s IMDb listing.
Yee saw The Breakfast Club job in practical terms. “When I did this morning show, you know, Hot 97 offered me a job there, too. But when I went up there, Ebro [Darden, Hot 97 personality and program director] was like, ‘Well, am I gonna be on the show with Cipha and Peter, and it’s all three of us?' ‘No.’ I said, ‘So, is my name on there?’ ‘No.’ And when he told me how much money I was making, I was like, I make more money than that at Sirius and I don’t even make enough there.” She’s deliberate in breaking down the gender parity that made her decide to do the show. “So I’m glad when this opportunity came up, I said to them, ‘Are we all three of us going to be equal?’ Because I also had another offer in Philly to do the mornings there that would have been my show and I could’ve hired whoever I wanted. But I felt like this would be a good combination, and I felt like as long as all three of us were equal I could do it. Because I think sometimes as a female, they have a tendency to decide, ‘Oh, you're the sidekick. Oh, you’re just the girl who does the gossip, who does the traffic.’ And I didn’t want to do just that.”
On The Breakfast Club, which airs on weekdays from 6am to 10am, the dynamic is clear: Yee is the voice of reason and part-time gossip reporter, Charlamagne courts controversy through his often probing questions and problematic catchphrases (like using “vintage vagina” for women over 40 he deems attractive), and Envy is the behind-the-scenes guy, handling introductions and the transitions in and out of segments and doing DJ mixes. The show struggled initially to find an audience and figure out its content. “When we first started, the show almost didn’t last past the year,” Yee remembered. “At first, it wasn’t doing well. It wasn’t connecting. The ratings weren’t that great. A lot of that is just adjusting technical things for ratings. And then some of it [was] us just finding our groove together,” in terms of testing out which segments worked. The other part of it, Yee said, was that people traditionally did not listen to Power 105.1 in the mornings, opting instead for Hot 97. “It took a while for people to know that The Breakfast Club existed.”
Will the thing that makes The Breakfast Club special lose its luster under the mainstream, and white, spotlight?
Charlamagne remembered the early slump, too. “When we first started, and the ratings weren't where they were supposed to be, I was like, ‘Everybody just be cool. It's gon' click in a minute. It's gon' click in a minute. Like, the cream will always rise to the top.’”
“The interviews have always been [a] hallmark for us,” Yee said. According to Yee, early interview highlights include talks with Webbie, Gucci Mane, Lil Boosie also known as Boosie Badazz, and Jay Z. “They just work in synergy,” Geespin said. “Look, if you want to use a sports metaphor, use Phil Jackson. They run the 'triangle' offense. All three of them touch the ball every single time.”
The watershed moment for the trio came with the show’s national syndication in August 2013. “We started off getting syndicated on the weekends first, so that was a big deal,” Yee said. “But the impact was being syndicated on the weekdays. That was the biggest deal for us. I did not even think that would happen when we first started doing the show.” Following national weekday syndication, Revolt TV began simulcasting the show in March 2014. In 2015, Power 105.1 beat Hot 97 in the ratings for the first time, helped in part by The Breakfast Club's ascendancy. (Nielsen declined to give me program level ratings, but based on data available to the press for the past three months, Power 105.1 continues to be the top urban radio station in New York City.)
One of the reasons why the show eventually clicked was because of the hosts' social media strategy — namely, they decided to actually use social media. They would post their interviews on YouTube and tease their upcoming segments on their individual Twitter accounts. (Their official YouTube channel spawned dozens of fan pages that posted their videos simultaneously.) They also distributed their interviews to blogs like World Star Hip Hop, the YBF, and Bossip. “I remember when we first started The Breakfast Club, I did this whole thing with Belvedere that was like a toast to the bloggers, acknowledging them and thanking them,” said Yee. “And they came out and were like, ‘Thank you, guys, so much for our first year and for helping us become successful. We appreciate it.’”
Cipha Sounds, a comedian and former MTV host who knows The Breakfast Club well —Yee was a cohost of his satellite radio show The Cipha Sounds Effect, and he has cohosted various shows on Hot 97, including the morning show Yee turned down — has his own theory about The Breakfast Club's success. “This is my theory. Like, if you quote this, like make sure it says my theory not my fact,” he cautioned in an interview with me last year. “They just went at every angle possible. They spread the word out of New York that they were the hottest shit, so that when artists came to town, they would want to do that show.” Cipha continued, “And they also catered to a certain market. Like, [Hot 97 was] a little more general. The heavy black angle was missing, and they snatched it up.”
He explained that although Hot 97, which is owned by Emmis Communications, had KISS-FM, that station played old-school R&B, not rap or pop. “Hot  was like pop and hip-hop, so we had to cover both. There were a lot of street records that we didn’t play because they were too hood, which Power 105 snatched up because they were gearing towards hood. Once they did that, they started blowing up more, and people started fucking with them more.”
Envy, whose on-air admission of infidelity in January 2013 was one of the show’s earliest viral moments, also pointed out that their experience in and around the music business facilitates a more vigorous exchange among the hosts and the artists featured on the show. “We all have history in the industry,” he explained. “We can have a real conversation with somebody and be open. And if you say something we don’t agree [with], challenge it. You get a real interview. It’s not gonna be, ‘Hey, so what’s number three on your album?’ We’re gonna talk about politics, we’re gonna talk about what’s going on in your life, we’re gonna talk about what’s going on in the world, we’re gonna talk about what you’re feeling.”
“I think [The Breakfast Club] has made people listen to radio again,” Yee said. “You know, people love Steve Harvey, people love other shows, but I don’t think there’s been a syndicated morning show that’s young, that’s fun, that talks about real issues.”
The Breakfast Club broadcasting in the Power 105.1 studio.
Jared Harrell / BuzzFeed News