‘The Breakfast Club’ is a radio forum for the nation’s racial reckoning
The video of the police killing of George Floyd was so disturbing that even conservative talk radio stalwart Rush Limbaugh — never considered a friend of the Black community — needed to probe the underlying issues that led to the incident.
So he reached out to the hosts of “The Breakfast Club.”
The trio of Charlamagne tha God, DJ Envy and Angela Yee has been holding court for nearly 10 years on weekday mornings, originating on New York’s urban contemporary outlet WWPR-FM (Power 105.1), syndicated on more than 100 radio stations across the country and simulcast on the cable TV network Revolt.
They have long been major arbiters in popular culture and a gateway for politicians seeking to reach a young, diverse audience.
The on-air meeting between Limbaugh and “The Breakfast Club” happened at the behest of iHeart Media, the corporate parent for both programs. The hosts found common ground on how the killing of Floyd, an unarmed Black man, in police custody was indefensible. But the distance between the two sides grew as the conversation went on, especially when it came to whether racial bias among police is a systemic problem.
Asked about the radio all-star showdown in a recent Zoom conversation from their homes, “The Breakfast Club” hosts noted how they did not have high expectations for moving Limbaugh closer to their worldview.
“This is something that would take forever to really sit down and discuss in real life,” said Yee, 44. “I did not in any way think he would all of a sudden, after decades of being the person who he is, have some come-to-Jesus moment.”
“Wasn’t that the craziest thing ever when we were talking about police brutality?” added Envy, 42. “He was like, ‘Somebody keyed my car!’”
Still, even the intractable Limbaugh — who played the full conversation for his listeners with a minimum of commentary — recognized the influence “The World’s Most Dangerous Morning Show” has built over time.
Although “The Breakfast Club” plays music mixed by DJ Envy and often features entertainers as guests, the show’s role in the national discourse has raised its profile well beyond its core following.
Michael Harrison, a media consultant and publisher of Talkers, which tracks the talk radio format, annually ranks the most influential topical programs on a list called the “Heavy Hundred.” This year “The Breakfast Club” will be included for the first time, landing in the upper tier. It has also been nominated for the Museum of Broadcasting Communications’ Radio Hall of Fame.
“‘The Breakfast Club’ is appointment listening every day for people of color,” Harrison said. “Now they are flexing their muscle and they are a major political force in America as much as a radio show can be. They speak to a segment of the population that is important, growing and influential.”
Bakari Sellers, an author, attorney and CNN analyst, was one of the first politicians to appear on “The Breakfast Club” when he ran for lieutenant governor of South Carolina in 2014. He joined in a Black History Month discussion that included rapper 2 Chainz, a reflection of the program’s ability to blend pop culture and politics.
Two years later, Sellers helped orchestrate an appearance by Hillary Clinton during her 2016 presidential campaign, which made news with the revelation that she kept a bottle of hot sauce with her at all times.
“‘The Breakfast Club’ is refreshingly honest, and it fits this new era of authenticity that we’re in,” Sellers said. “You can’t go in there and not be yourself. You have to be on your toes. It’s now a stop that everybody must go on.”
In May, former Vice President and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden made news with his “Breakfast Club” appearance when he ended a feisty 18-minute exchange with Charlamagne by saying, “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black.”
Biden apologized for the comment, which he described as “cavalier,” on a call to Black business leaders later the same day. But the interview quickly became a talking point for commentators who believed Biden needs to pick a Black woman as his running mate to show he is not taking the Black vote for granted.
“I didn’t bait him or force him to say, ‘You ain’t Black if you don’t vote for me,’” Charlamagne said. “That was God speaking through him to remind him, ‘This is what you need to do to win. Because if you think you’ve got it sewn up in November you are sadly mistaken.’”
‘The Breakfast Club’ is refreshingly honest and it fits this new era of authenticity that we’re in.
— Bakari Sellers, author, attorney and CNN analyst
The four Black contenders most often mentioned as a Biden running mate — Sen. Kamala Harris of California, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, former Obama White House national security advisor Susan Rice and Rep. Val Demings of Florida — are all acceptable choices to “The Breakfast Club” crew. But Charlamagne said he leans toward Harris.
“She has the political experience, she’s smart, she’s tough and she makes all white men nervous,” he said. “Not only do I think she would make a damn good VP, she’d be a damn good president.”
Charlamagne did give high marks to Biden’s cognitive ability, which President Trump and his advocates on TV have been trying hard to turn into a campaign issue.
“The interview was one of the things that kind of changed my mind about his mental decline,” Charlamagne said. “He came with fire that day. At least for 18 minutes it seemed like he was completely on. It seemed like he was up for the challenge.”
When asked if Biden would visit “The Breakfast Club” again, a representative for the campaign said, “Of course.”
Charlamagne, 42 (born Lenard McKelvey), started his radio career in his native South Carolina. He got his big break as a sidekick for Wendy Williams when she was a top-rated New York radio personality. Charlamagne, who counts shock jock Howard Stern as one of his inspirations, developed a reputation as a brash provocateur.
Queens, N.Y., native Envy (born Raashaun Casey) was a rap artist and smooth-talking personality on another New York hip-hop station. Yee got her media business start as an intern for the hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan, then segued to radio as a host on rapper Eminem’s SiriusXM channel.
They were brought together at WWPR by Geoff Gamere, a former program director, in December 2010 when he was looking to launch a new morning show. After a slow start, “The Breakfast Club” became a popular platform where Black celebrities from all fields could speak freely — and expect to face some probing questions from the hosts.
“The Breakfast Club” reaches 8 million listeners a month — more than half of them Black — according to Nielsen data, and many of them are in the coveted 18-to-34 age group. Its YouTube channel with video segments from each morning’s program has nearly 5 million subscribers.
The hosts believe the influence has come with the trust they have built with the audience over time.
“We don’t call people who listen to the Breakfast Club fans — we call them family,” Envy said. “They come to us because a lot of times they believe that a lot of what they hear on other outlets or see on social media might not be true. And when they come to us, they feel that they can believe what we’re saying.”
The program’s bond with the audience has heightened during the national examination of policing and racial bias.
Envy speaks to his father — a retired NYPD officer — every day to get his perspective on current affairs. Those conversations have helped inform him on the Floyd story and how the cases made against police can play out.
“He tells me both sides of what’s going on,” he said. “He’s been on the job for a long time. But he also was the first person that told me that, ‘The police are not your friends. When you do get pulled over you’ve got to think the first thing you want to do is to make it home. You can’t beat the police in the streets.’”
The hosts have been immersed in the ongoing dialogue on the subject, offering interview subjects not widely seen elsewhere. They recently did a lengthy segment with Cariol Horne, a former Buffalo, N.Y., police officer who was fired and lost her pension after she physically stopped her partner from choking a Black suspect.
Yee first mentioned Horne’s situation in her “Frontpage News” segments, where in rapid-fire style she serves up items each morning for the crew to discuss. As interest built in the story, Horne appeared as a guest on the program to recount her story in detail. Her GoFundMe effort surged with contributions from listeners.
“We have the power to highlight people that maybe aren’t making huge headlines elsewhere,” Yee said.
“The Breakfast Club” hosts do not hide their political leanings. Yee recently wore a cotton T-shirt on the air with “Anti Trump Social Club” emblazoned on it, an accurate representation of the team’s opinion of the current administration. Trump acolytes often show up in Charlamagne’s “Donkey of the Day” segment that calls out foolish acts and statements.
But their microphones are open to visitors with differing views. After the trio appeared with Limbaugh, they welcomed Angela Stanton King, a Trump-supporting Black candidate who mounted an unsuccessful congressional primary campaign against civil rights legend John Lewis in Georgia.
Charlamagne, who has authored two bestselling nonfiction books, said he enjoys engaging with people who don’t share his views and includes them in the circle of policymakers and commentators he talks to on a regular basis to inform his own opinions.
“My mom told me, ‘Read things that don’t pertain to you,’” he said. “I’ve always watched things that don’t necessarily pertain to me. And I’ve always had conversations with people who may not necessarily be in my wheelhouse of thought.”
As teams become successful, so do outside opportunities, which has generated speculation about the show’s future. Charlamagne, whose radio contract is reportedly up at the end of this year, has just signed a deal to host a weekly talk show on Comedy Central.
“Charlamagne Tha God is very dedicated to his listeners and this new show on Comedy Central is no different than the other projects he has ventured into to build his brand,” said a representative for iHeart. “It’s in addition to his current role on ‘The Breakfast Club.’ He’s always done it all and will continue to do so.”
In 2018, Charlamagne signed to do a series of specials for HBO, but the network dropped the deal over jokes he made about having sex with a woman who was drunk and drugged, said a person familiar with the matter who was not authorized to comment. He apologized for the remark and said the sex was consensual.
At the same time, a woman who alleged she was sexually assaulted by Charlamagne as a minor in 2001 — which he denied — sought unsuccessfully to reopen the case. The original charge had been dismissed because of a lack of DNA evidence and the woman’s refusal to cooperate.
“I parted ways with HBO because of creative differences and have done business with them on other projects since then,” Charlamagne said.
Yee is an entrepreneur with a fresh juice business in the Brooklyn neighborhood where she lives and will soon have a new limited series about Motown on the streaming service Fox Soul. DJ Envy, a father of five, invests in real estate and is quick to offer advice and contacts when listeners call in with questions on the subject.
For now, the hosts say they still share a love for connecting with their audience through live radio. DJ Envy recalled how early in the life of the program — at Charlamagne’s urging — he called to apologize to his wife on the air after admitting to marital infidelity. Tears flowed, but he has no regrets.
“I didn’t care about what people thought because it was real,” Envy said. “Everything we talk about is real. There are people out there going through the same thing.”
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