The Hip-Hop Heads of Juan Ep On the Show’s New Direction

Cipha Sounds and Peter Rosenberg
Cipha Sounds and Peter Rosenberg

Rap podcast pioneers Cipha Sounds and Peter Rosenberg return with a documentary look at the life and times of JAY Z.

When Juan Epstein debuted in 2007, the entire podcast industry was still in its infancy. The show’s hosts, Cipha Sounds and Peter Rosenberg—two hip-hop-obsessed DJs from New York’s Hot 97 radio station—settled into what was, at the time, a novel format of extended and granularly focused interviews with hip-hop’s luminaries and behind-the-scenes figures. No question was too nerdy, but they kept the proceedings easygoing with goofy jokes and ridiculous digressions.

Over the years they've sat down with everyone from Eminem and Donald Glover to De La Soul to Chris Rock to Pusha T to Joe Budden (who now hosts his own successful eponymous podcast). The duo put the show on hiatus in 2017, as Ciph developed his comedy career and Rosenberg took on a spate of other podcasts. Now they're back, under the abbreviated title Juan Ep.

Since plenty of other shows have replicated Ciph and Rosenberg’s method, the pair decided to change things up. This season they’re approaching the show more like a multipart documentary as they dig into the career and impact of JAY Z over the course of ten episodes. While they sporadically draw from an interview they did with Hov back in 2010 as he promoted his book Decoded, they largely rely on their new interviews with the artists, producers, DJs, record executives, and journalists who observed his development into a superstar firsthand. And of course, their own insights figure in as well. The series is not a tightly managed affair; Ciph and Rosenberg keep the tone loose and the jokes about JAY Z’s abysmal verse on "Monster" flowing. Here they explain the reasons behind the show's change of course.

Spotify for Podcasters: Why did you decide to be more investigative in your return rather than going back to the long, detailed interviews?

Peter Rosenberg: Off the top of my head, there's at least three or four other hip-hop podcasts that took on the exact same form of what we were doing. Now granted, all of them are different, every personality does a different sort of interview, but we did do it for years and years. I was pretty excited about the idea of doing it a different way. The original version of the podcast, there's over 200 episodes.

The format you're doing now seems like a lot more work. You're putting a story together, you're weaving in multiple sources, you’re giving context—that’s harder than wrangling someone, getting them to the studio, and having them talk about their life for two hours.

Cipha Sounds: That's the beauty of having partners and a team now. We used to just go in a room and hit record and then press stop and then press upload. Now we have, like, actual meetings. We be having meetings and s***! Crazy!

Rosenberg: If we were doing it by ourselves, this version would be f** impossible. Yes, it is more work. We have put more work and time into the half-season so far than we would have for 30 episodes of the old version.

Cipha: I'm treating it like a joke, like if it was a movie title, it would be, Juan Ep Tries to Do a Documentary. The content is great, the content is real, but two idiots trying to create this beautiful-sounding format, it's funny to me.

One of the things I like about these new episodes is that they don't feel too scripted. You still have those moments of interplay between you guys, talking shit about each other.

Cipha: What I tell people is that it's not about JAY Z, it's about Juan Ep talking about JAY Z. That's a different thing.

As a journalist, it's interesting for me to hear you guys figure it out. Like with [producer, DJ and record executive] Clark Kent, I'm sure he was always on the list of people you wanted to talk to, but as you spoke with more people and the project progressed, you realized he was an essential interview to tell the particular story of JAY Z’s relationship with the Notorious B.I.G. Then when he finally agreed to an interview, you gave it a standalone episode.

Rosenberg: Ciph will always downplay anything that's serious ’cause he's just naturally averse to it, but I do think there's definitely satisfaction we get from hearing Clark reveal the actual details of something we speculated on, having a source confirm it. As much as we don't like to admit it, there's an actual journalistic satisfaction that comes from that.

Why did you pick JAY Z as the subject for this approach?

Rosenberg: We were overthinking things, then I was like, “Wait a second, what about JAY Z? Has his story really been told?" In some ways it could seem trite, but in another way, he doesn't talk that much. He's obviously the most famous rapper in the world, he's the most successful rapper in the world—so rather than dig up some more obscure story, which I'm sure we'll get to as time goes on, why not just come back with something that's a no-brainer?

And frankly, I didn't like the idea of us relying on our old podcast brand as the reason people would listen. I thought it was a little bit self-important to be like, “Oh, if we come back, people will be so excited.” The podcast base is a hundred times bigger than when we left, so why don't we try to appeal to some of those people with our subject rather than our brand?

__At this point it feels like JAY Z has said what he's going to say about his life. He’s probably told all the stories that he's publicly willing to tell, and he's not known for being a great interview, so it’s interesting to hear his story through other people’s perspectives. __

Cipha: He is obviously the most popular rapper in the game—has done more for the game than anyone else, but when he talks to Forbes with Warren Buffett, he's talking about the grand scale of it all, how he's a billionaire. Juan Ep fans are the hip-hop nerds, so I want to know what little studio he recorded in and all these little details. What was it like being on the tour bus with Big Daddy Kane? What bunk did he sleep in? The stuff that I like from every interview I've ever done for Juan Ep, it's just the stuff I wanted to know because I'm a f** weirdo.

—Eric Ducker