Better known as Combat Jack, Reggie Ossé died in December of 2017. As the host of The Combat Jack Show, the former Def Jam attorney and once Managing Editor of The Source pioneered the hip-hop podcast format, turning his show into a hub for hip-hop conversation, interviews, culture, and knowledge. He co-founded the Loud Speakers Network and then in the last year of his life, hosted the first season of Gimlet’s Mogul podcast, helping to usher in the storytelling format for hip-hop podcasts that was similar to NPR-style radio segments. In so many ways, hip-hop podcasting today is indebted to Ossé and the shaping of this medium for celebrating the culture on the internets and beyond.
The hip-hop podcast landscape is no doubt saturated in its sheer number of shows, but there are only a few that can be deemed “Essential.” For every excellent interview-based or storytelling hip-hop podcast out there, there’s over a handful of fly-by-night shows trying to operate on a soapbox like the influential The Joe Budden Podcast, often screaming into the void to stir the pot. We’ll leave those aside, cause this is about the hip-hop podcasts that you need to be listening to. These are shows that are pushing the greater conversations in hip-hop forward, illuminating untold stories, giving shine to cult-ish lifers, and praising the undisputed greats.
What Had Happened Was
Hosted by Open Mike Eagle, What Had Happened Was is now in its third season. Each has focused on a different figure in hip-hop who is a legend in their own regard. Together with Mike Eagle, they spend each episode discussing a specific era or album in their career. Season’s one peak pandemic drop with Prince Paul jumped from the producer’s work with De La Soul, Chis Rock, Gravediggaz, and more. Season two featured El-P and saw the gregarious rapper/producer telling the behind-the-scenes stories of his discography from Company Flow to Run The Jewels. Now with season three, hip-hop OG A&R man Dante Ross has been documenting the history of hip-hop’s early days that he bared witness to with acts like the Beastie Boys, Queen Latifah, Brand Nubian, and then some.
While Ross isn’t necessarily as immediately likable as El-P, or as flat out funny and weird as Prince Paul, he’s as real as they come and Mike Eagle has proven himself to be an adaptable host with each subject. Mike Eagle really strikes a balance between confirming that he’s worthy to be moderating these conversations and always keeping his subject front and center. Oftentimes, podcast hosts have trouble relinquishing the limelight, but Mike Eagle does whatever it takes to serve the conversation and get the most out of Ross, who was the proverbial “guy in the room” for so many momentous hip-hop moments in his time with Def Jam and Tommy Boy.
What Had Happened Was is part of Open Mike Eagle’s Stony Island Audio network, which now as of season 3, has partnered with the much larger and prominent eclectic Talkhouse Podcast Network. It’s a testament to what Mike Eagle has built and his hustle as an independent podcast maestro is one that Combat Jack would most certainly be proud of.
Louder Than A Riot
There’s a point near the conclusion of NPR Music’s Louder Than A Riot’s episode “The Day The Mixtape Died: DJ Drama,” where co-host Rodney Carmichael says, “The reason hip-hop runs counter to America’s systems of power, is because hip hop is a product of the inequality built into these systems.” It’s a masterful summation of the tenuous relationship between hip-hop, Black America, law enforcement, and mass incarceration in America, and it speaks to the central thesis of this 12 episode series.
While Louder Than A Riot concluded in early 2021, it’s the type of show you can pick up at any time because the material is basically relevant forever (last time I checked, cops don’t appear to be on the verge of not disproportionately targeting Black people anytime soon.) Hosted and co-written by NPR Music journalists Sidney Madden and Rodney Carmichael, the podcast takes a nuanced look at the criminal justice system through the lens of hip-hop artists. There’s an excellent episode on Nipsey Hussle, and how his potentially being labeled as a gang member in the LAPD’s racist “CalGang” database, might very well have led to his death. A three-part episode on Bobby Shmurda’s ascent amid a murder case is likewise fantastically reported. What sets Louder Than A Riot apart is the obvious considerable amount of time and resources that went into making it and the resulting high-quality product that renders it among the best storytelling podcasts out there, hip-hop or not.
Breaking Atoms: The Hip Hop Podcast
A British hip-hop podcast with two hosts who know what’s up on both sides of the Atlantic, Breaking Atoms is primarily an interview-based show. Hosts Sumit Sharma and Chris Mitchell are two self-proclaimed hip-hop stans who unapologetically curate their guests, digging through the proverbial crates of hip-hop like in recent episodes with Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon, Justus League producer Khrysis, and surging Vallejo rapper LaRussell. Sharma and Mitchell have a knack for asking open-ended questions that elicit drawn-out, insightful remarks from their subjects and it’s the mark of a fluent podcast host.
But it’s the recent multi-episode storytelling series on Jay-Z that has really made Breaking Atoms stand out. There’s both a four-part episode called “The Making Of The Blueprint by Jay-Z” that came out in concert with the album’s 20th Anniversary, as well as a five-parter on Reasonable Doubt, to celebrate its 25th Anniversary. The episodes welcomed a range of diverse guests as they report on the early days in Brooklyn for Shawn Carter, as well as the creation, critical reception, marketing, and timing of these historic hip-hop albums. You’ll hear from artists in the Jay-Z orbit like Just Blaze, Young Guru, and DJ Clark Kent, as well as hip-hop thinkers like Kathy Iandoli and Oliver Wang. It all comes together in a comprehensive and well-produced podcast package.
The Big Hit Show: To Pimp A Butterfly
It’s crazy to think that an official Kendrick Lamar biography hasn’t been written yet. Marcus J. Moore’s The Butterfly Effect was a page-turning unofficial work that featured just about everyone in Kendrick’s circle except the man himself. But now with the new season of Spotify’s The Big Hit Show, we get an even closer look at the making of one of the most important albums of the 21st century. Hosted by Alex Pappademas, Spotify has clearly sunk a ton of money into ensuring that this sounds spectacular and it does it ever.
Not only do we get insight from people who worked on To Pimp A Butterfly like the outspoken Terrace Martin, timeless George Clinton, TDE’s President Terrence “Punch” Henderson, rapper Rapsody, saxophonist Kamasi Washington and more, we also hear from Kendrick himself and Barack freakin’ Obama. We get inner circle stories about the time Kendrick went to Minnesota to record with Prince, or when Kanye West gave Kendrick a second tour bus with a recording studio in it so he could keep working on new music and simultaneously open for West on the Yeezus tour. While Pappademas sounds a bit strangely academic at first, the format is produced incredibly well and the awkwardness slowly fades away while the subjects bring depth and backstories to the making of the jazz and hip-hop fusion masterpiece of an album. This is a must-listen new podcast with new episodes released weekly.
Dad Bod Rap Pod
Every hip-hop head has a couple of hip-hop soul siblings. You know, that one homie or two you came up with listening to the same albums and arguing about which MC was nicer? That’s exactly what Dad Bod Rap Pod hosts David Ma, Nate LeBlanc and Demone “Dem One” Carter come across as. They’re the friends you argued about hip-hop with getting blunted into the night and then laughed about it before starting the cycle again the next day. All three hosts are based out of the San Jose, CA area, and they each have backgrounds in different disciplines within hip-hop: Ma is a journalist and academic, Carter is a lifelong MC, and LeBlanc is a record collector and a certified authority in hip-hop geekery.
They’ve hosted over 200 insightful interviews to date with rappers like Too Short and Casual of Hieroglyphics, to scribes like The Ringer’s Shea Serrano, and recent J-Dilla biographer Dan Charnas, to figures who thrives in hip-hop’s margins like producer/social media savant Blockhead and Mumbles, who famously produced Aceyalone’s A Book Of Human Language and then seemingly disappeared. There’s a connection between the three hosts as they banter among themselves ahead of each episode’s interviews that afford you as the listener the ability to often disagree with what one of them says, only for the other to swoop in and prove your point for you. This is a podcast for folks who take hip-hop way too seriously, have spent a lifetime worshipping underground culture, and have come out of it all grateful for a never-ending trove of rap nostalgia.
Complex Subject: Pop Smoke
Released last year, this binge-worthy six-part saga on the life, meteoric rise, and tragic death of Pop Smoke, provides a definitive look on the Brooklyn drill rapper. Produced jointly by Spotify and Complex, the podcast is hosted by DJ Pvnch, written by Complex’s Shawn Setaro (who formerly hosted the erstwhile and likewise essential The Cipher Podcast), and you’ll blow through these 30-minute episodes in no time. Like Pop Smoke, Pvnch is also from Canarsie and he brings instant authenticity to the riveting storytelling. We learn about the young rapper growing up in “The Flossy” (Canarsie), and then getting discovered by Pusha T Manager and GOOD Music COO Steven Victor, who quickly signed Pop Smoke to his Victor Victor Records label.
The stories about Pop Smoke’s phenomenal ascent as a teenager are brought to light, as we also learn about the relationship between UK and Brooklyn drill. There was really no way to predict just how much Pop’s unique sound would catch on and you root for him as a star, before the rug gets pulled out from under us with the senseless circumstances surrounding his death. The voices brought in to speak on Pop — from family, friends, and collaborators — are well-curated, and considering his death was only in 2020, this is a monumental production for how succinctly and epically it paints the fine brush strokes in the life is this once-in-a-lifetime rapper.
What feels more like a really sophisticated hip-hop radio show, iHeart’s Questlove Supreme is well….the supreme interview and pop culture conversation style podcast. Questlove is joined by his Team Supreme co-hosts, Laiya St.Clair, Phonte Coleman, “Unpaid” Bill Sherman, and “Suga” Steve Mandel, to talk to legit the biggest names in hip-hop culture and beyond.
Questlove might as well be the most refreshing, well-liked, and visible hip-hop geek in the world and there’s an unbelievable moment in just about every episode — Will Smith popped in recently and talked about doing ayahuasca. Not every guest on the show fits into the hip-hop mold (take recent convos with Bonnie Raitt and Carlos Santana for example), but Questlove Supreme is definitely presented through a hip-hop lens. In the end, it’s a reminder that perhaps the greatest modern form of artistic expression, is indeed hip-hop.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.