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Interview: Sirius XM’s Dion Summers brings the heat

Radio; for the future, for the culture.

Dion Summers is radio at its best.

Radio is an institution that has changed the music industry exponentially over the years. From breaking new bands, to updating us on the latest news and gossip, radio has moved the needle of our culture.

Salute recently got to speak with the head of urban radio at Sirius XM, Dion Summers about his extensive career in radio, where he feels music is going, and how radio affects the culture.

Salute: How did you decide that radio was for you? When did the moment click in your head that radio would be your career?

Dion: I will tell you that I was 12yrs old and my mom and my stepdad raised me. My dad and I had an estranged relationship and that Christmas I had asked him for a stereo. Since we did not grow up together, I guess he felt an obligation to make me happy so he decided to get me this stereo. It was the coolest thing with dual cassettes and a turntable on top, AM/FM, surround sound. It was the coolest thing.

When I was a kid, we moved around a lot so I did not have many friends. Because that gift was a gift from my dad, I treasured it. I can remember that winter coming home from school and listen to the radio, and listen to music. I would buy records and cassettes, and I would listen to local radio stations. I can remember that winter specifically bonded me to radio. I remember that was when I had favorite DJ’s and specific types of music.

Back then, I would listen to what we call now the urban station and the pop station. So I would get equal parts of Bon Jovi and MC Hammer and at that point, it really just took over my life. I remember having such a love for music and the art of music and it just never, left me. I remember at that point wanting to be a DJ. It was so magical to me being inside the box like “Why are they playing these songs? Why do they say this, when they play these songs?”

I was so inquisitive and wanted to know answers. I remember from that point, I interned, back when you could still intern in high school, I interned at the local pop station. From there it kind of took off. I applied at Syracuse University and at Howard University because both schools have known communications reputations. I visited both schools, both campus radio stations and fell in love with it. I just became a radio geek. I wanted to be on the radio, play songs and have a hand in deciding what is played and that sort of thing. It all started when I was 12. It was great and I ended up going to Syracuse, and ended up working all four years at the campus radio station and loved it. It became my passion. I was known to spend more time at the radio station than in class. It just took off from there. To this day, I try not to be jaded. I try to still be that same kid excited to hear new music and excited to learn new DJ tricks. I am still a student of the game.

 

Salute: That is a great thing, especially in current times when everything is constantly changing. It is good to be humble and still be receptive to learning something new.

Dion: Oh yeah. I remember being the young intern who thought he knew it all. Now I work with the young interns who think they know it all. The irony of it is, I had something to offer from my perspective, and so do these kids now.

I learn so much from these kids now. Something as basic as learning about a new rapper that I have no clue about, but my intern saw the guy in concert last night. I love it because all opinions are valid. I am still a student. I am still soaking it all up.

Salute: Since you are an avid fan of all music, who are you listening to right now?

Dion: Who am I listening to right now? I am a big proponent of the fact that R&B music is going to make a tremendous comeback. Right now, my favorite piece of music has to be SZA CTRL. I love her music; I love what she is about. I’ve met her before she’s a beautiful woman with a beautiful spirit and a humble soul. Outside of SZA, I think I am where I should be for a dude my age. I appreciate all music but I don’t like all music, which I think is fair. I can appreciate Lil Pump’s “Gucci Gang” but will you find it in my playlist? Probably not. You will find every track from Kendrick’s DAMN in my playlist.  You know, I think Kendrick is amazing, I think J. Cole is amazing. I am one of the few people who still think Kanye is a genius. You know he was a game changer in his day; it excited me when I hear new music coming from him. But, for the most part, I am really on this R&B thing right now. I really think it is going to make a comeback.

I think Lauryn Hill back in 1998 when she came out was a game changer, and of course, Michael [Jackson] when he came out with Off the Wall. I think someone else is about to come out and change the game because no one is really poppin’ in R&B right now. That gives me hope that something is brewing.

I see where hip-hop is going right now and I don’t have anything against it. Again, going back to our earlier point about our youth, and asking questions and listening to the youth. People say, “Hip-hop has gone down value in the last 20 years,” and “look what they talk about.” I’m quick to remind people that when I was 15 years old, there was a song out called the “Humpty Dance,” one of the silliest records ever created. But, if you were not 15, and you did not get it, you weren’t a part of our club, and we didn’t care about you. All that we cared about was “The Humpty Dance.” Us 15, 16, and 17-year-olds, we made that song a hit. If you weren’t part of that crew, you just didn’t get it. The same thing applies now. If you don’t get Lil Pump, Smokepurp, if you don’t get these kids out here doing music now, that’s your fault.

These kids are driving the culture. When we were 15, we filled the culture. Let these kids drive the culture now. For better or worse, they judged us when we played “The Humpty dance” let the culture evolve as it should.

Salute: You are right. I think everyone loses touch sometimes when they get older. I can remember looking back at some of the things that I liked when I was in high school and saying “Ugh, what was that?” (laughs)

Dion: (Laughs) That’s the irony, it was all silly. But, when you are in it, you do not see it that way. But you step outside of it and you think Wait a minute, was there really a song that started “Bum stickity bum, stickity bum? Yes! That was really a song.

Salute: Who do you think is paving the way in the industry right now?

Dion: Definitely Kendrick. I love the people who cast a wide net. People who get people in the store without sacrificing their artistry. Kendrick is one of the most consistent artists of this decade. He is somebody who is not mincing words, is not limiting himself or his star. But he seems to get more and more people in his store every time. That is something that I love.

Also, taking a page from the recent Grammy’s I look at someone like Bruno Mars. Bruno Mars stands out to me because at a time when we are all so divisive, and we are all so “one man”, “one race”, “one person” for themselves and there seems to be no unity, no cohesive message that everyone is on. We all love Bruno Mars. We can be democrats or republicans, black or white, male or female, we all love Bruno. That is the key to a truly great artist. I think back to when we were younger and Michael had just piqued and he had everyone, Whitney had everyone, Prince had everyone. Music is the great colorblind equalizer that brings everyone together. Bruno is doing that for this generation. I am definitely following him. I think he has the culture in his hand. I look at people like Cardi B you know and in my years being in the music industry, I have never seen someone go from 0-60 as quickly as she has.

What has happened with her has been so transformative you know what I mean; you have to sit up and take notice. Even people, who do not like her, have to appreciate the grind. I got goosebumps watching her with Bruno the other night because I was like “wow,” that was her moment. I can appreciate an artist or anyone who works hard going for theirs.

Yo, that is the fruit of her labor; she is on the stage at the Grammy’s I felt like her big brother. I felt that moment with her. That made me feel good about where music is going. I am excited about where music is going. I’m not worried, People say that hip-hop is dying, hip-hop is dead, and hip-hop will outlive all of us. It won’t sound like it does today. But that genre, what it’s been through, how it began, and how it became popular, no, hip-hop will outlive all of us and that’s great. I think that we have to do our part though to keep it afloat.

That’s really, what I think that my main job description is. I think that whether you are in music or television, or film or whatever art you do for a living You are charged with moving the culture needle while you are in that position. I’m not going to be in this position for long. I am blessed, we are all blessed but it is my job to move the culture while I am in this seat. So that’s what I’m trying to do.

Salute: Wow, you just answered three questions I had at once. (laughs)

Dion: (Laughs)

Salute: You touched on something that had a conversation with someone else about earlier. Many people were upset about Bruno’s big win. I do not think people realize he won because there are people from every lifestyle that love Bruno’s music.

He makes genuine feel-good music that everyone loves. His music is not stressed like so many other artists are, when you hear his music you just want to jam and I think we’ve been lacking that for a long time.

Dion: We have, we really have and when you think about it, everyone else canceled each other out and caused Bruno to rise to the top. Don’t get me wrong, I feel bad for The Carter’s I mean this year Jay got all dressed up. Last year Beyoncé got all dressed up. I’m pretty sure Blue Ivy is like “Why do we still come here?” Every year we come here and we never go on stage.”

Salute: So, your parents can get dressed up.

Dion: (laughs) Right. I personally was hoping for Jay because we came up with Jay. It seemed like his moment, but it was obviously Bruno’s moment. But you cannot deny that from a sales perspective from an airplay perspective, and from a feel-good perspective. It just made the most sense. His were the records that you heard the most and felt best about when you heard them last year.

Salute: Every time I hear his music, I think of a party.

Dion: Yes, and I love the 90’s so every time I hear that retro sound he just nailed it. I love how when he made his speech he credited L.A. Reid, Teddy Riley, Babyface, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. That’s what his last album was, an amalgamation of all of those sounds together.

Salute: Yes. I can definitely agree there.

Where do you think radio is headed since you’re the people that are paving the way?

Dion: I think tastes will become more specific. I remember growing up, and as I said earlier there was the urban station and the pop station, the lines were clearly drawn. When I was younger growing up in Baltimore, there was V 103 and they were all things to all people whether it was young hip-hop or Anita Baker, Diana Ross, or Sadé they were all things to all people.

Now, we live in a time where we are more fragmented tastes are more exclusive. People know what they like, and they want to get there and listen to it. Radio is responding to that, I know we are at Sirius, and we did that at XM when I worked there before I came here. I get how is on the outside too. We want to max listener expectations. If you like mumble rap or trap hop or whatever the cool term for it is, there is a radio station for that. If you like progressive R&B   there’s a lane for that. If you like more mainstream R&B, there’s a lane for that. If you like classic hip-hop from the 80’s, the 90’s, or the 2000’s you can have all that now. There are so many fragments of formats that you like and you can plug right into.

It goes more into that mentality of we choose our own music now. Gone are the days of the radio where you would have to wait around for them to play your song. If you call in and request it, it seems instant but in reality, that song has been sitting there for a day and a half. Those days don’t exist anymore now everything is instant. I can go to my desk right now and I can hear this song in two seconds, and radio is matching that. Radio is trying to match listener expectations.

Here at Sirius XM we have actually broken a lot of young music formats that have gone to the outside. We were the first to have an old-school hip-hop channel that we called “The Rhyme” and then we called it “Backspin.” Then a couple of years ago we launched a 90’s hip-hop channel that we called “Fly” that I have also heard on the outside. So that is where I think radio is headed, more exclusive content. We’ve got to find where the audience is, and meet them where they are now.

Salute: Interests are more refined.

Dion: They don’t come to us anymore. I have a favorite DJ, but hell I’m 42 years old. Like what do I know? These kids now have no favorite DJ; they had no favorite radio station growing up. Radio was totally different and you can see that by the way they respond to things.

I was watching the Grammy’s pre-show and Lil Uzi Vert was being interviewed by Giuliana Rancic and she asked him “How’s it feel to be here?” and he said, “Fine, I guess. I knew I’d be here.” Very matter of fact, not cocky at all. He just knew he would be there. He speaks from the heart.

Salute: I love that he’s so confident.

Dion: Right. These kids just know. He did not have to listen to the radio for a year patiently waiting, hoping his song was going to play, and getting excited when it did. No, he came up differently there was no expectation there. I mean he knew that it was going to happen. He knew the right avenues to channel his music to, to get where he wanted to get to be on the Grammy’s in 2018.

So we have to develop a new strategy to get those ears because those ears aren’t coming to us anymore.

Salute: Now since you mentioned it, you have been in the industry a long time. Who was your best interview?

Dion: My favorite interview? Man, I was still young in the game. I was a young 23-24-year-old kid, and I had to interview Patti Labelle. I was so nervous. SO very nervous. I used to do a show called “The Love Zone”; it was a quiet storm show. My boss had booked her to do an interview during the quiet storm show. So, I am nervous, I am buggin’ and my mom had a dream about Patti Labelle the night before the interview. My mom is one of those people, who believe if you dream about someone, you play a number, and the number comes out; you know, she is on that tip.

So she had the dream and she says, “Dion, I had a dream about Patti Labelle last night so I need you to ask her what her number is so I can play it.” I was like, “Mom, there is no way I am going to ask Patti Labelle her numbers Mom.” So we get to the interview, we are prepping, and I say, “Ms. Labelle, if I don’t ask this question, my mom will never forgive me. You see last night, she dreamt about you and–” She stops me right there, she held her finger up and said “Tell that woman I said play 457, that’s my kind of woman right there! That’s my kind of lady right there.”

The fact that she knew where I was going with it, was so cool and down. I’ve never forgotten that story. The ice was instantly broken. I asked her “How did you know I was going to ask that?” She said, “Oh I know honey, I know.” The interview was so great because of that energy we had and later I got to introduce her to my mother. That taught me something very valuable. It’s the ones who have been in the game forever who are humble, which is why; they’ve been in the game forever. It’s these new jacks that think the world is about them, they’re so short sided they don’t realize they might only be around for a while.

But these legends, they’re legends for a reason. They know how to respect people, and that was a lesson early on and literally to this day we have had patty come through here last year for a mother’s day event. I brought my mother up from Baltimore and of course, Patty has forgotten all about the story but we still bring it up. The fact that to this day, she is still just as Kind and as humble as that first time that I interviewed her, she is the best person that I have ever spoken to. There is a reason why she is one of the greats. She is just so humble and so great.

 

Salute: It is amazing that you got your mother to be able to meet her. I know that was a moment for you both.

Dion: It continues to be. You know you always want to make your parents proud and bringing her up on the train and to be able to do that it was like ‘Yes!”

Salute: I’m sure if you have any siblings, you probably rub that in their face. Like “I’m the favorite.”

Dion: Yea my older sister gets that all the time. She just deferred it like “Yea, I can’t get mom tickets to see Patty.”

Salute: Now since we talked about who was the best, who was the worst?

Dion: I’ve had a couple worst. Well, ironically a week after I had that interview with Patty I had an interview with an R&B artist named Rahsaan Patterson, he was the worst. A week after I had Patty Labelle, who really could have been difficult. I would have accepted that because it was Patty Labelle. I would have sucked it up. But, she wasn’t she was gracious and awesome. Conversely, a week after that Rahsaan Patterson was the opposite of that he was an a-hole. He gave me one-word answers; he wouldn’t make any eye contact just all of that. He seemed like he didn’t want to be there, he seemed high. I ended up not even running the interview.

The second was Young Thug. I interviewed him a few years ago and that brother had no clue. You know what I mean? What made things even worse was that his label had Lyor Cohen doing the promo with him because the label knew he was difficult. So they brought along Lyor to kind of soften the interview and that didn’t work.

Salute: He was still acting like that with Lyor there?

Dion: Yes. At one point, I remember he was trying to balance a snickers bar on his forehead and I’m just looking at him like really, dude? This is what we’re doing during an interview? But this all goes back to the point I made earlier. These kids never had a favorite DJ, so they don’t care about this. They’re like “I’m going to sell anyway, I don’t need radio. I don’t need this” and just that whole fake thing.

I can appreciate when people are mentored. I was mentored. You probably were mentored. Somebody who knew more than we did, to give us ample guidance into this industry, and into this world, mentored us all. I think that if there is one thing we can teach these babies in the industry it’s attaching yourself to a mentor. Because God willing you will be our age soon and you have to learn how this thing works and it doesn’t work how you think it does.

Salute: It goes by quickly.

Dion: You have to try to learn how to roll with it.  I was very literal during the Young Thug interview. I said [to my audience] you guys can’t see this but right now he’s trying to balance a snickers bar on his forehead.” You know, I was just telling them what was happening. I have to be transparent; I can’t fake it I was giving them what was happening in that moment.

Salute: I am sure that is one of the biggest things you learned in communications school is to be transparent.

Dion: Without a doubt, it’s something that you learn to take with you in relationships, friendships, and in business, transparency always wins.

Salute: Who are your inspirations in business?

Dion: Cathy Hughes the chairperson of Urban One (Radio One). Urban One was the first company to hire me out of college. I respect and appreciate Cathy’s story so much she is an inspiration for black entrepreneurship, black leadership, black ownership. She and her son Alfred grew an empire out of nothing and I’ve always respected that.

One of my college professors Dr. Roosevelt Wright, he was the cool black professor at communications school that from day one I wanted to talk to him. I would go in his office and see all these radio greats, all these legends taped to his wall and I would say I want to be on this wall one day. He became such a strong mentor for me and to this day he is definitely somebody that I love and we have a great friendship to this day.

Doc Wynter who works over at iHeart. I am glad that I got to work for him for as long as I did and grow from him. He’s the one that teaches you about the business and about the game, and how to learn to be successful. You can’t have one without the other. He has definitely been that person for me as well.

And my momma, I definitely cannot go without mentioning my momma. When I said I wanted to do radio, she looked at me as if I had five heads. But, she gets it now (laughs).

Salute: Well you know that quiet confidence they have in you, that is one of the best things. Even if they look at you like you are crazy. My Dad always told me “You’re a winner. When you put your mind to something, and you tell yourself you are going to do it, you come out on top. Don’t ever sit there and doubt yourself.”

Dion: That is awesome, that is a parent who is really supportive. Even my mom was like “I’m paying how much? And there’s no guarantee you’ll get a job?” Because when you graduate you know how it is, you graduate alongside engineers and architects who instantly have job offers and here I am post-graduation with a degree in my hand, applying for jobs and hoping The Gap will hire me part time so I can have money in my pocket. It was rough but I had to explain to her that it is one of those situations that are a marathon, not a sprint. You have to be in the right place at the right time. You have to pay your dues and be humble and all of that. I appreciate her for sticking by me.

Salute: My final question, what do you want your legacy to be?

Dion: Wow…..That I made a difference you know. That I made a difference on an individual scale. That someone can say, “Dion mentored me and taught me___” you know because I’m standing on somebody’s shoulders myself and if one person can tell me that they are able to see their potential through something that I have said or something that I have done through the way that I handle my life or my business, that’s the dopest thing ever. I did this, this way, because Dion taught me that. That would be amazing to me. Also, on a cultural scale, like I said earlier I fully know why I am here. It took me a long time to fully embrace why I am in this position.

Somebody walked in the Jackson 5 demo to Barry Gordy at some point and made that whole movement happen. Can you imagine if that person missed the bus and did not make it to the office for that meeting that day? If they did not get that tape into Barry’s hands. How would our lives have been different without “Jackson” anything? But somebody did that, so the culture is better for it. I just want, at the end of my time, sitting in this chair for me to have made a mark with the culture and the songs that I have supported, the artists that I have supported, the DJ’s that I have supported, and the music that I have supported. In terms of my career to take those things that I have supported, I just hope that I have done my part to hold up the culture while I am in the chair.

 

There is no denying that radio is an integral part of our culture and with people like Dion at the helm of the ship, the future of music, and the culture, are in good hands.

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