The 43-year-old Tampa-based DJ has made a name for himself in the entertainment space, appearing on-screen and on-air across numerous radio stations, at plenty of clubs, and even inside of a massive treasure chest—his personal DJ booth at Raymond James Stadium where he emcees Tampa Bay’s biggest football party.
Ekin has always wanted to make a difference. He’s been founding initiatives toward aiding and inspiring youth since at least 2008, but now, with his latest program, Hip-Hop Study Hall (HHSH), he is attempting to complete that goal on a much larger scale. HHSH is a two-day educational program that aims to teach children about the ins and outs of the music industry, specifically in hip-hop. But it also consists of a podcast and an upcoming app.
HHSH manages to encompass everything Ekin is passionate about: helping youth, sharing industry knowledge, networking, and of course: hip-hop. If there’s one thing he’s proud of, it’s his upbringing as a “hip-hop kid,” which he still describes himself as today.
Growing up a hip hop kid
Ekin was born Bobby Hack in the Bronx, New York on Dec. 11, 1978. His parents were originally from the south; his mother hailed from Virginia and his dad from Alabama. Growing up in the Bronx wasn’t without its struggles but from a very young age Ekin was exposed to the culture of hip-hop.
He was raised in the birthplace of the genre, all during its monumental explosion. His sister was friends with DJ Kool Herc, a Bronx DJ credited with starting the genre, and he would visit their mom’s house often. Herc’s influence began in 1973 when he DJ’d his own sister’s back-to-school party— it was there that his mixing skills introduced hip-hop to the Bronx and then the world. A year after Ekin was born, The Sugarhill Gang released “Rapper’s Delight,” the first hip-hop song to ever reach the Billboard Top 40; Afrika Bambaataa then dropped the iconic song “Planet Rock” in 1982. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released the impactful “The Message” that same year.
“I consider myself the epitome of the hip-hop kid because I’ve been in this hip-hop thing from the beginning,” Ekin says.
Baseball and music were Ekin’s two loves growing up. When was 12, he asked his dad for a stereo system like all of his friends had. Instead, dad showed up and plopped two turntables and a mixer on his desk.
“I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be a DJ, I had asked him for a stereo system. I didn’t appreciate it back then,” Ekin says.
He says he probably touched the tables once every two weeks. However, he knew that he had a talent for it, he just didn’t know if that was the career path he wanted to follow.
At 17, his dad’s time in the military led him to London. The casual DJing eventually turned into his very first paid gig there—and soon after he discovered his name.
“I was a wild ass hip-hop kid out of the country. And the fact that [my friends and I] were not from England is what really made it great because back then it was a phenomenon to see some kids from New York that have everything you may have seen in a hip-hop magazine,” Ekin says. “In England, I had so many Nikes that they started calling me The Nike Kid. I didn’t like it at all and with the slight case of dyslexia that I have, I turned it around and it became DJ Ekin.”
Following London, Ekin did a short stint in the Air Force then moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where he attended parties and networked, hanging out at the recording studio. He had thoughts of becoming a rapper, a dancer, and then a recording engineer, an idea that led him to Florida.
“Something clicked and I thought, ‘There’s more to me than just being the guy in the party,’” Ekin says.
Riding the beat to Florida
Around 1998, at 20 years old, he moved to Orlando to prepare to attend Full Sail University. He planned to study to become a recording engineer. However, after enrolling, he realized that something was off. He noticed that his heart wasn’t in producing. With this, he instead decided to attend Valencia College while familiarizing himself with the Orlando nightlife scene. He had left Bobby Hack in Georgia; he was now DJ Ekin.
“Florida was the first decision I made that I was like I’m only going to tell people my name is Ekin and this is the move from here on out,” Ekin says.
Around this time he met a girl who had a radio show at Rollins College. He began getting involved with the show and soon thought that maybe radio could be his future. With this epiphany, around 2001, he began to attend the University of Central Florida to pursue a degree in Communications in Radio and TV with a minor in Marketing.
All of Ekin’s networking paid off when a friend of his thought of him for a huge job. Greg Graham, who was working at the music promotions company Promo Only, told Ekin about an opening at the BET SoundStage, a new club that was just about to debut on Disney’s Pleasure Island. He landed the role and was soon DJing at the popular club 3-4 times a week.
BET Soundstage helped to put Ekin on the map and soon he found himself accepting a position at Power 95.3-FM. While meeting people through street team work, he became acquainted with rapper Scarface’s best friend G Wallace. This connection soon became yet another job; Ekin ended up working the street team for Def Jam in 2000.
Ekin stresses the significance of networking; it’s something he wants to make sure he emphasizes to kids in Hip-Hop Study Hall.
“I always tell people: your network is really what moves you around this thing. If you can get the right network of people, opportunities will come. You can be the greatest DJ in the world but if nobody knows about you, you’re just the greatest in your bedroom,” Ekin says.
Working for Def Jam sent Ekin driving between Orlando and Tampa every week. His presence in Tampa resulted in more and more DJ gigs in the Bay area. “It felt to my Orlando friends like I lived in Tampa at that point,” Ekin says.
In 2003, Ekin graduated from UCF. All of the time he had spent in Tampa proved useful when he secured a job in early 2004 at 95.7-FM The Beat, Tampa Bay’s urban contemporary radio station. It was his first major role in radio and subsequently, he moved to Tampa full-time. Although he had the title of Promotions Assistant, he was doing much more, like talking to labels, scheduling music, and writing promos. He was the leader of The Beat’s street team and even helped start the internship program.
One of his proudest accomplishments at the station was his part in shaping the radio’s largely popular “Future Flavors” segment. Sprouted out of an initiative by iHeart, the program aimed to highlight independent artists. But according to Ekin, by “independent” they just meant an artist not already signed to the “big five” record labels at the time (Warner Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, and Universal Music Group).
“What that meant was if you were on Bad Boy Records you were considered independent, which isn’t fair to an actual independent artist,” Ekin says. “[My coworker Stu Robinson and I] went to the office and we said, ‘We get that this is supposed to be for independent artists but let’s focus it on Tampa.’ Our bosses said, ‘You handle it, you got it.’ That’s how Future Flavors was created for Tampa here in Tampa. It became a concentration on music that was only coming out of here.”
He stayed there for six years until 2010 when he was fired due to a change in vision from the station. Then in 2012, he accepted a job at Hot 101.5. Although it was a great opportunity, he says, he didn’t feel like he was using his full potential there. He remembers being asked to alter his voice to sound “brighter,” a comment that he viewed as a micro-aggression.
“Maybe I should’ve asked for more clarity, but since it was something that I had never had said to me before, combined with the format of the station, I took it to mean ‘sound more Caucasian,’” Ekin says. To accommodate the request, he changed his pitch when he was on-air.
“It wasn't the right situation for me,” Ekin says. “I learned a lot and met a lot of people that I still work with to this day but [while I was there] I felt like I was one of the few people where my career was going backward. I felt like people were getting opportunities that I was ready for within six months of being there. At some point, something had to give.”
In 2017 Ekin left his position at the radio station. A few months later he got one of the biggest offers of his career. Again, through skilled networking, his friends at Street Laced Marketing and Promotions, Greg Wolf and Blaise Potts alerted him to a job he would “be perfect for.” Fast forward and he was soon roaring up the crowd at Raymond James Stadium as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ official DJ.
Ekin says that the Bucs job has “been crazy” and that it’s nice to be on a team that is “receptive to his ideas.” He’s also a rotating DJ for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Take one look at Ekin’s Instagram and it’s clear he has major Tampa pride.
“I am Tampa now,” Ekin says. “When I started carrying the moniker of Tampa’s Most Connected DJ, it meant something to me.”
Ekin’s love for his community is not something that stopped with his creation of “Future Flavors.” In February, he brought together plenty of local talent for his Bucs’ anthem, “Rollin’ In The Bay.” Tampa Bay legend Tom G, along with up-and-coming Tampa Bay rappers PyroThePoet, Priceless Scott, Swavor, and VC rapped over an infectious beat by Spindiana Jones.
“‘Rollin’ In The Bay’ to me was a chance to showcase Tampa artists on a big stage. It was about an ode to Tampa Bay,” Ekin says.
“I figured I could be the connect between all of these dope artists,” Ekin adds. “One of the things I like to do with these people is inspire them. A lot of times we do these records and we don't do the business.”
With decades of industry knowledge under his belt, Ekin has seen his fair share of bad record deals, sneaky contracts, and unfair limitations placed on artists. He’s developed a passion for sharing this information with young artists and young people dreaming of the industry.
“The mindset these young artists should have is that: understand that when you create something, you want to own it. You shouldn't have to create three different things to put your family through college when there’s some guy who had you sign messed up paperwork putting his kids through college on your creation. The thing about creatives is that we get so caught up in the art form that we forget to do the business,” Ekin says.
HHSH was created about three months before the pandemic hit. It’s a program under Ekin’s nonprofit iCare About Me, which was founded in 2009. The nonprofit aims to increase the self-esteem and self-worth of today’s youth. HHSH still revolves around this mission while focusing on opportunities in the music business.
His first presentation of the program was at East Tampa’s King High School early last year. He walked into a class of 11th graders with rapper Soljah (who helped start HHSH) and one of the first exercises they did was to have kids sign a music contract. Ekin picked three kids and brought them up to the front to show them the “contract.” On the front was the deal, in the middle there was blank paper, and on the back, space for a signature. The whole class was screaming for them to sign it. Ekin sealed the deal by telling them there would be a million dollars in it for them. One of the most talkative kids grabbed the pen and “signed her life away.”
“It was blank paper!” Ekin says, explaining that artists often get caught up in the moment and sign contracts without reading them. “We took the one million dollars and broke it down to show the kids what it actually means in the music industry. And it doesn't mean anything. It means you owe people one million but you might only walk away with about $50K.”
HHSH is divided into parts—the blank contract exercise was an aspect of “Part One: There’s Rules to This.” This section educates kids about the business behind the music; touching on subjects like networking, signing contracts, and owning their work.
“Part Two: Deeper Than Rap” is where Ekin breaks down all of the other available jobs in the industry like recording engineers, managers, booking agents, and more. He says that he wishes kids would look beyond the big chains, fancy cars, and expensive sneakers and think about the jobs behind the scenes.
“We got to start showing our kids that these opportunities are there because all they see now is the glamor and the glitz and the bullshit that is on Instagram,” Ekin says.
The third part is “The Pull Up,” where Ekin plans to bring the studio to the kids with a van fully equipped with all of the tools essential to creating music.
Ekin’s main focus right now is building Hip Hop Study Hall to its full potential. Due to the pandemic, he was only able to implement the 2-day educational program at one high school but he hopes to continue soon now that Florida’s schools have loosened their restrictions.
His target age range for HHSH is seventh grade through college sophomores. Schools, clubs, and organizations interested in bringing HHSH to their kids can call 720-984-ICAM or fill out an inquiry form.
He also wants the educational program to live where the kids are —on the internet— to reel in their attention. He recently ended his former DJ Ekin podcast (which focused more on discussions revolving around pop culture and reality TV) to put all of his energy into his Hip Hop Study Hall podcast, which discusses music industry topics and brings in key speakers. “It's part learning platform, part inspiration, and all things culture,” as Ekin describes it. He is also hoping to get the app off the ground sometime next year.
From rapper to dancer, recording engineer, and radio host, Ekin can now say that he understands his true calling.
“I was so attached to radio for a long time. It was kind of like what I thought made me,” Ekin explains. “But now most of the things that matter to me are for the next set of creators—so that they can have an easier go at it than I did. I just want to leave my mark that way. What matters to me is, ‘What am I giving you?’ ‘What door can I leave open that you can walk through without having to fight to get in?’”