Tim Westwood: Rappers' delight

At home he's compared to Ali G, but in America Tim Westwood is a hip-hop icon. Ian Burrell hangs out with the DJ in New York
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The snow is lying more than eight inches thick in Manhattan, and Tim "Big Dawg, Pit Bull" Westwood scampers like a puppy through the drifts. On the roof of New York City's greatest rap venue, the gangling BBC Radio 1 DJ hurls snowballs at graffiti-covered walls and shouts into the lens of his personal cameraman. "I'm up here at Speed in N-Y-C, doing my thing, broadcasting live to the UK," he screams at the man making a DVD of his trip. "I got a lot of hot artists passing through."

Like a climber atop a mountain peak, Westwood, 46, is at the pinnacle of his world. Downstairs in Speed, some of the greatest names in the world of hip-hop are gathering in his honour. Minutes later, these rappers are paying homage to him in a style that mimics the posters adorning theatres in nearby Broadway. "Tim Westwood is a legend" - Wyclef Jean. "One of the leading DJs" - 50 Cent. "He's so cool. A very cool guy" - Pete Rock.

Rap sleeve-notes from the past two decades are peppered with thanks and "shout-outs" to the English DJ. They are testimonies which must stick in the craw of those British cynics who have suggested there is no place for an East Anglian-born son of a clergyman in a movement that evolved to give voice to the ghettos of urban America.

Sitting in his hotel room later that night, Westwood dismisses those who seek to undermine his career with sniggering references to Ali G, Sacha Baron Cohen's comic parody of the suburban British rap fan. "That's their opinion. They don't mean nothing to me. They're not part of my world," says the man whose Platinum Edition 2003 rap compilation is the biggest-selling British urban album of all time. "They don't understand it. It's their loss."

Westwood understood the rap game early in its evolution from block party to billion-dollar industry. It is 25 years ago this summer since The Sugarhill Gang added a series of rhymes to the funky rhythm of Chic's "Good Times" to create "Rapper's Delight". It would be the first hit record of a genre that was to change the course of popular music and influence the attitude, dress sense and mannerisms of the young followers n every country on the planet.

"I said a hip, hop, the hippie, the hipidipit, hip, hip, hopit, you don't stop." - The Sugarhill Gang.

"Is it 25 years? I bought that record," recalls Westwood, eating chocolate-flavoured pop corn and playing with a toy alarm clock shaped like Flavor Flav, the madcap rapper from the group Public Enemy. "I wasn't a DJ then, I was a kid. Jesus..." Aware of how snipers have tried to use his past to undermine his credibility on the streets, Westwood is, at first, understandably reticent about his early years.

He was born in 1957 in the Suffolk fishing port of Lowestoft, a town with few musical references until the emergence last year of the glam-rock outfit The Darkness. When Westwood's clergyman father, Bill, transferred to a parish in Norfolk, Westwood junior was enrolled at the private Norwich School before switching to a comprehensive. But it was his father's move to a London parish - when Westwood was still in his late teens - that was to transform his life. After staying in Norwich to finish his schooling, he left his digs and joined his parents in the capital.

In an era when funk and then jazz funk dominated the dancefloors, Westwood attached himself to the inner-city scene, rather than head out to the East Anglian coast of his birth for the famous "weekender" parties ("That was an out-of-town white folks' thing"). Having set up home in west London, he was also drawn to the Caribbean-infused street-life of the then down-at-heel Notting Hill, and in particular its notorious "frontline", All Saints Road.

"You'll admire all the number book rakers, thugs pimps and pushers, and the big money makers, driving big cars, spending 20's and 10's, and you'll wanna grow up to be just like them." - Melle Mel, The Furious Five.

Westwood says: "Other kids would have gone to Saturday morning matinées and I went down there. It was crazy like nothing you had ever seen in your life. That was the old days when street cats used to have the 'line. That 'line was hot!"

His income came from odd-jobs in London music venues like The Lyceum and from working as a glass collector in Gossips, a black music club in Soho. But he also began to nurture his own DJing ambitions by carrying equipment (known as being a "boxboy") for a sound system called JBs. "That was the first time I got on the decks," he says. "The first record I ever played was 'Rapper's Delight'. I was really with it off the back of that."

Westwood briefly nurtured ambitions to be a rapper. "For a minute I was fuckin' around as a rapper," he says. "I remember one guy bit all my lyrics. That taught me it was a bit more serious than I thought." So he stuck to DJing, cutting his teeth on the black-owned pirate station London Weekend Radio in the mid-Eighties before landing his first big break with the Capital Rap Show on London's biggest commercial station in 1987. Westwood's seven years at Capital coincided with the growing importance of hip-hop radio DJs in New York, most notably Funkmaster Flex, with whom the Englishman quickly "bonded" and built a relationship that has been pivotal to his career. Surprisingly, Westwood is unable to say exactly when they first met (unlike many music fanatics he does not possess an encyclopaedic memory and is more interested in tomorrow than yesterday), but recalls it was at one of the early radio broadcasts that Flex began making from New York 14 years ago. The pair are so close that Westwood is a member of Flex's "Big Dawg, Pit Bull" collective, comprising the world's élite hip-hop DJs who are always the first to receive any exclusive rap releases. The Radio 1 man is the only non-American Big Dawg, Pit Bull.

"I came out [to New York] from the minute I got into the rap game, just to understand it," says Westwood. "You can't interpret hip-hop in the UK. I have been in the game for so long, worked with so many artists. Cats like the show, people like what I do and I'm sort of established in the artist community, especially the New York artist community."

The veracity of this statement is borne out byWestwood's recent two-day broadcast from Speed, the cavernous nightclub on 39th Street identifiable only by a red number 20 above a plain black door. At his left-hand is Marley Marl, arguably the greatest hip-hop producer of all time, and on his right is Mister Cee, star presenter at Hot97, New York's premier rap radio station.

Sitting on small leather sofas in front of Westwood, as he sends home his dispatches to a hip-hop hungry audience from the Milton Keynes Massive to the Caerphilly Crew, is a veritable "who's who" of the rap world. No one quite embodies the current strength of rap like 50 Cent, who demands that the room be cleared before he enters with his G-Unit entourage (a move designed to create an aura as much as to protect him from rival rappers with whom he has "beef'). Westwood quickly puts 50 at ease, reminiscing about the times they spent together in Britain last summer. After the interview, 50 Cent tells The Independent: "Westwood is like my Funkmaster Flex overseas. He's one of the leading DJs in knowing what goes on, even though he's over there."

Another guest, Green Lantern (the DJ for Eminem), goes further still. "In the United States we just look at him as [if] he's official. He's put in his time and paid his dues. He's a hip-hop icon."

Westwood is sitting down to broadcast, which is unusual because back at his studio in the basement of Radio 1 he is on his feet continuously, bouncing around like a teenager in his bedroom. Every "hot joint" he plays is greeted with a comment such as: "That's the way it's going down!" or a jab of the finger at his sound effects box which sets off a volley of gunshots. Westwood's extraordinary use of language, with his shouts of "damn!" and "eggzackly!" and his preference for addressing guests and listeners as "cats" or "man" or "babee" have prompted accusations thathe has developed a false persona.

Certainly, when he talks off air, his accent is more that of a regular Londoner. But Westwood has an explanation. "It's flavour. It's showbusiness. It's entertainment. Muthafuckers have got to understand," he says. "Trevor McDonald is a television newsreader. He doesn't sound like a Yardie, he sounds like a newsreader. I'm a hip-hop DJ. I'm hip-hop, that's how I sound." The rappers themselves don't seem to have any problems with his hybrid dialect. CL Smooth sees Westwood's presenting style as evidence of his ability to use his communications skills to cross cultural divides. "He can build with you American style or ghetto style or even British style," he says. "It's not a phony, it's an understanding of what different cultures are like."

That is not to say that Westwood leaves hip-hop on the doorstep every time he returns to the west London flat he has lived in for the past 20 years. Quite the opposite. "I live for this. This is all I've got," he says. "It's not like I've got another career. I live this to bits."

Westwood's housing-association crib is crammed with music and little else. It is hardly the bling-jewellery-and-swimming-pool lifestyle of most hip-hop videos, although he can boast of having had rap legends Chuck D and LL Cool J round to visit. "I've not got my shit together. I want to get out of there, I want to get to the West End," he says. Far from swigging Cristal champagne straight from the bottle, Westwood doesn't touch alcohol. But he does indulge himself when it comes to cars - or at least trucks with huge wheels. He has a Chevrolet and a Yukon, which have wheel rims of 20 inches and 24 inches wide. He is organising a car show for the most ostentatious rides in hip-hop but knows he will have to go some way to beat Wyclef's vehicle, with its self-contained aquarium filled with baby sharks. Such trucks are perhaps not the most discreet form of transportation for someone who was wounded and nearly killed five years ago when a gunman opened fire on his Land Cruiser as he paused at traffic lights on the way home from a show in south London. But the DJ, who has been with Radio 1 for a decade, refuses to keep a lower profile. Although Westwood was not the target, some commentators seemed to suspect the incident was some sort of retribution for someone who had been moving in a world where he did not belong.

"You better duck away, run-n-hide out, when I'm roll on real slow, and the light's out, cos I'm about, to fuck up the program, shooting out the window." - Ice Cube.

But the DJ himself is nothing but grateful to the young black crowd that has always been his core audience and the black club owners that gave him his early breaks. ("I've definitely had a blessed life from start to finish.") Although he can command top dollar for his shows and employs 11 people at his production company in central London, he would like to do more low-price events for under-18s.

After the shooting, the Sunday Times door-stepped Bill Westwood, who had gone on to become ordained Bishop of Peterborough, and invited him to pass comment. Far from being judgmental of a wayward son, the response suggested a relationship of mutual respect. "I would rather stay out of everything because I think it only adds to his burden," he said. He didn't add to mine when I was working, so I don't want to add to his.

Before returning home from New York, Westwood gives a rare insight into his feelings for his father, who passed away shortly after he made those comments. "My dad was in the church. That was his job. I just grew up with him doing that. My dad was a good man from humble origins who really achieved a lot," he says. Westwood could rightly argue that there is not such a world of difference between the sermon and the rhyme, with both demanding the skill to stand up and move a crowd. After all, one of Britain's leading rappers, Roots Manuva, is the son of a fire-and-brimstone churchman. And then there is Wyclef, the multi-millionaire former Fugee who named his latest album Preacher's Son in recognition of his Haitian church upbringing.

"You see, when Westwood comes out here to New York, the best of the best come out," says Wyclef. "We look at Tim Westwood like a legend."

Westwood's 'Platinum Edition 2003' is out now on Def Jam