Zane Lowe: Take it to the streets

The music business may be afflicted by declining sales and a crisis of confidence, but the Radio 1 DJ Zane Lowe tells Ian Burrell he knows the direction it should be taking
Click to follow

Zane Lowe was trapped in a Nick Hornby novel. Stuck behind the counter of a second-hand record shop with a group of music know-alls, he spent his days trying to avoid being assaulted by the stream of oddballs who arrived to offload their vinyl and CD collections.

But, unlike Rob Fleming, the central character in High Fidelity, Hornby's tale of musical obsession, Lowe, an irrepressible New Zealander, enjoyed working in the real-life London record shop that is believed to have been the inspiration for the best-selling novel and subsequent Hollywood film. "That place was crazy," he says of the second-hand shop. "There was a rogues' gallery on the wall, with CCTV pictures of people trying to attack staff, so that they could be identified next time they came in. There would be shots of guys literally getting punched across the counter."

Five years on, it is clear that Lowe's early optimism was not misplaced. He escaped from behind the counter to secure his own music television show and is a rising star on BBC Radio1. Despite having grown up in Auckland, Lowe, 29, has emerged as the unlikely champion of emerging British talent, embracing a diversity of artists from rock bands such as Million Dead to the east-London rapper Dizzee Rascal.

At the recent Mercury music prize ceremony, it was the Kiwi who - at Dizzee's request - leapt on to the stage to introduce his entry with an impassioned plea to the judging panel to award the trophy to the teenage pirate-radio protégé. "It was really nerve-racking," he says. "I made a few observations about the record. I made a comparison between Dizzee and The Streets and said that the kind of artist who is making beats and rhymes in their bedroom doesn't really have to draw inspiration from America. They can take inspiration from their own neighbourhood."

Dizzee Rascal won the prize. It's just possible that Lowe's intervention swayed the judges. He says: "I thought: if I can make a tiny amount of difference, I will have done something good for him. After all, he's done something for us by making such a wicked record."

A former member of a New Zealand hip-hop crew called Urban Disturbance, Lowe is the son of a radio pioneer who set up the NZ equivalent of British seaborne pirate stations such as Caroline. He abandoned his communications degree after one year to take a job at Max TV, a fledgling New Zealand music television station. Every artist who passed through that part of the world became a potential interviewee for Lowe, and he grabbed the chance to meet everyone from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to kd lang.

When he moved to London, in 1997, he was in possession of a show tape of top-name interviews. "Most show tapes are three minutes long. Mine lasted 18 and a half minutes," he recalls. After seeing the tape, MTV took a chance on Lowe and allowed him a two-week on-air audition. "It was definitely a baptism of fire," he recalls. "But the deep end was where I needed to be."

Still new to Britain, he found himself trying to decipher the Mancunian vowels of the former Stone Roses singer, Ian Brown. Lowe says: "I hadn't had much experience with a Northern accent, and I understood only about 40 per cent of what he said. The interview just consisted of me going: 'Classic, classic,' after everything he said. I think he understood I was a fish out of water."

Lowe prospered at MTV and was given his own show, Brand New, which was an oasis of alternative music in a schedule crowded with late-Nineties pop. "The Hives got their first play on Brand New. We played Muse early on, and we played Limp Bizkit and Blink 182 way before other people," he says. "Everyone else was doing Saturday-morning music. It was pop, pop, pop. It was pop overload," he says. But then MTV bosses decided Brand New was looking a little worn around the edges. "I was told it was a niche watch."

Brand New was moved around the schedules, then taken off air. But Lowe was not short on new offers from those who saw the need for alternative music shows. He found himself fronting Gonzo, an eclectic show for MTV2, and doing a radio programme for the London-based indie station Xfm. It was the latter that provided him with his bridgehead to Radio 1, where he is considered to be one of the most important new recruits by the controller, Andy Parfitt.

Three months into the job, he has already learnt a lot from his peers. "John Peel comes in with a throwaway comment and three minutes of edgy Japanese punk rock and makes me feel like I'm doing the breakfast show," he says.

In contrast to the despondency that weighs on the shoulders of many music-industry types, Lowe exudes a constant enthusiasm for new sounds, especially from Britain. "One of my favourite things is listening to music and hearing it made. That's why I love Britain - I think America struggles to accept music outside different genres, whereas in Britain there's always something exciting and new coming out.

In Brighton recently, while broadcasting live for Radio 1 a show featuring Dizzee Rascal and the Jamaican dancehall star Sean Paul, he said his intention was to "make people excited about listening to music again". Citing bands such as Kill Kenada and Winnebago Deal, he says: "I don't think I've ever been as excited about British rock'n'roll as I am now. There's a whole scene of bands making this edgy, spiky rock'n'roll."

Lowe has little confidence in the record indus-try's ability to capitalise on such talent. He knows it is a business, but feels that there is "too much industry and not enough music" involved, and an obsession with bean-counting means it is often out-thought by flexible new-media rivals. "The music industry should be run by people who know music. But things have really changed since the early Nineties, when they got the accountants in."

One solution to the general malaise, Lowe believes, could be an album chart show on terrestrial television to highlight music with lasting quality, rather than the transient pop diet of Top of the Pops. He says: "It is long overdue, and I'm waiting for the call."

Zane Lowe's show is on BBC Radio 1, 8-10pm, Tuesday to Thursday