Interview: Tim Westwood: Rappin' with Auntie
Saturday 28 March 1998
"In 12 years of DJing this is the first time that such a big and prestigious club has opened its doors, on a Saturday night, to rap music on a weekly basis," says Westwood
"It's so important to me. If you imagine the radio event on one side and the listening audience on the other side, then this will be a meeting point. You can't run a radio station in isolation from your audience, so now we can all come together to meet at street level."
Meeting at the Radio 1 offices, Westwood talks about the new project with palpable excitement. Twelve years on he's still trying to bring rap music to a wider audience - it's no easy task. When rap culture does make a rare appearance in the mainstream press, it's almost exclusively depicted in negative terms. Indeed, anyone attempting to promote hip-hop events can detail the unwillingness of councils to grant late licences and will invariably dwell on the difficulties encountered when trying to persuade the police to sanction events.
"That's the basic fight which has always been there," he sighs. "It stems from racism because these events are mostly black.
"At the end of the day if a venue doesn't want a street audience then there's not much you can do. But rap has enormous diversity and variety - if they can't realise it for what it is it's their loss."
Though hip-hop is older than most other popular dance music styles, it has retained an underground feel. It occasionally rears its head to attract mainstream popularity (in the late 1980s, the 30-second rap practically replaced the guitar solo in modern pop/dance music, while today, everything released by Sean Puffy's Bad Boy label sells spectacularly), but these manifestations rarely reflect the hardcore flavour of hip-hop.
"My show's about raw uncut flava, that's really the essence," Westwood explains. "It's about not compromising - keeping it real - so when you tune in you know what's going down."
While much of modern dance music can trace its roots back across the Atlantic, some forms, such as house music and drum'n'bass have managed to produce influential artists, producers and DJs all over the world, from Belgium to Bristol to the Balearics. Yet in rap, the worldwide dominance of US artists has meant that few UK performers have made a significant impact at home, let alone overseas.
Westwood, however, has tirelessly championed terminally underfunded UK artists - with varying levels of success.
"American acts like Puffy, Busta Rhymes and Notorious B.I.G make a lot of money for UK companies but the money isn't reinvested in UK artists," Westwood explains. "This has been the bottom-line problem since day one.
"There's some great talent in the UK but there needs to be more financial support. It's OK when you're MC-ing at college but later on you need money for studio equipment. Those [UK artists] who have been successful. like Blak Twang ["Red Letter"], talk about the trials and tribulations of their lives, which is something that you can relate to if you're from the same background. And, The London Posse use local dialects to talk about what it's like being stopped by the police and other everyday struggles that black youths face today."
Raised in West London, Westwood began his DJ career carrying record boxes for a local sound system. "I got to play when no one had arrived." After helping to set up LWR he joined Kiss in its days as a pirate station before moving to Capital Radio.
"I was just a street DJ who loved the music. In the early days, I managed to establish contact with DJs in New York, along with other artists and producers. That really set me on my way."
His move to Radio 1 surprised many observers, but the switch from Capital Radio was just one in a series of radical moves by the ailing BBC giant designed to attract a new, younger audience. Hip-hop and reggae are generally under-represented in the UK media, so the new shows were intended to promote wider aspects of street-based music.
When Westwood joined forces with Auntie it represented a meeting of two disparate cultures. But he talks of the union in glowing terms.
"The set up here is incredible," he enthuses. "The station isn't profit- led so it's all about music and programming ideas. Here you can develop things to their full potential.
"When I was at Capital I used to do Notting Hill Carnival every year, but had to finance it personally, which meant limitations. Radio 1 identify Carnival as a very important event and they want to contribute to it by putting on a great show that features top acts.
"Before, I'd bring in the sound system, set up in the road at Notting Hill and just go for it. But with Radio 1, we're bringing in acts like Foxy Brown, Lost Boys, JayZ and Busta Rhymes and it's much more professional."
Westwood's vocal style is as distinct as his show and laced with colloquial street jargon. When we meet he sports the baggy urban uniform of rap fans the world over; you're left in no doubt as to where he comes from.
He remains popular on the streets because he comes up with the goods, namely the top US DJs (New York legend Funkmaster Flex exclusively jets in for tonight's launch at The Temple) and MCs. While he "walks the walk and talks the talk" (he personally promotes events by handing out flyers around London), a minority are quick to attribute his success to his skin colour. It's clearly a subject that he feels uncomfortable discussing publicly.
"I wouldn't know anything about that because I haven't known any other situation. I don't know how to answer that really... I've never seen it [being white] as an advantage or a disadvantage."
Has he ever received flak because of his colour? "I haven't seen that," he mumbles slowly, shaking his head. "I've had enormous love and support from the people everywhere ."
It is clearly a line of questioning that he, quite justifiably, tires of answering, because he has nothing to prove. There are numerous rap DJs but none can match his track record.
His promotion of UK artists is tireless, his Radio 1 Rap Show is a success, his Carnival stage is the busiest - often too busy - every year, while his new residency at the Temple will have fans queuing around the block.
His Justice Productions company promotes numerous hip-hop events in addition to producing both his own Radio 1 show and Chris Goldfinger's Radio 1 Reggae Show for the BBC. Ultimately his success stems from his commitment to the music he champions.
"I never knew what I wanted to do until I was actually doing it. I never looked on it as a career because I didn't know how long it was going to last. On the radio or in the clubs, it's about just ripping it down. The street will never let me lose that buzz so I'm grateful for the opportunity to do what I do."
The Radio 1 Rap Show runs from 11pm-2am on Friday and 9pm-midnight on Saturday. See At the Clubface, page 53, for a preview of Westwood at The Temple
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