Going from gangsta to pranksta

BBC Radio's king of hip hop, Tim 'Big Dawg' Westwood, has revealed a talent for comedy and become a star on Twitter and YouTube.
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Easter Sunday and the Radio 1 presenter Tim Westwood is on Twitter. "Just been to church," says the BBC's voice of hip hop. "Was told Jesus had 12 followers. Didn't realise his Twitter game was so weak."

Perhaps Westwood did celebrate the resurrection this year. After all, the "Big Dawg" is famously the son of a former Bishop of Peterborough. What is less well-known among his critics, but better appreciated by his youthful audience, is that Westwood is a presenter of considerable comedic talent.

Moved into an afternoon slot on the BBC's digital 1Xtra station, he has been freed up to indulge in an audio slapstick where he almost lampoons the character which he was once supposed to be.

In the past, Westwood – who was shot by a gunman on a motorcycle in 1999 – has been derided by social and political conservatives (he was an early target of David Cameron's) and the liberal left for his perceived desire to immerse himself in the culture of gangsta rap, a lanky white man dressed in the sloppy streetwear of Karl Kani and Ecko Unlimited, speaking in an eccentric urban slang which they couldn't understand (and largely comprehensible only to the deejay himself).

But no one could accuse Westwood of wanting to be a gangster now. Not when he tweets things like, "You know you're whipped when you've thrown out your back holding her bag". Not when he tells his audience: "I find people laugh at me. Often, when I walk into a room, girls just laugh for no reason." Not when he banters about his age, saying, "I'm 27 and I've got my birth certificate in here," when old skool hip hop heads know that he long ago passed the big Five-Oh (and we're not talking about the police here, baby).

Westwood, with his impeccable contacts in the rap pantheon, can still persuade artists of the stature of 50 Cent and LL Cool J to appear on his shows (both his afternoon 1Xtra vehicle and his Saturday night programme on Radio 1). But these days he is equally likely to head down to the studios of Radio 1 presenter Scott Mills to "nick his guests" like Justin Lee Collins and camp comedian Alan Carr. "Those guys are hilarious," he says. "We've got them by the hand and led them to our studio."

His interaction with a young audience ensures he is an early adopter of technology. He has more than 50,000 followers on Twitter. His YouTube channel, Tim Westwood TV, is a British media phenomenon and has clocked up over 50 million video views. "We get these accreditations, number one music channel in the world, number one channel in the UK," he says nonchalantly.

On Tim Westwood TV you will find archive footage – showing the radio presenter's intuition for the future value of video and historical content – of his interviews with rap greats such as Nas and Xzibit. There are performances from hardcore British grime acts Skepta, Giggs and Trim.

There's also the knockabout humour of sparring with heavyweight boxer David Haye ("I'm going to take it like a man because I work for the BBC") and freestyle rapping from Justin Bieber, the 16-year-old pop singer ("he was more mature than I was").

The Bieber clip has had 350,000 views. "You pay attention to Tim Westwood TV I understand," says the BBC man in his introduction. "Yes, I do!" shouts back Bieber before going into his rap. "I'm a young white rapper and I don't get high, teenage girls is what I really like," he spits. The result is more effective than it looks in print. "He got on and ripped it man," Westwood says. The clip does not allow viewers to respond, however. "We took the comments section down. Justin Bieber has mad love but my audience are not an accepting audience of pop artists."

Because 1Xtra's music policy is dedicated to the urban sounds for which Westwood is known, he feels he is in an environment where he can take more risks. "On Radio 1 [in the afternoon] there are people who might not like you or the music, but with 1Xtra the people are on your side," he says.

He acknowledges that the development of his humorous persona benefited from hosting the MTV television show Pimp My Ride and from a shift in mood in the rap genre, where artists from Dizzee Rascal to Jay-Z are seeking to broaden their appeal. "It's a different world now, the music is different and people want entertainment. Young people want to turn on the radio and have fun," says Westwood. "Who'd ever have thought I'd be doing a daytime show? My thing was just ripping it down on a Saturday night."

Who'd have thought too that the Big Dawg, the Chevvy Suburban driving self-styled "kingpin of the car game", would also be a dedicated volunteer? Aside from his long-standing role as patron of the Radio Feltham facility at a west London young offenders' institution, he also supports the Body & Soul Teen Spirit charity which assists young people with HIV and Aids, and Sonic, a group that helps ex-offenders rebuild their lives by developing music skills.

Westwood will lead the Local Hero campaign being launched this month by Radio 1 and 1Xtra to encourage listeners to give up time for community-based projects. "It's helping out some old folks, helping tidy up stuff, stuff with animals. It's particularly aimed at our audience to show them how they can do this, contribute to their community and give back." Cameron, who has his own volunteering initiative, can't criticise the Big Dawg any longer.

Contrary to popular belief, American hip hop, says Westwood, is not all about bling. "With US hip hop you have to be seen to be making a contribution to the community that has supported you." He can't say the same for Premier League footballers, who enjoy the equivalent level of wealth and status here. "These footballers, I just think they live in such a separate world to the rest of us. People have a right to comment and ask, 'What are they actually giving back?' They've got all this money and are doing their own thing. In hip hop in the States that would not be acceptable and you'd be criticised, and rightfully so."

Maybe footballers should consider Westwood's approach, where self-deprecating humour and charity work beat bling. "I'm in a really good place right now," he says. "This has been an evolution of what we've been doing, it's definitely been a good thing."