Trevor Nelson: 'I don't want to be a celebrity'

Despite winning radio's equivalent of an Oscar, DJ Trevor Nelson doesn't care about fame. He tells Ian Burrell why for him it's all about the music
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The Independent Online

It was only when he was sitting in a hotel ballroom surrounded by applauding radio executives and serenaded by the London Community Gospel Choir singing "Now That We've Found Love" that Trevor Nelson began to take himself seriously. He might not have had that epiphany if he had been allowed to slip out early from this year's Sony Awards ceremony and beat the queues for a taxi home. When his boss Andy Parfitt, the head of BBC Radio 1, told him to stay put he assumed it was a matter of etiquette.

And even when his old college mate, the musician Andrew Roachford, began introducing the winner of the coveted Gold Award (the biggest prize of the radio industry's Oscars) , and said the winner was an old college friend of his, Nelson could only think: "Who else went to our college?" Then the penny finally dropped.

"It's the best award I've ever won and the first time I realised that I should take what I do seriously – because I never have," he says now in a London restaurant. He shouldn't have been so surprised. A presenter on both Radio 1 (Saturday nights) and Radio 2 (Wednesday nights), his main role is hosting the breakfast show on the BBC's urban music station, 1Xtra. He has recently fronted documentaries for Radio 4 and Radio 5 Live, and is internationally known for his television work on MTV.

Even so, he has never been able to shake off the idea that broadcasting is essentially a hobby. Born to St Lucian immigrants in London's East End, he started his working life in shoe shops and music shops, and was on air in his spare time at the then pirate radio station Kiss FM. He never wanted to tarnish his passion for music by associating it with the daily grind: "When it's your job, you have to ration it a little bit or you lose your enthusiasm."

Nelson joined the music industry as an Artists & Repertoire man for EMI, building a roster of artists that included Mica Paris, Lynden David Hall, D'Angelo and Arrested Development, before being hired by Radio 1 and offered a job at MTV. He has built his career on a strategy of making himself a champion of R&B, the successor to soul music. "I had a mission to make R&B part of the national music scene," he says. "I came on and just used that term religiously, every other link: 'R&B...R&B'."

He quickly became the go-to man for American R&B artists such as Sean "Diddy" Combs and Mary J Blige, whose careers he charted in BBC2 documentaries made by his company, Money Productions. As R&B became the favourite sound for teenagers worldwide, its stars queued up to appear on his MTV show, broadcast to 43 countries.

Nelson took a gamble three years ago when he moved to 1Xtra. The digital station has nothing like the brand status of some of his previous employers, and some of his friends feared his career was taking a nosedive.

Not at all. "It has rejuvenated me," he says. Co-hosting the 1Xtra show with chatty Gemma Cairney, Nelson has given a greater profile to British artists such as Professor Green, Tinchy Stryder and Plan B. "We have been championing a lot of artists that a lot of other stations are only now discovering," he says. At the Sony Awards, the 1Xtra programme came second in the Breakfast Show category, behind Radio 4's Today.

Nelson, now in his mid-forties, says the new popularity of urban British music has helped to give him the feeling that "I'm starting a new career again," and he is glad he followed his instincts. "If I'd listened to everyone's advice I'd be doing Strictly Come Dancing – I don't want to be a celebrity I want to be a broadcaster."

He admits that he would one day like to be a radio executive ("deep down, yes"), and has been inspired by investigating socio-economic issues surrounding the World Cup in South Africa (which he explored in his 5 Live documentary). He says, "I want to move into things that people like me haven't done before."

Trevor Nelson is enjoying his new lease of life, except for one regret. "I wish everyone would dance a bit more – what's happened to dancing?" he complains. "At least girls still dance – thank God for the girls!"