Tim Westwood Interview: Ain't no party like a Westwood party
Jimmy Coultas sat down with the Big Dog to chat how he's maintained his relevancy over decades, the UK's enjoying a 'golden period' and a brand new residency for London hip-hop stalwarts The Doctor's Orders.
If you're a UK-based hip hop fan, irrespective of the era you fell in love with the music, Tim Westwood has played a part. Since first cropping up as a DJ way back in the early eighties, the iconic radio host has been an integral force in helping develop the music on these shores.
He first started on the then pirate station Kiss, spending time at LWR and Capital before his inauguration for the BBC began in December 1995 - when he became the first ever host of the broadcaster's Radio One Rap Show.
The show was the place to find new hip-hop music before the internet age took a hold, introducing many (this writer included) to not only huge eventual stateside stars like Jay-Z, Eminem and 50 Cent, but also UK rappers like Blade and Skinnyman. Each week the biggest new records would be combined with rappers freestyling and pushing their albums out there, radio ambrosia for b-boys and b-girls of every discipline/
As the twenty-first century dawned Westwood's larger than life character helped make him a national name, as did the infamy from being involved in a drive-by shooting where a bullet ended up in his arm. He eventually left the BBC after a near twenty-year association (one only bettered by the equally legendary Pete Tong), with his huge connection to the mtunnelled tunneled through his Youtube channel and a show on Capital Xtra.
To celebrate these meetings of two of the Capital's most domineering voices in hip hop, we caught up with the don to talk about how he's retained that ridiculous longevity, dream rap cyphers and the state of hip hop culture in the UK.
First off Tim, you've got a brand new residency starting at Doctors Orders, can you tell us a little about what it will entail?
Yeah I mean the Doctor's residency, I'm there every couple of months at the Hoxton Bar and Kitchen. I rarely play in Hoxton, but I've played there a couple of times now and they love what I do man, what I bring to it. A lot of the parties I do aren't really part of that Shoreditch set, so it's great to bring what I do and my heat to it, and it's been amazing.
We'll look to rip it down, a Westwood party is definitely one with a lot of energy, a lot of heat, and a lot of hot records where we'll break a lot of new music. I'll play plenty of dancehall and afrobeats too, so it's bringing a lot of my crowd to thatShoreditch experience.
So it's almost like a meeting of two worlds in essence?
Yeah man, I mean my world is bringing that energy and that heat, and to do so in Shoreditch, I'm really looking forward to it. It's just gonna be me, we don't need to bring guests down.
Will this differ from your other DJ sets at all in sound and scope?
I mean Westwood is Westwood man, obviously as a DJ you've gotta respond to the crowd, but there are certain basics that I have to keep to in order to stay true to what I am about. The hottest music, breaking new sounds and really ripping it down. Ain't no party like a Westwood party.
Whether it comes from your DJ sets or the shows on Radio One, Kiss or Capital, you've always maintained the ability to stay fresh and current. How important is it to stay up to date with what you're playing?
I mean really, it's all about staying relevant with the music. Hip-hop is the most creative form of music out there, so it's about keeping with it and moving forward, it's easy man, it's not like I got trapped in an era. There's been many golden ages of hip-hop, whether the 90s or whatever, different old schools for different folk, but I just keep it moving, keep it relevant and I work hard at it.
I'm staying in the clubs and seeing what people want, and what makes people dance. I'm on the radio ripping it down, record figures, I mean the show is the number one show in the whole of London period, and it's like that because I'm keeping it relevant.
So more about the radio, you're on Capital Xtra's flagship Saturday show. Can you tell our readers more about what the show involves?
It's a four-hour show on a Saturday night. I've always been on the radio for a Saturday for the whole of my life, since I started in this game that's where I've been, my show has been the theme music for people's Saturday nights. Wherever you're getting ready to go out, in the car on your way out, or you're chilling with your guy or your girl, or just a bunch of you chilling, my show has been there.
I just go in and handle mine. We always bring the hottest hip hop, it's still about breaking new music, whether US or UK. We keep on point and play what's hot because people want it man. People want energy and excitement on a Saturday, and we're built for it and it's what we do.
The radio for me was a big deal when I first got into the music back in the late nineties, when it was one of the only places you could hear new hip hop. There was Yo MTV Raps playing an hour of hip-hop once a week, and later MTV Base, but your shows were a big part of my discovery arc.
One thing though that stuck with me was the guests, you always had big stars on, and it influenced the way I took to music. I remember a show in 1999 with Puffy around his second album that was so good I bought the album, which was pretty awful by the way! But I bought it off the strength of the show.
I recall he had Shyne with him, he was swearing a lot, saying a lot of things which must have got you in trouble. How does it work with keeping on top of these guests with that in mind, because obviously hip-hop is an unruly music and that doesn't always work well with live radio...
I mean, a lot of interviews we now use are for the Westwood YouTube channel. The reason we set that up is because the station I was at the time had so much so editorial control, which was a real issue. We'd get these UK artists in for freestyles, and not only would they be concerned about the language, the swearing and stuff like that, they'd also be concerned with the subject matter.
What was really happening was they were getting censored, this was their story which was getting censored and their story was getting clipped - I didn't approve of that. So what we did on our Youtube channel was set up something called the crib sessions, where these artists come to my crib, my house, and we record the freestyles and the interviews there.
The thing is with being at my crib, it's really their home environment. So if they wanna drink, they wanna smoke, and they wanna party, that's their prerogative. It's set up to be their environment. We couldn't do any of that or party like that at the station, but now there's no editorial control holding them back.
It all came about with Giggs, because he was banned from the radio I was at the time, he was banned flat out from coming to the station. They thought he was too gangster for radio, and I knew that this guy needed to be heard, he needed the opportunity to freestyle and people need to get to know the artist because he was gonna be big.
He was the rawest man, the absolute rawest, so we set up the Crib Sessions to cater for him, and since then every week we get four or five UK artists, some American artists when they're over, and we do the show. It's just the environment they feel good in man. We got it nice with the lights and a few other little touches.
When 2 Chainz came through he described it as like making a rap video, so I think the Crib sessions is really powerful. The channel as a whole has over 330 million views, over half a million subscribers. That's the way I use the freestyles and the interviews now, and the radio is just the soundtrack man, the soundtrack to your Saturday night.
The radio game has changed, when you were growing up the only place you could get this exclusive music, to get the hip-hop you wanted, was through my radio show at the weekend. Now with everything online you can get it whenever you like with what you like, so we're using the Youtube channel to really help throw it down, really make it happen.
One thing that I feel you bring as a radio DJ is always this level of respect for the artists. If you compare that with someone like Charlemagne the God on the Breakfast Show over in the states, he's almost setting up artists for a conflict by pushing their buttons - especially when there's a feud concerned.
I think that what it is, I have a great working relationship with these artists which has built up over many years. Then the newer artists will have heard me when they're coming up in the game, they know of the things I've done through others so when they come to the UK they want to see me - it's part of their experience with the UK.
You do have to be careful with beefs, because by amping it up on the radio you can fuel the fire, and these verbal altercations can end in real street drama - you have responsibilities as a host.
You've mentioned UK artists a lot there, and obviously you've been involved in the scene here pretty much since it started. You've been around when the likes of Mc M'ello, London Posse and Hijack were blowing up, then the late nineties second dawning with Skinnyman, Mark B & Blade, Roots Manuva and Ty.
Looking back on all those points, how does the scene compare now with grime really throwing a new light on UK rap music?
I think now we've entered a new level. Skepta has done us proud, putting grime on the international market. He's one of the biggest in the UK now, winning awards, selling out massive shows in Alexandra Palace, he's one of the greatest artists to come out of the UK with the likes of Giggs and Stormzy and so on.
What's also happening is you've got the rise of the real street artists, with the UK drill music scene, genuine street stories bringing the realest vibes. 67 from Brixton Hill and 150 from Angell Town are some of the realest and biggest artists out there, also C Biz and the E.R Crew.
I think now is the best time ever for the UK music ever, seriously. I mean out of all those eras, they were all false starts, it was great music but you didn't see the energy that you see around these artists in the clubs now... the hype on their Youtube and soundclouds, the momentum the've got on social networks, we're talking about major street stars. I think now is the golden era of UK, for the acceptance in the US and the worldwide appeal, it's the biggest time ever to be honest.
You mentioned earlier how different the radio game is now, and it's hard for people to build up that same level of trust from listeners when there's so many outlets for music avaiable for everyone. What would your advice be for new DJs trying to break into it?
It still comes down to a DIY approach, I mean it's definitely a different thing in this era but it comes to that ethic. You need to put on your own parties, do your own mixtapes, build your own soundcloud channel, you need to get out there and work hard, get your hustle on. If you're a uni student start getting your own student parties on, promote and DJ at them, same if you're not at uni.
Try and get on other bills, get close to DJs you look up to and want to work with, and come up through the come up. It's very competitive now but it always was, and there is so much opportunity. I know DJs who have had success from Soundcloud, regular mixes and knocking out hot sounds, just working hard. There's a lot of ways to do it man, you just gotta work hard and connect to it.
Last question, if you could have your dream cypher from rappers dead or alive, which five emcees would you pick to go head to head in a battle? And who would win?
Oh definitely Biggie and 2pac, bring Eminem, I'd want Skepta in there, and lastly Nas. I'd say Biggie and Tupac would probably win it.
We heard 'Hail Mary' and 'One More Chance' are your favourite records ever - that still true?
Yeah they're my favourite two man. Just perfectly summed up a beautiful moment in time for hip hop.