Britain’s Biggest Hip-Hop DJ Tim Westwood Discusses His Legacy
"You can't come to the Kingdom and not see the prince." Those words were once said by Snoop Dogg in reference to Tim Westwood, one of the most important DJs and radio figures when it comes to hip-hop in the U.K. For the last three decades, he has put in work to help build the foundation of the U.K. rap scene and push it forward.
Snoop isn't the only rapper to sing the praises of the tenured disc jockey, who held the No. 1 urban show on BBC Radio 1 and 1Xtra for nearly 20 years. Many of the biggest names in hip-hop history have paid homage and kissed the ring throughout Westwood's illustrious career. From the superstars of the late 1980s to the titans of the 1990s, and the upstarts of the aughts, chances are if they were of note to rap fanatics, an appearance on Tim Westwood's show was on the itinerary.
Being rap royalty while dwelling in a royal kingdom is a bragging right worth more than its weight in gold, but Westwood's career has been one of hard work and consistency rather than one of leisure. Humbling stints as a bus boy, being threatened with extortion and the victim of a shooting have all been a part of Westwood's journey, but the jovial rap maven has managed to put those lowlights behind him, continuing to direct the course of hip-hop in the U.K. Paid dues and tragedies aside, the past 30 years have been very fruitful and have afforded him the opportunity to amass a priceless amount of moments and memories that would put many stateside DJs to shame.
Today, Tim Westwood may not be the only big fish in a small pond, given the emergence of other tastemakers in the U.K., but that hasn't slowed down his grind a bit, with the old wily dog learning new tricks and embracing platforms like YouTube to help spread his rambunctiousness to hip-hop fans across the world. And with the phenomenon that is grime planting its footing in the U.S. and getting love from megastars like Kanye West and Drake, the DJ maintains that he rarely looks to the past, only forward and sees nothing but success for himself and the U.K. rap scene as a whole.
We got Tim Westwood on the phone to speak on his lauded career, the power of grime music and much more.
XXL: What was the first rap record you can remember hearing, whether it be a park jam tape or an actual record?
Tim Westwood: [The Sugarhill Gang's] "Rappers Delight," man. And as as kid, I remember learning every single word on the 17-minute version of it. So that was the first rap record I heard and the first rap record I bought.
What spurred your foray into becoming a DJ?
As a young kid, I was just working in clubs so I started really early in the game. And I was also hanging around sound systems as well, like reggae sound systems and 16, 17, I was always in clubs, man. I used to just live my life at night. From that, I had a love of the music 'cause I was working in like reggae clubs and R&B clubs, like, black-owned spots in the West End. And then from that, I got the opportunity to get on the set 'cause I was just checking records, loving the music.
But in those days, hip-hop hadn't really exploded because the clubs I was deejaying in -- that early music of what was called electro funk -- it was that era so it was those early Tommy Boy Records... those early Profile Records, they're the ones [that were] really hitting here. So we were playing what was called electro funk records in the club and that was my love of the hip-hop, man. And then from there, it was all about breakdancing in those early days so a lot of the clubs was dominated by the breakers. And then there's a lot of rapping freestyle going on. So that was me, the club DJ and yeah, that's how it all started back then.
And then in those super early days, I got in pirate radio, which is illegal radio. I used to make a lot of trips to the states and had some good connects in those early days over in the states. So I used to go over and go to places like Latin Quarter, Union Square and clubs like that and I'd roll with people like Harry Fox [former security guard at Union Square], rest in peace, like some early dudes in the game and they'd look out for me. And I just got to see hip-hop in its essence in the states. So I'd go to things like Run-D.M.C. at Madison Square Garden. I was just there for those early days. So that was like the beginning of my journey.
One of your first high-profile gigs was at People's Club, where stars like Run-D.M.C. would fall through and take in the scenery. Who were some of the other names you remember coming through those doors or making rounds in the U.K. during the 1980s?
People's Club, that was like one of the first black-owned clubs in this country. It was originally called the Q Club, but then it lost its license. In those days, clubs could operate without a license so it was like an illegal club and that used to go on until 6, 7, 8 o'clock on a Friday morning and it was just crazy. It was a real hood spot; you're talking about the '80s here so there was a lot of guys dressing like pimps and it would be a lot of their girls in there as well. There would be a lot of pimps, a lot of drug dealers. You couldn't use the toilet in there because it was like a drug-dealing [den]. By 6 in the morning, there'd be a smoke cloud in the basement and there'd be people smoking coke and crack and it was just one of those extreme street spots, but that's where I played every Thursday.
And what used to happen was Whodini used to record their albums over in London 'cause they were signed to Jive Records and their studios were only in London so they'd be over. And people like Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, but they didn't really come to the club like Whodini did. And then when that Raising Hell Tour with Run-D.M.C., Beastie Boys and Whodini came, they all used to just come down there and freestyle for hours and just hang out and get high. Larry Smith, rest in peace, he used to come there every Thursday. You couldn't buy anything by the glass, it was only bottles. You could only buy like a bottle of champagne, a bottle of brandy, a bottle of wine. As a young kid, like 18, 19, 20, just growing up in that environment, it was like the best experience.
You joined BBC Radio 1 in 1994 to host the first national rap show in the U.K., which you celebrated by playing a live concert with The Notorious B.I.G. and Puff Daddy. How did that whole situation come about?
What happened was, I went from pirate radio and then we formed Kiss FM as a pirate, which I was one of the founders of that but I left that and it became legal a few years later. And then I went to join Capitol FM and I was up there for eight years and we used to do shows live from New York with Marley Marl -- that's when Marley Marl was at WBLS, like really dominating it. And then in this country, we did big shows with like Big Daddy Kane, MC Shan and Roxanne Shante, so we did those type of shows, as well as do shows with Tim Dog and Chubb Rock, Ultramagnetic MCs. When I was on pirate radio, we brought over Run-D.M.C. so we was having a real strong time over there. Then after that we joined Radio 1 and for the launch party of joining that [we had] Biggie, Craig Mack, Lil Cease all come over with Puffy. After that, we continued to bring artists over, so we brought Ja Rule over for the first couple of times and then Jay Z out for the first time.
So we used to do those shows and crazy parties, like intense parties. Capitol is a London station and that was really powerful in London and used to really dominate London, but when we were doing the national show, that really dominated for 19 years and that was the era when things like world premieres and exclusives really counted. And it was definitely a time when the hip-hop DJ had a role of being the gatekeeper of what was happening, the tastemaker and the source of the music. And I used to have the crazy hookups for a gang of exclusives so we had records for years in advance, man. And between that, we had good relationships with the artists. We had those early Eminem records for months and months, and Public Enemy for months and months, and we used to just blaze it, man, and we had an amazing experience up in there.
What was your relationship with Biggie like and what are some memories of him from your interactions that you've never told anyone?
When I left Capitol and joined Radio 1, I was doing monthly shows with Funkmaster Flex from Hot 97 and this is when he was just on weekends. And Flex was rocking The Tunnel in those days and Biggie would literally be there every Sunday and I'd be there virtually every other week. So I'd see Biggie a lot, smoking blunts, just chilling, man, with the likes of Big Kap, may he rest in peace.
Biggie's charisma, it just changed hip-hop and at that stage, hip-hop was kind of going in two directions, whether it was The Notorious B.I.G. is the more dominant style or more what was happening over at like Rawkus with Mos Def and Talib Kweli, and Biggie, you could see, he was just overpowering, man. Probably one of the greatest artists of all time. But when we joined up at Radio 1 and we did those early shows, it was just so much fun. He just hung out at the show, freestyling, smoking, drinking, talking to callers live on air. It was just amazing times, man. Definitely a blessed time to be alive.
Jay Z credited you with holding him down as an artist from day one while he was still a relatively unknown act. How did that relationship come about and do you have any memories of Jay Z's stops in the U.K. over the years?
I think everyone grows in this game, but in those early days when he was rolling with [Damon] Dash and his original team, the energy there was just so exciting. One of his men would have a suitcase and that suitcase was just full of Cohibas and then another man would have another suitcase and that was just full of Cristal. And they'd set up shop wherever and just be smoking Cohibas until they were red in the eye and drinking Cristal. It was just celebrating life, man. And he'd be freestyling every time he came through and he was just the coolest, man. He was just the coolest.
One time he was on the show with Dash and Mary J. Blige and I don't know, I must of had a mad crush on Mary J. Blige, but I remember I just kind of choked up with Mary. I don't know. I met Mary a few times, maybe I thought I was in with a chance once [laughs], but I choked up and he just had to introduce all records and interview Mary because I wasn't getting my shit together that day. But Jay is the coolest guy and another leader of the culture.
You're also very fond of 50 Cent. What are some wild stories you can share about him that would surprise the people?
What you gotta understand with 50, 50 was out there, man. He was out there, running around and he had good security with him so he rolled really strong. And I remember one time he came out the radio station and the guy parked up in he middle of the road and said, "I'm not moving this car until 50 Cent takes this CD from me," and his security just started rocking that car until they were about to tip it over and he just accelerated off.
And 50 used to hang out with this guy called Abraham and he had some super rich house. I think he was from Jordan or Libya, but he was in the oil game and he had a super rich house in Park Lane, a real exclusive area, and there was some crazy parties there. I remember the last party he held there, he had a beach brought in and a camel, an actual camel and Fabolous was there as well. The thing with 50, he definitely enjoyed life. It's not like he wasn't mad, but he was just enjoying life as well as winning and I think that's important. It's easy to forget to live life, man.
Who were some of the American DJs you studied over the years or took inspiration from while honing your craft?
Marley Marl I was very close to. In those early days, we used to do the radio shows together and his whole vibe I loved. But when I joined [BBC] Radio 1 and we started doing the shows with Flex, he reminded me of, say, Jam Master Jay, who I just thought so represented hip-hop and I think Flex has been, without a shred of doubt, the biggest inspiration to me. Seeing him rip The Tunnel in those days was just unbelievable. Flex ripping the radio, like especially in those days, he was pioneering. Rap shows back in those days were just Friday and Saturday at the same hour at the same time, and Flex I think single-handedly made Hot 97 a very hip-hop station. I mean, they brought Flex on for a hip-hop show on a Friday and a Saturday and then suddenly, Hot 97 becomes where hip-hop lives and that was all the influence and power of Flex.
He defined hip-hop and I think Flex single-handedly brought cars into the culture. People like Slick Rick and everything brought jewelry and stuff like that, but Flex brought cars into hip-hop, I feel. I love Flex because I think he defines hip-hop and he's been my biggest influence. And I remember watching him coming up in those days watching how hard he worked. I always felt like if I ever got an opportunity to work as hard, I'd never complain if I gotta do some hours, man. It's just like I'm blessed to be doing this. I remember I went through some drama over here a while ago, about 10 years ago or whatever, I got shot and my dad soon dies afterwards and I remember Flex helped me go through that hard time, man. Flex was there for me for that and I'm very grateful to him from everything, man. He's been an inspiration from day one, man.
You once cited how hard it is for a hip-hop DJ from the U.K. to get the same opportunities or respect that is given to hip-hop DJs in the states. How do you feel the perception of British tastemakers and DJs in hip-hop has changed?
I've had a blessed life. It has been a blessed journey, man, and an amazing experience. I think with the internet and everything, the role of the DJ is so changed now. We're not the tastemaker, we're not the person that brings you the new music. There's no such thing as a world premiere. The consumer would get the music before us and be able to find what music he likes as opposed to what we're saying is hot. I think the role of what we do now is just to reflect the soundtrack to people's lives. So I'm just reflecting people and how they live their Saturday nights. So if you're in the car going out to a club or going out with your boys or if you're at the crib getting ready to go out, chilling, smoking, whatever you're doing, what I'm doing is just providing you a soundtrack. Like when you go to a club, just getting turned up.
So that's what I see my role as and I think through the likes of YouTube now, we can visualize and syndicate a lot of stuff that we do so it's blessed that people in the states are seeing what we're doing 'cause before when it was cassettes what used to happen was is on that school bus run on a Monday morning, people would be saying like, "Yo, who's got the Westwood tape?" and swapping it with another tape of someone else and that's how it used to work. But now you can just syndicate and get it out there for people to have if they want it and consume it, man. So I think it's blessed that some of the shit that we've done now can be experienced throughout, which is blessed, man. I mean, I've just been grateful to be part of this, I've been grateful to put in work. We've had some real moments, man, some real hip-hop moments, man.
You've been at the forefront of the U.K. hip-hop scene since day one. Who would you say makes up the Mount Rushmore of U.K. rappers?
I'ma be honest, going back in the day, there was a lot of wack U.K. rap and I'm just being really quite open about that and I wasn't that great a sport of that early music. It was all doom and gloom, it was like... I mean, anyone can rap and anyone can dress like a hip-hop artist so it doesn't make you any good. So everybody used to rap in American accents, everyone was rapping some miserable shit, man, [while] we was up in the clubs celebrating life, man. There was some good cats out there in those early days. The London Posse were like some early cats in the game that had something good to say and then S.A.S., they set New York on fire, courtesy of Cipha Sounds. But what's happened now is our own music came, this style called grime and instead of beats being 70 beats per minute, they'd be 140 beats per minute and no samples, just like a crazy, intense music.
And don't get me wrong, grime is very much like punch you in the face music, man. It was like real out there, like, intense hard music and some great artists come through that. And the artists which dominate to this day through it, like Skepta, Stormzy and Jme, incredible. But then, what we're seeing now is the rise of U.K. rap and that's, like, these street guys making amazing music, man. And Giggs has definitely been the founder of that. He represents where he's from, Peckham, intense, man. Peckham rides for that cat, man, and he's made some of the biggest records out there. And then also in that, you now got all these new U.K. street crews coming out and these guys are like 67, Grizzy and MDot [who was murdered in April of 2016]. They're representing they're specific areas and they're so connecting, man.
You could call it, like, U.K. drill music, but it's the realness, man. It's absolutely the realness of what they're living and they're telling their stories and their stories are the realness, man. And people are really buying into it, man. Especially young people; they can so really relate to their struggle, man. It's all the street shit, but it's the most powerful music out there at the moment. So I think U.K. right now is on fire like never before. And we represent a lot of these guys. We do this thing called Crib Sessions. Giggs, he was banned from the radio, he was not allowed to come into the radio [station]. They thought he was too gangster to have in there and then he had some beef with one of the producers and he was banned. So what we did, we set it up in my crib where I live, where I keep my records and we got all of the equipment in there and now these artists come down and do freestyles, we do the occasional interview.
These artists are doing enormous numbers, getting millions of views from these Crib Sessions, literally millions. People are really, really feeling it, man, because it's not the radio, it's not no editorial restrictions, there's no restrictions of swear words and the artists can come be themselves and get their drink on, get their smoke on, bring all the crews, all they mens and dem so they can get they shine and they can just win. And talking about U.K. artists which are dominating, I think the hottest cat now is some guy named J Hus but there's also a dude named C Biz and it's probably C Biz that is the hottest new guy on the street. He's setting it on fire, man. You'd [also] have to claim Dizzee [Rascal], man. You'd have to put Dizzee in the history of. And you'd have to put another artist called Wiley in the history. They make really different music to what they started as, obviously. Dizzee makes music with Calvin Harris so he's obviously big in that white scene, but Dizzee was definitely founding in it.
The 2000s saw names like Dizzee Rascal and Lady Sovereign exposed to the public, but they never seemed to be wholly embraced by the American rap fans compared to how artists like Skepta are now. Why do you think grime is finally beginning to catch on in a big way in the states after all of these years?
I think, maybe, and I can't call it, but I think Skepta so positioned himself and went to the states a lot. I think Skepta's cosigns, first with A$AP Mob, especially A$AP Rocky, and then his cosign [when] he was onstage at an awards show over here with Kanye and performed at the Kanye West, some private pull-up show. And then the love that Drake's shown him, I think those cosigns by those major artists, especially Drake, has made people pay attention to what Skepta's doing. And Skepta's part of the crew Boy Better Know so people have looked at them and then from there, you'd see the likes of Stormzy, you'd see the likes of Section Boyz, Lethal Bizzle and so on. But I think, really, the heat's come from Drake showing love, man, and that love is really powerful, man, and I think that's why it's resonated more in the states. But that's only from me looking at it from the U.K.
N.O.R.E. once shouted you out on his classic posse cut, "Banned From TV," which kind of exposed your name to a different kind of listener that may not have been familiar with your work beforehand. How did it feel to be vetted like that by one of the hardest artists in the game?
When that record came out, man, people up in The Tunnel used to think I was some out of state drug dealer that Noreaga was [dealing with]. Like I was the plug, I was the plug in Atlanta or Miami that he was coming to see [laughs]. They didn't realize I was a DJ, man, they thought I was the plug. That's what they thought, man, 'cause in those days you couldn't even research cats like you can now so yeah, people thought I was some plug up in Atlanta or Miami. Yeah, man.
That's just love, man. He showed love, man. That was my theme music for many years. We used to work a club called The Temple, that was the equivalent of The Tunnel, but in North London. We was really shutting down shit with that, man. That was love, that was real love.
What is your relationship with N.O.R.E. like today? Do you still keep in touch?
Yeah, [we're] super cool. He came over with C-N-N the other day and everybody was getting high backstage, man, and he came to the crib and did a freestyle as well, man. I got nothing but love and respect. These veterans of the game, we wouldn't be here where we are now without them, man, we gotta pay them homage. We're probably living in the best era, I feel now. I think 2016 is the biggest era of hip-hop and it's only gonna continue, but those veterans, man, that's part of me. That's all just part of this journey and I've got nothing but so much superthug love for those guys, man.
That was hilarious, man. That was a hilarious moment. I think with Rick Ross, man... I don't know, I've met him so many times before, but that was just a moment where he was high, I was high [laughs]. Also the one backstage with Young Thug, that was a big moment for me, man. That was real good.
Did you think those two interviews would generate as much buzz as they did?
Nah, man. They was just real casual throwaway things. To be honest, that pears stuff, we didn't even see it until it became a meme and then it was a Vine. We put the interview up and we just left that out there as some funny interview shit, but we didn't see the Vine of it, the Vine came months later and that's when the momentum came. And it's definitely a signature thing for Ross, evidently. I went backstage with him, there's people always leaving him pears, showing pear tattoos. It definitely became a massive moment, but at the time we didn't see it as a moment. Even the Young Thug, which is just some crazy shit, we didn't know it was gonna become the moment that it became.
You've been known to consistently unload unreleased material from your vault of freestyles. How big is your archive and what made you compile them?
When I was up at Radio 1 for 19 years, as part of what we had to do, we had to record every show in case there were any complaints and stuff like that and we were recording them on DAT tape. So every time we had an artist on, we'd write down the name of the artist on the DAT tape. And what happened, we had these boxes and boxes and boxes of DAT tapes taking up the whole crib space, so we were like, "Yo, let's throw away all of the DATs except the ones with artists on." So we threw away thousands of regular show DATs and then all the ones with artists written on them, we kept. One of [the employee's] jobs was to transfer those DATs onto a hard drive, so every day he would come in and he'd do that five days a week and it took him three and a half years to transfer all these DATs with artists' names on them.
It's all on one hard drive, believe it or not, on this massive 5 terabyte hard drive. So what he does, he just goes to the artist's name and he just finds these things. So the other day he goes and finds a Jay Z freestyle. I couldn't even remember we did, I couldn't even remember this freestyle. And every Thursday for Throwback Thursday, he puts one on YouTube and I have no idea [what's coming]. When I hear them again, I can remember the moment, but it's not like I can say, "Oh yeah, let's go grab this moment with Jay Z" or whoever from last week. I don't remember these moments. It's been so many blessed moments.
How much more unreleased stuff do you have left at this point and how long do you think it will last until you run out?
On the real, If we put one a week out, we might have another 10 years of it, man. It took him three and a half years [to transfer the DAT tapes], and every artist in those days would freestyle, so the archive is strong. I mean, Flex had an enormous archive, but nobody was pressing play and record, that was the thing. Whereas with me, I had to press play and record 'cause the station required it for complaints. So I was blessed to do that and I was blessed to keep them and now it's all on the hard drive and we just roll 'em off once a week. I don't even know what's there, man. They went out one time live, 15 years ago, and that was so they're really never heard before. I mean, people may have caught them on a cassette tape, but way past my lifetime, I reckon.
Who are the three rappers that have left the biggest impression on you during you career and why?
I would definitely say Biggie because that was such a defining moment in hip-hop and he was just so super significant. I would definitely say Tupac because of what he meant. I regret a bit in that era that I was bit too caught up with Biggie to see the power of Tupac, but Tupac resonates beyond belief. And then I would think if there was a third, it could be a choice of so many, man. It'd be hard. It'd be hard to call a third because there's so many ones after Biggie and Tupac, there's so many others. You know, maybe I would say Drake because of what Drake is doing. Drake is changing hip-hop and making it so big and embracing U.K. and embracing U.K. music. It's just so powerful what he does, man.
You've been in the radio game for more than 30 years at this point. What would be the moment you consider as the pinnacle of your career?
I don't know, man. Doing those shows with Flex, going to New York all the time and just being so part of it and just absorbing it. The Eminem era, when it was so big, so massive that would be the era. It just felt like hip-hop was just moving so strong. Those things just resonated so powerfully. Maybe that would be some real big moments. But I'm loving it now, man. In a sense of just doing what I'm doing and doing what I wanna do and embracing these new U.K. artists, it's such a great thing to be part of, man. Just being on the radio as a soundtrack and just being able to have YouTube.com/TimWestwoodTV to visualize what we're doing now and what we've done in the past. I think now is probably the best time, to be honest with you.
I'm from an era when there was no opportunities, but then there was also no competition. When I was on the radio, there was, perhaps, one or two other shows playing hip-hop. Like, now we live in an era where there's so much opportunity, but so much competition. And I like this era, man. I prefer the more opportunity and more competition out there, I prefer it. man. And I just think it makes it all so much bigger and makes everyone better at what they do and I love that, man. That no opportunity, no competition... it's a much cooler time now, man. It's a much more loving time, a much more supportive time because the thing that's helping U.K. rise is everyone is so supportive.
Don't get me wrong, a lot of these crews don't get along with each other, but in grime, everyone is very loving towards each other in a sense of support, man. Everyone comes to each other's shows and guest appear on each other's records. It definitely works as a community of artists that are trying to achieve as opposed to crabs in a bucket.
What's next for Tim Westwood moving forward and what surprises or endeavors can we look forward to?
I've never had a game plan, brother, never. Never had a game plan, never had a vision. The clubs is the most important thing for me. I love deejaying in the clubs. I love that YouTube.com/TimWestwoodTV. I love that in the sense that being so left behind by the mainstream, but now we don't need the mainstream so you just do your own thing on that and try to win with it so right now is blessed, man. And also, in the U.K., the rise of Afrobeats, which is African music from Nigeria, from Ghana and from the U.K. and that's really powerful and that's also influencing a lot of U.K. rap artist's style that's a super powerful thing out here.
Obviously Drake cosigned Wizkid, but that's just the tip of the iceberg, but Wizkid is certainly one of the greatest artists I've ever seen. J Hus is another one from the U.K. So yeah, it feels very powerful now, man. It feels really good. I certainly don't feel no stress. Happy to still be in the game and happy working. Life is only gonna get better in my opinion.
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