In 2017 when rappers are in the headlines every other day, hip-hop’s biggest star is looking to the UK for inspiration and all of the new music we could want is a swipe and a tap away, it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t always like this.
Tim Westwood is now one of many voices who commentates on, documents and pushes hip-hop culture in the UK; but at one time he was amongst the few. Until social media and file-sharing really took off, Westwood’s weekly radio shows were the only place that we could go to hear the latest rap music. Whether it was following the G-Unit and Murder Inc beef through the early 2000’s or hearing tracks from the forthcoming debut album by a new producer-turned-rapper called Kanye West, I spent hundreds of Friday nights glued to my radio as a teen.
This year, Westwood celebrated 30 years in the game, and a decade of his YouTube channel, Tim Westwood TV, and is a testament to moving with the times, staying relevant and following a passion for music above anything else.
Clash was granted a rare interview with Westwood to reflect on his awe-inspiring legacy…
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What did you want to say with your ‘Westwood Hip Hop Club Bangers’ compilation?
Man, back in the day we used to sell a lot of albums. It was in the era of CDs so obviously it resonated a lot more in those days. So it really is just putting the hottest music out from there, it’s a soundtrack to my career. If you came to those Westwood parties back in the day it’s just to put a legendary selection together to turn up to. It’s 57 tracks, so all the hot joints from around the 2000s. It’s really a soundtrack to the clubs from that era.
Now that we’re in an era of playlists and streaming, why was it still important for you to release a CD?
I think for that older generation who are still around, they’re still a CD buying [demographic]. They’re not necessarily on the downloading or the streaming. Its really to cater for them, and it’s a hot CD for the car as well; just a lot of classics to ring off. Classics never die, then just go from generation to generation.
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All the new media is just new opportunities...
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Since the beginning of your career in the 80’s you’ve remained relevant by adapting to new trends. Why do you think you’ve been able to do that while others have fallen off along the way?
We’ve been doing this from day one. We always embraced these newer outlets. Back in the day we used to do TV for some of the digital channels; we had a weekly show on Channel U, then a weekly show on Channel Flava. When YouTube came along it was perfect for us, because we could just visualise what we do and get it out there. And we were always visualising it, but we had so little outlets and opportunities; all the new media is just new opportunities.
We’re coming up to our tenth anniversary now [on YouTube], it’s just letting us get out there and do what we do. Before we’d still have something incredible, but it would be on a cassette tape and that would have to be dubbed and passed around the school bus for us to get any syndication of it. As soon as YouTube came along, we could just put it out there and everyone could embrace it.
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I wondered whether that accessibility would be a positive or negative for you - as I remember a time when your show was the only place I could really go to hear the new 50 Cent diss track or whatever…
The radio has really changed. The role of the radio DJ, especially the hip-hop guys, has really changed. It’s not the gatekeeper and the guy who says what’s hot, and exclusives and world premieres. Those days are all gone man, at best we’re just a soundtrack to your life.
I think that’s all radio is now, a soundtrack. Before it was an appointment to listen and the only place you could hear that type of music and that new music. We’d be saying what was hot, playing exclusive, bringing you all that New York vibe. Now everyone has got that; that’s accessible when one wherever you want it. We’ve adjusted with that and rolled with it. The show is very much more just in the mix, ripping it down, big records and what you want to hear on your Saturday night. Obviously, we specialise in new music at the cutting edge of it; we play the hits.
What is the most important thing you’ve ever learned from an interviewee?
A lot of these people are highly motivated, highly focused, very talented. And so just being in their presence, and then the people they surround themselves on the business side, has always been inspirational. I think one of my biggest mentors has always been Funkmaster Flex. He elevated the whole DJ game. I spent a lot of time over the years close to him, I think he's been very inspirational for me.
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We specialise in new music at the cutting edge of it; we play the hits.
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A lot of people have said good things. Back in those early days, LL Cool J told me how best to do an interview and schooled me on that. Chuck D came round to my house, sat me down and talked me through what he'd recommend - gave me real solid advice about interviewing artists as somebody who, at that time, was doing a million interviews. There's a lot of things I learned along the way, but I think my biggest mentor has been Funkmaster Flex.
What’s the most important thing that Funkmaster Flex has instilled in you?
I think work hard, and catch a vibe with it as well. He's a great DJ and that's inspirational; to watch him rip down the club or rip down the radio set, that was inspirational. This is how it should be done. There was nobody here really leading the way. We didn't really have our Red Alerts and Chuck Chillouts to follow in their steps, or the Marley Marl, Mr. Magic and Pete Rock, these other great DJs on the radio and the Clark Kents and Kid Capris and the clubs. We were really the first generation doing it [in the UK].
I'm just glad I managed to get my inspiration, my vibe from the States on the energy and excitement that you should bring to it and what you should be doing in a club to make it win. You know it's important because there wasn't a lot of inspiration happening here because there wasn't anyone else really doing it. It was a time when there was no opportunities, but by the same token, there was no competition. And competition does breed champions.
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Competition does breed champions.
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You’ve played a big part in the careers of Giggs and Skepta; how is it watching the success that they’re enjoying right now?
It was great to be there for them, especially in those early days because that's the most important. Day one is "make it or break it" time. If you don't get past your day one, you're out of the game. It was great to be there for Giggs from day one and for Skepta from day one and support them over many years. Now they're off in their own stratosphere, their higher echelon. Of course, we still support them. I've still got mad love for them and still talk to them all the time, but there's so much out there in such a big way.
My love and support isn’t as significant as it was back then. I'm really glad I had the opportunity to give it that love and support to them, to help them to get to where they are now. I think it's a real blessing. It's all to play for. We're definitely in a great space. It's important that those artists parlay that space so it lasts forever, and it's not like a trend. I think it's very important that they parlay that into success, which can spread, maintain them and spread to other artists.
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This compilation is celebrates 30 years of your career, what has been your favourite era within that time?
I love all eras. I really love now as much as I loved anything else. But for the club, that DMX era was particularly exciting. Notorious B.I.G and 2Pac was a really exciting period of time. Jay-Z and Nas was an exciting period of time. Maybe the Notorious B.I.G album [‘Ready To Die’] is my favourite era, because I was in New York so much and I knew the artist so well. It was such a special time. It’s not like I prefer that era to this era, but back then was a very exciting time in the game.
Biggie came over and performed a show for you around that time didn’t he?
Yeah, when we joined a new radio station, he came over and did my launch party. I knew him well. I used to see him all the time up in The Tunnel, he was always around. His charisma levels were in the thousands, he was amazing. Legends live forever, [he was] one of the last real ones.
How much time do you spend looking for new music, and what are your preferred methods?
Now you’ve just got to pay a lot more attention. Back in the day, it was all on vinyl and there weer so few records coming out. It was so dictated by the major record companies, which made it very easy to see what was hot and what was happening.
Now there’s just so much out there, you’ve really got to pay attention. There’s so much bubbling up and coming through, you’ve got to be across a lot of things. But to me the club its still the big one. Being in that live environment.
And we’ve got these Crib Sessions on our YouTube channel with all these young artists. Linking with those guys, the next generation; they’re at the hardest edge of it all. So seeing what they like just keeps me in touch, so that’s really important.
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I think that YouTube is the biggest thing ever.
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What do you still want to achieve that you haven’t yet?
I think that YouTube is the biggest thing ever. I think there is a lot more we want to do with that, and I feel highly motivated to commit more to that. I think this ‘Hip Hop Club Bangers’ compilation is exciting, that’s part of the legacy and heritage. It’s good to recognise that, that’s really powerful for me. I think YouTube is where the future is for me, developing ideas and doing new things.
If you could go back to the days that you were collecting glasses and watching at Gossips in Soho, right before your career took off, what advice would you give yourself?
I would say don’t do drugs, don’t drink alcohol, go to the gym. I think everything else I did perfectly.
Do you feel like you get the respect that you deserve for what you’ve done for hip-hop in this country?
I want to be honest with you man, I just get mad love on the street and that’s what matters most to me. I’m out and about all the time and people just really appreciate what I do, really show me love for what I’ve done and I’ve been part of their lives and their growing up. They’ve experienced me through the radio or the clubs, and that’s all just love. That means more than anything to be honest. And also, keeping relevant and connected to this day is important. The easiest thing to so is through the music, you just keep with the hot joints and you’re winning.
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I just get mad love on the street and that’s what matters most to me.
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Of all of your achievements, what are you most proud of?
I’m proud of the radio shows that I’ve done, I’m proud of Tim Westwood TV and I’m proud of maintaining. Young DJs up and coming now shouldn’t be looking like, ‘Let me just do this for a couple of years’. I think the right way to look at it is ‘Let me make this my career. Let me make this my life. Let me be as successful and blessed as Westwood and be his age in the game winning.’ I think that’s what is important. Just to have such a long journey in this, I’m proud of.
Lastly, what does success look like?
I think just to keep working, I think that’s what success is. I’ve had the cars, still got the cars, I’ve got a nice crib and everything. But that’s not what I really measure success in, that’s just the rewards of hard work. I think success is just to be doing it, still ripping down parties, still ripping down clubs. Tim Westwood TV is a third of a billion video views. That’s what success looks like for me. The radio show is the number one rated show on a Saturday Night, Capital XTRA. That’s what success is man, that means everything.
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Westwood Hip Hop Club Bangers is out now on Universal Music On Demand. Order on Amazon HERE.
Words: Grant Brydon