KENNY ALLSTAR: INSIGHTS FROM A BRITISH INSTITUTION
Kenny Allstar cannot be categorised by a career title nor his value explained by the sum of every iconic culture-shifting moment he has catalysed. He is more simply put – a British institution. Much like his counterparts Charlie Sloth or DJ Semtex, the latter his predecessor at the coveted Friday night slot on 1Xtra, Kenny Allstar has become stitched into the patchwork fabric of UK broadcasting, underground music, and contemporary counter-culture. He is a musical tastemaker armed with the finest palette and a disarming disposition who has helped forge the careers of countless MCs across every impactful genre of our time. He is a bastion of DIY culture that dogmatically pursued his love of radio with a reckless abandon until he had both flown the flag for pirate radio and planted one atop the pinnacle of global broadcasting.
In the four years that Kenny has been soundtracking the nation’s Friday nights out, he has delved into the depths of every street corner and cul-de-sac in the country to find a new generation of artists hungry to build on the foundations laid by the now legends we first encountered under Semtex’s stewardship. Artists like Knucks, French The Kid, M Huncho, Digga D, Clavish, Bam Bam and many more have blossomed with a cosign from the Voice of The Street, reminding everyone that the UK scene will always stay true with a steadfast defender of real rap at the helm.
We sat down with Kenny to reflect on a journey that has seen him go from having his recording equipment stolen from a shed studio to recording in the most prestigious booth in broadcasting. We also had to find out a little bit more about taking over from Semtex, how radio helped him tackle his self-esteem issues, how he finds the coldest artists out there and what the best freestyle he’s ever witnessed is.
Where did you first find your love for music? Did it start with the music playing at home? School or has it just always been in you?
It’s always been in me man, I think since I was young my mum made it an integral part of my childhood to make sure I was always able to find something that I love. My mum came from a very deprived background where there weren’t many influences or outlets to be inspired, likewise for my pops. So from young, my mum had this theory that things like the toys I had to play with would impact my interests in adolescence, so I had all these makeshift keyboards that you could get from Toys R Us and other musical instruments. If it wasn’t the instruments that captured my attention it was all the vinyl that my mum had at the time.
Music was exciting, I always wanted to ask questions about it because we never indulged in television, so music was always top of mind. From the ages of two till eight, I was ingrained with whatever my mum was playing in the house, it could be Afrobeats, Reggae, Dancehall, or maybe even a little Whitney Houston. Typical mum playlists you get me? After that I started to explore music through friends and MTV, that’s really when I started to get all the American influences like 50 Cent, Jay-Z, and Snoop. It wasn’t until I went to my first Notting Hill Carnival that I started researching everything to do with local hip-hop and the UK scene that was around me. I wanted to be immersed in that culture – big sound systems, blaring sub-woofers, the energy, the smoke, the chicken haha. It was a beautiful moment and from then I knew I had to get involved. I was always standing closer to the radio from then on.
Why Radio? I’m curious as someone who is equally respected as a tour/live DJ and a creative producer, what is it you like about Radio? Do you enjoy being a more overall entertainer?
I had quite a lot of self-esteem issues in school. I wasn’t the most popular person and I was kinda introverted because I had issues with my image and was going through a lot in my personal life at that time. I fell in love with the art form of radio because it’s not about what you look like, nobody cares what a radio presenter looks like, for all you know you could be listening to your favourite radio host and the guy is wearing socks, sliders and a onesie. It’s not about the image, it’s about how you connect and conversate with the listener, that’s the art form in radio. It’s a great representation of how you can transmit your love for music without anyone judging you on your appearance.
Then below that, there are different levels of that expression. On pirate radio, you can give guys who would never be allowed through the doors of the BBC a platform, and a lot of your pirate stations were doing more numbers than the majors. That shit was so beautiful, and that’s why I fell in love with radio. I could be myself and not give a f**k what anybody thinks. From a young age, it was my therapy. At one point radio saved my life, I was going through a lot and was lost for opportunities, but playing on the radio and sharing music even to this day is the best feeling ever and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
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Looking back on the start of your Radio 1 residency back in 2018, taking over from the legendary DJ Semtex at the 9 pm Friday evening slot, what did you learn about what that slot/show meant watching Semtex? I’m curious if you learned more from him about DJing or interviewing?
You know what bro that is a great question that I’m surprised nobody has ever asked me. When they told me I was taking over from Semtex, it was so nerve-racking. At that point you had the two veterans at the station, you had Charlie Sloth on Saturday and Semtex on Friday. If you listen to both shows they are clearly so different and from a distance, my style was much more comparable to Charlie’s. So naturally, I expected it to be a very long transition because Semtex had that show for just shy of fifteen years, so there was going to be a whole community of people that have grown up listening to Semtex on a Friday night that would react by saying “turn this shit off” when they hear me for the first time. The reality is, that Semtex focused more on lyricism and the craft as you have to remember he is a real GOAT in the world of UK radio.
He is way more seasoned and experienced than me so I knew that no matter what, I couldn’t try and be Semtex. There is only one DJ Semtex. He has helped shape countless careers and the industry as a whole, so I knew the worst thing I could do was to try and fill the Semtex-shaped void by trying to be similar and emulate what he did so well. I knew I had to bring my sauce and switch it up, which was certainly a struggle as I could feel that certain people weren’t with it as I was coming in with a more drill-heavy and street-orientated sound. I basically stripped the identity of that whole show. However, I guess what helped was that I had already been there for over a month doing the residency so I had already warmed them up to me a little bit. But, no matter what I did, I knew I couldn’t replace Semtex I had to be myself and luckily after four years I think people are used to how the show is now.
How much free reign does a DJ of your calibre get in deciding what tunes you get to play? I think some people may have a conception or a misconception that a company like BBC would have tighter control over what makes it to broadcast than an outlet like Reprezent, is that the case?
You know what, I’ve never had any issue with a single one of the platforms I’ve worked on, particularly 1Xtra. There is a perception that when you get to an organisation like a BBC, they hold you back from playing certain stuff, but it isn’t like that, particularly if you are a DJ. Maybe I’m just overly passionate so they know when I say that I’m playing a record that I’m going to do it no matter what, but 1Xtra have never even tried to tell me what I can or can’t play on my show. The only exceptions are if I’m covering a daytime show that has to be playlisted but for my show, there have never been any conversations like that. As a specialist DJ with a specialist show, they rely on my knowledge in the field to shine, the only way the numbers pick up is if the audience feels they are listening to what I listen to. There has never been a time when anyone at the BBC has ever asked me to play a record and I feel I have to play it. We are tastemakers at the end of the day and our value is in our expertise and opinion of what’s good. Every show you’ve ever heard from me has come from me.
So much of what being a good Radio DJ is about, is being trusted to find who is dope out there and curate that down for us so we don’t have to. How does that process happen? Do you spend ages going down Spotify or Insta blackholes and stumble across a lot of heat? Or is it recommendations from managers, labels or artists you trust?
Haha, yes sometimes I get lost in the ether man. I could be just browsing on the gram and see a freestyle. One of my favourite artists that I’ve found organically was Clavish, he is a great example of how I find artists because I came across his freestyle a couple of years ago where he was just rapping in a car and going in! That one freestyle turned into his breakout single and the irony is that he has a lyric in that track where he shouts me out but I had no clue that was in there when I played it. That’s an example of me just stumbling across someone and I make it my prerogative to make sure that this guy is on every platform because I know that he’s different and refreshing. I loved that about him. In general, though, I find artists in all sorts of different ways. The most organic finds I have are when artists just pop up on the radar naturally, I try and limit my intake of music from pluggers and promoters because it can feel like you are just being force-fed music. Integrity is important and I feel if you already have a label and a plugger showing people your music then you have more than a lot of other artists so I rather help those that don’t already have those resources.
Does it feel like you are playing facing just the UK or are you aware of the international outreach of the show?
It does feel like I’m more UK based but my production team are always reminding me that we are on BBC Sounds which is an international platform. Sometimes ill be doing shout-outs during the show and will be bigging people up from across the UK until I get a message from someone in Gambia or Brazil and then ill remember how international the show is. Of course, because I’m so wired into what’s happening on the streets in the UK, I guess I sometimes have this London ignorance that forgets. You definitely can feel like you are stuck in a UK bubble or even sometimes just a London bubble because I’m based here.
What is the least professional recording setup you’ve ever worked in?
Haha, let me think about this one. Actually no, this is easy! I’m not going to call out the organisation, although I’m not even sure if they are still running anymore, but someone who did community outreach in my area had a studio in her garage. It was a Grime internet station broadcasting from just a shed. We brought all the equipment that we had sourced ourselves, there was no soundproofing because – again – it was a f**king shed. Here is where professionalism comes into question because they said that the shed would always be locked while we weren’t there, bearing in mind all our equipment is in there and we don’t have our own keys. Until one day, I think it was a Thursday, we finished school and got to the spot to find the whole place is cleared out. Computers gone, laptops gone, mixers, all our recording equipment, everything gone! Someone ransacked the whole studio/shed. To this day me and my boy have got this conspiracy theory that it was an inside job haha.
I’m not gonna ask for the best but is there a freestyle or cypher you’ve seen that randomly sticks out in your mind cuz it melted your face?
I’m giving this one to Bam Bam. His voice of the streets freestyle for many reasons is the maddest freestyle I’ve seen in person. Firstly, Bam Bam didn’t have a big profile like many of the other artists who have performed on my show, a lot of people didn’t know who the hell he was, but what he did on the freestyle was something I had never seen before. The guy starts rapping for about five and a half minutes and when he starts off nobody around him in the studio is interested. People are chatting, bantering and playing FIFA in the background but in the space of five minutes he goes from nobody giving him any notice to captivating an entire building – and you can watch it happen gradually. The guys in the background stop playing FIFA to watch this guy they don’t know rap. Everybody that could hear him stopped whatever they were going to listen and it was purely because of the passion and emotions and realness with which he was spitting. It was so raw and to this day it’s iconic.
What was the last live show you went to?
It was with either French The Kid at 02 Islington or M Huncho at Brixton.
Lastly, Kenny, is there any chance we are gonna get another Block Diaries or a different sequel?
You know what, it’s so funny you said that because I just finished building my studio in my house and that was the only thing that was holding me back because I was sick and tired of random studio sessions. When you make art you cant be limited to a 2-hour session, so having a space that’s all for me that I can use whenever is a game-changer. I can confirm that this year I am back in! We have some sessions coming up, there will be a Block Diaries 2 two coming up at some point. Will that be my next project? Probably not, but it’s definitely coming at some point.