When Skepta finally released Konnichiwa, he only agreed to one filmed interview. For those in the know, it was unsurprising that he went with DJ Semtex. As London’s foremost ambassador of hip-hop culture for almost two decades, Semtex has overcome personal struggles and professional obstacles to become an important figure in British urban culture and hip-hop as a whole – from showcasing the talents of a young Dizzee Rascal in the early 00s, to importing hyped US rappers like Young Thug to London for their debut shows with his ARRIVAL series. As he reflects on the sounds and figures that raised him in a new book of hip-hop history with a stirring foreword by Chuck D, we spoke to Semtex about the game he holds close to his heart.
1992: Starting out in Manchester
I learned how to DJ through playing at the estates in Cheetham Hill, I’d be going from 9PM at night through till six in the morning. If I was lucky I’d get £20 for the taxi home and it was the best learning experience to have as a DJ. You’ll get bottled if you’re fucking up. You couldn’t learn to DJ in a better environment. I love Manchester and I love the people, it’s what made me who I am today. It’s still a little wild up there, the people are the salt of the earth. You can’t pay for that experience.
2001: Joining BBC Radio 1Xtra
The BBC were at a point where they had to start catering to the needs of what people actually wanted to listen to. There was no internet at the time so it was a very different situation. If there was a station dealing with black music I wanted in. Now I’ve done over 600 interviews and I’ve done multiple interviews with great artists. The only person I haven’t been able to get to is Dr Dre. He’s bigger than radio, he’s gone from creating the oil to creating the pipeline so I don’t know how I’m going to get to him!
2002: Working with Dizzee Rascal
I didn’t really care for UK hip-hop too much, I just felt like it was all borrowed from the US. But here was a kid who was crazy as fuck. He was the Public Enemy, he had a live show like RUN DMC, he had a an authority like N.W.A. But he was totally different in the same way OutKast were. He was ahead of his time and he was very English. It was the English experience and it became grime. I had a demo for Boy In Da Corner about a year early and I was pushing it hard. I never really wanted to do A&R but I believed in him, I could tell he was going to be around for a long time. The labels and radio weren’t ready, the mainstream wasn’t ready and it’s good that it didn’t happen [with me] in the end because, ultimately, I wasn’t ready.
2004: Interviewing Kanye West for the first time
They say you should never talk about religion or politics, I’d probably add Kanye West to that list! I’ve learned a lot from him, the main thing is just focusing on the music. The best way to get his attention in interviews is to talk about the music. Forget the hype, forget the bullshit. The first time I met him I was too gassed and played it wrong and got parred. The next time I met him we spoke about the drums on Workout Plan, fast-forward to Late Registration and we’re talking about whether Chuck D should have been on Crack Music. Around the time of 808s we’re having deep conversations about the process of making that record. It’s gotten harder and harder to get nearer him because he’s in a different place now – a place most hip-hop artists have never been. He’s turned into a Mozart of our generation we just don’t see it yet. That doesn’t happen till after you die.
"They say you should never talk about religion or politics. I’d probably add Kanye West to that list"
2014 – Present: ARRIVAL gig series in London
Music doesn’t sell out any more because it’s on every platform – there’s no rarities or special moments because it’s so available. ARRIVAL is about moments in time, you were there or you weren’t, and that’s it. We did Future at The Nest and the speakers were falling off the walls, I was like “shit, someone might die!”. You will never see anything like that again.
2016: Releasing the Hip-Hop Raised Me book
It’s everything that I’ve covered on my show or talked about with hip-hop fans at the cub for hours. Kanye’s whole thing of turning tragedy into triumph is it. That’s it, that’s the reason I’ve done this book. I’ve been through some shit and it took me a minute to realise how to accept it. This is just my hip-hop, it’s my responsibility to the culture to get this right. That’s always been the way I’ve looked at it. DJing will serve the ego, but this a duty.
Hip-Hop Raised Me is released 6 October via Thames and Hudson Ltd