Talking to Trevor Nelson.
Certainly, he has been the most visible black face in the UK’s music media for the longest time now and it doesn’t look like anybody is going to join or replace him anytime soon. He has actively supported British talent all the way and tirelessly promotes urban music in the form of rnb, hip-hop and soul through his shows – MTV’s The Lick (where he gets to chinwag with the biggest names in music) and BBC Radio 1’s R’n’B Chart Show on Saturday afternoons and Soul Nation which used go out in the small hours of Sunday mornings.
Sadly, Soul Nation is no more but Dzifa Benson joined him in the Radio 1 studio for the very last show and had a leisurely chat with an extremely affable and witty man who wears his celebrity very lightly indeed.
So Trevor, a true Londoner at heart…
Yes I was born in Hackney and my parents are St Lucian but a lot of people think I’m African.
I was reading that you got your first album, a Jackson Five album at 13 years old. But before that, was there anybody in your family who was very musical or was it part of your family life to have music around you all the time?
Actually, I was younger when I got that album, 9 years old, and it was the Jackson Five’s greatest hits which my sister and I played everyday for 5 years. We played that album over and over again. On a little, tinny record player, I remember. My dad was a mad Nat King Cole fan. He had about 60 Nat King Cole albums. But Dad wasn’t a huge record collector. He had a couple of hundred albums. I’ve probably got 12,000 albums in total. There was no one really musical in my family at all. No one played any instruments so I don’t know where I got the bug from. It was at the age of 13 that I really got into music.
But what was it about that album that you couldn’t leave alone?
Well look at the genius Michael Jackson turned out to be! You don’t know why you like someone or their music at that age. At the time they were the only black vocal group that were kids, that had their own cartoon series. When you’re a young black boy in this country, you’re looking for anything to cling to on television. We had the cartoon poster in our room. I didn’t know that it was going to be significant to me at all but I still play I Want You Back even now. I’ve played it in nearly every set I’ve done this year. The place goes mad when it comes on so I wasn’t wrong to love that record.
You’re right about those tracks. I can hear the melody of I Want You Back right now, it hasn’t dated at all.
Well it’s a brilliant. You don’t talk about music that is brilliant because you don’t have to. It’s timeless. If you hear Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On you just have to close your eyes for a second. It’s the same with Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together, James Brown’s Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag. There’s something about those tunes that just suck you in.
So how did getting into music take shape?
There’s another little story there. My mom went to the West Indies with my 2 youngest sisters and my dad had to look after me and older sister for the summer. He quickly realised that he wasn’t very capable of doing this on his own so he let as stay with some friends. These friends had 4 kids who were teenagers and the oldest had a collection of records. So when all the other kids went out to play, I would ask if I could stay in and play his records. And he had stuff like Bob Marley, Earth, Wind & Fire, Brass Construction, Roy Ayers, he had all the George Benson albums and I was just lost in these records everyday for 6 weeks. I was in his room all the time.
You’re a famously Chelsea Football Club supporter. Did you get into football too when you were young? Did you have time to pay attention to anything other than music at that age?
At primary school I was top boy, I got into a grammar school. When I left primary school, I was captain of the cricket team. I captained the football team for a little while, I was chess champion
So you’ve had a lot of drive and energy all your life?
All that stuff at school, that wasn’t drive. For instance, I taught myself to play chess from a book. When I do something I want to try and do it properly. I wanted to be chess champion of my school and I was. I was 10 and I beat all the 11 year olds! I wasn’t great at cricket although I broke the record for taking wickets. I wasn’t great at football but I became captain for a little while. So there must be something pushing me. I wasn’t the best at anything really. Maybe it was my love of music that made me feel special.
To me, it still sounds like you had an incredible amount of focus from a very young age?
I really don’t think that I am as driven as people imagine I am. I am far lazier than meets the eye. Not lazy in my attitude but lazy in my chosen profession.
No way! Doing my research before this interview, I’ve been taken by how much you have excelled at anything you put your hand to. The years with Soul II Soul at the Africa Centre for example, the warehouse parties you did. I even read about you going to your bank manager for a loan because you wanted it a car.
It was actually for decks! Well yes, there was an element of ‘by any means necessary’. It was what we had to do at the time. I didn’t go into these things thinking I was going to make a living. It was my hobby but I still was a bit of a nerd with my hobby. If I had an album in my hand, I would be looking at the credits, who produced it, who wrote it, I wanted to know the words to the song. I’m not so much like that now. When I did pirate radio for Kiss FM, the preparation I put into those shows was 5 times the preparation I put into my shows on Radio One now.
Really? Is that why you say you’re lazy in your profession?
Yeah. I would do a half hour slot on Roy Ayers for example. I would research the things about Roy Ayers that assumed everybody listening would want to know. At the time, people did want to know that kind of stuff. I never could scratch records or mix particularly well but I didn’t want to work that hard on the decks because it spoilt my process of selecting records. I wanted to be known as the guy who would play a record that you might not expect to hear. Sometimes you can be very natural and other times you have to work really hard.
When have you had to work really hard?
When I was at the record company. I found that quite tough.
This is when Kiss FM had gone legit which then led on to you joining the Cooltempo record label, right?
Yes. I was doing the radio show and I was also working at a record company. Then I went on to Radio One and I was still working for a record company. And my job was A&R, signing artists. It was very difficult because it was specifically black artists
Why was it difficult?
Because the talent wasn’t out there to sign in ’94, ’95. It hadn’t exploded like it has now. I was with the label a total of 5 years and for 2 ½ of those I was doing A&R. Mark Morrison was the only big star and later Shola Ama followed. I signed Lyden David Hall. He was the best thing I came across. If I had stayed another year or 2, I guarantee I would have signed Craig David and that would have made me the greatest A&R man, ever. But it doesn’t happen that way. You just have to be there when someone like that shows up. In Britain we have the talent but it’s very hard to find someone who has the full package.
What do you mean by the full package?
Well you may have someone who can sing but the vision is in if you can sell that person. Being a star is not about just singing and making a record. It means going on the road, doing promotion, working damn hard, the whole nine. One by one, all of our so-called potential Brit award winners fell off because they didn’t have the right attitude.
There must be people out there who are prepared to work hard, surely?
Beverley Knight is one example of someone who has got an incredible work ethic. She’s never burst massive but she keeps on putting those records out and you can’t deny the talent. When she makes a great record it does well. I wanted to sign her but she went to another label.
At the turn of the century, you are quoted on your website as saying now is the time to branch out. It seemed that you had things on lock down at the end of the 90s so what are the new areas you wanted to branch out into? What haven’t you done yet?
People generally only know me for The Lick on MTV and my Radio One shows. They don’t really know what else has gone on in the background. For instance, I started a TV production, Money Productions with a partner who used to be my boss at MTV. We realised that there was definitely a gap in the market for black cultural and music shows. I wanted to make a program that was like the black version of Later With Jools Holland. The BBC gave me a chance to do that with Trevor Nelson’s Urban Choice when BBC 3 was called BBC Choice. On the show I was the last person to interview Barry White before he died. It was real and live and I loved it. But the audience for that kind of show is all on cable now. That’s why Top of Pops is gone. We made about 3 documentaries, our first commission for BBC 2 and doesn’t get any harder than that because the BBC is very fussy. I persuaded them to do one on Puff Daddy. Then we did one on Mel B, Scary Spice. My best one was Mary J Blige which most people didn’t get to see but it was fantastic. We didn’t manage to finish the series unfortunately because I had Whitney Houston lined up but then her drug problems got exposed. Then I had JLo lined up who was dating Puff Daddy at the time and he had this big court case and then Mariah Carey who decided to go a little mad. So I had bad luck there which is shame because I think those 3 would have made great documentaries. Then there was the management side of the company. We have Sadie Frost signed to our books, Edith Bowman, Miquita Oliver, all sorts of people. But that’s not really my world. I wanted a bit of anonymity so I sold my stake in the company. My point is that my career has taken care of itself, I didn’t plan it and I am not too concerned with making more and more money.
So how does diversification take shape in your life today?
I’m a consultant for the NFL believe it or not, for American football. I’m going to New Orleans in November to film a documentary on American football for MTV but that’s something I brokered with the NFL.
Does it take in the after effects of Hurricane Katrina?
Yes. That’s what interests me. The whole human interest story, obviously. The fact that the New Orleans team’s tickets are sold out the whole year but people in New Orleans have struggled. They all went to the stadium for shelter and they support their team. It’s an outlet for them. It’s just going to be really interesting and I’ve always wanted to go to New Orleans. I was touched by what happened in New Orleans and it is an opportunity for me to make a black human interest story. It’s very hard to feel safe in this business, you never know what people think of you. And black people in general, aren’t given too many second chances in the media. You get your shot and that’s your lot. Whereas you do see favoured white people being given loads more chances. I’m realistic about it. So I always assume next week’s my last week in whatever I’m doing.
I want to take you back some years now to the time of the Madhatter parties. I want to get a sense of what those times were like? Did you feel like you were breaking new ground at the time?
Only locally in Hackney. Ask anybody who lived in Hackney in the 80s and they will tell you that every sound system played reggae music. That was it. We liked soul music, jazz-funk, a bit of hip-hop. So I wanted to start a sound system that played the kind of music that we liked, in an area that was dominated by reggae so that we would stand out. Then I thought of the name Madhatter because it was a crazy name and made people realise that if they were going to my party they were going to get something different. We borrowed money from the bank to buy decks and a mixer, built our own speakers. For black kids, the West End wasn’t a welcoming place. You couldn’t get into the club and didn’t know why. But you always felt it was your colour. So we did just like our parents, had shebeens and blues parties and played the best music. That’s around the time that I became a DJ. Then I met Soul II Soul and integrated what I was doing with what they were doing and they had a better sound system. My boys didn’t DJ as much as I did so eventually I broke away from Madhatters and started doing my own thing.
Music Magazine, in 1999, voted you the fifth most powerful person in dance music. Comment, please.
I think a lot of people thought wow at the time because on Radio One, r&b was the buzzword in 1999. And I was on Radio One and MTV, so I think they thought I was very influential at the time because people were beginning to turn on to this music. I thought it was a bit inflated but at the same time I was throwing a lot of Lick parties and they were huge, selling out every week.
Another thing I read about you that I would like you to comment on. Urban smoothie. Does that mean you’re a ladies’man?
I love ladies, I’m not going to lie about that. Women like r&b more than men and they are my main audience. A lot of guys say you’ve got to be a hip-hop man. I do play a lot of hip-hop but I’m not a big fan of thuggish hip-hop. Whether I like it or not, people will label me. I’ve never called myself an urban smoothie. I can understand why I’m called that though.
The last thing I would like you to comment about. ‘Treveor Nelson is now the unchallenged impresario of British rnb’?
I get embarrassed when I read things like that but I understand why they say it. That’s cool but I worry about where the next someone like me is going to come from. I came at the right time of music television and radio and now it’s changed. The internet has changed everything and people are doing it for themselves now, finding it, buying it, downloading it. 10 years ago I was a catalyst, putting up the signposts but people don’t need that anymore.
Yeah, I can see what you mean. In 2002, the same year you got your MBE for being a Millennium Volunteer Ambassador, you were also voted into the top 100 dance music powerlist.
Power…does that mean that if I read that, the next day I would go on the radio saying ‘Yo! Listen to me. I’m the man! I’ve got the power!’ It doesn’t change your life. It’s just someone else saying this guy ain’t going away.
I suppose it’s because you have access to all the top names in music.
Yes, I’ve interviewed everybody that I ever wanted to interview and if I haven’t it’s because I didn’t want to interview them. The only couple that I’ve missed out on is Michael Jackson and Prince. And I wouldn’t want to interview either of them. I had an opportunity to interview Prince and I didn’t take it because he was on a bitch at the time. Moaning and moaning and moaning. I feel he’s a genius but I don’t need to talk to him. Michael Jackson I’d love to talk to but then, I’d be told there are so many things that I couldn’t ask him about so there would be no point.
I came across this expression today – urban culture at its coolest. Are you comfortable with the word ‘urban’ to describe what you do? The music and anything black, generally?
I’m glad you asked me that question. In America they’ve used that word for a long time. Urban radio they used to call it which was black/young radio, essentially. We live in a predominantly white country where a lot of white people are involved in the making of black music. And more white people in the buying of black music which is the key here. As thuggish, black and gangsterish as he is, I’m sure 50 cent sells 80% of his records to white people. He’s a pop star. I’m sure if his music came under ‘urban’, he wouldn’t care because it means he is going to sell more records. If you label something ‘black music’, how is the person making black music who is not black going to feel? I’ve been on the inside of the music industry all my career. I know that the term ‘black music’ has always ostracised us and kept us separate from everything else with no funding or investment. We’re in a global village now and people don’t want it thrust in their face that what they are listening to is ‘black music’. Where would you put Eminem? I’m sure that Craig David is very happy that ‘urban’ describes the type of music he does. We sell records by any means necessary.
Indie music has come back big in the last couple of years. Before that r&b was dominant but it seems r&b has stagnated a bit of late.
I understand why you say that. In the early 90s certain records couldn’t be imported into Britain, because the distribution infrastructure was not in place. So when the r&b explosion happened and the Fugees were huge and hip-hop starting selling here properly, everyone rushed to buy it. But then like all music, it plateaus. Hip-hop was supposed to be a flash in the pan but proper artists are still here – L L Cool J, Jay-z and so is Mary J Blige. Now these artists have become entrepreneurs. They’ve realised that people will pay to wear trainers that they have designed because it is associated with cool because they are cool. So they’ve taken their eye of the ball a little bit. Beyonce is doing so much at the moment, making films, designing clothes. She made her latest album in about 2 weeks! The result is a lot of pop r&b trying to appeal to the mainstream. A lot of us feel that emotion is not in the music right now. Furthermore, the record buying public doesn’t feel as much of an allegiance to these artists as they used to.
But something’s got to give though, hasn’t it?
Well, new artists come along. Kanye West puts so much emotion into his work. Alicia Keys came along too with a great debut single, Falling, which immediately announced that she is an artist and here for the long haul. So sooner or later someone comes along.
D: ….and finally, if you hadn’t been into music, what do you think you would have done?
The last and only normal job I had was working in a shoe shop. So I would have been running my own shoe shop by now!
Interview by Dzifa Benson 2006