There's no one quite like DJ Semtex.
Starting his career in the record shops of Manchester before making the well-travelled pilgrimage down to London in the 90s, nothing was promised nor handed to him. Though he's hesitant to dwell on it, the odds were often stacked against him.
Sitting down for a conversation with him in East London one afternoon, I'm reminded of how much of an impact his work has made on my own life. His now defunct blog still remains in my bookmarks out of habit and was one of the first platforms I would religiously visit in my teens, shaping my perception of what it meant to have a voice online. It was here that J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Drake and countless others would be introduced to the world, years before their careers would fully bloom.
Both a product and active participant of the hip hop generation, Semtex's commitment to the music he loves has underpinned much of his success. Where many struggle to find the balance between art and commerce, DJ Semtex appears to weave in and out of the corporate world seamlessly, all the while keeping his ear firmly in touch with what's happening on the ground.
As always, these conversations have been meticulously pieced together to give you the most candid insight in to the lives, careers and minds of some of the industry's most seasoned figures -- in their own words and uncensored. This one is no different. If you’re looking for a career in the music industry, the following is sure to motivate and inspire your journey.
Read it closely, share it, and learn from it.
"As a kid, my mum would play Michael Jackson’s ‘Off The Wall’ album every night. When I got sent to bed, that's what I'd always hear. Because of the times, it was all on vinyl, so you’d hear the entire album all the way through. There was no switching playlists, there was no skipping tracks — it was the whole album. So I knew the album inside out, purely because my mum was playing it every night.
Up until about 10, life was amazing. I didn’t see colour. I grew up with kids from every background, every different community; colour, race, whatever. And because of that, you just don’t see any differences — you’re just kids. My mum’s black, my dad’s white. My brother’s a lighter shade than me, my grandmother’s darker, but I never saw colour. And then I moved to an all-white area in Manchester, and that's when I encountered racism. That’s when it was like, ‘Oh, shit.’ And I didn’t even know what it was. I’m very light-skinned as it is but, even for me, I was getting all this abuse.
They had this game called ‘catch the nigger and tag him’ and I was always being tagged. So I was the nigger. I was confused; I didn’t even know what the word meant. I knew it was derogatory in the way that they were using it but I didn’t know what it was about. Like, ‘What is it?!’ And people would just say, ‘Ignore it, ignore it.’ I think that experience is what pushed me into hip hop, and I think that’s why certain albums resonated with me more. It had all the answers, it made everything make sense."
First encounter with radio…
"In Manchester there was this guy called Stu Allan, he was like the Manchester equivalent to [Tim] Westwood. He had this show on a Sunday night; it was amazing. He introduced me to everything. It was the gospel. I learnt about Jungle Brothers, Q-Tip, Public Enemy, everything, all through that show."
Listen to one of Stu Allan's 'Bus Diss' mixes from the late 1980s here.
Overcoming adversity early on...
"You’ve got to understand that I’ve got a different perspective to everybody else because… and I’ve never talked about this publicly before… but I was in a situation where I was born with an illness in my right arm. I was in and out of hospital all of my early life. I had this thing called Lymphangioma that caused me mad pain and forced me to have mad operations. I missed years of school life, but I never went back a year — I always kept it moving.
So when I was 16 the doctor was like, ‘We’re going to have to amputate your arm otherwise you’re going to die.’ So, I was like ‘Cool’ because I’d been through so much pain already it didn’t really mean anything. There’s only two things that can happen in these types of situations: you can either feel sorry for yourself and fucking regress, or you can just do the opposite and do everything you ever wanted. I did the opposite."
Discovering hip hop…
"I came up to my brother’s room one day and he had all of his friends there. It was like an overnight cultural shift where they all had on tracksuits, they had a lino on the floor that they were all dancing on and I saw these records all around the room. It was Run DMC’s ‘My Adidas’, Slick Rick’s ‘Treat Her Like A Prostitute’ and LL Cool J’s ‘Bigger And Deffer’ -- and then Doug E Fresh & Slick Rick’s ‘The Show’ was playing in the background. I was just like, ‘What the fuck is this? This is crazy!’ and that was the moment. It was weird. It was like my brother and all of his friends got into this hip hop shit overnight, and I was just the kid in the corner watching what was going on.
From there, the first concert I ever went to was Ice-T. It blew my mind. I went to the hood, in an area called Longsight [in Manchester]. It was maaaad dangerous, but I just wanted in from there. I’d never heard bass like that, I’d never heard subs like that before either. I can remember every single track that got played, fights breaking out, everything. I was just there by myself -- I loved it."
Getting through the door...
"I was at university, working at a builders merchants, signing on, working in Eastern Bloc records, putting on club nights, selling mixtapes, trying to make my name as a DJ. At the same time I was calling up all the record companies and promotional companies in the quest to get more records for free. I’d be like ‘Yo! Send me your posters and promotional stuff we’ll put them up in the store, at my nights. We’ve got this big crowd coming in etc.’ At the time, I didn’t realise it, but I was actually doing street team stuff. I was doing sticker campaigns, poster campaigns, servicing DJs and everything else. From there I got asked to come down to London to set up the street team for Sony — that’s basically how I got into the music industry."
"I didn’t come down to make friends — I came down to take over."
Moving to London...
"[When I moved down to London], I came down with the pure intent of making moves. I loved it. I didn’t come down to make friends — I came down to take over. I didn’t give a fuck about any of these DJ’s down here. I hated them because they didn't represent where I was from. I’d read Hip Hop Connection and it was so [London-centric], and that wasn’t my experience. You’ve got to understand; Manchester people are very different to Londoners. We have a different sense of humour and culture, and I didn’t like the attitude. The London thing combined with hip hop at that time was very ignorant. It was just too disrespectful. Like, ‘You man are from country!’ But that gave me the drive to get my head down.
When I first started at Sony it wasn’t like ‘Here, have a job!’ — I had to earn that stripe. I was originally working on an independent basis, which was pretty difficult. It was the first time I had left home, and moving from Manchester to London without any friends or family down here wasn’t easy. Even though I was getting the independent money, at one point I was going to move back because it wasn’t adding up.
[Once I got on], my whole thing was that I was determined to bring through a generation of young people -- who understood the culture -- to work in the industry. I started with no budget and worked my way up to getting a budget to pay people to give out fliers and everything else. I had some good, hungry kids making moves at the time. I just told them, 'Look, use the Sony brand to empower whatever else you have going on and [use it to help] everything else.' And that's where it all started for me down here."
Gaining full-time employment...
"I eventually got a full time position at Sony because of Destiny’s Child. Black music wasn’t getting played like it is now; it wasn’t getting supported at all. So [their first single] ‘No, No, No’ came out and the label were like ‘Ah, we don’t know what to do with this!’ and I was like, ‘That’s easy, get it to this pirate station, that pirate station, work with these DJs and promoters, and do this and that’ and from there it went Top 5. This is pre-everything; pre-1Xtra, pre-internet, pre-social networks. And because it went Top 5 the label were like ‘This never would have happened if you weren’t here!’ so they were like ‘Okay, we want to give you a proper job.’ God bless Beyonce (and Destiny's Child) [laughs]."
Every single thing I was doing; every single booking; every single move, it was like I was that one step closer to achieving my aim. I was doing it. I just wanted to win. I was just like ‘What do you want me to do? What do you need doing?!’ You’ve got to understand; Mancs, we graft. In London, we get everything, the shows, the concerts, there’s always things popping. It’s not like that up north, you might only get one show a month. You’re starving for the culture. So, for me, I just came down to work and get involved."
Getting involved with BBC Radio 1Xtra…
"1Xtra didn’t actually want me in the beginning [laughs]. Wilbur Wilberforce [former Head of 1Xtra] initially reached out and was like ‘Yeah, we’re setting up 1Xtra and we’d really like... *pauses for a second*... DJ Excalibur’s number’ and I was like ‘Ah, okay, but I mix as well you know [laughs]. But, yeah, I'll get you Excalibur.' Excalibur was a dope DJ, he was on my street team that I put together for Sony and he was one of the youngest DJ’s coming up at the time, so I put them in touch with him. Then, I was DJing at this Destiny’s Child event at Finsbury Park and there was this Rawkus Records tent. This was when Rawkus Records was popping. I just tore it down. It was an absolute shut down.
The one thing you’ve got to have as a DJ; you’ve got to have an ego. You have to go on stage and believe ‘I’m the shit and I’m going to fuck up this rave better than anybody else’ -- almost competing with the acts on the stage. So, it was a good day. I was tearing it up and Ray Paul [former Head of Specialist Radio at 1Xtra] and Wilbur were there and they saw me. That’s how I got involved with the station."
"I could hear five albums, minimum."
Getting involved with Dizzee Rascal…
"After I did my thing with Sony, I got asked to join Def Jam UK for Mercury Records/Universal. At the time it seemed like a good idea. I mean, Def Jam is the Motown of hip hop — so it was an honour. But I soon realised that a US initiative ran by a US executive in the UK doesn’t work.
I never wanted to do A&R but, when I met Dizzee, that was the turning point. I could hear five albums, minimum. This was pre-XL Records, everything. I met him originally when I reached out to Wiley to do a Ludacris remix. Back then no one even knew what grime was, like maybe 2001-2, it was still developing, it wasn’t the full blown genre that it is today. All I knew was that it was sick and Wiley was the guy — Wiley and Pay As You Go [Cartel] were all over London on street posters — and the label were just like ‘How do we blow this track up?!’ So I was like ‘Cool, let’s get Wiley to do a remix of ‘Roll Out’ by Ludacris.’ So I hooked up with him in Bethnal Green, drove to the studio, he did the remix the day after and… it was funny, we ran with the demo mix [in the end] because it was better than the finished mix [laughs]. I think they smoked too much weed during the mix down and the drums were too low or something.
While I was coming down to the studio to check out the remix, I saw this kid in a chair in the corner of the studio with his hood up looking maaaad ‘aggy. I was just like ‘Okay, I don’t want to be anywhere near that kid; he looks like he has issues.’ But anyway, when I was there I was like ‘Yo – can I get a dubplate?’ — Wiley’s ‘I Will Not Lose’ was my favourite joint at the time. So he hit me back later like, ‘I’ve done this dubplate for you, but I’ve put this kid on it as well.’ It was the kid from the studio. I was thinking, ‘Oh, here we go. He’s trying to bring one of his bredrins through’ [laughs]. But I heard it and remember thinking ‘Wow, this kid is sick.’ His bars were crazy, mad complex rhyme patterns. It was a 16/17 year-old Dizzee Rascal.
Listen to Wiley's 'I Will Not Lose' dubplate featuring Dizzee Rascal exclusively below.
After standing in for a DJ that didn’t turn up for him one time, I eventually became Dizzee’s official DJ. I had ‘Boy In Da Corner’ about eight months before it came out. I knew it was special. I thought what he did on ‘Round We Go’ was very similar to something that Nas was would do. It was very similar to Rakim, too, in the way that he could tell a story and rap from the third person perspective, he was a very advanced lyricist for his age and still is. I’d never heard slang like that, I’d never heard rhyming patterns like that from UK. I just wanted to be involved, but not everyone got it.
I was still doing club promotions and everything else at the time. I never wanted to do A&R but, because I believed in Dizzee as an artist, I wanted to pursue it. It was frustrating because the label just didn’t get it. I remember writing an email saying: ‘These things are going to happen!’ Like 20 things including the awards he would win, shows, breakthroughs, etc... they all came true. It was one of those frustrating things where I was trying to bring him in but no one got it at any point within the label. It was Mercury Records at the time, Greg Castell the head of the label didn’t get it, Lucian Grainge the then Chairman of Universal UK didn’t get it, the Def Jam execs in the US didn't get it; no one. I was eventually told half-heartedly “You can sign him if you want….”, which means: it’s totally on you, but they didn’t believe in him and it was obvious he wouldn’t get the necessary support and attention. And then XL was talking to him at the same time.
Anyway, I hooked up Dizzee to support Jay Z at Wembley Arena in 2002. Just out of love and respect I said to his manager ‘Look, whether you sign with us or not I’ll hook you up with this.’ It was a massive look for any artist. Then, the day of the show -- Dizz went on after Clipse, who were supposed to be the main support -- the guys from XL Records were stood by the stage watching. I knew they were going to sign him. I just felt like, ‘You fucking cunts.’ It hurt. It really, really hurt at the time. But, it’s weird, on the back of not signing him, I ended up gaining a good friendship with Dizz. I toured with him for eight years, and helped out behind the scenes with the promo on some of the singles. And then when he got the Mercury Music Prize I started getting job offers from other labels. So it was really weird like, ‘So I didn’t sign this guy, but I’m getting job offers?’”
Dealing with frustration...
"There’s three different ways you can deal with frustration in this industry:
1. You can be a martyr, and use it as something to moan about for the rest of your life.
2. You can leave and set up your own thing if you’re not happy with it.
Or 3. You can be a part of the process to make sure that it doesn’t happen again — and make a change within the organisation that you work in.
Those are the three choices, and it’s up to you how you handle the situation.
Despite being annoyed and frustrated back then [with the Dizzee situation], I think over time I’ve learnt that, ultimately, what will be will be. There’s absolutely no logic in the music industry. You just have to have faith in that, if they don’t get it now, they’ll get it later. The situation with Dizzee was my learning process.
Dizzee is a pioneer, an originator of culture, he is to grime what Run DMC and Public Enemy are to hip hop. When artists like him emerge, few people see it coming, and even fewer people know how to support them or their vision. And, anyway, had Mercury signed him, they’d have fucked it up anyway, labels weren’t ready for him. I didn’t sign him, but on the flip-side, as a DJ, I toured the world with him — Japan, Australia, South America, every continent — I’ve done things most DJ’s will never do. I’m eternally thankful for the opportunity to rock crowds with him and witness his ascension first hand.
It was interesting to see how Island Records, and the Chairman of Universal would later fight for his signature four albums later. That was a bit of a weird twist. But that’s how it goes. The entire industry is in a different place now. I think, with the next Dizzee Rascal that comes along today, the industry is going to have a problem signing them i.e. Stormzy, Skepta, and all of these guys that want to do it themselves. The parameters have changed.”
"Put on a show, do the business — it’s really that simple."
Manoeuvring through the industry...
"You’ve always got to remember: nothing’s fair, no one will do anything for you, and this is a business. That’s it. That’s all there is to it. Show. Business. Put on a show, do the business — it’s really that simple. Yeah there’s people that will hold you back and everything else, but you’d get that if you were a double-glazing salesman. Selling double-glazing there are people that will stab you in the back and set you up to try and get ahead, in any industry it's the same thing.
So, for me, I’ve always seen it like... I’m never mad at the game. It’s a beautiful game. It’s illustrious, and I appreciate the ability and the chance to work with the musicians and the music. For me I’ve never seen it as a job. I understand the economics of it and I understand that if you’re working with someone, they expect to see [something happen], so do it. And that’s it. But it would be the same if you were working anywhere else — you’ve got to be good at your job."
Getting to know Kanye West…
“I first bumped into Kanye at this event called the Mixshow Power Summit in Puerto Rico in 2001/2 and I was trying to talk to him as a fan like, ‘Yo! Your shit’s dope’ and he was just like ‘Yeah, yeah’ not paying much attention. You know when someone’s whole energy is just saying ‘NOT NOW!’ [laughs]. I was like ‘Damn, this guy’s ignorant as fuck’. I’ll always remember, he had the Louis Vuitton backpack on and he was with [his manager] Don C. But what I didn’t realise was, in the same way I was trying to talk to the artists, he was too. He was waiting for RZA to walk past so he could say ‘Yo, I’m Kanye!’ and all of that. So he was hustling at the same time.
So, anyway, that happened, I went back to the UK and I was still working doing the Def Jam thing and then Dame Dash brought Kanye over later that year, along with some other Roc artists. I didn’t care about any of those guys, I was just like ‘Where’s Kanye?’ There was this real surreal moment when Dame invited us round to his house in London — he said he bought it, but he was definitely renting [laughs] — we were all chilling, eating breakfast, and Kanye was there. He was like ‘Yo, what’s going on?!’ he was a completely different person to when I saw him before. I thought he was going to be ignorant like the first time but he was completely different. So we were just talking about music and then we started discussing the leaked version of ‘The College Dropout’ and I was saying ‘Yo you should do this and keep those original drums on ‘Workout Plan’ and he was just mad cool. That’s how it all got started.”
"I’m a DJ first and foremost, that works with a label — and that’s it."
Learning to trust your ear...
"This is the thing; photographers have got the eye — they see how things should be positioned in the frame, they appreciate things like colour and lighting that form a good photo. But when you’re a DJ, you’ve got the ear. So you know what going to work in a club. Back in the day when you went into a record shop, the money you had would determine what you would play in the club. So you had to gauge if something was going to pop of or not, based on what you could afford. And it’s that same gut instinct that I still apply to everything.
I’ve never introduced myself and said, ‘Hey, I’m an A&R.’ I’ve never done that. I’m a DJ first and foremost, that works with a label — and that’s it. Because, yeah, I’m just not. It’s both [an innate thing], but also about gaining that experience over time, because you’ve got to make mistakes. The more mistakes you make, the better you get at getting it right. When you combine that with a passion for music, and that inner instinct as a DJ, that’s everything. Most artists who were DJs first are better artists because they know what people want, they get it. Craig David was DJing first, Dizzee was a DJ, Boy Better Know were permanently on air. When you’re a DJ first you’ve just got a better instinct for the music.
There’s a book by Malcolm Gladwell called ‘Blink’ where he talks about how an art expert can tell that the picture on the wall is a fake immediately. Without touching it, smelling it, anything, they just know because of the years of work they’ve put in and the knowledge they’ve built — and it’s the same with DJs. You just know if it’s a banger. Its a natural internal instinct, it could be a sonic thing, it could be the timing, or set up isn't right, it could be the structure of the track, but you just know."
Embracing the online world...
"I turned to the internet because my voice wasn’t being heard. It was like, there was all these channels — Radio 1, MTV, and everyone else — and that was it. So I saw the internet come about, and then all the blogs and stuff, and I just thought, ‘I’m going to write how I feel and put it out.’ That was the main gist of it.
I was doing the YouTube thing before anyone else. Artists used to come to me like ‘Can we put this on your channel? You’ve got loads of followers’ and all of that. It all comes back to being a DJ and just saying to people ‘You should hear this’. You can’t do that seven days a week on a radio show when you’ve only got one slot on a Friday night — and I wanted to do more. I wanted to be omnipotent with the voice, opinion and spreading the message.
The internet’s just levelled everything out — it’s a total level playing field now. Everyone’s got a voice at the moment. So now the game’s just about how committed you are. I was never trying to monetise anything either. I was just like ‘Here, come and see some hot shit’. It all comes down to wanting to share what’s going on."
The birth of A Nation of Billions…
“After running my blog for a few years, I got disillusioned, man. I saw everyone using the same cut and paste [on other sites] and I wanted to talk more and be more meaningful. I wanted to do it properly. There’s only a certain amount of time I have in a day and it was like, I was doing the blog but I always wanted it to be better than what it was. I wanted it to be bigger. There were a lot of people starting to get involved as well and I kind of felt like I never got in this to be allhiphop.com or Pitchfork. I didn’t want it to be about me, but it said 'DJ Semtex' everywhere which I felt was a bit of a par for people like Roy [Thomas] who were putting in the work and discovering new music. So I had to regroup and figure out what I wanted to do."
On the argument that artist development is dead…
“I think artist development is very different now. It’s everything, whether that’s time and understanding or whether it’s more hands-on involvement. Artists have got it harder than ever now because they’ve got to instantly understand how every area works, from A&R, to radio, to management, to DSPs [digital sales platforms], to social media.
I think the artists that A&R themselves are more likely to succeed, because they have a sense of purpose is and they’re happy with it, they know what they want and how far they want to go. But at the same time, I’m not being funny — and I say this every week — I just need radio edits. There’s a generation of artists that haven’t had a sniff of radio play purely because they’ve never done a radio edit, or sent it to a DJ, they haven’t grasped how to use the internet properly. There’s an artist that could have been the next one but just because they dropped the track at the wrong time or in the wrong way they missed their moment, it’s all of that. It’s about having that enhanced team to support and deliver your vision. If you haven’t got it, you’ll never know how far your music could really go. That’s what it boils down to.
Grime is built on entrepreneurship. Everything Dizzee and Wiley were doing back in the day, it’s much the same today. They were selling 20,000 units out of the boot of a car. Today MCs are now selling digital downloads and shifting streams; it’s the same thing: throw a track out and see if it works. How long can you do that for by yourself or without some kind of structure? It depends on their resolve as an artist and their team.
As an artist you have to ask yourself if you want to focus solely on your body of work, or make music and strategise, engage marketing and promotion aspects at the same time. Can you manage your time? Are you disciplined enough to do it yourself? It’s all down to the individual. If you’ve got a great team; a manager, music guy, and a promo guy in your corner, that’s great. If you haven’t, you’ve got to assess whether you are built for the struggle to do that yourself or whether you want to get in to a partnership with the right team that can do that with you.”
"When you’ve got that hive-like mentality, you can change the world."
The importance of a strong team...
"No matter what you're doing in music, you need a good team. When you’ve got a team of two or three people that believe in the same thing, you can do anything. When you’ve got that hive-like mentality, you can change the world. You can move mountains. When you’ve got that mentality and the same objective, shit happens. It gets done. And that’s better than any financial budget. You can’t surpass that drive when you’ve got one idea and everyone’s driven to work it. You guys have done it with SBTV. You can see certain camps and you know that those three or four people have driven in to that point beyond any means necessary. And most of the successful things I’ve been involved with have happened like that."
On forthcoming book, ‘Hip Hop Raised Me’…
"Everything I do is based around hip hop. So, with the book, there was a Kanye lyric where he talks turning tragedy to triumph (‘so I turned tragedy to triumph / make music that’s fire, spit my soul through the wire’). So, taking that, I thought it would be cool to do a book where you detail all of these artists that have been through some kind of trauma and turned their lives from tragedy to triumph. I’ve been through it myself, but from what’s happened with Kanye in the car accident, 50 Cent getting shot 9 times, Macklemore with the rehab situation. I just thought that would make a dope, positive thinking book for a younger audience. Initially [the publishers] Thames & Hudson were like ‘Yeah, we like the idea of that but we want you to do the official hip hop book instead.’ I was like ‘Yeah, but I don’t want to do that because I feel like not one person can do the official hip hop book, it should be like 30 people’ — it’s like trying to write a religious scripture.
While I was thinking about it, I remembered the Macklemore line ‘What do you expect when Wu-Tang raised me?’ from ‘Can’t Hold Us’, and thought, ‘Well, hip hop raised me, not one particular artist. So why not do a book on that?’ So it’s a definitive book on hip hop but from my perspective; as a DJ, as someone who’s been influenced by it and as someone who understands the music, the stories, and the impact. I’ve worked with or interviewed pretty much every hip hop artist, so I know the history. It’s stuff that I’ve experienced, worked with and witnessed. And it’s that that I talk about outside of a club with other fans of hip hop, like you know when you have one of those long road debates somewhere random? It represents all of that.”
On advice for his younger self...
“You’re going to be alright. That’s it.
[After going through everything with my illness as a kid], I think that’s why I related to Dizzee later on. Aside from the music, he went through a very different, but similar ordeal. He used to say that with these kind of life changing situations you make a choice. You could choose to feel sorry for yourself, internalise it and never go out again, or you can go all out, go hard and become a beast, and it’s what he did. This is going to sound crazy, but it’s like having super powers. Going through some shit and coming out alive makes you resilient to any adversity. You can do anything.
So that’s why I originally wanted to centre this book around tragedy to triumph. Because, with Dizz, I saw it. Every day we were touring, I witnessed that relentless drive to succeed within him. It’s very hard for any individual to compete with other individuals that have been through some kind of traumatic experience and survived; Kanye West, 50 Cent, Macklemore, Dizzee, they’ve all been through it and they have that unstoppable momentum when they want to achieve something.
I wasn’t DJing before my arm was amputated, I made the decision to DJ afterwards. My thing was, if I want to do it, I’ll do it; I don't care about what anyone thinks — and there’s nothing that can stop me. That’s the underlying drive behind everything I do, from the radio stuff, to writing a book, to tearing down shows. When you see someone go through some traumatic shit, and they come out of it, get out of their way, because they have a next energy to do whatever they aim to do and nothing will stop them. They will turn tragedy to triumph."
The official 'Hip Hop Raised Me' book will be available nationwide on October 6th via Thames & Hudson, and is available to pre-order right now here.
To coincide with the book, Semtex will be releasing an official 'Hip Hop Raised Me' compilation and throwing a huge concert at KOKO Camden on October 9th. Tickets to the 'Hip Hop Raised Me' show will be available to purchase this Friday, July 8th via www.gigsandtours.com, while pre-orders for the CD will be available very soon.
Interview by Ash Houghton
Photography by Mabdulle