Features

Behind The Music: Austin Daboh (BBC Radio 1Xtra)

        Photo credit: George Muncey

        Photo credit: George Muncey

Originally published via SBTV.

Austin Daboh is the Music Manager for BBC Radio 1Xtra and the man in charge of the music policy across the network. An important influencer, Austin has played an integral role in nurturing and advising new talent since first joining 1Xtra in 2006. As part of our new 'Behind The Music' series where we aim to bring your attention to key figures within the music industry, we sat down with Austin to discuss his early beginnings, the future of radio and more.

Early beginnings...

"I'm from Woolwich in South East London. So, you know, it's a deprived council estate area. One big council estate, that's what Woolwich is, certainly up until the last few years anyway. I was the youngest of six kids in a big Nigerian family. It's very hierarchical in a Nigerian family so, as the youngest, you don't have any say as to what goes on. So my musical tastes were forced upon me in the household when I was younger. In the late 80s it was the pop stuff that was coming through, the Michael Jackson's of this world, the Maddona's. It then followed British black music throughout, so it was jungle and drum 'n' bass in the early 90s, moving on to garage in the mid-90s and then by the late 90s I was 13, 14 and I could start developing my own tastes. But certainly what my family had in the household - from highlife music right the way through to cheesy pop -- it's kind of had a bearing on me."

The impact of the So Solid era on South London...

"The So Solid era was crazy for us. You've got to remember, this was before the internet. This was before there were lots of different outlets for our type of music and to see people that looked like us on TV. MTV Base in the late-90s was the only real representation of our culture; UK street, council estate culture. There was no representation of that, apart from in dribs and drabs. So when So Solid came through and you had 30 man from South London who looked like us and dressed like us -- well certainly an aspirational version of us -- it was like the world was ending, that's how good it was. In secondary school, you were either a So Solid person or you were a Heartless person, they were the two cliques that dominated my teenage years. The first rave I ever went to was a Heartless Crew rave. One of the first CD's I bought myself was a So Solid single ('21 Seconds'). They had a massive impact."

Getting a foot in the industry...

"One of the main reasons I'm in the industry now was because I went to a thing called The Urban Music Seminar in 2002/2003 and Megaman was there. Seeing his journey there live in the flesh and seeing the big So Solid medallion chain was one of the main inspirations for me and my friends to get in to the music industry. The event was put on by Kwame Kwaten who now runs ACT Management. He put on this big event at the Royal Festival Hall where he invited down all of these different publications and broadcasters -- I think 1Xtra were even there at the time, along with Touch Magazine and RWD Magazine -- and they had all of these different stalls that were giving people career advice. I went down there with a group of my friends -- one of them was Jak FrSH whose now a well-known video director -- and Heartless Crew were there doing a masterclass on making music and MCing. We had to write some bars and make some beats and then we got a certificate at the end of it and, to this day, I've still got it [laughs]. I never thought I'd even work in the music industry until I went to this event and saw that it was real."


Austin's certificate for completing a Heartless Crew DJ and MC workshop.

"So, [after that], I did a variety of jobs and ended up working at the BBC in their marketing department. I saw it as, if I get in to the BBC -- even if I'm doing admin or cleaning the toilets -- once I'm in the building I can find my way to BBC 3, BBC 4, but what happened was I found myself in radio and I completely fell in love with it from there. I also had friends that made music as well. What I didn't realise was I was kind of plugging records for my friends without realising it. I was taking their CDs and trying to give it to DJs to play. We were trying to work out how to get videos on Channel U. So, without even realising it, we were kind of prepping ourselves for the music industry."


On the impact of 1Xtra launching in 2002...

"Before 1Xtra launched I remember seeing news reports and articles about this station that was going to be launched that was going to be aimed at young black men; that's how it was portrayed. I was in college at the time doing my A-levels and I remember thinking to myself, 'The BBC? Na, that can't be right all. We've gotta listen to pirate stations to get our fix'. So, up until it actually launched, I don't think any of us as a group of friends could believe it.

And then we saw the famous 1Xtra advert on TV, with the guys on the bikes and the Pit bull. When that advert dropped, we were like 'Wow, this is real!' When it launched, it was just a revelation to have 24 hours of black music sounds delivered on a national network across the whole country, and on the internet across the world. It was just unheard of for us. Instead of watching with baited breath for Dizzee Rascal or Lethal Bizzle to come around on Channel U once every few hours, we could actually get our fix whenever. Musically it changed my life, certainly. I was a fan of 1Xtra from day one -- I didn't listen to it as much as I wish I would have done now when it first launched [laughs] - but certainly after two or three years in, for me and my friends, it was all we listened to -- alongside some of the pirates and Choice FM before they switched up."

The infamous BBC Radio 1Xtra advertisement.

On the importance of self belief and learning from mistakes...

"With hindsight, there were definitely lessons that I learnt. [The first of which] was that you've got to be very resilient because in those early days I remember hearing 'no' so many more times than I heard 'yes'. I remember sending out about 100 CV's and getting two replies back -- and the two replies were saying, 'No, we're not interested' [laughs]. The other 98 didn't even bother. Secondly, it's hard and you can't take everything personally, it's just like any glamour industry; the rate of failure is extremely high. Even when I think about my own social circle -- we all started off trying to get in to this industry together -- and there's only three or four of us that have ended up making a career of it. Thirdly, you have to work like your life depends on it. Again, looking back, when I think about my own journey I was up until 4 o'clock every morning trying to make fliers, doing designs for T-shirts, giving feedback out etc. When I first joined 1Xtra I remember staying in the office -- I don't want to get the HR people in my office in trouble [laughs] -- but I was staying in the office until 11 o'clock at night sometimes and not getting home until the early hours of the morning. At the time I just did it because I loved it so much and I loved working at 1Xtra, i just wanted to succeed so badly. Because I worked that tiny bit harder than maybe some people around me -- not at 1Xtra because everyone works extremely hard -- but maybe some of my peers outside of the building, I think that's why I've been able to progress."

On the importance of mentors...

"Mentors have been incredibly important to me because I knew from about the age of 14 that I was rubbish at MCing [laughs]; I couldn't MC, I knew I couldn't sing and I didn't want to be a model [laughs]. So I always said to myself that I wanted to be behind the camera dictating what's going on. Growing up there weren't that many role models that were around me that were in behind the scenes activities in the media industry. One mentor in particular, Laura Lukanz -- who gave me my first job at 1Xtra -- played a very important part in my career. What she allowed me to do was have that confidence and freedom to make mistakes. When you're young -- and even when you're older; I still make mistakes now -- it's important to have the freedom to make those mistakes, and Laura took a chance on me. What I've found is a lot of the amazing experiences I've had have come from people taking a chance on me. I definitely wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for people like George Ergatoudis, who's my boss at the moment, and people like Darcus Beese at Island Records who I can just call and ask for some advice.

When I think about the people I've been lucky enough to help out, whether it be an Ed Sheeran or a Tinie Tempah or a Stormzy -- or any of the other artists we've tried to help out as a station -- it's always been us taking chances on people and mentoring them. I get inspiration every day from people like Dumi OburotaZeon Richards, loads of different people."

On 1Xtra's support of homegrown talent...

"I think there's two key things, the first of which is belief. Secondly it's sustained belief. The initial one comes from when we get an mp3 sent to us or when we overhear a conversation on a bus -- like I did with Stormzy actually -- and then you hear a name and [it gets you interested] and you're like, 'Wow! I believe in this kid. Or this singer, or whichever', and then we play the record. And I think if you look at any artist that's crossed over from our world, every single one -- if you look at their very DNA and you look at the beginning -- there's a 1Xtra story behind it. And I can't think of one artist from our world who wasn't played on 1Xtra first. So, that's where the belief part comes from. In terms of the sustained belief, I think 1Xtra are at our best when an artist's career is actually on the ropes a little bit. When I think about Tinie Tempah, there's this story that my old boss told me about [Tinie's team] bringing 'Biker Babes' to the table -- which was a Tinie single at the time, but it was an electro record -- and I remember my boss giving feedback to the label saying, 'This record just isn't strong enough. We really, really want to support Tinie Tempah but we just can't play this record. It's too commercial for us.' So he went back in the studio, made 'Pass Out' and the rest is history -- and there are countless other stories that are similar to that.

Similarly, when I think about someone like Skepta, it wasn't always easy for him. He had a period for about three or four years where mainstream outlets didn't really want to touch him. It was during those points that 1Xtra really came in to our own and we still A-listed his records and booked him for big events. Even Lethal B, he's flavour of the year at the moment for the big mainstream outlets but it was just this time last year that he couldn't get his single on any of the playlists outside of 1Xtra, and we B-listed that record. There’s about 30 black acts currently or recently signed to a major label in the last year and a half to two years, and 1Xtra has played an integral role in every single one of those stories. Every single credible black music underground act that has come through in the last decade and a half, it's been 1Xtra that has been there to drive that. I [might] sound quite bullish about it, but it's because I know it's factually true that there's no one that 1Xtra hasn't supported. There's been some that have taken longer than others -- so when I think about N Dubz, for example, we were maybe a single or two too late. When I think about Giggs, although we were the first major station to support him, we were maybe a month or two later than the streets were. But, yeah, we try to keep it as fast and fluid as possibly, but the key things are belief and sustained belief for me."

On criticism of the station...

"No organisation [or institution] is perfect. Whether it be the government, the police, Channel 4, Nike, all of these brands we all talk about; they all make mistakes. Occasionally, as a big organisation, there will be a time where we decide to go left instead of right when, actually, we should have gone right instead of left. I'm aware that this will occasionally happen and when it does we've just got to be honest about it. If you look at some of the points that have been criticised, sometimes they've been for valid reasons. Other times, like with the Noisey article last year, I thought they were unfair and based upon a complete fallacy from someone who didn't know what they were talking about -- which is why I felt as though I had to respond at the time. Again, you can't take it personally and ultimately people will have opinions on things. The music industry is an opinions-based industry, so you're never going to be completely right or wrong when it comes to playing more RnB or house or hip hop, it's all subjective. Ultimately we just look at all of the facts and evidence, whether it be anecdotal or qualitative research, and then say to ourselves, 'Right, this is the music policy that we see fit for our target audience'. Look, sometimes people don't always agree with the decisions that we make but we feel we're doing a pretty good job of serving our audience and long may it continue."

On Apple Music, Beats 1 and the future of radio...

"I think the role of radio is what it's always been, which is to provide great music and great content played out by great presenters. I think that if you look at some of the most talked about things in the last two or three years, actually on the internet -- whether it be Kanye's interview with Zane Lowe or the Chip vs. Tinie Tempah stuff -- and, outside of the BBC, if you look at things like the Breakfast Club interviews for example, they’ve actually been radio-driven pieces that have been placed online. For me, if I think about 1Xtra [or Radio 1] and some of the events we’re doing this year for example — whether it’s Big Weekend or 1Xtra Live -- that's not something that you can experience wholly just on the internet. So we'll continue to do what we've always done, which is play the best artists, pick the best presenters and curate people's lives.

I hope that [Beats Radio] is a success because a rising tide lifts all ships, as my boss [Ben Cooper] said in an article recently, and I fully agree with that. The more people that are in this space, the better -- the more artists are going to win. 1Xtra has held together the British urban music industry for a decade and a half now, so if there's another player that's going to come to the party and take away some of that burden from us to be the sole bearer of responsibility to these people's careers, then brilliant, I'm all for it. Let's see how they cope with putting out 24 hours of content each day, not just [Beats Radio] but Spotify who are doing more curated stuff as well and Deezer and some of the other players that are coming in to the market and offering a radio-like service. But, yeah, for us, we're just going to continue what we've been doing. 1Xtra doesn't have just under one million listeners for nothing and Radio 1 doesn't just have under ten million listeners for nothing, it's because we do a bloody great job of putting out music to the wider audience."

Interview by Ash Houghton

Find Austin on Twitter: @AustinIsDeleted