An Allstar Is Born: BBC Radio 1's Kenny Allstar talks making history on The Rap Show

An Allstar Is Born: BBC Radio 1's Kenny Allstar talks making history on The Rap Show

Recently unveiled as the host of BBC Radio 1’s all-new Rap Show, Kenny Allstar is about to realise a lifetime ambition. Here, Music Week meets the broadcaster to find out how he got here, talk breaking barriers and hear his views on why the industry needs to do better when it comes to nurturing new talent...


Kenny Allstar still can’t quite believe it.

It’s been a couple of weeks since the news broke that he is to become the new host of The Rap Show on BBC Radio 1, but it is still sinking in for the South London-born DJ.

“I keep going back to check the announcement post on Radio 1’s Instagram page to make sure it’s real,” jokes Allstar, who’s rushing home from walking his dog when Music Week calls. “I remember when I was in year nine, my school was in Grove Park, South East London and I would take two long bus rides all the way to [former Radio 1 HQ] Yalding House in Marylebone just to try and give my mix CD to any of the DJs coming out of the building.” 

Fifteen years on, Allstar is fulfilling his dream, while also making history as the first Black man to host The Rap Show, which launched back in 1994.

“I am unapologetically Black and people in my community never saw this coming for me,” he says. “Even when I made it to 1xtra, it was a major thing, a young Black Lewisham boy on BBC Radio, that was huge. I still pinch myself.”

That was back in 2017, when alongside Jeremiah Asiamah, Melody Kane and Snoochie Shy, Allstar joined 1Xtra as part of its Residency programme, which was designed to nurture a new generation of on-air talent. Allstar was due his moment in the sun, having made waves since his early days on underground stations such as Deja Vu and Radar FM, as his explosive passion, captivating style and instantly recognisable intros propelled him towards the big time. In 2018, he took over DJ Semtex’s Friday night slot on 1Xtra and hasn’t looked back since. Allstar will retain that Friday gig, with the revamped Rap Show to go out on Radio 1 and 1Xtra on Saturday nights from June 9. He is replacing Tiffany Calver, who is launching a new 1Xtra programme as part of a shake-up to the schedule that also includes a new show for Snoochie Shy.

“On an underground level, for the past decade, I’d like to think my name has been ringing, you know?” he says of his impact thus far. “But in terms of the industry, I do feel I’ve now arrived on a mainstream level. And as much as I hate that term, I can’t help but feel validated, as I can do great things on the streets, but this is where it matters. This is broadcasting royalty.” 

Allstar has long been associated with unearthing and giving a platform to new talent, primarily through his freestyle series Mad About Bars, which launched on Mixtape Madness, as well as Voice Of The Streets on 1Xtra and his very own Generals Corner, which is hosted on YouTube

Allstar opened his own VOTS Music Hub studio space during the pandemic and, in 2019, he released the Block Diaries album, which featured collaborations with a host of names including Headie One, Not3s, M Huncho and more.

It’s no surprise that his latest gig has gone down well in the scene.

“Big up Kenny, he is someone that has been supporting me from the beginning of my journey back in 2017,” M Huncho tells Music Week. “It’s great to see him reach the heights that he’s reaching and I wish him more success, this is a big win for the culture.”

Fellow Mad About Bars alumnus Unknown T is similarly full of praise.

“Kenny has been a key individual holding it up for the UK,” he says. “It’s a big thing having him representing.”

Over the course of a revealing conversation, Music Week finds Allstar in blistering form, practically bursting with excitement at what’s to come. 

“I want to bring bravado, that big bolshy thing,” he says. “When I was young, listening to The Rap Show felt like worlds were colliding. The minute you heard that first sound effect with the bomb, it felt big, like something major was happening.”

With that, Allstar launches into an animated discussion that takes in breaking down barriers, his huge plans for his new role, his commitment to underground talent and why he feels the industry can do much better for young hip-hop artists…

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Tiffany Calver was the first woman to host The Rap Show and her appointment was a watershed moment. Is there any awkwardness about taking over her role?

“I mean, that’s my sister. I’ve got so much love for Tiffany, so it will never be awkward, because we both respect each other as broadcasters. We both have a common love, which is radio and music, and since I’ve joined the network I’ve always been supportive of her and I always get the same vibe back. And, as she said in her statement, she ‘couldn’t think of anyone more capable to carry on this journey’, so I treat her as family, always.”

What do you want to bring to the show as host?

“I’m from the school of Funkmaster Flex and Charlie Sloth. In hip-hop, having a Saturday night rap show announces you as one of the greats. When you’re going out to the club with your friends, and you switch on Radio 1, I’m going to get you warmed up. That’s what I want to bring back. I want people to treat radio with the love that it deserves. I want to do the exclusive big freestyle moments and I want to make sure the Americans respect the show as much as the shows going off in New York, because we’re going to have the best rap show in Europe.”

You’ve made history as the first Black man to host The Rap Show. How easy was it for you to get here and what barriers did you face?  

“It’s no secret that not many broadcasters of my ethnicity make it to Radio 1 and I acknowledge that. I’ve got this saying which is, ‘Let’s embrace the journey,’ but… My word has it been hell [laughs]. Look, I’m going to address the elephant in the room: when you look at presenters that have been in this iconic slot for the past couple of decades, it’s been a certain profile. So I felt like I was already fighting an uphill battle to try and get there. I know it sounds mad, but I don’t like using racism as a scapegoat. I hate doing that, so I prefer to focus on [the idea of], ‘If you work hard and you’re good at what you do, you will get there.’ I’m a firm believer in that, even when the odds are stacked against you.”

What does it mean to have reached this position?

“What is beautiful about this is that it comes off the back of the groundbreaking moment that came with Tiffany being the first woman and first woman of colour to host the show. These moves validate where we are now. With hip-hop music turning 50 this year, this is the time where [a show based on] a Black genre is being hosted by Black presenters in this country. I’m already getting to be part of a rare breed. I mean, the first time I heard someone on Radio 1 that was Black was Trevor Nelson, or maybe when Chris Goldfinger came off the back of Tim Westwood. It was such a rarity.”

You’ve always focused on emerging UK talent. Is that under threat now you’re going to be covering more established acts as well?

“Well, no. I will still be doing my Friday night show, and that will be geared towards more underground UK music. So you get the best of both worlds and of course there will still be representation of UK rap music on The Rap Show. I just want to use the platform that I’ve already built on Friday to push that even more. So, if you’re looking for the hottest hip-hop from the States or around the world, with all big stars, you will tune into the Radio 1 Rap Show. But if you want to find out who my picks are for the stars of tomorrow, then you can tune into what I’m doing on 1xtra. But everybody knows how I got my name in this industry, and that’s by supporting the stars of tomorrow. I will continue to do that until my last breath.”

What do you hope your new slot will offer artists and the industry as a whole?

“It will give me an opportunity to showcase all the corners of hip-hop that I love. I don’t just love listening to Headie One, Central Cee and French The Kid, I also love Kojey Radical, Bawo, Knucks, Nafe Smallz and M Huncho. These are all corners of rap that I didn’t get to showcase too much on 1xtra because a lot of people like to hear the music from the streets, which is the music that raised me and is usually marginalised on national radio. But now, with this new show, I get four hours on the radio each week, to showcase all corners. So this means there’s more opportunity for the artists. I can also have multiple freestyle and showcase platforms. I can’t give more details yet, but it will be in a similar vein to Voice Of The Streets, only much broader. The way the industry moves is, when the people rock with you, the industry seems to follow suit. So I hope the music industry rocks with what I’m doing.”

Following the boom in UK rap in recent years, where would you say the genre is right now?

“I think it is in a great place. We’re reaching another shift, drill is still a hot commodity, but you now have alternative rap and chill rap. There are so many different variations in the genre, but I just call it truth as I think it’s about rappers living their truth and being normal. They’re being themselves and at a time where we’re going through a recession, people want rappers they can relate to, with a backstory, not just going for the jugular. That’s why we’ve seen artists like Sainté and Knucks coming through.”

As for drill itself, where is the genre going next?

“I’m excited to see a lot of the young artists that are taking drill to a different level by flipping it and merging it with Jersey House. I love what Nemzzz is doing with that. Digga D has tried it a couple of times, Central Cee has as well. This change is good, because I’ve had to stand by artists when the tabloids drag these guys through the mud about how negative their music is. Well, guess what? Now they’re jumping on club beats. They are dancing and smiling in their videos.”

What single thing is exciting you most about the rap music that’s coming through right now?

“I’m such a big fan of the artists that are coming out and just keeping it trill. I went to a Bawo show recently at the ICA, he is so incredible as an artist. I feel young again because this new wave of artists is really exciting and they’re not necessarily coming from drill. There’s French The Kid, Oscar #Worldpeace, Knucks… The list is endless, and these are not necessarily artists coming from a street background, but they have still come from a trying era. What I love is the vulnerability. I’m listening to artists talking openly about drug addiction or losing family members to addiction or other issues. People think UK rap needs to be like, ‘I’m good, and I don’t cry’, but people forget that art is like therapy for some artists. Some people don’t have the confidence to go and sit down with a counsellor or a therapist, so they literally grab a pen and paper and write down their thoughts.”

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How easy do you think it is to make a viable living as an emerging rapper these days?

“Our ecosystem has become a better place because now you have rappers who aren’t necessarily the biggest, who can make an honest living from just being consistent with the music they put out. They might not be in the Top 10 percent of streamers or doing Central Cee numbers, but they’re making enough to live normally. Ten years ago, you would have been lucky to make £20,000 within a few years of doing music. I grew up in the era where I could be coming back from school and a rapper would be trying to sell me their mix CD out of the boot of their car or outside Foot Locker.”

What do you want to see from the music industry in terms of helping the artists you’re passionate about? Do they get enough support?

“With younger artists, I think we need better aftercare, especially from the labels and distributors, that is so important. When you look at the average age of someone that gets signed, it’s probably about 20, and in the last couple of years even younger. These are vulnerable young people. I understand this is a business and that an A&R has a quota to reach or they might lose their job. My thing is, that’s all good, but when you’re signing an artist and the artist doesn’t have representation to look over a contract, or the label recommends a music lawyer that works with them, or they’re being pressured to make a decision on a deal in just a week with three other labels at the table, all that is a lot.  And what ends up happening in a lot of these cases is when an 18, 19 or 20 year-old artist signs a deal and things don’t go well, they are indirectly blackballed from ever getting a favourable deal again. And then they feel like they have no support, and people can end up in a state of depression and neglect.”

Did your views on this subject have anything to do with your decision to open up your own studio space during the pandemic?

“Again, it goes back to aftercare. I want to be sensible with the money that I’m making in this industry, I want to put it to good use for young people. The VOTS Music Hub was a humble project in East London that started during the pandemic. When I registered VOTS Music as my consultancy, I wanted to build a platform where the artists that I liked to listen to had a hub to record where it’s not about the money. I do a lot of production and executive production and I’ve put out music myself, so I guess I’m hitting two birds with one stone, and when I feel like getting back into making music, we have our own space. But while I’m not using it, how about we just have a space for artists to come and do their thing? Engineers as well, because I’m an advocate of the creators behind the scenes. My partner in this is a producer and engineer called DJTR who gave me studio opportunities when I was coming up. I want to expand VOTS Music to have several hubs around the country.”

Finally, now you’re closer to the industry than ever before, could you see yourself expanding your business even further?

“I guess [a label] would be a natural progression, but I feel like the term label scares artists, even on an independent level. I think if I go down the route of turning VOTS into a full-on label, we need to have an infrastructure that can support the artists. So I would be looking to work with either a distribution service or a major label in more of a giving style, where I don’t just have an imprint and have to answer to someone who isn’t on the ground. I’m not looking for a sign-off, I want to work with a label where I can lay things out: ‘These are the artists we’re supporting, these are the reasons we feel they will be important in this industry and here’s what I think they need, let’s have a conversation.’ Something like that could be groundbreaking.”

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