Nadia Khan and Lethal Bizzle have forged one of the most inspirational partnerships in music. CTRL Management & Women In CTRL founder and Women In Music Award winner Khan has made her name campaigning for an equal future, while Bizzle is a grime originator. To celebrate their enduring bond, we meet the pair to talk representation, perseverance and beating the odds…
WORDS: ADENIKE ADENITIRE PHOTOS: PAUL HARRIES
This is about being seen, heard and valued by the industry,” says Nadia Khan. “People don’t know our story, they don’t know about our incredible successes and that we’ve been able to build amazing businesses.”
The founder of CTRL Management/Women In CTRL is sitting opposite Music Week in North London, shoulder to shoulder with Lethal Bizzle, her management client for the past 18 years. We’re in Kentish Town on the eve of the release of mini album Lethal B Vs Lethal Bizzle via Skint Gang, Bizzle’s label. The record crowns two decades in music for Bizzle, during which time the pair have fought to overcome all manner of challenges, from rejection and discrimination, to a ban on Pow!, his breakout single.
In the process, Khan has blazed a trail as one of the industry’s most prominent campaigners for equality, winning Outstanding Contribution at the Music Week Women In Music Awards last year. She had previously won a place on the event’s Roll Of Honour. Also last year, she was elected as chair of AIM (Association Of Independent Music). Khan’s work is there for all to see through Women In CTRL, which she founded in 2017 to empower women and break down gender bias in the music industry. In 2020, she published the first edition of her Seat At The Table report. Researching data from 12 companies across the business, Khan found that five board seats out of 185 and two staff positions within 122 roles were occupied by Black women. Last year’s follow-up saw only incremental improvement.
“There is still a stigma against being a strong woman in the industry and we judge women with a harsher lens,” says Khan, who reflects proudly on her work. “It can be draining, you’re constantly being told you’re too loud, it’s not the right time or you’re pushing too much. Winning the Outstanding Contribution award made me feel seen.”
Both Khan and Bizzle see themselves as underdogs who’ve been through it all – major deals and independence, success and failure – in an effort both to push Bizzle’s music and to help forge a better industry. Today, they laugh, joke and finish each other’s sentences, but a serious undertone of triumph in adversity is never far away.
“My mentality has always been, ‘You don’t have to like me, but you’re going to have to respect me regardless,’” says Bizzle. “Maybe that’s why the industry doesn’t fully embrace me.”
“With a lot of what we’ve done, we’ve been mavericks, working from outside the industry,” Khan chimes in. “It’s important to be able to tell our story to the next generation of managers and artists.”
The tale began in 2004. Khan was pushing pop acts as a junior PR, while Bizzle had not long left More Fire Crew, the rap collective who stormed the UK Top 10 with Oi! in 2002.
But, after faltering album sales, they were dropped and the Walthamstow MC launched Lethal Bizzle Records and opted to go it alone. Then came Pow! (Forward) and a single deal with Relentless. With 130,492 UK sales (according to the Official Charts Company) and almost 20 million streams across two versions on Spotify, it’s a UK anthem. Today, Bizzle calls it the best grime track of all time.
No wonder it caught the attention of Khan, who reached out to Relentless asking to work on it. A few months of persistence later, she had set up her own PR and management company.
“We just had the same business mentality and shared an entrepreneurial spirit,” she says.
“When I’m in ‘beast mode’ there’s no room for any mistakes,” Bizzle reasons with a smile. “I’ve put Nadia through her paces through the years, and she has definitely nailed it every time.”
Bizzle says he “wants to be remembered as the ultimate hustler”, while Khan sums their journey up as “facing rejection and riding highs and lows”.
To find out more about how the manager and pioneering MC got here, we settle down to dig a little deeper into a story that has created two of the most remarkable operators in today’s business…
Releasing a record to celebrate 20 years in rap offers a chance to reflect. What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced together?
LB: “Trying to get on the radio. This was at a point where Black music wasn’t getting accepted outside of the Black arena, before social media. I was having to find the passion to go to the studio, then go shoot a video and then go and sit in a playlist meeting only to hear a ‘no’. People always think this was before Radio 1Xtra [which launched in 2002] but it wasn’t and it’s always been a struggle. Coming out at the same time as Dizzee Rascal was detrimental to me because Radio 1 was only supporting Dizzee. I remember Kano used to come out when Dizzee wasn’t releasing anything, but me and Dizzee always ended up releasing stuff at the same time for some reason.”
NK: “Pow! was banned from being played in clubs, so of course he couldn’t perform either. It was such early days [for the scene] and there weren’t other outlets to promote the music like today, it was all closed off.”
How did you overcome that?
LB: “I have to thank Nads, because what she did was introduce me to this alternative world, the indie club and pub circuit. I didn’t think those venues were right for me initially because I didn’t see my music being played there. But then I just started going to a few of these venues with my producer friend, Static, who used to hang around with a few rock bands. I’d be speaking to these guys in tight jeans and dirty, ripped-up Converse and they’re like, ‘We love the More Fire album’ and I was like, ‘How?’ [Laughs].”
NK: “The music just really worked in those environments and wasn’t being blocked. But we still had to prove things in those venues. I was speaking to the label about supporting our vision, but I was being told that budgets were limited because his audiences were only in London and maybe Birmingham and a little bit of Manchester. They saw him as niche. So he had to prove himself by doing smaller shows. But we were doing it anyway and smashing it so they’d give us a bigger slot next year. It was about working our way back up.”
LB: “That almost changed the perception of the ban, because it’s almost like, ‘Well, he’s doing Reading and Leeds, why is he not allowed to play in a club in bloody Essex?’ I think all of those things just organically cleared and my name just became clear, so then I could perform at those venues again.”
Are we ever going to hear that infamous Pow! verse that Jay-Z recorded?
LB: “You know what, I’ve just had to say, ‘Yo, this is a lost verse’ [laughs]. I’ve seen him once since he was supposed to have recorded it. He was five metres away from me, but it just wasn’t the time to ask him. It was at V Festival and Stormzy called me out to perform with him and Jay-Z was watching by the side of the stage, but it was raining and there were loads of people around. In that moment that was probably the last thing he wanted to hear from me [laughs]. The fans were teasing me that I was shook and stuff like that, but if the world is supposed to hear it, it will happen when it’s meant to happen.”
Do you see yourself as a pioneer for a lot of what is happening today, with rappers on the bill at pretty much every major UK festival?
LB: “Yeah, me, Dizzee Rascal and Kano. I’d probably put Wiley in there too but he never turns up [laughs].”
What do you think makes your relationship work?
NK: “Bizzle has high expectations but I do too, so it’s a good fit. It’s about good communication and being really easy to work with, being able to be respectful of each other but keeping it business at the same time. I know I have to deliver. But overall, I really enjoy my job. If I’m not enjoying something, I’m not going to do it.”
LB: “I’m a workaholic. Grime culture basically built this DIY mindset in me where I don’t want to hear, ‘You can’t do it’ until we’ve tried five different things. That is who I am, and that’s definitely rubbed off on Nadia. Having two people like that is definitely what helps make this journey smooth. But, most importantly, it’s been fun. We both understand what we’re trying to do, we bounce ideas off each other and keep things open and honest.”
Is there anything that has happened over your time together that you wish you had done differently?
LB: “No, not as a partnership, but I wish I would have read that 2004 contract with Relentless better [laughs]. I definitely did drop the ball there, but at the time I think [labels owning masters] was industry standard, so there was not really anything to gauge it from. The label was like, ‘This is the deal. You’re gonna own the song, we’re gonna give you a bit of money and a bit of royalties and then you are never gonna own it again,’ which doesn’t make sense of course. It’s like, you buy a house, you pay it off, but the bank say, ‘Hey, even though you’ve paid us, we still own the house.’ I guess I wasn’t to know, but now artists are speaking out and trying to get their catalogue.”
NK: “For me personally, being a woman in the industry, I would have liked to have given my younger self some advice when I was coming up. I changed how I dressed and acted because I didn’t like the way I was getting treated. I struggled to be taken seriously and to be seen as the manager or be respected. I have struggled with that in recent times, and I think I did let it affect my confidence over the years. That’s partly why I started Women In CTRL, because I started to speak out about my experiences. I didn’t want to bring Bizzle my problems and issues, I needed to deal with them myself, but it was a challenge. And speaking to other women in the industry, every other woman was like, ‘I’ve been through the same thing, like being the only girl on tour.’ We’ve gone on tours across Europe and there would be 100 guys and I was the only woman and that can be quite isolating. Then there’s how you get treated backstage, I’ve been thrown off festival stages while the guys are allowed to stay on. I’ve been laughed at by bouncers when I say I’m the manager. I’ve had to call men that work for me to come and vouch for me.”
Nadia, your work as a campaigner has made a big impact. How do you reflect on what you’ve achieved so far?
NK: “Seeing the successes is a big driving force. Moments like Naomi Pohl being elected as the first woman to lead the Musicians’ Union, Jackie Davidson being elected to the PPL board, Hannah Peel to the PRS For Music board, Hannah Joseph to the PPL board and more. The positive reception to the work I’ve done shows the power of data and collective action, it’s a benchmark from which we can start measuring change. There is a really worrying narrative that diversity means less qualified and less experienced people, but true diversity goes beyond female representation to minority ethnic groups, disability, socio-economic status, gender identity, sexual orientation and education. We need to be willing to have real conversations about the barriers and what can be done to fix the system. What is it about the system that doesn’t allow under-represented groups to reach the top? By inviting women to use their voice, we can build an inclusive and representative culture.”
Do you feel your achievements have had the recognition they deserve?
LB: “I always feel I wasn’t supposed to make Pow!. I think that is a perception that annoys a lot of people in the grime scene. When it’s all said and done, it is the greatest grime song of all time, there’s no dispute about that. But some people don’t think it should have been me that made it. When it came out there was a divide. It was me with the More Fire camp and then Wiley with Roll Deep, who were the industry favourites, and I just came and upset the apple cart. I know that a lot of people are annoyed that Pow! was a lot of fans’ first introduction to the grime sound, and that created a stigma because there were so many influential people that I was up against who were in with the journalists and the labels. But the irony of it all is that all the people who get more respect or ratings in the industry, in reality, are trying to be where I’m at. I can see it and they even come and tell me. But the industry sees it differently, and that’s something I have had to live with.”
NK: “It’s hard to take that time to appreciate what you’ve achieved. Having moments like the Women In Music Awards last year to reflect and celebrate your work surrounded by colleagues and peers who you respect means a lot. I came in as an underdog, from the early days of trying to catch my break in management to getting my foot on the ladder and the struggles and challenges of running my own company and building artist businesses up. I’m proud I’m still here, and I’ve got so much more to do.”
How has the industry changed since you first started working together?
NK: “I’ve seen a culture shift towards more open conversations, where before there were things that happened during your career that you didn’t ever have an opportunity to talk about or wouldn’t be able to say, because it was just like, ‘Suck it up and get on with it.’ I feel there are people in the industry who are realising the power of their own voice and the power of the collective voice as well. It’s about keeping the conversations going and pushing change through, because it can be so easy to undo all the good work.”
LB: “Yeah, things are happening. When I used to go to the label back in the day, not a lot of people looked like me. But now I’m definitely seeing that change. It still is about the money and the numbers and stuff like that, but it’s just good to see that they’re actually bringing in people who look like me and come from similar areas who understand the music and know what they’re talking about, not just an Oxford graduate who went to uni and understands how to play the cello. It’s all about culture and if you weren’t there, it’s very hard to be told. There is still a long way to go, but I am seeing things being put in place that are helping the music I’m involved in.”
Do emerging rappers ever reach out to you for advice?
LB: “Yeah, a couple have reached out, but artists have egos. Personally, I’ve always wanted to learn, because you can never know enough in this fast-evolving world. The smart ones are the ones who will pick up the phone as there are things you won’t know unless you go through it. Stormzy did that early on in his career, and I’ve given him a few pointers. There are a few other guys [who have been in touch] but I don’t want to bait them up.”
Is it the same with you, Nadia, with up-and-coming executives getting in touch?
NK: “Yes, I get a lot of managers hitting me up and I have also developed a course for the MMF (Music Managers Forum) to teach young managers. I do that three times a year. Managers come in and I give them an overview of the things that I would have wanted to know and understand when I was starting, because there isn’t definitive training for managers. It’s about providing knowledge and skills.”
Finally, Nadia, what’s your message for the music industry right now?
NK: “If you don’t stand for something you fall for everything. We all hold some level of power and influence in our hands and it’s important to use it, be that through social media, influencing decisions and choices that are made at work, and even in day–to-day conversations. I don’t think we harness our own power enough. My ultimate goal is to see more women leading in the industry, with equal representation, respect and pay.”