Trevor Nelson is like that cool uncle everyone wish they had growing up.
An early champion of R&B powerhouses such as Lauryn Hill, Lil Mo and Mary J. Blige, as well as Brit-soul legends like Jamiroquai and Mica Paris—in the '90s, Trevor Nelson quickly become the go-to guy for all things R&B and soul in the UK, in the same way that David Rodigan did with reggae. From the illegal days of Kiss FM through to hosting his own show on MTV Base and presenting across the BBC networks, this DJ has never been out of work in all his 30 years as a top music tastemaker. (And at 51, he can still flex with the youngsters).
Complex caught up with Trevor Nelson recently to talk about everything from being a soul boy in a reggae-heavy Hackney to interviewing Mariah Carey, Kano, and grime music being "the blacker form of hip-hop." The DJ also gives us a rundown of his all-time favourite jams.
30! It's flown by, man. I still don't really see myself as a DJ, though. I'm not born to DJ; I felt I was born to buy music and maybe broadcast on radio. But DJing was never at the top of my list. I've never really put myself out there like that, but I do like putting parties on: I like promoting and the excitement of not knowing what's gonna work or not, and getting the right crowd in. My first gig was actually at my school disco, when I was in sixth form. I went to an all-boys school and, obviously, there were no girls there so we had to ask girls to come along. But I was shy, back then. I didn't want to ask a girl to dance, so I put my hand up to be the DJ because I knew had the most records [laughs].
Being a soul boy in Hackney, you had to be a really strong individual to wear some of the clothes we wore [LAUGHS].
So that obsession with records led to you randomly DJing and you started to build up?
Yeah. I had a little soundsystem in college, where I met a group of like-minded people. I was brought up in Hackney, which was a very reggae-dominated area, and every party was a reggae party; they'd play a couple of soul tunes, but it was a necessity thing. Music in those days was really tribal. You could tell what music someone was into by the way they dressed. It was as simple as that and we all played the game, you know? Being a soul boy in Hackney, you had to be a really strong individual to wear some of the clothes we wore [laughs], so there was a real team mentality. Everyone was making tapes for each other, and I was making little compilation tapes and people were copying them and selling them. So that's what made me think I should start doing some little gigs.
Your daughter's also in the industry, known to most as the music producer Shy One. What do you think of her work?
[Laughs] She's quite unique. I'm not all over Mali's music; I am because she's my daughter, obviously, but my daughter's a really complex girl. She's got great taste in music, she makes unusual music, and she's always coming round and going into my record collection—it's all hers when I'm gone, anyway [laughs]. She really just reminds me of me. I never was brave enough to produce, I wasn't musical like that, but she learnt keyboard quite early. I didn't go in the studio, ever, even though I ran a label and did A&R. "Alternative" would be a great way of describing her music, though. I can't keep up with her!
Grime was always meant to be underground. I don't know why everyone's putting so much pressure on it to go overground because, by nature, it's underground.
She's made the odd grime tune in her time, and you've done your bit for the scene too. What are your thoughts on the current hurrah around grime?
I'm a good guy to talk about grime because I'm not a grime guy. And I know you are [laughs]. I remember when I was on MTV, we did MTV Base for 12 years, and The Lick was essentially an R&B show with a bit of hip-hop. Then, all of a sudden, grime came about. Channel U was putting anybody's tunes on so I remember the guys at Base weren't really into grime—maybe because the videos weren't million-dollar videos. It was all a bit difficult to make sense of, but Channel U were good at what they did. I remember doing a one-on-one with Dizzee on Base. I did one with Kano and Chipmunk, too, and it was a big deal for all three of them because we always had big American stars like Mariah and all that. I thought it was important that we at least covered grime, so I put these guys as leading characters in the scene.
Kano has always been my favourite MC and I hate the fact that he's never realised his full potential, sales-wise. He never quite became a household name in this country, but he's legendary in the grime scene. Later down the line, I joined 1Xtra because of what was happening with grime. I knew something was happening in Britain and I waited ages for more British music to be big and for something to happen. On 1Xtra, I knew I was going to get fed all that on the daytime show so I could support it; the stuff that looks like it might sell. The problem was everyone cashed in. Everyone wanted to make a quick dollar. With the garage scene, it ate itself up because everyone started trying to get singles deals and just make one-hit-wonders and that kinda happened with grime a little bit. They all started doing the same thing, getting a pop verse or an indie-sounding verse on a grime tune and get it in the top 10 and then no one bought the album.
There's still a scene out there, but grime was always meant to be underground. I don't know why everyone's putting so much pressure on it to go overground because, by nature, it's underground. It's caught in a dilemma. People keep saying, "He's getting dropped from this label, he's getting dropped from that label." But to be honest, most people who like grime don't pay for it. And that's the problem. It's got a massive fanbase, but you ask anyone who's got a collection of grime: "How many of those tunes did you buy?" Tunes keep on under-performing because the crowd that support them don't like buying the music. On radio, you've got to make a specific type of tune for it to be popular. Skepta does that well and Wiley does that well, the odd Stormzy tune too. But it's difficult for the A&R to know what to do with grime. If you sign them to a major, you're under major pressure from your boss to deliver sales and you end up getting a grime artist and watering them down. Then people like you go nuts [laughs]. Most people who buy grime don't really, truly understand the game. They don't know how hard it is to sell. Even though it's universally black and white, grime is the blacker form of hip-hop. It's more urban than hip-hop. But, it's still got a lot of life in it.