Sitting in my grandmother’s living room in Hackney, East London, I vividly remember seeing the advert on BBC One signalling the forming of a new radio station within its network that would cater solely to Black music. I was 12 years old at the time, and already a huge fan of pirate radio grime.
With shots of kids riding BMXs, two guys in a drop-top Benz, council estates and girls in big hooped-earrings, the station’s positioning was ‘Street Music’—which, at the time, was a broad, umbrella term but it also meant that there were no barriers when it came to the music offering. This was twenty years ago. Fast forward a decade and some change, I found myself working with the station on a project as they prepared for their popular 1Xtra Live series in Cardiff, Nottingham and Manchester. The station that I saw being born had now played a small part in my own career—and there are probably thousands of stories from artists, music journalists and tastemakers alike whose careers this station has had a hand in.
Many argue that 1Xtra began, in part, to quell the rise of pirate radio stations in the early 2000s—particularly those dedicated to championing grime, jungle and garage. While it did take some time for grime to find a permanent home on the station, walking, rather than running, really was the best strategy to ensure long-term success for 1Xtra.
“Landmarks like this are important because I don’t know if anybody thought 1Xtra would last, because we never had a station like this at the BBC,” Trevor Nelson explains on a Zoom call that also includes Faron McKenzie, Head of 1Xtra, and weekday Breakfast host Nadia Jae. “My biggest frustration back when I was an A&R, after signing an artist, was where I was going to get them played. At one point, honestly, it was so hard. If 1Xtra had started earlier, people like Craig David would’ve had their first play on the station—without a doubt. Artists needed that mainstream platform to have their music plugged, and 1X did what no other station was able to do simply because of the BBC’s reach.”
When 1Xtra began in 2002, it was only available on DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting)—which limited its reach, particularly for those who also didn’t have satellite television such as Sky. “At first, it was quite frustrating because I always thought 1Xtra was deserving of more reach,” Trevor tells me. “When I joined, I noticed that DAB wasn’t widely available. It was good on the one hand, because the signal was crisp and clear—I wasn’t used to that, but it also made it exciting because those listeners who latched on early felt they were listening to something truly special. I always got the feeling that they were invested in us, that people made an effort to listen to us.”
“I want to be able to listen to the station with my grandkids in the next 20 years.”—Trevor Nelson
“There’s a real family atmosphere at 1Xtra and that’s one of the reasons I’m honoured to be a part of it.”—Nadia Jae
It wasn’t long before DAB became the standard for cars and home radio systems, which then allowed people to tune in before they left for work and school and then during the commute. Once DAB became widespread, 1Xtra became an unstoppable force.
Trevor joined the station five years after its inception and, by that point, he had already established himself as a leading voice within music in the UK, particularly R&B. One of his fondest memories of his time at the station was being at Radio 1’s Big Weekend in 2012, in Hackney Wick, where Kanye and Jay-Z performed Watch The Throne on the 1Xtra stage. “There was no Glastonbury and the Olympics were in my hometown, Hackney Marshes, where everyone plays football on a Sunday,” he says. “We put on, arguably, the best event the BBC’s ever done. I remember standing there watching Jay-Z and Kanye stand on stage, where I used to kick a football, and I was absolutely emotional and proud.”
It may not have been able to happen when 1Xtra first started, but with those two acts gracing the stage, it highlighted how the station’s influence was growing globally.
Faron McKenzie—who has been the Head of 1Xtra since 2020—tells me that the station breaks approximately 10,000 new records every single year. “I want people to understand that figure,” he says, “because how many of those records will chart? When you think about that contribution to music, you’ve got to give respect where it’s due. 200,000 tracks in the past 20 years is a lot.” Ten thousand records is an insurmountable amount and a figure the station can be proud to claim.
For those looking to form a career in broadcasting, 1Xtra has also become a destination for those hopeful talents. Tiffany Calver—who hosts the Rap Show—has gone from strength to strength during her career: first working as a writer for MTV, then moving on to the now-defunct Radar Radio, before solidifying her name in radio at 1X. Then there are presenters such as Snoochie Shy, Remi Burgz and Jeremiah Asiamah, who all started their careers on South London’s Reprezent Radio and have now found homes at 1X.
At the height of COVID-19, in December 2020, Nadia Jae joined on as the station’s new Breakfast Show host. “It was crazy because, when I joined as a cover for the show, everything was running smoothly, but when I landed the weekday host gig—which was amazing—lockdown happened,” she explains. “It was difficult because I’d just started the new role and had to adapt quickly to this new way of working.” Before taking over from Dotty, who left the station in July 2020, Nadia had previously hosted the Weekend Breakfast Show. BBC 1Xtra made a long-term investment when it brought on Nadia Jae, and it echoes Faron and Trevor’s thoughts on the future and always keeping an eye on what’s to come.
“There’s a real family atmosphere at 1Xtra and that’s one of the reasons I’m honoured to be a part of it,” says Nadia—and it shows. There’s something for everyone on 1Xtra and that’s arguably one of its most endearing traits as a radio station. Whether it’s a specialist show such as Nelson’s R&B show or Heartless Crew’s regular takeovers, 1Xtra has found a way to straddle the lines between mainstream and underground in ways pirate radio and Choice FM couldn’t.
“You wouldn’t have the music scenes that we have now without 1Xtra because there was nowhere to play that music at this scale.”—Faron McKenzie
“Some people questioned why I joined 1Xtra so far into my career,” says Trevor, “and I said, ‘Why not?’ In my lifetime, I had never seen Black music exist in the way that it had when this station came along. I’d spent my whole life trying to get this music played—we used to say some Black British records weren’t from here because no one had time for it.”
When you chart the rise of Black British music over the past twenty years—particularly the last ten years, where we’ve seen an increase in Black artists dominating the charts—1Xtra’s influence has to be a part of that conversation. “Black music is mainstream pop culture now, but we’ve been the platform that’s introduced—and bear in mind we’re a digital platform—new artists, and helped build careers over the past twenty years,” says Faron. “You wouldn’t have the scenes that we have now without 1Xtra because there was nowhere to play that music at this scale.”
As for the future of BBC Radio 1Xtra, Trevor, Nadia and Faron only see a continuation and expansion of the legacy that has already been created. “I want to be able to listen to the station my grandkids in the next twenty years,” Trevor says. Nadia adds that “it’s a testament to the legacy of 1Xtra that it’s been around for this long and there’s no doubt that it’s here for the long-run. I’m really excited for its future and my role in that.” For Faron, “it’s always about looking forward and beyond. Our mission stays the same: we’re here to represent the Black British experience, and I always say that we’re more than radio. Radio is the vehicle that gives us always-on access to an audience, but we always want to be at the epicentre of Black British culture. The conversation around Black British culture has never been so prolific.”
Here’s to the next 20...