Exclusive Interview: Charlie Sloth “I will use my brand as a vehicle for these artists”
The radio DJ and personality's debut compilation album is out this week, and we had some time to talk shop...
It’s been just over a year since Charlie Sloth began his Saturday night rap show on BBC Radio 1, and it’s to his credit that the controversy that came with him replacing Tim Westwood on the station (having already taken his weekday drive-time show on 1Xtra) seems a distant memory. The combination of his larger-than-life personality and love of UK underground music serves him well as both a radio presenter and specialist DJ, and his seamless transition between the two is what makes him such a force.
Well, that and his work ethic. The self-proclaimed “People’s Prince,” “the best-looking fat guy in the Universe” and, as he told it when we met him, “the biggest hip-hop DJ and tastemaker for urban music in Europe” isn’t short of confidence, but do not mistake him for someone resting on his laurels. Charlie sat with us for an half an hour to discuss his Hood Heat Vol.1 album being released on Naughty Boy’s record label, and had plenty to say (filling silence with ease, the trait of a true radio pro) on what’s taken him this far and why he will still be moving forward in the coming years.
Hi Charlie. Given the amount of radio shows you do a week, how often are you actually able to go out and do live shows, particularly outside of the UK?
It depends where it is. Obviously I’ve got six radio shows a week so as long as I can get to and from where it is within an hour or two, I can do it. I’ve played Barcelona quite a few times over the last year, Amsterdam, Ireland and obviously all the holiday destinations. I do a minimum of three shows a week, and sometimes I’ll do seven. It depends on what’s going on in my schedule that week and other commitments I’ve got, because there’s so many other things that I do too, whether that be TV or production too. It’s just trying to balance that schedule.
What is it like for you to manage and live that kind of exhausting schedule?
I come from a family where if you don’t work hard, you starve. My mum had three cleaning jobs, so I’ve always seen people in my family work hard. My granddad was from the Seychelles, and when he came here he just had a pair of jeans, trainers and a t-shirt but he built up a business to look after his family. It’s always been instilled in me that if you work hard you’ll reap the rewards, and I’ve always been like that throughout my career.
People are like ‘ah you’ve made it, you’re sick bruv, you’re living the dream’, but they don’t realize what goes into that. Still now, I work seven days a week and I’ll do 18 hours a day. I’m a father as well as an entertainer, I always take pride in making sure that every morning I get my kids ready and take them to school, so I’ll be coming back from the club at 6am having not slept, but I crack on and make their breakfast. Every day I work from when the sun rises, to when the sun rises, and that’s a big part of why I’ve blown up so quickly. Everything’s a process because I’m putting in the groundwork and building upon it. If I slow down, the next Charlie Sloth is coming to steal my spot and I ain’t having that. I know in my head you’ve got to work 20 hours a day, seven days a week so you can beat me by two hours a day and start catching up. I know a lot of these cats are lazy so it ain’t happening. Work ethic for me is everything.
Is there only room for one of you?
I’m very supportive of people. I’m not trying to shut anybody down, I want everyone to be me because if there are 20 of me, the scene’s huge and that’s a beautiful thing. I’m not trying to be the only guy, I’m just setting that bar. If you wanna be me, catch up and keep up, if not stick to doing what you’re doing. I’ve seen so many DJs over the years just be comfortable and complacent, and they think it’s about them…’llow that! It’s never been about that for me, I’m about the scene. Anyone who knows me and anyone who’s seen my progression – whether it be as a DJ, artist or producer – it’s always been about the scene, and that is still very much what I’m about.
Is it not about that for enough of the other DJs then?
I’ll always put the scene before me, whereas other DJs get caught up in themselves and start thinking it’s about them, worrying about how much they’re getting paid and what’s happening for them. Worry about the scene and make the scene big enough, then your career’s gonna be cool. I know that if I make this popular, and this plate big enough for everyone then everyone’s gonna keep eating and everyone’s gonna remember that I’m the guy that made that plate full. I like to think that so that if the plates start running out, man will be like ‘you know what Sloth? Have some of mine bro. I don’t wanna see you going hungry’ and that’s how life works.
What made you decide to be the one to try and make that plate bigger, especially since you were a rapper yourself just a few years ago?
It’s funny how life works out. I’d just come off the back of doing 68 episodes of Being Charlie Sloth, and it was the biggest online hip-hop show. I had four deals on the table – three of those in America – with major labels all offering good money. I’d done six [stand-in shows] with Wretch 32 on 1Xtra and I remember them calling us in for a meeting. They were like ‘you two are really good on the radio together, you’re really funny, you know your stuff and we want to offer you a show’.
We were both like…rah. I mean Wretch had deals on the table as well, we were both artists at that point. We sat down and initially both of us were like nah, but then there was like a Eureka moment where I realised I can become that guy that helps everyone else, and that martyr that sacrifices my career for the better of the industry. I believed in myself, I knew if I got in that BBC building it’s a wrap for these DJs. They don’t understand this work ethic that I’ve got. I’m a beast. I can be an artist, have three, maybe five years of success and earn some money…or I can be someone that actually does something for this game, this industry and this music that I love and I’m passionate about, and so I said ‘do you know what, I’m gonna do it.’ I remember ringing Wretch mad early in the morning, like 3am, he was like “What? Nah, ‘llow it bruv” so I rang the BBC and they were like ‘we wanted you both, we’re not sure if this can work’.
I had these deals on the table, it was just a thought that I had and so I was like whatever, but then I got a call the next day saying they were gonna take a chance on me. There was two people in the building that really believed in me, Rob Littlejohn and Rebecca Frank, who are still there now, they really believed in me and gave me the opportunity. They gave me the Friday night mix show 1-4am, and I knew I weren’t gonna be there for long, I believed in myself. Within 4 years, they gave me Saturday breakfast, then I replaced Westwood on drive-time, and then I got the Radio 1 & 1Xtra rap show.
Was Westwood’s place on the station always your aim?
There was one producer in [the BBC building] that sat me down when I first started and asked me what my aspirations were. I said I was gonna take Westwood’s show, and he laughed at me so I said ‘give me 5 years and I’ll have his show’. I did it in three!
I remember having a conversation with Westwood. For me Westwood is a legend, I’ll never say a bad word about the man and he’s done so much, but I remember being real with him. I remember going into his studio telling him I’m coming after your job, he was like ‘whatever man ’ but I was like ‘bruv, just know I’m taking your job’. Because I believed in myself, worked hard and stayed dedicated and focused, I’ve taken his job and now I’m in the position to do all those things that I believe should have been getting done for the artists in this country that weren’t getting done, and I’ve been doing that. No one can look at my journey as a DJ and broadcaster, and say I haven’t done that. I could’ve been that dude just concentrating on American hip-hop artists, taking all the glory like ‘I’m Charlie Sloth, look at me and my relationships’…nah! I already knew these American cats from Being Charlie Sloth, so I took it back to what I thought should’ve been getting done. If you look at the amount of artists that have had that jump-off it’s crazy, and the scene’s in a beautiful space now, we’ve got some incredible artists and they feel there’s a platform for them.
How much do you credit that to your shows?
I’m not a bigheaded dude, but it’s no coincidence that since I’ve had great platforms like 1Xtra and Radio 1 to showcase this talent, all around things have grown. Everything urban has grown since the fruition of these artists and that has to start somewhere, and when you look at it there’s only one place it really started and that’s on the Rap Show on 1Xtra. It’s to the point now where it’s in a beautiful space and I’ll continue to do what I’m doing, supporting homegrown talent. I’m on the biggest rap show in Europe in terms of numbers and listenership but my morals and ethics are still the same.
It’s about homegrown talent, and my journey – even this Hood Heat project – is all about creating a level playing field, making everyone else in the world see that our talent is finally at the point where we’re not second best no more, we’re not following anyone else’s culture. We’ve got our own culture, our own lifestyle, our own sound, and it’s to the point where the Americans are swiping what we do because ours is more creative, ours is going through a really beautiful cycle whereas theirs is recycled. It’s a beautiful time right now.
In which case, you must have a lot of music sent to you in hope of catching your interest. How many emails do you get?
Every week I’ll empty out my inbox, this week I’ve got…[checks phone]…36,078 unread messages, that’s Sunday to Friday. On Sunday, I’ll always take time out to go through with an assistant who helps me and we’ll just go through the whole folder. It’s important that I check everything; any music that I get sent, I listen to. If I’ve given you my email and I’ve said to send me music, I’ve heard it. Whether I get back to you or not is a different story, although if it’s not good but I hear potential in it I’ll drop a line like ‘keep working’, and I’ve done that with many artists that are now at a point where they’re getting played and doing their thing. I go by a rule: if it hasn’t grabbed me in 30-seconds it’s gone, and it’s very hard for me to listen to you again. You have to make another step in your career and do something to really catch my attention for me to listen again.
What’s your advice to artists who are sending you stuff?
Pick me your two best records so I can be like ‘boom’, but sometimes artists can get it wrong. Some artists I know have sent me records from their tape and I come to find it’s the worst two tunes from the tape. One of the biggest things in this game is judgment. If you’ve got good judgment you can go all the way, if it’s bad you’re in trouble.
The thing I always say to artists that I’m trying to help and push forward is to create a circle of connectors. Get five people you trust from all walks of life that will always give you honest feedback, send them your stuff and ask for feedback. Those five people in your life will be the people that determine whether you’re gonna be cool and hot or flop. If five people pick the same record, that’s your strongest record, it’s as simple as that. I’ve got my five people that I trust, before I make a move in any direction that has a massive impact on what I do, I feed it out to them. I can see their different points of view, and different perceptions on a situation are always important.
I imagine these records are all be intended for plays on your rap show. Just how different is your preparation for your evening shows to the drive-time shows on 1Xtra?
They’re so different. Saturday night is all about me sourcing my records, and the flow of the show is all dictated by me. Everything you hear on that show is 100% me, with no input or influence from anyone else. The drive-time show Monday-Friday is playlisted, so 85% of the show consists of records on the playlist and I’ll get to play four or five records in that show that I want to put in there. I’ll put the cream from Saturday nights, which have the potential to crossover to a mainstream audience, into the show. A lot of time those songs get playlisted, which is then great for the scene. Me having both shows is a beautiful thing because my personality means I’m able to do the drive-time thing, crack joke and have a laugh, then Saturday nights I can put my music hat on and be more serious. I don’t take myself too seriously and I still crack some jokes, but it’s all about the music, it’s about my passion for the scene, the lifestyle, the culture. To be able to take elements of that Saturday show and feed it to a totally different audience is a beautiful thing.
There doesn’t seem to be anyone else that can bridge the gap between those two audiences, at the moment.
It’s a massive thing, the fact I can do that, and I think that’s something that really got the BBC. They saw me doing radio shows at 1am cracking joke, being loud and energetic. I’m just a dude that’s comfortable with being me, I ain’t worried what other people think about me. People who I love know who I am – I’m a cool, honest, humble dude who loves what he does. Everyday I’m living my dream, so I’m gonna have fun and enjoy myself.
I’m not scared to say what I think, and I feel that’s a big part of what people appreciate about me, people who listen to me appreciate the fact I’ll just keep it real. If I don’t like a record I’ll say it’s wack and broadcasters, especially people who’ve come before me, have always been scared, they want everyone to be their friends. I don’t care! I’m a grown man and I want what’s best for the scene and to entertain people at the same time, and that for me is something that sets me apart from 99% of the other DJs. A lot of people take themselves far too seriously…‘llow it, you’re just another dude who is lucky to have a great job, and not be stacking shelves. I’m at the spot now where I’ve worked hard to be where I wanna be, I’m gonna enjoy it.
How did you feel when you first got the Radio 1 rap show?
The moment I found out, I cried. I set a goal in life about who I wanna be, and I achieved it. I can’t explain the moment, it’s just something else. Now though, I’ve gotta keep moving and make new ambitions. I’ve proved to myself that by believing in myself and keeping good people around me, I can do anything, so now it’s taking the next steps and let’s keep doing things that people think ain’t possible to do, and that’s where I’m at now in life.
That brings us nicely to one of said next steps, Hood Heat Vol.1. What made you want to do this project now?
The timing of it was beautiful. I‘ve had labels for years trying to make me do it, but I always felt there was no need for it. My conversations with Naughty Boy were a big part in me doing this, as he understood my vision. Doing this is a great process in making the UK & US scene side-by-side, and he understood the process of what I’m trying to do. I said to him that in two years time I wanna be making records with people like Drake and Tinie on the same record, Nas & Giggs…I wanna be making those records in the States and bumping here. He got it and I just felt this was a great step in the right direction.
An example, I was with Rick Ross last week. Me and Rick are cool. I told him what I was working on, and ended up playing him some music from the CD by the UK artists. He was in the studio last week with some of the artists that I played! Now they’ve got a big record that’s done, and that’s part of that process. Me, being in the position to chat to these American cats when they come over, saying ‘you should do a record with so and so’…He trusts me, he knows my history in this ting is strong – Being Charlie Sloth, Radio 1 DJ – I’m authoritative, so I’m in a position now to do that and Hood Heat is a great vehicle to enable me to put them records on the same CD. When you look at the way I’ve laid it out, it goes UK-US-UK-US, pretty much the whole CD which hasn’t been done before, and it could have been but not to the level it’s at today, where you’re listening and like ‘shit, that last UK record was better than that American record’. It’s like people will listen to that and not even realise what’s just happened, and that’s a beautiful thing, it shows evolution and progression in this scene that I’m so passionate about.
One thing that surprised me listening to the album, especially when the lead single featured you on, is that your voice appears very infrequently on the record. There were preconceptions that it’d sound like a mixtape, but it’s just all about the music. Was there any pressure to have it the other way?
The label wanted me all over it like ‘owwww, ddududududu yeahhh’ but I was like nahh low dat, it’s not about me. I will use my brand as a vehicle for these artists, but it’s not about me, I’m not trying to sell me. My life’s good you know, financially I’m comfortable and blessed. It’s not about me, it’s about Meridian Dan, it’s about Skepta, it’s about Potter Payper, it’s about Stormzy, this is who it’s about, as long as I can get that across and it means a lot that you’ve noticed that. People think I’m egotistical, that’s my character, part of the Charlie Sloth brand.
Yeah I love myself, I think I’m the f*cking business but I’m not so wrapped up in myself to wanna take the shine from all these guys that put in the work and enable me to be the guy that I am. That’s the bottom line, music comes first and I’m just a part of the vehicle helping this music be successful. That’s what makes me happy, man.
Charlie Sloth’s Hood Heat Vol.1 is released 7 December. For album pre-order and tour VIP ticket links, click here.