“You go in and you make sure they hire another one like you”

Trevor Nelson has spoken to NME about his career, the state of UK R&B, and shared some advice for young people on getting into the media industry.

The DJ and radio pioneer was speaking to NME after hosting a panel talk at the Confetti Institute of Creative Technologies’ London campus.

As part of Confetti’s 2024 Industry Week inviting leaders from the worlds of music and media, Nelson spoke to Crowd DNA content and media agency professional Andy Crysell, actor and movie producer Hester Ruoff, former head of content at Spotify Vino Vethavanam, and Dale Davis – the former musical director for Amy Winehouse.

Having started out working in a record store before becoming a DJ and presenter on the then-pirate radio station KISS FM, the MBE recipient told the crowd that the biggest low point of his career came after the channel was legalised in 1990.

“I had a daytime show and, two years into that show, I got fired,” Nelson told the panel and audience. “When my boss told me in he was in tears because he couldn’t believe I had just been fired, and I didn’t care. My social life sort of affected my work life so much that I thought I’d rather not be here [at the radio station] – which is an unbelievable thing to say now because this is all I care about.”

Trevor Nelson hosting "Break into the creative industry" at Confetti London in March 2024. Photo credit: Confetti and Daria Manea.
Trevor Nelson hosting “Break into the Creative Industry” at Confetti London in March 2024. Photo credit: Confetti and Daria Manea.

He also spent over a decade presenting on MTV, worked as an A&R for Cooltempo and EMI Records and worked with R&B and soul superstars D’Angelo and Lynden David Hall. Nelson also revealed that he almost signed the prolific hitmaker Sia.

“When I was in the record labels – [I thought] where’s the talent? I couldn’t find it. The record industry then was like, if you didn’t look like Kylie [Minogue] you were not making it,” he began.

“A woman came to see me and I heard her tape and thought, ‘Wow there’s something about her.’ It turned out to be an artist called Sia many, many years ago. I thought she was interesting but I didn’t sign her. She ended up being a massive superstar years and years later from rejection. She ended up not showing her face from rejection because she didn’t look like Kylie.”

The music tastemaker then related that fact to tell the students why social media is so vital: “What’s happening now is that I am getting 50 singers in my inbox every day from people making personal songs that would have never [reached] the record label. You’ve got to use it, you got to get out there because if you’re making music, you got to share it.”

In one of the state-of-the-art studios on the campus, Nelson further spoke to NME about his career, R&B and what advice he has for budding broadcasters.

Trevor Nelson at The Mike Gala: Stormzy's 30th Birthday in July 2023. Photo credit: Karwai Tang/WireImage
Trevor Nelson at The Mike Gala: Stormzy’s 30th Birthday in July 2023. Photo credit: Karwai Tang/WireImage

Hello Trevor. What’s your opinion on the state of radio today?

Nelson: “Radio is in a healthy place – I’m actually surprised at how healthy it is. I don’t think anybody, even the so-called experts, thought it’d be this relevant in this day and age. More people listen to radio now than they did years ago. The choice of stations is phenomenal. Just about everything you want to hear, you can hear somewhere. One thing about radio I’ve learned, it’s really not about you, it’s just about your audience. You are servicing them in a sense.”

Community and youth-led radio such as the Peckham-based Reprezent Radio are under threat of closing. Why is it so important they stay alive?

“Those smaller [radio stations] that are pivotal to young people. I think I’ve appeared on Reprezent at some point. I think my daughter [fellow DJ, Shy One] was on Reprezent at one point. In an ideal world, instead of doing pirate in my day, I would have wanted to be on something like Reprezent. I look at them as sort of your step into the mainstream. I think it’d be tragic if that’s clipped. Not everybody there is going to become a professional broadcaster, but it’s a great hobby.

“I know back in the day how important community radio was, especially when you go somewhere like Birmingham or Leicester or where you’ve got diverse communities. I’d imagine a lot of people feel it was more relevant years ago when we had less social media and less ways of learning what’s going on in the world. But I still think community radio, if it does what it says on the tin, is important because our communities are dying, getting gentrified. Where is the community?”

As an authority on R&B music, what are your thoughts on the state of UK R&B? Are people right to question why it’s not as popular as it was?

“My biggest criticism of a lot of the UK sound is that it’s all very similar. You’ve got a lot of solo female artists and quite a few male solo artists and they’re all self-penning [songs] which tend to be talking about being introverted, on a tempo which makes it very hard for radio programmers to program on daytime radio because it’s not your commercial sound.

“I still think there’s a lot of quality stuff. I love Debbie. I love Mahalia. I love Ella Mai. I love Jorja Smith. I love all of them. I play all of them, but to get other people to like that music, you’ve got to branch out more.

“Soul II Soul’s ‘Back To Life’, Mark Morrison’s ‘Return Of The Mac’ – I almost feel they could come out today and there’d still be hits like what Bruno Mars did with ‘24K Magic’ or ‘Uptown Funk’. What have they all got in common? The tempo, the enjoyment, the energy in those songs – someone’s got to break out a little bit and just be a little bit daring to put a bit more fun in there.”

You’ve always championed UK R&B acts RAYE and Soul II Soul, who both won big this awards season. How do you explain their success?

“I’ve always supported RAYE. I was shocked when I heard that her record label wasn’t releasing an album of hers, but – by sheer talent, sheer perseverance and by telling her truth – she has emerged as an authentic modern-day pop star who can do just about anything. RAYE will kill it on a dance track, she’ll kill it on an R&B track. I hate the fact she’s had to air her grievances to have to make it, which is the saddest thing.

“I learnt a lot from Soul II Soul. I can be honest and say that Jazzie was the first person I met who was a fellow DJ who made it very clear he wanted to make a living from his hobby. I was on pirate radio. I was happy to be a DJ and I DJ’ed [with them at the] Africa Centre [in 2003].

Soul II Soul performing at Womad festival. Photo credit: David Corio/Redferns
Soul II Soul performing at Womad festival. Photo credit: David Corio/Redferns.

“But [Jazzie B] made me realise this could be a living. Jazzie said to me one day, ‘I’m gonna make music.’ But he was just a soundsystem guy! A year and a half later, [Soul II Soul released] ‘Keep On Moving’, ‘Back To Life’. I saw him perform in Hollywood at the Hollywood Bowl. A couple of years later, he won a Grammy.”

For those from a low socioeconomic background or are of an ethnic minority, what advice would you give them on getting into the business?

“As a black person, if you’re any good, I feel you have an incredible chance of getting anywhere and we’ve had some bad things happen to make that situation come about. George Floyd changed the world – if only he knew. He slapped a lot of corporations on the head and said, ‘You’ve got to do a lot more’. I think, unfortunately, you still have people in charge who were part of the problem before so for them to make that change is quite hard because you don’t know if it’s coming from a place of authenticity – but who cares? It’s an in, right? And if you can get in and you represent yourself the best possible – [you’re good].

“It’s not just about you. If you’re from a minority and you get a break in a place where maybe 15 years ago there was a real lack of representation – no matter what minority you are – you will always have that slight pressure of not just representing yourself, [you are] representing the person that’s going to come after you. I don’t think that will change immediately.

“It’s a responsibility we have whether we like it or not; we can’t turn around and go, ‘Why is the pressure on us? I can’t just be the way I want to be, man.’ You get a chance, you go in and you make sure they hire another one like you. That has always been my mantra and I mean it. The next person that comes in should be able to be exactly like you.”

Trevor Nelson currently presents two shows on the BBC: you can find him on 1Xtra every Sunday and hosts Rhythm Nation on BBC Radio 2 every Monday.

NME also caught up with songwriting legend Guy Chambers at Confetti’s Industry Week, to discuss working with Robbie Williams and tips for making it in the world of music.

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