SONY MUSIC U.K.'S DJ SEMTEX: SIGNS OF THE TIMES


Sony Music U.K.
Director of Artist Development DJ Semtex,
whose Friday-night Capital XTRA hip-hop show is one of the biggest in Europe, has enjoyed a storied career in music, collaborating with artists like Jay-Z, Kanye West, Rihanna, Iggy Azalea, Maverick Sabre and Chase & Status. He’s also a podcaster, author and titan of all things British hip-hop, as demonstrated in the Q&A below. Semtex is currently working with Black Butter act J Hus and up-and-coming rapper Mugzz, who is signed to WEAREBLK.

What stage of development do you think British hip-hop is in today?

We’ve got a long way to go. As great as everything that’s happening now is, if you look at U.S. hip-hop, it took 50 years to get to where it’s at today. In the U.K., we’re probably about 20 years deep. When you look at what happened here with grime from the beginning of 2000 and then what happened from 2014 to 2015, which is when U.K. rap really exploded, whether it came from the right people getting jobs at streaming companies, the work of pioneers like GRM Daily or Jamal Edwards and SBTV… it all came to a point.

We’ve had an eight-year run of success and we now have a few hundred U.K. rappers in cycle, whereas before, there were, like, 10, 20 grime acts popping. It was almost like Highlander—there could only be one; it could only be Dizzee Rascal or Kano or whoever at one time. But now the barriers are down for fans. They can pick and choose what they want; there are no gatekeepers. It’s still early days, but lots of exciting things are happening and a lot of exciting new talent is coming through every day.

Like who?

Ceechynaa, for one. She’s unsigned. Her development and the way she’s creating hype and her fan base is very different from what’s been done before, including the way she’s creating her presence on TikTok. She’s a very strong woman and she’s addressing a lot of issues, some of which I haven’t heard people talk about yet. She’s uncompromising. She’s only done three shows so far and she’s torn them all down. In terms of what we’ve seen evolve over the last eight years―from the advent of Afroswing and U.K. drill to the success of J Hus, Dave, Stormzy, Little Simz, D-Block Europe and Central Cee, artists like Ceechynaa are next.

Do you agree with people who say U.K. hip-hop is on a downswing?

In the U.K. we get restless. We like different sounds. We like different ways of saying things. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, you had artists like Hijack, Demon Boyz and Cookie Crew. They were trailblazing and had considerable success. But then most of the talent in U.K. hip-hop went into other genres.

In America, you’ve got someone like Dr. Dre, who was in World Class Wreckin’ Cru in the ’80s, N.W.A in the ’90s, solo with Snoop Dogg and Death Row in the ’00s―and then worked with Eminem, 50 Cent and Kendrick Lamar. We don’t have that legacy of creative mentorship here; our creative mentors went from U.K. hip-hop to rave music, jungle, drum-and-bass, U.K. garage, dubstep…

And the industry has gotten lazy chasing TikTok hits. Though people are realizing that if you sign one person for a TikTok hit, it’s hard to get them to do it again. We should be working with artists from the beginning and helping them develop, identifying the right people to work with and taking our time with it, not just looking for the quick hit. We need to give space to let the next wave of creators come through.

What else would you like to see change?

The most difficult challenge new artists face is cutting through and getting attention. We’re in a period when your attention is worth more than your money. Very few people take a chance on a new artist until they see all the markers in place. Artists don’t get attention until they get the hit or do something controversial. And I’m not just talking about labels; I’m talking about radio and influential bloggers on Instagram. I can only do so much in my position as a DJ and label executive; it takes the scene, collectively, to help an artist come through. I wish people would pay attention to artists making amazing, great music early on and just back them, rather than waiting for the obvious thing to get traffic. Maybe I’m just being idealistic!

Do you think hip-hop is equal to other genres in terms of opportunity?

Yeah. I think we’re definitely at that point. You’ve got to come with the records that connect, and once you do, platforms can’t ignore you. When Lil Nas X came through, you had to play that track; it was a banger, regardless of genre. With “Sprinter,” by Dave and Central Cee, you had to get on board with that; whether you’re a streaming platform or radio station and whether you like rap or not, you could not ignore the magnitude of that track. The people voted with their feet―the fans are the ones who got “Sprinter” to #1 and the extraordinary [10-week] run it had there.

Within the industry, more people understand the music and culture than ever. Before, there was one or two in each building; now there are teams. I recently saw a scaremongering tweet from Ebro Darden [co-host of Hot 97’s “Ebro in the Morning”] saying labels aren’t focusing on hip-hop and are instead focusing on Afrobeats and Latin music. At the end of the day, great music is great music, regardless of the genre. I don’t think there’s an attitude at labels of not doing hip-hop anymore; it just depends on whether we’re hearing great music that’s ready to come into the building.

Hip-hop has a strong independent and entrepreneurial culture. How is a company like Sony competing with that?

The Orchard has been leading the way for independent artists for a while. They heavily backed Giggs’ breakthrough with the Landlord mixtape and helped him get to that next level. It was the same with Skepta. There have been conversations with labels trying to sign him, but what he achieved with [2016’s #2] Konnichiwa on The Orchard was unprecedented. It goes back to what I was saying about that period—Konnichiwa was part of the catalyst.

The Orchard is designed to handle independent artists at any scale, from the kid with a good track but no presence on social media to giants like Giggs and Skepta. The breadth of labels at Sony, whether it’s RCA or Columbia, Black Butter or Relentless, WEAREBLK or 5K, means there’s also the capacity to work with hip-hop artists across the board, at every scale. But for those built to do it independently, The Orchard is perfectly in place to handle that.

The work of British hip-hop artists hasn’t always translated overseas, particularly in the U.S. Is that changing?

Definitely. Consider what Drake did with Giggs on “KMT”; he put a U.K. rapper on his [2017] project More Life, and all of a sudden Giggs is “that guy” to Americans. Skepta has done numerous collaborations with U.S. artists, one of the biggest being [2018’s] “Praise the Lord” with A$AP Rocky. You land in America and get off the plane and people know Skepta. It used to just be Dizzee Rascal, but now people know Skepta, Giggs, Dave, Central Cee, Little Simz and Lancey Foux. There’s a greater awareness of U.K. acts in America than ever before. Who’s actually selling? Central Cee and Dave killed it with “Sprinter.” We’d never had a song by a U.K. rapper rival a Drake single. We’re definitely in a new time.

The approach is also different. If you follow Giggs, you see him doing a full-scale promo run in America. He was at the VMAs with Shyne, he’s got a collaboration with Diddy, people want to interview him… I was backstage at Wireless with Yo Gotti [founder of CMG, home to Moneybagg Yo, GloRilla, 42 Dugg and EST Gee], and he was, like, “Who are the U.K. guys popping out here?” I said, “J Hus, Dave, Stormzy,” and he said, “I already know about those guys; who should I be looking at now?” I thought, “Wow, I haven’t seen this before.” I’ve been in the game for a minute and worked with U.S. artists that whole time, so it was mind-blowing to be asked which U.K. artists he should sign. That alone is a sign of the times.

Going back to Ceechynaa, I know a lot of labels, from the U.K. and the U.S., are trying to get in touch with her. That hasn’t happened before. In a minute, we’re going to be competing with our U.S. colleagues to sign U.K. rap acts!

You named Ceechynaa as an example of what’s next. Do you see other female rappers on the horizon?

What I think is interesting is seeing women leading the charge for hip-hop on both sides of the Atlantic. We’ve never seen that before either. In addition to Ceechynaa, who I think is the most exciting emerging artist in the U.K., you’ve got Sexyy Red, the hottest up-and-coming female in the U.S. right now.

It’s been a difficult journey for women in hip-hop in the U.K. I always tell people that Ms. Dynamite [recipient of the 2002 Mercury Prize and two 2003 BRIT Awards] was the best to ever do it. The challenges she faced coming through have been well documented, but a woman earning that much success that young and achieving what she did in terms of the purity of her music, it hasn’t been done since. It’s time we see that again; it would be dope to see a woman leading the next charge, being that next name that gets mentioned.

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