A legacy set in motion.
An ever-evolving title, the definition of a DJ continues to shift. Long gone are the days of emcees overshadowing their disc-juggling counterparts. For decades they have changed the way music is played and influenced entire cultural movements: from dancehall to hip-hop and grime to house. Simply put, DJs are more than just people who play records. In Kenny Allstar’s case, the BBC Radio 1Xtra host is a documenter as much as a selector, living up to his undisputed title as ‘the voice of the streets’. Just a day before our interview, the Lewisham native wins Radio DJ of the Year at the Rated Awards, an accolade he picked up two years previously. “Awards don’t define a person’s success and I know that. Some of the greatest creatives go their whole career without winning an award,” he says, “but I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t make me feel good. It feels good to know that I’m being appreciated for the one craft that I still love and will always protect: the art of DJing. It was a moment that will live with me forever.”
Kenny’s awards, which stand proudly behind him during our interview, are symbolic of the time he’s devoted to British music. In the age of streaming services, which continue to threaten radio, he’s managed to stay relevant and grow a listenership that rivals the likes of Scott Mills and Greg James, despite focusing on genres that the industry persists in censoring. His radio show, alongside the infamous Mad About Bars and The Generals Corner freestyle series, provide an invaluable platform for talent on the UK scene and beyond.
Working three jobs to keep the family’s head above water, Kenny’s mum is to thank for her son’s early career documenting London’s burgeoning rap scene. After she bought him his first camcorder, Kenny took the blueprint set by trailblazers like Jamal Edwards and SBTV to create his own, Lewisham-focused YouTube channel called ‘Kenz TV’, bunking school to film legendary freestyles from the likes of Sneakbo. The channel would later be taken down, but this would end up being the catalyst for Kenny’s achievements in years to come. “There was a civil war in south London, and I was trying to give people a platform,” he reflects. “I’ve risked my life multiple times doing this. If I’m willing to die just to get content, no one could ever question my passion. When I had the camera and I was doing Kenz TV, that’s when I realised this is my role [in life].”
Having such a direct vision from a young age has helped Kenny exude a natural confidence in everything that he does. But behind the bravado, there’s an affable vulnerability that keeps him grounded, which shines through when he opens up to me about his experience during the pandemic. Falling into the “darkest of places”, for the first time in his career he experienced extreme self-doubt due to online trolls and severe detachment from his fans. “Being a Black guy from south London with a West African background, I’m raised with a certain level of masculinity, so you can’t really talk to your friends about your problems and you’ve just got to deal with it,” Kenny says. “I thought, ‘Fuck that, man. I’m not going to fall into the trap’.” Deleting social media apps and getting therapy helped him through this difficult time, and he eventually found clarity in the bigger picture. “I had to understand that I never came into the game because of other people’s opinions. I came in to be a platform to help people from my background, who grew up with no money as social outcasts, wanting a voice and never getting one,” he explains. “That’s why I do this — not for people to tell me that I’m relevant or not.
A self-professed student of dancehall and grime, Kenny Allstar’s musical journey began huddled around his family radio, tuning into different frequencies and eventually finding pirate radio’s airwaves. Pioneering stations like DejaVu FM, which he would later pay subs for, and local, Lewisham-based channel Grime Online gave him a foundational understanding of radio as an art form. As for dancehall, a trip to Notting Hill Carnival with his father developed a profound love for DJing too palpable to be ignored.
Many of the values set by these genres run throughout his work today. The art of storytelling in dancehall, where selectors anecdotally introduce songs, features across his DJ sets whilst grime informs the structure of his radio shows. “My show isn’t your normal BBC show. I’m talking over tracks, I’m giving out the phone line, asking people to give me a signal. That comes from grime culture.”
Alongside grime’s ascent in the early 2000s, wordsmiths from areas of south London began making their own iterations of American hip-hop, embodying darker aesthetics both lyrically and sonically. Road rap, as it would later be called, championed a mixtape culture that followed in the footsteps of DJ Drama’s Gangsta Grillz. Esteemed projects like Hollowman Meetz Blade (Giggs & Blade Brown) were presented by Mykal Million, who Kenny cites as an influence over his own style when hosting albums and freestyles.
Mad About Bars is now in its sixth incarnation, becoming a badge of honour for any rapper who graces the space. Whilst being a format that resists the vogues of modern music, it’s given newcomers like Digga D and Central Cee a foundation to break through the noise and become global stars. The aforementioned artists’ freestyles sit on 10s of millions of views, with fans closely dissecting their potent wordplay and punctual flows. “Mixtape Madness has always been there throughout my career, so it was a no-brainer to build a platform that would help us grow together. It was never meant to be this big,” Kenny says modestly. Regardless, each series pushes the platform’s boundaries. Kaleidoscopic camera work now matches the prismatic penmanship of its artists and added with his presenting prowess, the format has solidified itself as a musical institution.
Kenny can’t stop winning, but the success of his current ventures isn’t preventing him from looking fondly towards the future. He isn’t someone who rests on his laurels. Plans for a new YouTube platform titled Road Rap on Tour are well under way, as is a Blade Brown featuring music project, a Christmas run of Mad About Bars freestyles, the second season of The Generals Corner, club tours across the country and the third instalment of his Block Party in November. Listing these platforms is tiring enough, let alone creating them, but resting doesn’t come easy to Kenny Allstar, and you get the feeling that he still has so much more to give. “The job I do is bigger than me. If I’m dead tomorrow, my legacy is that I never stopped giving people a platform,” Kenny affirms. “And I don’t mind taking that to the grave knowing if there’s one thing that anyone can take from me, it’s that this guy helped put people on and didn’t ask for anything back.”