I Was On The 1Xtra Panel That Wiley Said Made The Saddest List Of All Time

I called up the chair of the panel, 1Xtra Breakfast Show DJ Twin B, to see whether he thought it underrepresented black artists.

15 July 2014, 12:18pm

These were the experiences of our editor Sam Wolfson at the 1Xtra Power List Panel, followed by an interview with Twin B, the 1Xtra breakfast show DJ and chair of the panel.

At the end of last week, 1Xtra announced a power list, which, in a press release, they claimed featured “a list of the top 20 most important UK artists in the contemporary black and urban music scene.” At number one was Ed Sheeran, followed by Disclosure, Tinie Tempah and Sam Smith.

A first, it seemed to go relatively unnoticed. But then Wiley, who only appeared at number 16 on the list, took to Twitter, calling it the “saddest list of all time.” He later said, “I've never been influenced by a white artist to make black music,” and, in reference to the grime scene, tweeted: “We influence a man [Ed Sheeran] and all of a sudden it turns he has influenced us ....Lol”. It felt like a revisiting of the debate between Kele Okereke and Austin Daboh, 1Xtra's head of music, that went down on Noisey last week. I thought Wiley made a fair point, and one I’d be inclined to agree with, had I not been on the panel that decided the list.

When I first got the email about the 1Xtra power list I thought of Dean Blunt, what he’s been saying about his Black Metal album, challenging the black identity put forward in Kanye’s Yeezus. I thought about grime artists who’ve been around for over a decade but seem to have been given a new lease of life over the past year - the likes of Big Narstie, Jammer and Danny Weed. Mostly I thought whether I should have a say at all - as a white music journalist whose conversion to 1Xtra only came at the age of 16, after a lengthy spell where my radio was only ever tuned to XFM.

But when I arrived to meet a group of 1Xtra DJs and industry experts at their studios, it was clear that those weren’t discussions especially relevant here. On the wall was a list of suggested artists that included Adele, John Newman and Sam Smith. We were each asked to pick three artists that we thought should make the list and so, from the longlist provided (although we were free to make other choices), I picked Skepta, Stylo G and Fuse ODG, each of them, I felt, powerful leaders within their scene who've been able to not only release great music this year, but been able to change their own fortunes and the fortunes of others around them.

But what quickly became apparent is that there were conflicting ideas of power around the table. For some, power simply meant success. For others, it was defined by the breadth of your activities - being a “triple threat” - having other businesses or acting and modelling ventures. Interpretation was left fairly open, but the sheets pinned up on the wall either side of us, with the top track sales of the year, artists with the greatest number of plays on 1Xtra and greatest number of Twitter followers, gave us a pretty good idea of what the station had in mind.

We were each allowed to vote for a top 5 which then formed a rough outline top 20 which we could argue the toss over. Number one, by a country mile, was Ed Sheeran. We spent most of the morning eating muffins and screaming at each other. I’m not exaggerating, at one point I genuinely thought Yasmin from the breakfast show was ready to deck someone. People from senior management would occasionally walk into the room looking concerned. This went on for hours, arguing who should be where, each of us coming from very different understandings of what the list should be.

The points were made: that Disclosure were two middle-class boys from Surrey who had distanced themselves from the club culture they were now dominating, that Tinie Tempah’s album had been a relative flop, that Sam Smith would be better suited to a Radio 2 power list. But the rejoinders were cold hard facts: sales, plays on the station, and social media following.

I think the most striking thing about the meeting was that it was the few white guys in the room saying Sam Smith shouldn’t be on the list: he’s not 1Xtra, he’s not urban. One of the 1Xtra DJs turned round and said, “you’re judging him on his race, if he was a black soul singer we wouldn’t be having this discussion.” Maybe that’s true, maybe it’s not - I don’t think you can divorce music from its context but I also think that when the only people doubting the black music credentials of white artists are white men, it’s a good time to shut up.

The one thing that never came up for much discussion was whether Ed should be number one. I, personally, loathe his music, so I suggested that it might be too obvious a choice, but that was shot down pretty quickly - so we moved on.

The more distressing issue is that the most successful artists in many of the black music genres in the UK are currently white. DJ Fresh in drum and bass, Disclosure in garage/house, Sam Smith (or John Newman or Adele) in soul. That's a reflection of the British record buying public and the industry as a whole, but this list, as it was understood by most people in the room, seemed to be a reflection, rather than a challenge, to that.

We could have argued for hours, but the list had to be settled so eventually they kicked us all out. They announced it on the breakfast show on Friday and then...silence. For a few hours at least. It wasn’t until the Wiley tweets that things started to kick off. Since then the list has been called racist, sad, unreflective of urban music and just about everything else you can imagine.

This morning I called Twin B, the 1Xtra Breakfast show host who chaired the panel alongside Yasmin, and asked what he felt.

Noisey: Hi Twin. You must have had a busy weekend.

Twin B: Oh my gosh bruv, we started a race war! Who knew, bruv, who knew?

Were you surprised by the reaction to the list?

I don’t think any of us expected this reaction. This started as just another radio feature - one for our audience, I didn’t think it would go beyond that. For it to spin into what it has, honestly, I think it’s quite funny.

Do you think the panel made the wrong calls?

You were there, there was so much wrestling over everything. And then the stats we had to take into account as well. I don’t feel like we did the wrong thing on the list. But maybe it was the word “power’ that is the problem. Everyone’s definition of it is different. “Power” could have been been replaced with “popularity” or “relevance to our audience” but that word caused a lot of issues.

So do you disagree with Wiley’s criticism, that, Ed Sheeran, who has been influenced by a lot of black artists, is now number one on a black and urban power list, above those artists he’s been influenced by?

Wiley is someone I’ll always respect for his honesty. I’ve known him since I was in my early teens. What he said would have been true, if we’d said “Ed was the most influential artist in black and urban music”. I had people texting me saying “What about Stevie Wonder?” It’s ridiculous the way it morphed. I spoke to Wiley personally, while he was tweeting I was up in his DMs and texting. He understood, he gets it now.

You know what it’s like. People always use Wiley because his quotes are so honest - he says what he thinks and then reacts after. A lot of people have used that side of him in this debate, he’s kind of been pimped out a bit, unfairly. As mad as Wiley is, I never really disagree with him once he’s understood everything. We always wrestle, we’ve wrestled over a lot of different things over the years.

So you don’t think race matters at all when you're making a list like this?

When we were surrounded by the stats, facts and figures, there was nothing on the wall that said “white or black”, or “male or female”, even though the latter became more of a debate. Our decision was based on relevance to what we played and the last 12 months of activity. Remember, 1Xtra’s most played voice in the last 12 months is Sam Smith - a white guy. Mary J Blige’s favourite voice of the last year? Sam Smith. Who knows, maybe Mary J Blige when she met him was like, “damn, you white.” It might surprise her as much as it will surprise our listeners. Before he was famous and I’d only heard “Latch”, if someone had told me he was a black guy I wouldn’t have been surprised. The race thing, it was never a part of the debate.

I guess another thing that was unclear is what “part” of 1Xtra this list belonged to. When you initially asked your audience via Twitter who they thought should be on it, it was mostly road MCs and a few bigger grime names. If Charlie Sloth and Semtex had been chairing this panel, it probably would have looked quite different.

What people don’t understand is that daytime 1Xtra has changed. The main reason is because we’ve been the first to champion so many artists when they were still underground- Tinie when he was doing his Hood Economics mixtape, Ed Sheeran when he had 400 followers - and now they’ve got massive and we’re not just going to stop supporting them. People haven’t followed the journey of these artists, they don’t understand that the Ed Sheeran now is the same as the Ed Sheeran we had on the breakfast show when no one had really heard of him.

But I think people are rightly worried that if 1Xtra is the one place within the BBC in which Black British music is championed, then if you see their power list with a top five which has some very mainstream white artists - artists who could be on a Radio 2 power list, then 1Xtra isn’t doing its job.

But it’s a timing thing. In two years, it’ll be all the artists that are being played on Semtex and Charlie Sloth now. Next year we’ll be talking about MNEK. We’ll be talking about Fekky and Stormzy, loads of afrobeats artists like Mista Silva coming through. Not enough people know about these artists now, but they’re developing on 1Xtra. But we’re not just going to drop Ed Sheeran just because he’s massive.

What would you say to the black artists that have criticised the list?

Make better music and send it to me. It’s not cause you’re black bruv, it’s because you’re not as good as you think. Honest. There’s definitely a discussion that needs to be had on the representation of black artists and black music on a bigger scale, and that should be in relation to what 1Xtra does, but for it to be based on this list is ludicrous when you know why it was put together.

Aside from the race question, though, couldn’t you also say that people like Sam Smith and Emeli Sande are so mainstream they don’t really have a place here, can they still be seen as 1Xtra artists?

In 2006, Tinchy and Wiley made a record that sampled Billy Joel, “Uptown Girl”. It was one of the poppiest things I’ve ever heard. Ever. But because of where they were in the underground, people didn’t measure the music by its sound, it was about where they are. Now people are selling millions and all that, people are kind of forgetting where they’re from. It’s a British culture thing, when someone gets too big people say we should stop supporting them. But why? Our audience want it. Black culture is more in the mainstream than it’s ever been.

Do you reckon? I feel a bit like that time when Tinie and Dizzee were all getting number ones has been replaced by this dominance of pop soul.

A little bit. But to be honest if there was 1Xtra in the 80s, the first time you would have heard UB40 would have been on the reggae show on our station. It’s all about the timings though. As a genre, British MCing is so young. This is the first and second generation black British MCs, it’s a young movement. Even though it feels like it might have come and gone, So Solid was only 12 years ago, there’s a big future ahead.

1Xtra isn’t just a reflection of what’s going on though, right? It’s go to support new artists, push them into the mainstream so that the power list 2015 looks different. Right?

Absolutely. 100%. But one thing it will never depend on is the race of the artist or that race of the panel.

Well there you have it. Thanks Twin.

These issues were discussed in a shitload more detail by the current head of music at 1Xtra, Austin Daboh

Follow Sam on Twitter: @SamWolfson

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