Tearing down the bustling mid-day streets of Dalston, swerving past fruit stands and throngs of chattering women in hijabs, I arrive, sweaty and panting, at the address I'd been given for the headquarters of NTS—the trailblazing London radio station that turned five years old earlier this month. Due to a delayed train, I am horrifically late, with just fifteen minutes left to catch the tail-end of Joey LaBeija's show, which is happening ahead of NTS' big anniversary blowout at Corsica Studios later that night.
A few weeks ago, sharing a joint at a show back in our home city of New York, LaBeija tipped me off about the upcoming anniversary party, pointing at the insane lineup—stacked with NTS residents like PAN label boss Bill Kouligas, Lucky Me's Eclair Fifi, and Kyle Hall-collaborator FunkinEven—while commanding, "you better come, bitch!" So I booked a flight to London. But now, according to two boys smoking rollies at the door, I've fucked things up even further by showing up to the NTS office—instead of their studio a few blocks away. "Turn right and look for the Jamaican flag, you'll find it," one of them promises.
Five frantic minutes later, I sprint into a grey-tiled public square dotted with smoking barbeque grills and skater girls skipping rope. Sandwiched unassumingly between a Somali food stand and a shop called "Chicago Barbers" that confusingly also sells Italian shoes, there it is: NTS studio, a sticker-colored black box that's half the size of the stalls surrounding it. Through a gaping, street-facing window, I spot LaBeija standing over Pioneer CDJs. A few members of the NTS crew are squeezed behind him, nodding along to his reggaeton-spiked club cuts—as are the weather-beaten Somali dudes smoking cigarettes on a bench outside.
The quirky NTS studio feels quintessentially East London, with people of all colors and backgrounds thrown together on the shared playground of the streets, creating a thriving community from spontaneous cultural exchange. It also exemplifies how the station has grown in the last five years from a humble shack in Dalston into an universally-beloved tastemaker by embracing diversity and its underground roots in a way that feels more populist than pretentious.
NTS' wild eclecticism and independence from commercial interests have defined their identity from the start, winning over a quarter million monthly users in 2015 (up 300 percent from the previous year), according to the Guardian. Whether it manages to remain true to these traits as it grows—via the recent launch of a second channel that broadcasts from international cities, as well as a new studio in Manchester—will likely determine its continued success.
Fergus McDonald, head of programming, hands me an NTS-branded condom as a welcoming gift. The last four nights, he says, have been "absolutely mad," thanks to a string of shows they've thrown with the likes of hometown hero Dean Blunt and cult ambient musician Gigi Mason. McDonald and his team have been working non-stop for the last four days, with the big party in a few hours marking the big finale to their anniversary celebrations. "We're all really looking forward to letting our hair down tonight," he adds, before dashing off to greet the station's next guest, the Chicago-based Afrofuturisttechno producer Hieroglyphic Being.
McDonald, along with a core team that includes managing director Sean McAuliffe and CEO/founder Femi Adeyemi, oversees the 200 shows—a combination of weeklies, monthlies, and ad-hoc specials—currently broadcasting through NTS' website. Based on a network of carefully curated hosts and DJs, the station's roster includes a number of superstars, but its bread-and-butter are a number of lesser-known music heads who can be counted on to lead fearless excursions into the underground.
"You might start at daybreak with live field recordings from an active Stromboli volcano... then finish up with synth noodling and videogame soundtracks. Who else can do that?"—Gabriel Szatan, Editor-in-Chief at Boiler Room
"Their programming is absurd," said Gabriel Szatan—the Editor-in-Chief and Music Programmer at Boiler Room in the UK who has also hosted and produced shows on NTS—when asked over email what makes the station special. "You might start at daybreak with live field recordings from an active Stromboli volcano (not an analogy—they actually did that), see Theo Parrish unload some new purchases on Charlie Bones for breakfast, have an afternoon run of Rahaan into DJ Paul into Eclair Fifi into Marcel Dettmann or whoever, then finish up with synth noodling and videogame soundtracks. Who else can do that?"
This sort of diversity is reflected by the DJs who played the anniversary party, who ranged from far-flung guests like New York's LaBeija, Lisbon-based rising star Nidia Minaj, and Australia's Otologic, to aforementioned residents like Eclair Fifi, Funkineven, and Bill Kouligas. Hopping between the club's three rooms—including one borrowed from the comedy club next door to Corsica Studios—you could wind your waist to jagged dancehall once minute before losing yourself to heady electronica or shuffling techno next door.
"Getting to Corsica rather late, after not having slept for two days [due to] playing shows the nights prior, [I was] a bit shocked by the amount of people and the energy that was already filling all rooms," Kouligas tells me over email. "Maybe it was hard to focus on so many different stages and styles of music, but that's what NTS stands for."
When asked how NTS fits into the broader dance music landscape, Kouligas responds, "In comparison to other stations in the UK, NTS keeps a highly London-centric identity, with... shows that represent UK culture of all race and gender." But at the same time, he adds, the station is a constantly evolving platform that doesn't limit itself to what London has to offer, with a growing roster of international artists who bring in a larger worldwide audience.
Around 4 AM, with the party in full swing, I meet Adeyemi in the shoulder-to-shoulder rammed smoking area. He envelops LaBeija in a bear hug from behind, then wraps me in one too after we're introduced. We chat for a while about The Lot Radio—a new, live-streamed station back in Brooklyn that I'm a show curator for—briefly discussing the challenges of independent radio and the pros and cons of working with commercial brands. When the station got started, it charged show hosts a small monthly fee to cover running costs, but Adeyemi tells me it hasn't done this for three years. "Let's sit down the next time you're in town so we can talk more about the radio," he generously offers, before being whisked off by a friend, back into the crowd of admirers shouting his name.
Adeyemi started NTS five years ago after losing his dad, his job, and his apartment. "I was at a weird point of my life," he told The Couch Sessions in 2014, "I felt I had nothing to lose, and I just decided to do it and see what happens." Adeyemi had previously been a DJ in London for a few years, and even participated in the first Boiler Room stream in 2010, which took place in what Szatan describes as a "pigeon-infested warehouse with a store-bought, duct-taped webcam."
"That vibrancy of London is what feeds us, and what we try to highlight to the rest of the world."—Femi Adeyemi, NTS founder
With a shoestring budget of £3,000 ($4,200) and the help of his friends Clair Urbahn and Shane Connolly, Adeyemi started NTS in the same Dalston shack that I visited earlier that day. "The area is an interesting mix of people from different parts of the world, rich and poor, drunk and sober—kind of a mini-London," Adeyemi later tells me. "That vibrancy of London as a whole is what feeds us, and what we try to highlight to the rest of the world via our broadcasts."
The need for diversity and fresh faces is what drove Adeyemi to start NTS in the first place. "I felt that musically, radio was really repetitive; there wasn't anything really new happening. Everything was so, if you aren't a part of this group you don't know," he told Dummy back in 2012. Today, NTS remains committed to a sense of openness and community; many of its shows are hosted by music-obsessed heads who aren't necessarily the biggest names in the game. It's also served as springboard for new talent—four years after her NTS debut, for example, DJ Moxie cinched a residency at BBC Radio 1.
But NTS' legacy—what it will be remembered for in the years to come—is the way is revolutionized the landscape of contemporary radio, harnessing the limitless freedom of the internet to liberate the medium from commercial obligations. "Definitely in the last three years, there has been a major change in approach: internet radio stations have gone from being just a stream of playlisted tracks to an actual studio with a live host and live interaction," Adeyemi says. This paradigm shift, he continues, was caused by stations like NTS using the internet to "completely flip the script on what radio should be."
"We can take more risks with our programming," he explains. "We can offer an alternative that isn't just commercially-driven, which is unfortunately what you get with most traditional FM broadcasts."
Adeyemi has said in several interviews that his inspiration for NTS' fiercely independent, and culturally omnivorous model came from college radio. This spirit is now shared by internet stations like Rinse FM and Radar in London, BCR in Berlin, and No Wave, Newtown, and The Lot Radio in New York. "The fact that huge companies like Apple (Beats 1) and Red Bull (RBMA radio) are starting up their own live stream/internet stations also help legitimize what we do," he adds.
As the night came to an end, I walked through the club one last time, noticing McDonald with his arms wrapped around friends at the bar, Eclair Fifi slouched against a wall next to one of the DJ booths, and LaBeija dancing with his headphones in hand. At least for one night, this motley family reunion summed up how NTS has become the star child of online radio: by giving so many disparate corners of the music world a chance to connect on a thriving community platform. Perhaps Szatan summed it up best when he joked, "You know that old adage about never being more than six feet from a rat in London? Well it's like that, but with NTS DJs."
Michelle Lhooq is the Features Editor at THUMP. Follow her on Twitter