DJ Edu continues to bring the continent’s best music to the forefront
If you switch on your radio across the UK you will probably hear a track that has a heavy African influence on air. This is true of most of the stations up and down the country, and with the sound of Africa leading the way it seems that record industry professional wants a piece of the pie and have the claim of being the “person in the know.”
However, the reality is that there are only a few real DJ’s who can claim to have encyclopaedic knowledge of the music coming from the region, and even fewer DJ’s who can hold their hand up to shamelessly showcasing the artists and tracks you will be talking about in the months and years to come.
Step up DJ Edu. The Kenyan born DJ & presenter hosts the UK’s only national African music show, and being aimed at a youth audience which has ever changing tastes, this can be a challenging task. Not that he isn’t used to a challenge or two…
He began his journey by DJ-ing in his home town of Nairobi and the skills shone through quickly. After winning a mix and scratch championship in 1999 he came to the UK to pursue his dream of working at the highest possible level and promoting the music from the continent.
“It was difficult for me when I first came here”, he tells me. “I came from nowhere – not many of the DJ’s or promoters here knew me apart from the Kenyan people. My first impression of the UK market was surprise more than anything else. There wasn’t anything really substantial in place and I played at predominantly East African clubs because they knew what I could do. I got to know the right people and started to diversify into other clubs that had a large African clientele, but not just East African now. It was very London based, but I did do a couple of gigs in Scotland.”
So how was that ‘dream move” to the UK coming along?
“It wasn’t what I expected. I came to work in hip-hop and R&B – as that was what I did back home – only to find that those positions were already filled with others already in the queue for back up positions! I did a few gigs as a promoter to strengthen my position here, working with African artists and giving them a platform in the UK.”
The first big break came within two years of being based here. “I got a call and was asked to provide a mix for a new BBC radio station which was then called Network X – of course this went on to be BBC Radio 1Xtra. I was thrilled when I found out my mix was going to be used to promo the station and also could be heard on air as one of the test runs that people could hear to know what the station was going to sound like. Naturally I expected to be on the DJ line up when they launched – after all, they used my mix and must have liked what they heard – but it didn’t materialise”, he explains.
The station launched in 2002, with the African music show being hosted by JJC, himself a producer and part of the band Big Brovaz, who at the time were riding high in national charts.
“Not getting the radio show made me hungrier – JJC had marketed himself better than I did and I learnt from it. At the time it was just cool to be played in the UK on radio and raise my profile”
Three years later the situation did change. “I finally got the call from the BBC in 2005. The show was still something of a novelty and I knew I needed something to capture the imagination of the wider 1Xtra audience. Most of the highlights we got were for the musical mash ups we did. It let us show that the music can stand on the same level as the other genres. It’s a fight we still have today.”
That last comment was surprising as it feels like there has never been a more fruitful time for the genre. Edu isn’t so sure.
“The stuff gaining mainstream recognition is what I class as “Melodic Grime.” It’s a hybrid of UK music influenced by African music – it is UK music controlled by UK labels and making money for the UK – that is the main reason why artist like Wizkid, Davido & Tekno don’t have the opportunity to cut through and get what they deserve”, he states emphatically.
“Don’t get me wrong – I like the stuff being highlighted at the moment, but it’s all about the core and credibility for me. If you are a true hip hop fan and you listen to J Dilla, then listen to someone like Future you won’t think there is any correlation between the two acts. That’s how I feel about the different sides of what is being represented as “African” music.
So what does he make of the term ”Afrobeats”?
At first I was quite anti that terms, but I grew into it. If young people can reconnect with Africa because of adding an “s” to the music form, then let them do it. The re-connection was good for everyone all round.
He has always pioneered new music and new sounds from his beloved Africa, and sees a bright future ahead. “The Ivory Coast is doing good things right now, really good music. In fact, the French and Portuguese speaking countries are on the up. There is a clear support system for their tracks to elevate and grow – numbers don’t lie – there are some artists getting 50 million online views quite easily – just because they aren’t making noise here in the UK doesn’t mean they don’t pop globally. The continent now has an infrastructure which means they can sustain an industry of their own, which is amazing to see. It should only get stronger and stronger as we move forward.”