In July 2010, hours before his first ever Radio 1 show, Charlie Sloth went up to the station’s then resident hip-hop don Tim Westwood and told him, point blank, “I’m coming for your job.” There’s footage online of a wound-up Westwood introducing Sloth on air for the first time. “Here’s this new guy at the station,” he says. “I better crush him and destroy his career.” On the surface it’s all pantomime fighting talk, but Westwood was right in saying, “You might be the person who replaces me on Saturday night.”
Three years later, that’s exactly what Sloth ended up doing. He took Westwood’s daily 1Xtra show and his weekend Rap Show slot. Now he’s heading up Radio 1’s late show on weeknights, The 8th With Charlie Sloth, debuting November 6. He’s credited with helping kick-start the careers of Skepta, Stormzy and Wretch 32, and he’s been a launchpad for emerging grime acts such as Dave and Avelino.
Ten years ago, however, Sloth was scraping by in London, living in what he calls a “shed with no sanitation”, raising his son between jobs. Way before then, aged 14, he was already DJing for pirate radio stations such as Rinse FM and “lying about my age” so he could play residencies at haunts such as Camden venue Dingwalls.
He soon tired of pirate radio (“I just didn’t feel like I was really getting anywhere”) and tried MCing, producing and making videos for other artists, but by 2007 he was broke and almost out of options. A surprise move to vlogging turned his fortunes around. He wrote and produced a show called Being Charlie Sloth, playing seven different characters involved in the hip-hop scene, including a manager, a street team and a web designer. His first upload only reached a few thousand views. “I was like, ‘Whoa, I’ve skipped sleep to make this programme and it’s not being as well received as I anticipated.’” But he got a call from Lee ‘Q’ O’Denat, the late founder of rap website WorldstarHipHop. “‘I think it’s genius, so creative, I’ve never seen anything like it,’” he told Sloth. His videos were made exclusive to Worldstar for a year, and “it got to a point where labels were hitting me up because guests in the States wanted to feature on the show”. He even signed a film deal with Atlas, an LA-based company, something he soon sacrificed when the BBC gave him a call.
Getting his big radio break, he decided to stick with the Charlie Sloth brand (it isn’t actually his real name, and he remains tight-lipped about his real identity). He also continued to push the baseball-cap wearing, self-styled ‘best-looking fat guy in the universe’ character, turning any potential insecurities about his weight into a positive.
But the excitable Sloth millions tune into every week isn’t an act. Hanging out on the top floor of BBC’s New Broadcasting House, he’s just as animated in conversation as he is on air. He speaks in motivational taglines and phrases you tend to find on Instagram – #inspiring words set against pictures of clouds.
On his risky presenting style, where a sense of chaos defines most of his shows, he says, “If you can take the risks, you will reap the rewards.” On his rags-to-riches journey this past decade: “When I chat to other successful people, if you want something that bad, you will make it happen. As long as you believe in yourself.”
His steep ascent exceeded even his own expectation, but he’s restless in wanting to achieve more. Again in the form of an inspirational quote, he explains, “Once you’ve climbed a mountain, it doesn’t stop, does it?”
Instead of setting up a deckchair on said mountain and finally getting some kip, this year he released debut album ‘The Plug’, featuring a Who’s Who of grime talents. Some of ‘The Plug’’s tracks made the 1Xtra A List, but Sloth insists there’s no conflict of interest. “I take my credibility so seriously. Until it’s been put on the playlist and it’s not my decision to play that record.” His trademark ‘Fire In The Booth’ sessions – where MCs are given the spotlight to freestyle over backing tracks – are more famous than ever. But the work doesn’t stop there. “Last year I did 211 live shows,” he says. “I was on the radio six days a week. I’ve got so many things going on with the Charlie Sloth brand that excite me, so when I wake up in the morning, I never wake up with a frown.” He claims he only had two hours’ sleep the night before. “I don’t have a social life,” he admits, “but I am doing something I enjoy.”
New show The 8th is Radio 1’s latest attempt to mix radio and video in an appeal to young audiences, who might have their head turned by streaming or self-curation. “Radio is more important than it was 10 years ago,” Sloth states. “People need to know what’s hot, why it’s hot, and where they can find it. Do you trust Spotify or Apple Music enough when they say what’s hot? Have they not got an agenda? Radio’s always gonna be important, it’ll always have a stronghold.”
Sloth is convinced he always needs to stay one step ahead, and he has good reason to think as such. Just this month, someone he describes as a “young cat” who’d recently started at Radio 1 came up to him and said, “‘I’m coming for your spot.’” It was a mirror image of the scenario back in 2010, although Sloth’s not taking it personally.
“I said, ‘Good luck to you’. I shook his hand. ‘Anything you need from me to try and replace me, let me know.’ I want people to win. When I’m done, I want there to be someone who’s up to replacing me, so I can pass the torch.”