Imagine it’s 2002 and you’re the biggest fan of all things rap, R&B and Black music. The only way to find what you like on the radio is to put your faith in a bunch of D.I.Y pirates, who are risking their lives and freedom by setting up makeshift signals that only go a few miles. You’d have to go to underground raves to see your favourite MCs and singers go off – but make sure you’re there on time, or the police might raid the function.
It felt like Black music was criminalised – that is, until BBC Radio 1Xtra had come around. Now, 1Xtra – which celebrates its 20th anniversary today (August 16) – has come a long way from fulfilling the collective need of once-so-called ‘urban’ music fans to hear the hottest tunes on their airwaves.
Two decades on, the pivotal radio station has dug its way into the hearts of rap and R&B fans, especially with its attention to detail when it comes to what’s popular. And 1Xtra, with its easy accessibility to everyone all over the country, can be the ultimate tastemaker. Whether you listen via your TV, computer, phone, or DAB radio (but who has those anymore?), your ears aren’t littered with adverts splicing your tunes when it comes to 1Xtra. You have non-stop hits as well as relevant discussions and interviews around your favourite sub-genres in Black British culture. And, particularly if you’re a young fan just trying to scope out what the next big thing will be, this free (free!) non-stop cycle of good music can be your musical awakening.
1Xtra always have their finger on the pulse when it comes to what’s hot in all the international scenes in the Black diaspora – most noticeably through their 1Xtra In web series, where they go to budding international hubs and find the best talent to showcase. For example, the now world-renowned Billboard-charting Jamaican siren Shenseea is one of the leading it-girls in Jamaica; the integral dancehall spinner Seani B had Shenseea do a web performance in 2017 for that year’s 1Xtra In Jamaica. The station casts far and wide for the best talent.
That’s not to mention that the quality of 1Xtra’s homegrown specialist flagship shows has always been top-notch. The loveable Ace and Vis got their big shot on 1Xtra and have been been there from the start. They brought all things young and current to the station, while veterans such as Trevor Nelson (and, yes, Tim Westwood, once a beloved persona in the grime and pirate radio scene before his current accusations of appalling sex crimes) brought all sorts of high-profile stars onboard. With the mix of experience and relevance, you hung on every word spoken by 1Xtra DJs because they knew their stuff, and were good at it.
Speaking of seminal presenters: the once-aspiring MC-turned-radio personality Charlie Sloth’s iconic Fire In The Booth series made 1Xtra its first home. And, again, serious rap contenders took up the opportunity to do the UK’s ultimate freestyle challenge – with scene legends Chip and Tinie Tempah among its ranks. Sloth also brought the funny to the show and would have spoof rappers such as Michael Daapah’s Big Shaq and Kayode Ewumi’s Roll Safe. Thanks to these shows, memorable freestyles continue to live on via YouTube, and they wouldn’t even exist without a revolutionary platform like 1Xtra.
Today, moments are still created by the station’s talented selectas – some of whom have gone farther than anyone would have imagined. Look at Snoochie Shy, who moved from the controversial online station Radar Radio to the big 1Xtra and brings the biggest stars in the UK rap scene to her late-night rap show. This popular DJ, however, hasn’t only been spinning the decks and presenting her whole career – she also had a stint in the Welsh castle that became the base for the pandemic-filmed 21st series of I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here last year.
Having gone from niche online radio to ultra-mainstream telly, Snoochie has proven the cultural relevance of Black British music and 1Xtra, with the BBC station as the link between the two. And she’s done it by becoming a role model for so many. That’s another thing to love about the radio station: when you need some inspiration, BBC 1Xtra’s DJs are nothing short of standout people you could look up to.
I write this ode to 1Xtra as a girl from a low socio-economic background: free television channels like grime mecca Channel AKA, paired with Radio 1Xtra, gave me a chance to search around and find my new favourite sub-genres. This is the case for so many Gen Z-ers – growing up with a station started off for Black people and was hosted predominantly by Black people, 1Xtra became an integral source of the hip-hop and R&B knowledge I now use every day as a staff writer at NME. And for two decades years, youngsters have had that resource so readily available to them too.
In just 20 years – one-fifth of the BBC’s entire lifespan – BBC 1Xtra rapidly became the beloved outlet we needed as, for a while, it was the only radio station to dedicate itself to representing marginalised Black British music. As well as rap, the channel has also dedicated itself to representing everything Black British: dancehall, R&B, ragga, dubstep – everything. And if you’re inquisitive about the culture, it has always been a great starting point.
It’s strange to think that from its debut five-hour-long Rampage DJ set, the radio station came to help millions of music fans find their sound, and in turn, their tribe, as they even expand to club nights (1Xtra Live will be returning this year) and festivals. Happy birthday, BBC 1Xtra, and thanks for being so important to Black British culture all these years later.