30 Jan 2005: Radio 1 has lined up a talented trio to replace the late John Peel. But how will they follow our most influential DJ? Amy Raphael met them as they prepared to start the toughest job in broadcasting.
Lunchtime at Radio 1, a small room with a huge clock on the wall stuck at midday and an expensive stereo in one corner. The first production meeting between DJ Ras Kwame, producer Louise Kattenhorn and programme assistant Hermeet Chadha. It feels a little strange. Everyone is laughing and there is an undeniable degree of enthusiasm and energy in the room, but there is also an underlying sadness. Until his sudden death last October, Louise and Hermeet used to work with John Peel.
Now they have three DJs to work with. Radio 1 realised that no single DJ could replace Peel; under the moniker of OneMusic, Peel’s three late-night shows will still run Tuesday to Thursday from 11pm to 1am, but will be fronted by a different DJ each night. Only with Huw Stephens covering the more obscure end of rock, Ras Kwame playing largely underground and urban acts followed by Rob Da Bank choosing anything from dub and ambient to techno hardcore, will Peel’s eclectic taste be kept alive.
Ras Kwame, host of 100% Homegrown on the BBC’s digital station 1Xtra reaches for the volume, turns it right up: ‘Yeah man, DJ Rupture is pretty cool.’ Louise smiles: ‘John used to play this.’ Hermeet has a pile of pre-release vinyl on his lap. Most of the 12 inches have ‘attention of John Peel’ scrawled on the sleeves. The chat is easy but the ghost of Peel is inescapable.
Louise talks about getting Ras on all the more obscure record company mailing lists; the 33-year-old concedes that more commercial music is sent to him for 100% Homegrown. Hermeet says: ‘It was never a problem getting records for John because he was so well-respected …’ He sighs, looking into the distance. Ras picks a record by Black Twang from his own pile. ‘This is one of the tunes I was going to give to John Peel but I never got round to it.’
Ras Kwame discovered music through his parents’ diverse record collection. He remembers hearing old-school reggae, Elvis, Black Sabbath and the Vienna Boys’ Choir. Born in Hammersmith, he moved to Ghana at 11, returning to London after completing his A-levels. While studying economics at City of London Polytechnic, he began to develop his taste in music; in Ghana, he had learned about local music, reggae and international pop music and when he returned to England in the early 90s he got into rave, hardcore and techno and started DJing.
Ras is never content with just one project. After developing a reputation as a DJ, he founded the Sugar Shack record shop in 1993 and a year later Baby Shack Recordings. Since 2002, he has been helping to break acts from Skinnyman to Estelle on 100% Homegrown, a laid-back but authoritative show that is respected by the industry as well as the public. In his spare time, he presents Showtime with Ras Kwame on the digital video station Channel U. Yet even with such experience, Ras didn’t expect to be offered one of John Peel’s slots. ‘It was a phenomenal compliment!’ He says, laughing. ‘Big time. It’s mega. To be allowed to continue that kind of work … that guy went deep. From 1967 until last year is a long time to stay credible. No fronting, just playing things you like. To be entrusted with a piece of that, I feel blessed.’
Ras was awed by Peel’s dedication. ‘I saw him leaving Radio 1 one time with two huge postbags full of records. A couple of people were helping him. He apparently listened to every record he was sent and I try to do the same. You never know where the next big tune might be, the spark.’
John Peel listened to everything that was sent to him because, even at 65, he was excited by new music. His whole ethos was about playing music he loved or, on occasion, which intrigued him. For a long time, Radio 1 was losing millions of listeners to Radio 2 and then to Dab music stations. Apart from Peel’s late-night shows, there was a lack of vitality and direction on the station. Surprisingly, Radio 1 controller Andy Parfitt agrees. ‘It’s no secret that we have spent the past 12 to 18 months re-energising the station. Something like 90 per cent of the mainstream schedule has changed in the last 18 months.’
Parfitt knew John Peel was irreplaceable; this was the man, after all, whose play list included Bloc Party (destined for great things) and Prosthetic Cunt (who may never be heard of again). ‘We wanted to continue the legacy of John. In other words, his eclecticism, his championing of new music, of people who make music for non-commercial reasons. We were very pleased to be able to find those people in the building.’
When John Peel died on holiday in Peru, Rob Da Bank had been covering his show. He continued after Peel’s death and will now take over the Thursday night slot. As you might expect, he found it a tough task. ‘It was just about the most fascinating, weird, brilliant and sad thing that’s ever happened to me. I can only hope I managed to do a show he would have approved of. But, sadly, I suspect, lacking his wit, humour and intimacy with the listener.’
Rob Gorham, 31, grew up in Hampshire listening to Radio 1 DJs Bruno Brookes, Peter Powell and Steve Wright – ‘I wasn’t fussy as long as I was being drip-fed pop’ – before discovering John Peel at the age of 15. He became clubs editor of Muzik magazine before DJing at Sunday Best (the south London-based chill-out session which boasted the likes of Norman Cook and Andrew Weatherall) in 1995. He started Sunday Best Recordings in 1997, signing Groove Armada and Lemon Jelly; in 2002, he left journalism and started The Blue Room with Chris Coco on Radio 1. Broadcast in the early hours on Saturday and Sunday mornings, the show’s mix of chill, dub, electronica and indie rock is aimed at Sunday Best-type clubbers.
Last year, Rob released an album as Lazyboy, featuring Estelle, Roddy Frame and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry; last September, he launched Bestival, Sunday Best’s debut festival on the Isle of Wight. Like Ras, Rob knows it’s a challenge to replace someone as iconic as John Peel. ‘As so many people have said, he was exactly the same off the air as on: a bit shy, fucking funny and with the largest musical brain in the world. I saw him around a lot but was always totally awestruck. I had to work up the nerve to talk to him; it was a bit like talking to the Dalai Lama.’
Rob is excited by OneMusic because it’s ‘a blank canvas’. ‘Louise, Hermeet and I have such big ears for all sounds that we won’t stop at anything. Dub to techno, indie, hardcore, ambient, grime, even the odd folk number if we fancy it.’ Andy Parfitt, no doubt aware that some of the music press have been critical of Rob Da Bank, dismissing him as ‘ravey Davey’, is keen to back him. ‘Rob did an amazing job. It was one of the hardest jobs to do, holding the fort when we were in a state of shock. He did it with such dignity. I was talking to Sheila, John’s widow, the other day and she was saying how grateful she was to Rob for doing such a fantastic job.’
Yet it is 23-year-old Huw Stephens who is most like John Peel. It’s not so much the vague physical resemblance – he has a beard – more the dry wit, the apparent modesty, the shy smile. ‘I don’t think we’re going to play a record just because we think John would’ve played it,’ Huw says in his soft Welsh accent. ‘But I’m very happy that Melys are doing the first session. They are a band John really liked and was good friends with. I’m a big fan too.’
So broad is the remit for the OneMusic shows that Huw thinks he could get away with playing Welsh-language records for two hours – he was brought-up in a Welsh-speaking family and still does a show for Radio Cymru when he’s back home in Cardiff – but, of course, he won’t. Instead, he’ll play some hip hop he discovered while in Budapest over the new year, alongside the Editors, 65 Days of Static and Sound Murderer. Although he maintains that good bands will always come through, Huw and Bethan played the Darkness when they only had a demo and championed Goldie Lookin’ Chain.
Huw came to music late, at 14, but quickly became obsessed. After listening to his sister’s Cure and Eurythmics albums, he studied for his GCSEs with Steve Lamacq and Jo Whiley on the radio. The radio was his lifeline to what was going on in London, Manchester and other big cities, but it was a good time to be in Wales too. ‘I was about 16 and working for hospital radio when all that Cool Cymru business was going on. It was a terrible cliche and media-driven but at the same time exciting. You’d see bands like Catatonia around town and a few days later on Top of the Pops.’
Huw has the same low-key confidence as Peel, but he is stilll nervous about the first OneMusic shows. ‘How could I not be, given the history? But I’ve spoken to Rob and Ras and we’re all looking forward to it. John’s death had such a huge impact and people will be expecting us to deliver.’ A shy smile. ‘I think it will work. I hope it will work. It’s just three people playing records they genuinely love on the radio. You can’t ask for more than that.’
· OneMusic is on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, 11pm-1am, Radio 1