In an age of streaming services and the rise of the algorithm, the role of the DJ is taken for granted more than ever before. The tireless yearn to support new talent, the lightning speed ability to select music, build momentum, and create an environment to perfectly rock a crowd, then anticipate and determine what happens next are processes that cannot be taught or programmed.
Only true passion and dedication can elevate a mere mortal to the esteemed role of a DJ. The DJ is the unsung hero of your life. Last night a DJ could have saved your life, but the morning after you’ve already forgotten what they did like it was all a dream. And that’s cool, that’s understandable. You are back to reality where the daily grind consumes your attention and soul. Just know that your static playlist isn’t the antidote though. It isn’t going to change your life, it isn’t going to move you, or take you on a journey.
Fuck the word curation. Curation is a term the digital world embraced and utilised to justify their dehumanised sanitised approach to compiling music. DJs are selectors… Mistajam is a selector supreme. He is one of the hardest working people I know and one of the few people that has the tenacity to endure the infinite grind. Mistajam has powers that enable him to research, select, and motivate audiences on a daily basis. He is a champion of music that does not play, whether it’s an algorithm, or human…I pity that fool that tries to compete with him.
Nottingham had a massive Hip Hop scene. The London scene is well documented, Manchester wasn’t as big as what was going on in Nottingham, but Nottingham never really got it’s due. How did it feel at the time coming through?
To be honest you hit the nail on the head, we were lucky in Nottingham in the fact that we had Shortee Blitz who had moved down to London and basically showed us the way to go and do it. He went and literally took over, and all of the London djs at that point were ‘who is this kid, he’s from country, we don’t know who he is, how does he know how to do all of these things, how does he know all these records’. I think the thing that people forget about hip hop at that moment in time, you know the mid/late 90’s/00’s, is that it was so hard to get hold of outside of London. That if you were outside of London, you were a student of it, you weren’t just a student of rap, you were a student of the culture. My love of other genres of music comes from Hip Hop because you wanted to be the first person to find that weird break that nobody else had got, you always knew that you had to prove yourself more than everybody else, cos it wasn’t on your doorstep. If you wanted to go to Deal Real or you wanted to go to Mr Bongo, it was going to cost you £150 before you got up there. So you didn’t.
You can’t dismiss anything, because if you dismiss anything that’s the thing that’s going to be the dopest.
With hip hop there’s a process of understanding what came before the artists, the producers that came before, it makes you research everything. Even outside of hip hop, you hear someone sample Jazz or Funk, you look at the original break. You develop an appreciation for music more than any other method or way that you would have if you weren’t into hip hop.
Yeah it is another story, but I also think what hip hop does is it shows you how everything’s connected because for me I’m a firm believer in the world before hip hop and the world after. And you look at music, you look at the music we look at as real pivotal moments in rock, they all coincide with hip hop and there’s a reason for that. I mean The Clash being one of those first new wave of British bands going through and creating a cultural movement. The reason why they did that is because of hip hop because they were making beats that were dope, that were being used, that informed what they were doing, that informed that youth rebellion, that informed the whole notion that everything is connected – that’s hip hop.
You can’t dismiss anything, because if you dismiss anything that’s the thing that’s going to be the dopest. For me when you hear stories about what Afrika Bambatta and what Kool Herc used to play in the block parties, when they used to steam off the labels of their vinyl, they would be people who would go and find the most obscure and the most random thing you would never hear anywhere else on black radio at that moment in time, or whatever it may be. And they’d play it and it would go off – that’s hip hop, that’s what the whole thing’s about. The clothes – where did you get that from? The sneakers – where did you get that from? I think when you look at popular culture today, when you look at any genre of music, when you look at art, when you look even at classical music that has been written post the Hip Hop explosion – there’s the world before and then there’s the world afterwards.
The elements of hip hop whether it’s graf, B-boying, DJing, MCing…it’s built on competition, it’s built on survival of the illest. It’s built on coming up, we don’t take L’s. For middle England it’s cool to take an L – no no no no no – No L’s out here – never!
It’s the way I look at things. The way I look at things is that I can’t dismiss anything. For me hip hop is and was and always will be the first anything goes culture, because you can’t say no, because that might be the dopest. I think that where we are right now, is that the internet, streaming services, YouTube have really democratized music, it means that everybody’s got the same playing field, so the only thing that’s got life, the only thing that’s got longevity, is the dopest stuff, is the best stuff. It’s the stuff that is better than everything else. And yeah there’s gonna be points that are gonna be quite disposable and people are gonna be following trends, but that won’t last, and that’s something that hip hop taught me. That it really doesn’t matter that you’ve got £2’s to rub together, it doesn’t matter where you come from, it doesn’t matter what you use as your sample source, it really doesn’t matter that you can’t afford those brand new kicks, get your toothbrush out or get some paint out and make the most of the ones you’ve got. That’s what informs what I do now, I’ve always been interested and always tried to create a level playing field.
How do you ride the artist politics? Because you can’t play everything… you can’t play everyone.. not everything is great.
Funnily enough you probably won’t remember this but you were someone who gave me a really really important industry lesson. ‘Be honest…’
You can’t play everything – you’re right and not everything is great. But if you are honest, then nobody can tell you anything and if I get sent something or if someone’s plugging me something or if there’s a record out there that I’m not feeling, I need to figure out why I’m not feeling that and then I need to feed that back. I need to be honest and I need to explain this is why I don’t like this. And it might mean that you know that some people think I’m a dickhead because I’m not playing such and such a record or that I wont’ support X, Y or Z but I just have to be honest.
How do you support someone when nobody else does and then you’ve supported them beyond the call of duty, but it’s just not happening. You can’t play everything by everyone forever. Some artists depend on you. How do you wean it away from you? Or make that point, like you know that – it’s done?
I’ve only ever been honest. I would much rather be judged by something that I’ve said than something that I haven’t said. So when it has come to that point and it’s happened so many times where I’m going look “it’s not happening for you outside of me playing it.” I’ve actively given people contacts, I’ve actively given people, “talk to this person, talk to that person, get this person playing your record, get that person playing your record.”
There’s one artist in particular who used to wait for me outside of the building and he used to wait for everyone but I’ve missed trains home to stand there and give him 45 minutes, and hours worth of advise. It doesn’t work for everyone and some of the best executives that I know in the industry started out as artists and it didn’t work and that’s across the genres. Started out as artists but now they’re amazing lawyers or they’re amazing managers. I think that it’s about finding your lane and you can only do that with honesty. I always want to be that person who gets the honest feedback. I want Management at Radio 1Xtra and Radio 1 to tell me what they think of my show. I want people to tell me what they think of it. Because I want that feedback and if I want that feedback and I want that level of honesty, then it’s only right that I give feedback and that level of honesty to other people. Some people don’t like it, but I can only be honest.
When did you first clash with Zane Lowe? I’m talking about playing a record first, not a sound clash…
The very very first time I think it was Jakwob? I loved what Jakwob was doing at that point, I still love what he’s doing to this day and it was a case of … it was around the first time that in this current cycle where major labels were going to the underground artists – were going to Grime artists, were going to Dubstep artists as it was at the time, were going too rappers and signing them. What they would do, is they had their set way of working records, without really taking into consideration relationships that had been built up to get the artist to that point. A&R’s were signing people that they had heard on my show but the first thing they would do when signing them would take a record directly through to Zane. What would then happen is that Zane would then come and have a conversation with me about who is this guy? Where has this guy come from? I’d never had a problem with Zane – I’d always had a problem with the pluggers. I’d always have a problem with the A&R’s because I’m going “if you’ve discovered this via my show and now this artist has built up a fan base bigger than I can give them, bring them back to me so it’s that reciprocal benefit”. We can help it and not only that we can put it in a position where the artist – their story is being explained by somebody that understands it. So anyway there was this Jakwob record and I hadn’t heard it, I hadn’t heard about it and I had heard it on Zane’s show and I remember vividly to this day calling Rob Pascoe, who was the plugger at Mercury at the time and literally losing my mind and like literally let my ego get the better of me… losing my mind.
That’s not a bad thing.. I do it now and then.
(Laughs) I literally went off on one and Rob was the first person, Rob and DJ Swing, were the first two people to put me on a mailing list when I was 14. When I was applying for mailing lists as it was back in the day where as a DJ, you would prove that you were a working DJ and you’d get sent free records by the record companies and then you’d have to fill in reaction forms and send them back. So Rob had known me for as long as I’d known you, so since I was 14. Rob let me vent and then just explained it to me. Explained to me why it happened, why it has to happen, why artists need that boost on that bigger platform at that moment in time. If they can get it, then should get it. I agreed to certain points, I disagreed to certain points. I then went and had a conversation with Zane’s team about it, and Zane about it and they were like ‘we didn’t realize we’re really sorry. We didn’t understand. We didn’t realize but we’re really, really sorry about it and we don’t want to disrespect you.’
From that point onwards the relationship was very different cos I understood the way that it worked, I understood the pecking order, the chain of command almost. Everything was cool until we did an on-air soundclash with me and Zane. Me and Zane we’re both from the Hip Hop school of competitive nature, of competitiveness, we have to, you have to be that person. For a long time we were saying we were going to do this thing and Zane used to do this thing on his show, a versus thing – a sound clash. For a long time we said we were going to do it and for a long time neither of us wanted to do it with each other because both of us knew we were going to take it too far. And the relationship changed during that radio show and we ended up not talking to each other for a year afterwards.
Serious. Why? What did you do to him? [Laughs]
I got a dub plate of Maverick Sabre’s “Inside”. That was the first time on that feature that somebody had got a dub plate and I drew a dub plate on Zane on his own show. You don’t do that. You do it if you come from where I come from, but you don’t do that, if it’s a friendly on air soundclash. Zane‘s counter-action was a fresh out-of-the-studio completely unheard Chase and Status record. So we didn’t talk to each other for a year afterwards. It was that thing of competitive nature, of you know if you’re helping me, you might try and take my spot. Whereas for me it was never about trying to take someone’s spot.
It’s an ego thing and nobody cares. The artists, least so. The artists don’t care who played their record first
Because he must have been like “who the fuck is this guy from Nottingham, what the fuck is this 1Xtra station?”
Yes, completely. The brief from my show when I went weekday was to do what Zane Lowe does for Radio 1 but to do it for 1Xtra. So to be a gateway specialist show and taking in the best specialist music before it goes mainstream. The key to the underground – exactly. I was broadcasting from the studio literally next door to Zane’s but it was just the start of our relationship and it was post that, that we actually both sat down and it was like you know what Zane respected that I went onto his show and had the balls to draw a dub plate on him – on his show. He respected the fact that all of these artists and all of this music that I was championing on 1 Xtra was changing the face of British popular culture. When you look at stuff like Wretch 32’s Traktor, I played that to Zane in the office before he’d heard that record, didn’t know who Wretch was, I told him who it was. I gave him the record and he played it that night. What happened for “Traktor” and what happened for Wretch happened after that point. First time Tinie’s “Pass out” was played, was played on my show and again I gave it to Zane and that story took off from there. We understood at that point that we’re not competitors.
How important is it to claim credit for records that you break?
None. No importance whatsoever.
It’s an ego thing and nobody cares. The artists, least so. The artists don’t care who played their record first. The artist’s don’t care who championed them first. The artist’s care about what they’re doing right there and then. For me, it’s a lesson I’ve had to learn and it’s something that I’ve learnt over the last decade but you grow out of “I was the first to do this, I was the first to do that”, because nobody really cares. Robbo Ranks used to say it’s not about who plays it first, but it’s about who makes it boss. Because you can play a record once and it does nothing but if you’re on the right platform, you can play that record once and it takes over the world. So really, it’s not about who played it first, for me, it’s about what are you doing to champion that artist, what are you doing to help that artist to go to the next stage. I don’t really get credit for about 95% of the stuff that I do, but I’m happy with that because I think that if I did get the credit, then I’d be bigger than the artist I’m supposed to be giving a platform to. I’d be bigger than the music I believe in, that I’m trying to show and present to people. The music should be bigger, the culture should be bigger.
Artists have become their own middle man, they’ve become their own DJ or broadcaster. DJ’s have become artists and they’ve taken on that role. DJ Khalid is a good example of people like that, so what is it that you do next? What do you want to achieve?
I’ve still got a good few years, I think. For me, my ultimate career goal has always been longevity. That’s all that I’ve ever been really interested in.
What do you do next? What’s next from radio though?
More of the same. More of the same. Whatever position they put me in, I’m going to smash it because that’s what I do.
Catch MistaJam’s curated clubnight JamPacked across the UK and abroad this Spring and Summer, kicking off at London’s XOYO on Thursday 23rd March. Go to www.residentadvisor.net for tickets and details.