We spoke with DJ Semtex about his career, maintaining his relationships with artists, and why he started his Hip Hop Raised Me podcast.
The first time DJ Semtex knew hip-hop was set to be the blueprint to his storyline was when his older brother introduced it to him, mapping the young Manchester, England-born DJ’s love for the genre into his early teens. Like many born in the ’70s, DJ Semtex, born John Fairbanks, championed artists from New York City, where hip-hop was born. In a full-circle moment, he would go on to allow hip-hop to shape and mold his life.
Semtex’s journey alongside hip-hop has lead him to a 30-plus year career as a club, festival, and tour DJ. His self-proclaimed “biggest flex” was him holding down a slot on BBC Radio 1Xtra from 2002 to 2018. The DJ quickly established himself as the British ambassador to US music and an authority on the various scenes in the United States. He soon became the DJ all the big hitters chose to sit down for. (Kanye West once named him the DJ that “helped launch [his] career.”)
With his name firmly etched in the credits of the who’s-who of the industry, Semtex’s latest venture, Hip Hop Raised Me podcast, came as no surprise to music heads that have followed the DJ’s journey from the age of buying records and cassettes to new-age Spotify-backed podcasting.
Hip Hop Raised Me explores the dynamics of hip-hop, delving between older statesman (like Busta Rhymes and Chuck D) and new school freshmen such as J. I the Prince of N.Y. It also provides listeners with a taster of matured conversations between Semtex and his hip-hop royalty friends.
We spoke with DJ Semtex about his career, juggling his relationships with artists, and why he started his Hip Hop Raised Me podcast.
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.
What is the key to your interview techniques?
DJ Semtex: You can’t take advantage of your relationships. There was a time when I used to walk around everywhere and have a microphone, and I just used to pull it out all the time. And then it was Mac Miller [who] said to me “Sem, every time we meet up, we don’t always have to do an interview, you know.” So I’ve kind of chilled and now it’s more like, “When you’re ready to talk, let me know.”
When Drake wanted to talk — when we did the More Life interview — he just [direct messaged] me. It had nothing to do with the label or station or anything like that. He just DM’d me directly and was like, “Let’s sit down and talk.” He didn’t care about what the platform was.
Who was the first artist you ever interviewed?
Jeru The Damaja and it was the worst interview I’ve ever done [laughs].
What is the importance of a good tour DJ?
It gets to a point when you need all that experience. You have to rock crowds. I don’t think there’s a value on it like there used to be, in terms of that on-stage thing. I think artists are so big now and the way that everyone gravitates around the artist — it’s all about them.
Have you ever been booed?
Glasgow Wu-tang show. I’m DJing, tearing it up. These guys are late. Most rappers are late but these guys are mad late. So the crowd starts booing. I’m in Glasgow, man, like the worst place to be booed. Like, yo, they’re passionate about booing.
So I bring people up on stage, 10 different artists, and give them all a chance to do 16 bars of spit. And it was a sick night. That’s what I’m saying, You gotta flip it around into something.
You have toured with Nas, and your YouTube has archives of an interview with him for every album since he dropped I Am… How did the friendship grow and what was it like touring with him?
You can hear from his lyrics, the guy thinks a lot, and you just give him his space. With Nas, it was different. Shoutout to [his DJ] Green Lantern because he hit me up and asked me to do [the show]. But Nas is different. It’s kind of like an added responsibility. Its pressure because this is one of the Greatest MCs so you just want to make sure it goes right
Is it fair to say you’ve done the whole dinner with JAY-Z thing?
Yeah… I’ve done a few things like that, but I don’t clout chase an artist just because they’re big. I knew Kanye [West] before Kanye blew up. I knew he was going to kill it — you could hear it in his music before College Dropout. He was on “The Bounce” with Jay, the Freshman Adjustment mixtape and everything he was doing with Talib Kweli. It was inevitable.
I know you miss festivals and live shows can you share some fond memories of your favorite shows?
Leeds festival [in] 2019, on a Thursday night. I didn’t know it could be that lit. You couldn’t see the edges of the crowd — I have pictures on my ‘Gram. That was one of the dopest crowds definitely.
Future at The Nest in East London. I bought him over. Believe it or not there was a time when nobody knew who Future was. It sold out in seconds, and we had speakers falling off the wall and people squashed at the front. I thought someone was going to die that night.
Pop Smoke’s debut show at [Islington Assembly Hall in 2019 was] crazy. We spent like six months trying to get Pop Smoke over. So we put the show on sale. And when we tried to book him, nobody knew who he was. So six months later, we put it on a venue where it was 600 capacity. It sold out in a second. And people were angry. People were like, “Sem, you messed up this is negligent. How could you book a venue this small for Pop Smoke?” Same people didn’t even know who he was six months earlier.
Let’s talk pirate radio vs. current radio DJs.
Those guys that came from that era of Grime[and] Dizzee Rascal have a totally different approach to live shows. [With new DJs,] I think it takes them longer to do the trial and error thing. You need to mess up on stage is the only way you get better. You need to get booed a couple of times, it’s good to get booed. Because when you get booed, whatever you got booed for, you’re never making that mistake.
You had the BBC 1XTRA slot for years then you moved to Capital XTRA. What happened?
They started this thing where they were doing blogs and they would only let one DJ do it. I can do my own and it’s bigger than theirs. You have to do your thing and don’t rely on anyone. Same thing with the [Hip Hop Raised Me] podcast. The BBC wouldn’t let me do the Spotify podcast. I left because I was like “this is the future.” I left then got a call from Capital Xtra. But now they’re letting all their DJs do podcasts now. They changed that rule [laughs]. [So] some good came out of it.
Thandie Sibanda is a freelance music and culture journalist from the UK with featured bylines at CLASH, Schön!, TRENCH and The Daily Star Online.