As Beats 1 turns 3 this month, Helen Herimbi speaks to Julie Adenuga about music, Manthe and social media
When Julie Adenuga hops on the phone, I am unprepared for how much she sounds just like she does on the radio. The Beats 1 DJ, who is known for being a champion of grime, West African stars, bald-headed girls across the globe, and shedding light on burgeoning acts through her UK Represent segment, speaks fast and laughs a lot.
On the eve of the 24-hour online radio, streamed through Apple Music, celebrating three years since its inception, the Nigerian-British DJ had just come back from Nigeria, where her brothers Skepta and JME had hosted the Boy Better Know homecoming event. A week later, Skepta was performing in Johannesburg, but Adenuga did not make the trip.
“I didn’t know they were going to South Africa until I got home and I was very sad about that,” she says in her signature fast speech. “Everyone has told me that South Africa is amazing and I’m annoyed I haven’t been there yet.”
But that doesn’t mean she hasn’t been keeping up with artists in Mzansi.
“Manthe Ribane,” Adenuga quickly says when I ask her who she likes. “She’s probably the first South African artist I met, and she blew me away. I haven’t met anyone like her since. I have sat and watched her videos for hours.”
Adenuga is passionate about music. After dropping out of university, she worked at an Apple iStore and subsequently talked her way into hosting a show on the then pirate radio station, Rinse FM, in 2010. She moved up to hosting drive time, and in 2015, she was head-hunted to stand alongside America’s Ebro Darden and New Zealand’s Zane Lowe to be the faces of the new streaming station, Beats 1.
She tells me about the hiring process.
“I have a screenshot on my phone actually,” she says. “It’s of a random message from a guy called Warren. He’d sent it through my contact page on a website that I’d built. The message said something like: ‘Hi, I listen to your show on Rinse FM and I’m from Apple slash Beats slash iTunes. I’d love to talk to you. I think you’re great.’ So immediately, I was just like: ‘lol’. I replied because there was nothing to it, really. Like, if this is a joke, then whatever, but if it isn’t a joke, it could be great.”
“For the next two or three months, it was just someone I didn’t know talking to me about something they wouldn’t tell me about. The third meeting I had was with Zane Lowe. I knew who he was, but I’d never met him before. So again, it was, like, what’s going on? So he told me what was happening. I thanked him for telling me because it was all getting a bit strange.”
But even then, it took her ages to accept that she was really one of three major voices who would be broadcasting to the world through Beats 1.
“I’m quite a pessimist,” she admits. “Then a contract came, and I was still thinking that, as exciting as it was, it was never going to happen. Even when they flew me to the Apple headquarters in Los Angeles, I was still like, it’s not going to happen, but it’s great that I got to do this. I met Dr Dre, met Jimmy Iovine. And I was just like, ‘it’s not going to happen, but at least they now know who I am’.”
“I just wanted to leave a good enough impression for them to remember me and keep me in mind for any future opportunities. I genuinely didn’t think it was going to happen until I was actually on air on June 30. Up until the minute I was on at 8pm, I didn’t think it was going to happen.”
Since then, Adenuga has interviewed everyone from Wizkid and Ycee to Cardi B, Pharrell and Jorja Smith. She has also written the Greatness Only documentary that premiered on Apple Music. The doccie is about her brother, Joseph Junior Adenuga, aka Skepta, and his rise in music. In it, she conducts interviews with him and some of the people closest to him. It was an illuminating look at one of the current leaders of grime music, but I ask her if she discovered anything about herself in the process of making it.
“Hmm,” she says, taking some time to answer. “It started with (the director) Matthew Walker and I just sitting in his kitchen for hours and thinking about what we wanted to say and what we wanted it to be about, and that was something I’d never done before.”
“The only time I stepped out of my comfort zone in that whole thing was actually interviewing Junior,” she admits. “Matthew had shot videos with Junior since the beginning of his career, and this was with Apple so I knew they had a great team. I knew they all could make this happen and do it well.”
“So the only time I felt challenged was having a conversation with my eldest brother about things we’d never spoken about before. We only had one day to shoot that and I remember leaving the interview and thinking it wasn’t good enough; that the interview was the spine of the documentary we were doing and it wasn’t the best one I’d ever done. I talked to Matthew and he said, ‘what are you talking about? It was great!’ I learnt that when I think something is really bad, it normally isn’t that bad.”
Before I get off the phone with her, I ask Adenuga if she’s got anything she really wants to tell us.
“Yes,” she shouts, mischievously. “Get off the internet, it’s a trap!”