In Conversation With:
When thinking about the meteoric rise of UK music and the figures that have helped push the sound, Kenny Allstar stands tall at the forefront. Influenced by the big personas of DJs from both sides of the pond, the South-East London native has a unique ear for talent which he uses to continually search for the next big thing – earning him the epithet “The Voice of the Streets.”
Utilising the internet boom to host an array of underground mixtapes, many of which were debuts for now-renowned artists as well as providing exposure for lesser-known acts through several online platforms, Kenny forms part of the new-age DJs that are putting the scene on the map globally.
Coming up through community radio stations, with nearly a decade in the game his rise hasn’t compromised his integrity of wanting to give a platform to the youth. Mostly known for his online freestyle series’ like BBC 1Xtra’s Voice of the Streets or Mixtape Madness’ Mad About Bars – which have birthed some of the most iconic freestyles in the UK hip-hop and drill circuit – Kenny is seen as the peacemaker of drill, giving lifelong advice to the younger generation of artists and bringing the scene together.
Kenny Allstar visited Original Shift’s East London studio to discuss his come up, mental health, being the scene’s “Switzerland” as well as the efforts artists go to to promote positivity and give back to their community.
Original Shift: I heard that when you were younger you used to play along to 50 Cent songs on the keyboard. Is that true?
Kenny Allstar: Yeah yeah, it’s true. My mum has this theory that the toys your child plays with have an impact on what they’ll be in the future. I used to think that was just a weird mum saying. But I get it because a lot of the toys I got as a kid were play instruments. Back then you’d turn on the TV and all you heard was American music, especially in the early noughties. I used to see 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” come on and that melody is so iconic [hums the beat]. It’s one that anyone can hum to. I was just pretending and used to play melodies on the toy instruments to what I was hearing.
I read that you used to pay £2 to rap for 8 bars, was there a moment where you realised that you were better suited to DJing?
[Laughs] You know what, I can take a hint. I’m an energies man, so I can tell when something ain’t right. Don’t get it twisted, man can fling a few lyrics together, I wasn’t dead. But I had asthma, and especially in the early days of grime, cadence and delivery were important. You had a certain amount of seconds to spit, whether it was reload lyrics or whatever sums up your style – you only had 8 bars. So imagine me trying that. Sometimes I'll be talking on the radio and I lose my breath. But there were so many other talented rappers that were passionate about being an MC. Even in school, everyone used to spit in the playground or whatever. Everyone’s got an 8-bar. I can’t say that a rap career even started for me to say that I ended it. When mans are going to do the big 8-bar riddims, ones that everyone in the area knew, I wasn’t getting called [laughs]. You know when you don’t get called to the first team, you got two options, you either sit on the bench, or you change clubs right. So, I guess I changed clubs. I realised that I loved music back when I was playing instruments. I loved radio, so it was a smooth transition.
How did you get involved with Mixtape Madness?
Mixtape Madness was the first platform to give me a voice. I was filming hood videos, DJing at house parties and raves, doing a lot, but I knew I wanted to get more involved in the UK music scene. I tried to hit up loads of platforms and I sent countless emails. I tried my best. But ‘cos I didn’t have a CV or anything strong enough, no one gave me a look in except for Mixtape Madness. They saw what I was into, when doing the community radio stuff and they brought me in to do interviews. Artists that were going on the platform needed additional content and they felt like I would be a good voice for that. What also helped was that Mixtape Madness was a mixtape outlet platform. Between 2010-2013, pre-streaming, you’d go to them to download projects. I was also hosting mixtapes, ‘cos a lot of my influences were mixtape hosts and DJs with large voices. A lot of my mixtapes were naturally going on there, so it was another outlet for me to get me heard. That’s how we started. They always supported me, no matter what.
How did it help you expand and build your other avenues?
When I was doing my radio show at Reprezent, a community station, I knew it was time to build a platform because I was getting all these rappers coming in and I wasn’t documenting them. I’m talking about Stormzy, Ratlin, Naira Marley – these are artists that came on my show, but we weren't documenting them ‘cos we didn’t have the facilities or we weren’t forward-thinking enough.
I know if I could have got the content curation perfected earlier, maybe those Stormzy or J Hus freestyles would’ve been documented. I realised that I needed to start documenting this and who answered the call? Mixtape Madness. They sent a cameraman down who we know as Teeeezy, to film what went on to be the first Mad About Bars which was on my Saturday night show on Reprezent.
You have to take into consideration, I wasn’t on mainstream radio but Mixtape Madness recognised the importance of what we were doing ‘cos I always had the ear. The first MAB was AJ Tracey and that was because I knew he was cold. Did I know if he was gonna be as big as he is now? No one could have foreseen that, but I knew what sounded good. We did a few weeks at radio before realising that this is something we can expand on. The guys helped me put it in a position where we could have weekly releases with new artists every Sunday, which not many platforms were doing at the time. They’re integral not only to the success of Mad About Bars as a platform, but also my early entry to the game. That’s why we’re still running 6 years on. We’re still building.
“I’m an energies man, so I can tell when something ain’t right.”
What’s the story behind the breakthrough phone call from 1Xtra?
That was after I sent countless emails to 1Xtra and I finally got a response from George Ergatoudis’ assistant, who was the station controller. They put me on to someone called Rob Littlejohn and he shouted me to come in for a talk. Again, this was so early on that I didn’t have a radio blueprint that existed or any substance in the industry. We’re talking about me trying to get into a building that had some of the greatest broadcasters ever – MistaJam, Dotty, Charlie Sloth. Even just getting that call from Rob was the first indication that, “Alright cool, I’m doing enough to get conversations with the right people.” Either that or I’m pretty good at writing emails [laughs]. I spent so many years trying to get on 1Xtra, it took me just saying “Fuck it I got to make them look at me innit.” If they’re sleeping now, I’ll get the alarm clock out. I was only 17, I wasn’t really expecting to get there anytime soon.
But there was another important phone call too when I was getting my Friday night rap show. That was the mad ting, and that’s when Mad About Bars started. I moved from Reprezent to Radar at the time and I was doing simultaneous platforms which was unheard of. It was around the time Charlie and Semtex had left, so I knew there were openings. But even then, I wasn’t confident they would call me, I didn’t hold my breath. I got the call and it was Mark Strippel who was the head of 1Xtra at the time so I knew this was big. It was literally just as Semtex had left so I was like, “C’mon mate, it’s gotta be it” [laughs]. He didn’t mention any details, I knew he was calling me for this, but he’s not telling me on the phone. He was building so much anticipation. I remember my girl telling me not to drive to the meeting ‘cos of the anxiety and God forbid if I write myself off on the way. When I got to Cafe Nero I sat on a stool, because I didn’t even want to sit comfortably. He was like “We’ve been seeing what you’re doing and I’m happy to give you this opportunity to do Friday nights, 9-11.” Boom. That was crazy and I’ll never forget it ‘cos that’s how it all started. You live with those moments. I felt like I had been trying so hard, spending 5 or 6 years doing countless residencies and trying to find a place, and the one time you least expect it is when it comes.
Hard work pays off.
“...That was crazy and I’ll never forget it ‘cos that’s how it all started. You live with those moments.”
You mentioned that kids from your area don’t get opportunities. What did it mean for you to get that Friday night show?
It’s the truth. For us, BBC is something we watch on the TV. You can go to any country and get a BBC World service, for us, that’s the maddest thing ever. It’s rare. This is gonna test my radio knowledge – but I don’t remember a man from Lewisham that held a full-time show on the BBC either Radio 1 or 1Xtra. That was ground-breaking for me. It was an actual moment. It’s weird ‘cos I had a group of friends that were rocking with me, but I could tell there was a group of friends that were like, “You spend all this time on radio, but is radio still lit like that?” With those group of friends, it made me realise that if you think radio ain’t lit anymore, I bet you I can make you take interest in it. I had a point to prove making it on there. Just being from where I’m from and making it on the BBC, that meant a lot to me.
You’ve had a meteoric rise in your career over the years whereas your friends who are artists haven’t seen similar success yet. Has that caused you to lose a few relationships?
I mean… people need to understand I’m not perfect. Not every artist who is successful in the UK rap sphere has been on my platform. There are a lot of artists that have never done a freestyle or been in the studio with me, some have never even met me in person. Sometimes I feel like I get a bit too much credit. Just because I build multiple platforms for artists to come on, it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m the only route. There are so many other successful platforms, and if you’ve gone on any one of them, you’ve had a sick run already. If there are people that might not like me or feel hard done by it – all I can say is I’m not perfect. I wish I could make everyone happy but the reality is, I can’t. I’m blessed to have a platform where I can showcase talent, and it is my duty to do that, but if people wanna fall out of love with me, I just have to take it on the chin. Hopefully, down the line they can look back on conversations like this and understand that my heart is always there to help and that I tried. I’m not always gonna get it right. I’m an open book and I always say let’s have an open dialogue. Before going to the extent of saying “Fuck Kenny” or “Kenny ain’t putting on for his own people and ain’t representing” it’s important they try contacting me. Platforms are also businesses that need to be run like that. I hope there aren’t people that have lost faith in me, I hope it ain’t a thing. For up-and-coming artists, bro, I’m still young in this ting, a lot of people get that twisted. They don’t know that I’m not even 30 yet, I’ve been in the game for less than a decade. We’ve got a whole few decades of me trying to rectify these relationships and become better.
Have you ever found difficulty with artists on your show that might have beef with others? How do you remain impartial in all of that?
I’m Switzerland. It’s not my place to look at who’s areas have beef and take sides. We have to be unbiased in this music industry. But it all comes down to talent. Heat matters as well, ‘cos if you’re hot in your area and you're hot across London, naturally you come on these platforms to enhance your message. If anyone approaches anyone that runs a platform in that manner, it’s a loss in itself ‘cos there’s a group of people in the industry that have got to work with everybody. We gotta protect those people because they build platforms which means artists from your area, no matter what walk of life you’re from, can get their voice heard.
We’re aware of people who have issues with others and we keep them far away from each other, as you should. But no one has ever come to me and said “Why are you putting on that person from this area?” everyone knows Kenny is Switzerland, you come to me to get work done in a safe environment. We build. All the politics, you gotta miss me with that man. It’s not the right energy to have. You need to be on the tip of, “If you think he’s hard from there, let me show you what hard is.” It becomes a healthy competition, although you’re from two sides that don’t get along, on a non-violent musical level, you have a competition going on where you want to out-do each other – that’s what I stand for.
“I’m Switzerland. It’s not my place to look at who’s areas have beef and take sides. We have to be unbiased in this music industry. But it all comes down to talent.”
DJ Drama and Mykal Millions were references for your album Block Diaries. Was it a conscious decision to pull from both UK and US hosts?
It’s a bit of both. Early on, all we could see was American influences on TV. Jay Z, Nas, 50 Cent, they were the OGs man. These were our reference points of what success was in music. I’m a student of the game, I’m always learning, always trying to take it back to where hip-hop began from DJ Kool Herc to Grandmaster Flash. So when I knew that DJing was the route for me, I was gonna figure out the reference points. The DJs in America were always boasty with it, larger than life personalities, you couldn’t tell a DJ that another one in the next province is harder. They knew they were the best and owned it. The ones that I was looking to, whether it’s Funk Flex or DJ Clue, these man were hosting mixtapes – I used to bootleg some of them old tapes [laughs]. Anyone who was a DJ or mixtape host, these people wouldn’t only turn a body of work for an artist, they were part of everything. A lot of the mixtapes these DJs were a part of, they were executive producers. They would find the instrumentals and source them to the artist, take the track and some would scratch them in on top of hosting. That is art to me. When everyone was saying how great the rapper was, I was always thinking about the beat and the mix. Even when people like DJ Whoo Kid released Community Payback with Skepta or DJ Drama did the tape with Chip, that was dope to me.
Then the same way on the UK tapes, I knew there was a route for me ‘cos of how important they were. Between ‘08-’10 the mixtape boom was rife in South London, and who was doing it? SN1. What Giggs was doing was incredible because that was rap that narrated the life that a lot of us were really living and would see everyday. That was only happening up the road from me. Why they were sick is because the way we appreciated that with DJ Drama’s Gangsta Grillz series, they built their own. They had Mykal Million and Big Ryde. They were doing that at a time when I never thought anyone from the UK would appreciate it. Their influence on me was important because if I never heard these tapes, I wonder if I’d even have the confidence to host. When I look back at my catalogue, I don’t scream about it enough. I did the debut project for M Huncho Get out EP, are we forgetting that I did Drillers and Trappers for RV and Headie One? That was their first project and even Ms Banks’ first tape. These aren’t projects that I’ve just hosted or been a part of in the studio, we’ve done some big series’ in the mixtape world and I wouldn’t have had the confidence without the names you mentioned.
With the resurgence of grime and the blowing up of drill music, what are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the scene?
It’s a weird one, because the changes in music come from the listening patterns of the audience. If you go to a drill show, you’ve got a younger demographic and they’re living in a space dominated by content that comes at you every 15 seconds. Even as a DJ, I mix fast because I know the younger audience gets bored past a minute of a song. The changes that have come in are because of the way the music is being digested. The drill I used to play in ‘16/’17, the beats would still hit, the producers were putting together music that worked at the time and man were just going off. It felt more like a narration of what was going on for them. We didn’t have any catchy songs. I was playing a drill song from ‘17/’18 – I call that the golden years of the “no hook freestyles” – it wasn’t about the hooks, it was about man going off. It didn’t matter if it was streamed or not ‘cos back then, man weren’t making money off music anyway. Now platforms like Tik Tok and Reels have emerged, it’s become about having a moment and how to maximise profit off that. When an artist is getting paid so much from a viral hit, they’re thinking, “Well I’m getting paid, so I’m gonna make more viral hits.” It’s all about striking that balance, you can have a viral hit but on a project it has to be a body of work, and some artists are good at finding that.
Do you think that can sometimes hinder the creative side?
The money that has entered the industry is good and bad at the same time. As good as it is to see more of my brothers and sisters getting paid, it feels like some of the money that’s being thrown out there might come at a detriment to creativity. They’re signing deals where the label controls what they put out as opposed to what they wanna put out. I’ve seen that destroy a lot of careers, unfortunately. But the effort you had to go through to get a cheque before – put out a lot of projects, really knock on the door – ‘cos radio wasn’t playing drill. Now, every other song might have a drill melody. If you look over to the States from the days of Pop Smoke, God rest his soul, they’re embracing UK production which has allowed the sound to travel and do what it’s doing in Brooklyn. You’ve got guys in Chicago now jumping on UK drill-type beats when they were the originators! In the Bronx they’re making songs that are only 2 minutes long and heavy sample-driven records, it’s an example of making music for the generation now. They’re making the drill videos more fun as well, were back in the day it was a whole lot of crud [laughs].
I realised I have nothing to gain from this. I think at this age as well, I’m not trying to be fighting people on road. It’s embarrassing, like I’m too old for this. Every situation I’ve been in after that experience, I’m like “Yo enjoy it man, enjoy the win”. I’m still alive, just enjoy it bro. It’s definitely changed how I approach things and I can see things with calmness.
It’s got to the point where you won’t be able to discern where it’s actually from, it’s just going to be global drill.
Yeah you're right. We’re starting to see it naturally. One of the songs I got on repeat right now is “Reggae and Calypso” by Russ, Buni and YV. But you know what’s mad, that video is so Bronx.
I bet if you gave Kay Flock that beat he’ll jump all over it. That doesn’t sound like the drill we heard in 2017.
It was darker.
There are still artists that speak strongly but now we’re entering the generation where you get videos taken down and it’s affecting the money. When money is involved then the artists become a little more creative like using sound effects to get their point across. At the same time, it’s good because I try to encourage artists, especially on radio, to be creative with their content. In certain buildings, they won’t have it. I want everyone that comes from this scene to transcend across every world possible. First and foremost, if you’re in music you’re an artist, forget everything that you’ve done. If you decide to put on a microphone and record, you’re a musician and you have to be able to adapt in different spaces. I speak to a lot of artists and they don’t like being blocked, that’s why it’s important that every artist is able to adapt to whatever platform. Money can always be made but people at the top can also take it off our plates if we don’t “behave.”
Drill music has come under public scrutiny specifically around the glorification of violence. Do you think that music is the problem?
I get asked this question all the time. So much time gets spent asking if drill incites violence, but in every art form, there are going to be things that are deemed controversial. There are artists that go on to do ground-breaking things for their communities, more than the people that are judging them on the content of the music – and that’s facts. For me as a platform I need to keep giving voices to people who will turn their situation into a positive. If I turn around and say, “This artist’s content is too violent and so you’re not getting a voice,” what is that artist going to do tomorrow? Labels invest in drill because they bring in a lot of attention, and they know what content they’re invested in. I want to help make the artist better, and that’s what I do. When artists do their Mad About Bars I tell them, “Bro stay focused. You’re here because you have built a fan base, keep building and stay in the studio.” That’s where it starts, instead of stripping their voice, give them words of encouragement. One person can’t change what goes on. I don’t live in the estates that some of these guys are living in currently. I’m from that background, that’s why I can relate, but I’m not there going through what they’re going through. Some people have been through a lot, they’ve lost people, and I recognise that the heartbreak is beyond repair. Who am I to strip people from their ability to speak their mind?
I agree. Drill is perceived as the symptom, people need to look at the illness. These are artists talking about real-life experiences, should we not be more concerned about what’s going on in the communities?
That’s why I’m getting tired of answering that question. No one wants to go to the actual problem and where it starts, man. They look to people like us to build institutions, spaces and studios, when there is a whole government with funding that should be allocated to these sorts of things. It’s a scapegoat thing, like you’re the one promoting it so you’re the problem.
It’s easier than trying to work out why by the age of 10, members of certain communities have gone through more trauma than people five times their age.
We should be promoting the success stories in these communities, or at least just as much as we’re questioning the music. There are nuff millionaires in drill now. Let’s scream about that as well.
What are some of your favourite success stories?
There’s quite a few. I think from the drill scene, it’s more the people who have been able to turn their musical talents into businesses. When I look at someone like Russ who’s charted top 20 on his own label, over 20 million streams on Spotify alone and “Body” has been nominated for an Ivor Novello award. That’s ground-breaking. Even someone like DigDat for example, what he’s done and how he puts on people from his area and drops independent releases – these guys are thinking independently. I’m looking at these things as success stories. There’s the behind the scenes things that these artists do, which isn’t my business to disclose, but they’re helping their communities. Putting money into things that are tangible for young people to experience, that’s all I’m gonna say. Works are being done, and it’s beautiful to see. You can’t predict these things, because once upon a time people were telling me drill wasn’t gonna go mainstream. I was there – a lot of people said that it wasn’t going to work and now look, in 2022 everyone wants to do drill and link up with a drill producer. I even heard Mary J Blige on drill not too long ago [laughs].
Mary on drill? That’s wild.
That’s what I’m trying to say, they said this could’ve never happened. I’m just happy to be on the journey and be a part of this, because I enjoy doing what I do.