Trevor Nelson interview: Urban music pioneer talks to Your Move ahead of LIMF 2017
The summer festival season is underway and, once again, Liverpool International Music Festival (LIMF) is shaping up to be a musical highlight in the city.
Your Move chats to Trevor Nelson, a pioneer of the UK’s urban music scene, as he prepares to bring a hearty helping of nostalgia to the occasion with his ‘LIMF Presents: Reminisce ‘90s R&B’ event.
With accolades including an MBE and a gold lifetime achievement Sony Radio Academy Award, and more than two decades of championing some of the genre’s hottest talent, we find out the secrets to his success.
Interview by Natasha Young
What can people expect from your LIMF event?
It’s going to be a ‘90s extravaganza and the beautiful thing is that we had a few UK artists who emerged during the ‘90s and changed the whole musical landscape.
We didn’t have a wave of UK artists getting signed but we did have memorable ones like Mark Morrison, Shola Ama and Damage. I’ve got two of those acts on the bill which is brilliant.
There’s a nostalgic approach to urban music across this year’s festival, but it also seems to be like that generally in music. Why is there such a demand for old hits and artists?
In the ‘80s everyone spoke about the ‘70s and in the ‘90s people were talking about the ‘80s. That’s the pattern no matter what music it is, but it’s also to do with the way life has changed massively in the last 20 years.
In the ‘90s you still had to take part to really enjoy a style of music. Back in the day you could tell someone who was a hip hop kid, someone who liked R&B, or someone who liked indie bands by the way they dressed.
You also had to invest in the music you liked a bit more because the internet hadn’t become the beast it is today. If you wanted to hear a tune you’d have to know which specialist show to listen to or go to a club to hear it.
Artists weren’t on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram telling you everything about them; there was still a bit more of a mystique to the music.
How has that increase in people’s exposure to music and information transformed your job as a champion of urban music?
It’s changed a lot. I felt more devoted to my job in the old days because I had to invest a lot more money, a lot more time and a lot more devotion and dedication to getting stories and tunes.
I had to buy music physically on import which was double the price it is now, and you just felt you were slightly rarer, a bit more relevant and more special.
It helps that access to music is so easy but it also makes you lazy and a bit disinterested at times because everybody’s getting the information at the same time.
I’ve changed my style; I’m not so information heavy, my show is more about reminiscing. I still do new music shows, I’m just a bit more blasé to it.
You’re telling people the track and artist rather than boring them with too much information because that’s not what people want. People would rather hear gossip than musical facts at the moment.
Was there more pressure in the old days? Your MTV and Radio 1 shows must have had a huge impact on artists’ success.
Without a doubt, but I was never carried away and I knew the importance of what I was doing at the time.
I’d have [artists] on Radio 1, then they’d have an MTV interview on their itinerary and I’d be the guy interviewing them again. I think they all thought I was a big mogul and P Diddy always thought I was a big mogul but I’m nothing like him, nowhere near. I’m just a broadcaster.
It was really important at the time for me to promote the positive aspects of the music. The videos did all the negative work because they were very sexist, but I tried to promote the positive side because I knew people like P Diddy, who a lot of people treated as a bit more of a joke in the ‘90s, was a bit over the top but he was a very clever man.
He knew how to get music played and that’s the key on radio because R&B and hip hop in general was very specialist going into the ‘90s, unless it was incredibly pop sounding.
He put hip hop and R&B together to make it radio friendly and it also worked in the clubs. It was really unifying.
That’s why everybody loves that time. Lots of people went out and mixed with people they wouldn’t normally, and that’s what music can do. It’s very powerful.
Influential R&B and hip hop acts are making comebacks, like TLC. Is there an act you’d really like to see return?
There’s a big touring circuit for old school bands, lots of people want to see them.
People gobble those tickets up because they feel a lot of the art of performance is missing in today’s music. There’s some great music being made but I’m not too sure there are great entertainers out there at the moment.
In my music I think the entertainment level has regressed a bit. It’s not an attack on the music, more an attack on the immediacy of how music is put out.
People don’t have to do rigorous promo, you just drop your music on the internet and it’s global. You don’t have to do TV appearances, not that there are many to do, and prove you’re a talented person.
I went to see Bruno Mars for the simple reason, apart from loving his new album, that he’s one of those old school entertainers and puts on a show.
“I just wanted to make a difference because I felt that everywhere I went underrepresented my music.”
Did a particular moment or influence make you love urban music?
I’ve always been a soul boy, even when I was about 10. I’ve got a saying that you don’t actually choose music, music chooses you.
We all grow up with the radio on but why are we drawn to some songs more than others? That’s the point music starts to choose you. You’re not old enough to say ‘that’s cool, I’m going to follow that’.
As a kid I liked soul music and so naturally, when I started buying music at 13, I realised I liked disco, funk, a bit of reggae. I also liked Latin jazz, jazz, acid jazz, house and soulful house and it’s a lot. It all comes from soul or funk so everything I like has a funky beat or a strong, soulful melody.
Growing up in Hackney there was a big ethnic population that was very musically driven. It was incredibly important.
That’s what dragged me in and I didn’t have aspirations to do what I’m doing, I just wanted to collect records.
What has been your career highlight so far?
I’d like to think I came across with integrity and I’ve always tried to put music first – I’ve never really wanted to be a celebrity or particularly famous but when you go on telly you can’t be introvert, you’ve got to entertain people.
I’m blessed to have had the career I’ve had. I enjoy it more now than I did while I was having it because I was quite serious about my work. I wouldn’t say I researched heavily, I just did what I always did with music.
I know how lucky I am and I know there aren’t many in history who’ve done that for urban music and I’m grateful. The truth was I just wanted to make a difference because I felt that everywhere I went underrepresented my music.
MTV, at the time, didn’t have an R&B and hip hop show which I couldn’t believe. Radio 1 didn’t have a proper R&B show – they had some sort of soul show but it wasn’t what I could see they should have had so I had to do something, and it’s the same with Radio 2 now – it hasn’t had a proper soul show for ages. I’m more of an ambassador.
These days do you enjoy broadcasting or touring as a DJ the most?
The thing I love that I used to do for free is listen to music all day long and lots of people can relate to that. If you’re having a bad day music can help you alleviate it, but when it becomes your living what do you turn to?
Music is my work and I know people will say ‘shut up, I’d love that job’ but it’s still a job and there are expectations on you.
I love broadcasting above all else; I love having a radio show and cheering music. That’s top of my list and I’ll do that till I die, hopefully.
I’m enjoying gigs more than ever because of the nostalgic stuff, and people know that if they come out I’m going to play lots of old school stuff.
I’m a bit of a home boy at the moment but, trust me, if you see me on a flyer it’s because I really want to do it, not because of money or because someone has coerced me.