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Channel AKA: The British Chitlin Circuit

Grassroots success: Dizzee Rascal and Tinchy Stryder owe success to the urban channel.

DURING THE era of racial segregation in the US, the “chitlin’ circuit” was the collective name given to the string of performance venues throughout the eastern and southern states where it was safe and acceptable for African American musicians, comedians, and other entertainers to perform.

Many artists of that era, many of the greats, got their break on the ‘chitlin circuit’. The majority of what we know to be black music today essentially owes its commercial viability to these venues.

Black music is now as mainstream in Britain as is it is in America... although in Britain it is considered more marketable to call it ‘urban music’. But while the journey of black music to uber-popularity in America has been well documented, in Britain it is barely examined.

The modern British equivalent of America’s ‘chitlin circuit’ is an obscure TV channel called Channel AKA. If I had the tools and time I would do a documentary on Channel AKA (formerly known as Channel U). Not because I think it would be widely watched (it wouldn’t make much money), but because I feel that the cultural significance and commercial influence of this channel needs to be properly documented.

It’s not the most watched channel on the spectrum, it has an audience share of less than 0.1 per cent, but its influence is undeniably vast. The channel has done more for grassroots black music in the UK than any other outlet I can think of. Klashnekoff, N-Dubz, Skinnyman, Dizzee Rascal, Chipmunk, Kano, Lethal B, Tinie Tempah, Smiler, Tinchy Stryder… in fact it’s fair to say anyone who has become anyone in contemporary ‘urban’ music since 2004 probably owes part of their success to Channel AKA.

It’s a simple business model and I’d be surprised if it’s not a profitable one. The premium request line can only make the balance sheet prettier. Whilst channels like MTV will take very plush and expensive videos, mainly from major record labels, and rotate a very small variety of them, Channel AKA will take what seems to be any video by anyone regardless of its quality and play it.

It’s altered the landscape. Prior to the existence of Channel AKA seeing local British urban acts on TV was rare. They didn’t have the resources, clout, buzz...and, let’s keep it real, sometimes they didn’t have the talent. Now, no budget, no camera skills, no lighting and light on talent; fine, Channel AKA will give you a chance.

It may come across as a little amateurish, unprofessional and unpolished but this is exactly what makes it special and unique. Uncut diamonds in the mist of mud. Also, as its main component is a genre called ‘grime’, I suspect this is something the target audience warmly embraces.

Like all merchants of cool the morals of Channel AKA are questionable. But music video outlets have been broadcasting violent and sexually explicit content since their inception. The wall has fallen and attempts to rebuild it are futile...might as well take a peep.

Here is an idea: thankfully I’m no expert on these things and I hardly watch any non-political TV, but I occasionally watch in amazement as drones of people queue up to be on shows such as X Factor. The odds of developing a credible career on such a show are negligible, even if you win. The odds of making a joke out of yourself are far more likely.

If, like the once comical but commercially viable N-Dubz, you can package yourself into a marketable act, get yourself on TV and then request the hell out of your own video, you’re more likely get noticed and taken seriously than someone queuing in the rain to be dismissed by a botoxed man who once signed the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers to a record deal.

I may be wrong. But where I am right is that more credible success stories have emerged from Channel AKA than they have from the X Factor. Don’t believe me? Ask Tulisa.

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