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Trevor Nelson: Leading the new school

MUSIC MAESTRO: Trevor Nelson

HE’S ARGUABLY the UK’s biggest and best-known R&B DJ with 30 years on radio and a reputation for dropping a host of dancefloor fillers at club nights up and down the country.

But rewind back to the early ‘90s and Trevor Nelson wasn’t the confident, musically experienced man he is today. In fact, when he was offered a job at a major label, he turned it down due to his lack of knowledge.

“It was in 1993 and I was offered a job at a major label to do A&R,” Nelson recalls. “I didn’t know enough about the business and I was inexperienced. I wasn’t armed with any knowledge, so I turned the job down.”

It was this experience combined with a long-held desire to be part of something “game-changing” that led the BBC 1Xtra DJ to become the patron of a new music academy.
Launched by The Notting Hill Arts Club, Notting Hill Academy of Music is a new music industry school that aims to armour its students with the knowledge and experience required to enter the music industry.

Backed by major labels including Sony and Warner, the school was launched – as academy MD Ewan Grant puts it – “to give people real life work experience and useful knowledge and skills, rather than what is taught in traditional, music-related university courses.”

The academy’s first course will be launched in January and will cover the areas of A&R and songwriting, teaching students not only the A&R process but also the value of a song, the value of copyright and the value of intellectual property in the digital age.

And with all of the academy’s courses featuring a minimum one-month vocational element, the focus is very much on delivering useful and practical knowledge for those wishing to enter the ever-changing music industry.

“When the idea of this academy came up and I found out exactly what its aims were, I realised this was exactly the type of thing I would have wanted to do when I was trying to get into the industry,” says Nelson, who was awarded an MBE in 2002 for his work with the government-backed youth initiative, Millennium Volunteers.

“People think the music industry is glamorous and all of that, but it is fraught with hurdles and there are key things you need to know in order to navigate the business. This is essentially a finishing school for people who want to get into the industry and one of the main reasons I decided to get involved is because I think there is a gap between people getting degrees and actually being ready for the industry.”

Having experienced numerous encounters with rising music acts, Nelson says that lack of knowledge is a problem for many up-and-coming artists.

“I’ve met many aspiring artists who have asked me what they should do next. I would ask them, ‘have you got a producer?’ They’d say, ‘no’. I’d ask them have you got a manager? They’d say, ‘no.’ Essentially, they had no idea what to do next and knowledge is power in this game.”
Reflecting on the current UK music scene and opportunities for black British acts, Nelson feels that things have a come a long way.

“The UK scene is vibrant – we can’t complain right now,” the 51-year-old laughs. “If you rewind back 10 or 15 years, within my [R&B] scene, we had like one big UK artist emerging each year. After Craig David, it all went very quiet, didn’t it? He was the guy who really sold a lot of records. Then, everybody wanted a Craig David and they couldn’t find one.

“Now, rather than the odd person coming through, there’s a whole scene; there are so many singers and MCs. So I think the scene is really healthy.”

Still, Nelson feels that the UK industry is in need of the next black, male soul star.
“I’m still waiting for the black Sam Smith or Ed Sheeran – that needs to happen soon.”
Does he think it will happen soon?

“I hope so,” he says. “It would be nice to have a black, male, British singer. Kwabs is a great singer and Jacob Banks has a great voice. Someone just needs to nail it with that combination of a great voice, great material and star quality. Craig David had that with his debut album, so it can be done. And it would be nice to see that soon.”

Launching his career on then-pirate radio station Kiss FM in 1985, Nelson went on to join Radio 1 in 1996, becoming the station’s flagship R&B DJ. Two years later, he joined MTV to host the R&B show The Lick, which aired for 11 years.

Having also released compilation albums and entertained club-goers around the world, Nelson remains at the top of his game, three decades after his radio career began.

So how has he been able to maintain his crown as the UK’s leading R&B DJ? Is it that R&B is dying a slow death? Or is there simply nobody as good as him?

“Ooh,” he laughs. “What are you trying to get me to say? No, I think a big part of my success is that my timing was spot on. When I started, there was no internet, so people relied on a dedicated broadcaster, who would give them the right information. Once you did that, people trusted you. So by the time the internet came around and people didn’t need me to give them information about every single song, I’d already built an audience that trusted me.

“I don’t go out of my way to keep new DJs down,” he continues. “I help every new DJ that comes through at 1Xtra. I talk to them and try and help them if they ask me to.

“I wouldn’t say I’m the UK’s king of R&B DJs because I don’t think that genre really exists like that anymore. If you notice, the albums I put out are retrospective albums. I’m not putting anything out and calling it new R&B because the game has changed. So I think I represent a certain period of time and I’m still going strong because of my love of music.”

In 2010, Nelson’s massive contribution to radio was acknowledged when he received the Gold Lifetime Achievement award from the Sony Radio Academy. And in 2014, he was inducted into the Academy’s Hall of Fame.

“My proudest achievements are all to do with radio. I’ve been hugely rewarded in radio. I have great listeners who have stayed with me, even though I changed stations, and I’ve won everything I can win!

“The Sony Lifetime Achievement award was such a surprise and after that, I got inducted in their hall of fame. So I can leave radio now,” he laughs.

“No, but I could easily spend the rest of my life reflecting on all that I’ve achieved. But there’s still a lot of stuff I want to do.”

For more information on Notting Hill Academy of Music, and the courses on offer, visit
nottinghillacademyofmusic.com

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