On Friday afternoons on Beats 1, the internet radio station launched by Apple in July, there is a show called Triple Threat, where the station’s three flagship DJs all host at the same time. In a studio in LA is the hyperexcitable Zane Lowe, poached from his huge show on Radio 1. In a studio in New York is DJ Ebro, the best-known voice from New York hip-hop station Hot 97. These two radio giants are joined in London by 27-year-old Julie Adenuga, a relative unknown whose only previous gig was on community-licensed station Rinse FM .
To people in the radio industry Adenuga seemed like a risky move for Apple, but to anyone who has paid attention to UK underground music, she was a savvy choice. The sister of grime artists Skepta and Jme, Adenuga shares a lot of that genre’s unplanned and unfettered energy. When we meet at a cafe across the road from the Beats 1 studio before a Triple Threat show she is vibrating with a kind of kinetic charisma. As is her habit, she wears a plain T-shirt, head completely shaved. Most people, especially artsy people, are like the needle of a polygraph furiously oscillating between ego and insecurity but Adenuga is on a different path. She is deeply composed, relentlessly upbeat and yet forthright. She’s a vegan who doesn’t drink or smoke – she’s like a grime monk.
She sits down and I’ve already ordered a green juice which has arrived with a little biscuit. “Oh, you have to eat that as well, it’s really nice. I had it yesterday – dip it,” she says. I follow orders and it is surprisingly tasty but now my mouth is full of soggy shortbread and I can’t speak.
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“Oh sorffffy,” I say, finger digging round my gums.
“It’s cool,” says Adenuga calmly. “Be you. Be you.”
Beats 1 is part of a new trend of technology companies using surplus wealth to invest in content; look at how Netflix and Amazon have ploughed cash into risky dramas such as Orange Is the New Black and Transparent.YouTube now pays users to create original content. Apple, though, had until recently stayed above the fray. That changed with the announcement of a global 24-hour radio station that took the branding of Beats by Dre, the headphones company that Apple had just bought. Beats 1 would be something new, a music radio station with no playlist and a focus on new music. It felt like Apple, more than any other tech giant, was trying to put its cash behind cool. Adenuga thinks it’s going well. “People seem to like the show, so that’s good. I guess a lot of people just didn’t know what was happening here, they didn’t understand the roots of the music. Every time I play [UK genres] drum’n’bass or jungle, I’ll get a lot of people who are just hearing the genres for the first time, and who are like mesmerised by it. So that’s a great feeling.”
Adenuga’s headline role on the station is more impressive when you consider who the other DJs are. As well as Zane and Ebro, there are regular shows by Drake, Elton John, Pharrell and Dr Dre. Musicians who you wouldn’t think would make great DJs, such as Jaden Smith and Ezra Koenig, have some of the best shows on the station, esoteric and unexpected. “My favourite one is Josh Homme [the singer from Queens of the Stone Age]”, says Adenuga, “he could tell you any story, doesn’t matter what it’s about, and you’d just be listening like it was the maddest story in the world. His voice is sick.”
Julie is not the only Adenuga who has experienced a recent upsurge of global success. Skepta is currently the coolest name to drop in the US, with Drake inviting him onstage in Toronto to the screams of 60,000 people. Jme last month scored a top-20 album without any management or label.You wonder what happened during their childhood to create such successful grafters.
Facebook Twitter Pinterest ‘No one even told me I had the job’ Photograph: Suki Dhanda/Guardian
“If I had to pick the one thing that has made us all this way it’s the fact that we just never had any money growing up, everything that we wanted to do we just had to make it. We would make go-karts, Anne from across the road’s pram was broken so we’d take the wheels off the pram, we’d go and get wood, my dad’s toolbox and we’d make a cart, we’d push it to the top of the hill and we’d roll down it. We never wanted to just sit here and talk to each other, so we’d just go and physically make things. You want to hear a song and it doesn’t exist, just make the song and then it exists.”
As well as being resourceful, Adenuga says she was quite lonely. She would spend a lot of time watching TV; she loved big personalities such as Ricki Lake and Jerry Springer. She desperately wanted her own chat show, but she didn’t know where to find guests. “I used to talk to myself a lot,” she says, speaking quietly for the first time. “I didn’t have a lot of friends and there was nothing to do in my house, so I’d just chat to myself. I’ve accepted a Grammy award before, in front of my mirror.” She looks down at the Dictaphone. “I’m whispering so it can’t hear me. But I also used to pretend I was in EastEnders. I’d have a bowl of pasta and I’d pretend Cathy and Phil was getting on my nerves and then I’d be like aggressively eating a bowl of pasta going, ‘What’s wrong with you Phil?!’”
Perhaps that’s why radio comes so naturally. For most people, it’s an inherently unnatural situation, talking to yourself with other people listening in, but she had been practicing a long time.
“Definitely. Radio is just talking to yourself with a microphone. I’ve said to my producer, I don’t want anyone in the room when I’m hosting. I don’t like it. It makes me nervous.”
Her career kicked off around five years ago when she was offered a Sunday-evening slot on Rinse FM, at that point still a pirate station that took risks on lots of new hosts. While she was DJingthere, she also got a job at the Apple Store on Regent Street, working in sales and in the stock room - the irony of which has not been lost on Beats 1 press releases. She was considering giving up radio to focus on the Apple Store job, but then Rinse, which had by then acquired a broadcasting licence, gave her the drive-time show. A few years later, she got a call from her former employer, asking her if she wanted to go to California. “I didn’t even know I had a job for ages, I was just going to meet everyone.” A few weeks later, Tim Cook announced Adenuga as a host at the annual Apple conference, watched across the world. “Still today, no one said to me, ‘You’ve got the job,’ though,” says Adenuga, as if they could take it away at any moment.
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Her show is about to start, so we head across the road. Radio studios tend to have a fair amount of clutter, but the Beats 1 studio is a spacious white room, lit by bare scaffolding, covertly built inside an old church in Crouch End, north London. The desk has Beats headphones, emerging flush against the woodwork in every corner, her producer is using iMessage to chat with his counterparts in New York and Los Angeles, it’s like standing in a real-life Apple advert.
When Adenuga is on air, you can see everything that makes her a bit weird: the unlimited energy, the imaginary friends. She becomes conductorial – jabbing at bits of paper and queueing records while haplessly bantering with her fellow DJs and the listeners. It’s the day before the Notting Hill Carnival so she runs an audio-only competition for people to do the running man dance , scored by increasingly fast UK Bass tracks. Adenuga does all the moves in the studio, dancing like nobody’s watching (because nobody is).
It’s innovative radio, as are most of the other big shows. But the station still has some teething problems though. The listening interface is clunky, especially if compared to the BBC equivalent, and the lack of audience interaction means that its shows can feel pre-recorded even if they’re live. All of these issues would be completely natural for any station, but because Beats 1 comes from Apple, it’s just surprising that it can sometimes go from sublime to shonky.
“You know what?” says Adenuga when I put my complaints to her. “Working at Apple before has made everything easier because I always remember people telling me like, ‘The new iPhone’s out but it hasn’t got a camera!’ and I’m like, ‘Chill bro! We just brought it out!’ That’s the vibe of the radio. It’s Apple and everyone’s got high expectations and that’s good, but there has to be room for improvement otherwiseimagine if we came out with sickest station straight away first day, everyone would get bored. It’s the worst feeling when you know you’ve got to improve something and you don’t have the tools to improve it because then you feel stuck, you feel like you can’t go past where you are.”
You sense that, like a go-kart without wheels, Adenuga knows exactly what’s needed to get the station running smoothly.
Julie Adenuga’s show is on Beats 1/Apple Music, Monday-Thursday, 8pm