Charlie Sloth is usually pretty good at introducing himself. “It’s the people’s prince, the best looking fat guy in the universe, just ask your mum!” is his regular opening salvo when he arrives at the microphone to host the drivetime show on BBC Radio 1xtra or The Rap Show on Radio 1. It’s when he has to introduce his own music that the rowdy DJ, usually all smashing glass sound effects and shouting, comes over a little shy.
“Normally with a record, I want to sell it and talk it up because I believe in it. I can’t do that about myself – I feel cringe. I’ll get my producer to do it,” he tells me. His song Walk Away, from his debut album out today, is currently on the A-list at 1Xtra, meaning it is among the most played songs on the urban music station alongside Dizzee Rascal, Drake and Jay-Z. He’d never play it on The Rap Show, where he has free reign over what he sticks on (it’s a rubbery reggae song featuring Jamaican dancehall star Konshens, anyway) but on his afternoon show he has to stick to the playlist. It gets awkward.
The Plug is an eclectic epic at 22 tracks, ranging from tense grime and rap to lighter electronic fare and featuring a huge castlist including top UK rappers Stormzy, Ghetts, Lady Leshurr and Giggs. Sloth, once a rapper himself, doesn’t feature his own vocals (“My rap career is finito.”) but produced and co-wrote the songs. It’s been a tricky balancing act, being both the artist and the presenter whose job it is to champion this kind of music, but he’s adamant that no back-scratching exchanges have taken place.
“I had to sign a conflict of interest form. A lot of the artists are people I’ve had relationships with for years, before I was even at the BBC. I don’t ever want anyone to think that I’m using my position for the wrong reasons,” he says.
Even so, Sloth is currently looming large in a homegrown rap scene that is booming like never before. The 29-year-old from Somers Town, north London, has replaced Tim Westwood as the white guy with the street slang who’s the gatekeeper to this world. He says that when he was hired in 2010 to present a 1am Friday night show on 1Xtra, he told the bosses that his goal was to take over from Westwood on the Radio 1 Rap Show within five years, and they laughed. “I did it in three,” he says. “I’m not really an emotional guy, but that day I was sobbing.”
There’s a video on YouTube from 2010 of Westwood interviewing the young upstart to “welcome” him to 1Xtra. The passive aggressiveness in the room is overwhelming. “Maybe I feel vulnerable,” the venerable DJ, now 59, admits in the clip, only half joking. “Here’s this new guy at the station and I’ve got to just nip him in the bud and fight him down.”
“It was awkward. We didn’t speak for a few years,” says Sloth today. “Last year we sat down and had a conversation. I have nothing but respect and admiration for the man. He’s an incredible broadcaster. I listened to him as a child.”
He’s got to the top spot by hard work. When we meet in a restaurant near Broadcasting House he says he’s suffering from “man flu”, having performed club shows in eight countries in the previous week, but he won’t be missing his afternoon radio appearance. “Last year I did 211 live shows as well as the radio,” he tells me. He sticks religiously to his tracksuited image, removing his baseball cap so rarely that most people assume he’s bald (he’s actually got a floppy mop under there). He won’t tell me his real name and all talk of his family life is off the record. Westwood was famously the son of the Bishop of Peterborough. Maybe all this secrecy means Sloth’s dad is the Archbishop of Canterbury.
He doesn’t mind that his loudness and leisurewear makes him more recognisable. “I was stopped twice in the street on the way here, by different groups of lads. They asked me some things but I ask them questions too: ‘What are you listening to? Who’s on your phone?’ For me that’s the greatest market research anywhere on the planet.”
They probably wanted to know who’s next on Fire in the Booth, the weekly segment where an artist has about eight minutes to rap off the cuff while Sloth yells things like “Let’s get ‘em fam!” and fires off explosion noises. “Where’s my Fire in the Booth?” Stormzy asked on his early single, Not That Deep, in 2014. He got it two months later. The videos have become YouTube hits, with the most popular, Bugzy Malone’s, now on over 11 million views. “It’s all about your ability as an MC. There’s no editing, no Auto-Tune,” says Sloth. “The pressure is there to perform on the spot. There’s no hiding. It really shows what you’ve got.”
Malone is from Manchester. He has previously put out music on Sloth’s record label Grimey Limey and having sent three EPs into the UK top 10, is currently the leading figure in the DJ’s mission to grow rap music from outside the M25. The most striking voice on Sloth’s album is the relaxed sound of Aystar, from Liverpool. Also on the release is the Nottingham duo Bugsey & Young T, who Sloth picks as the most likely to break through to stardom next.
“Years ago in the States, if you weren’t from New York, nobody cared. It wasn’t until the West Coast and the South got on it that hip hop became a global industry,” says Sloth. “That’s what’s happening here now. When these guys have these strong accents it cuts through and makes things different and exciting.”
Spending his time championing rap music from places where people aren’t known for rapping is a bold move when, if you take Sloth’s big talk without a pinch of salt, he could be making serious cash in the US right now. He was first discovered making an online video series called Being Charlie Sloth, in which he played his own manager, street team, editor, web designer, producer and director through judicious use of split-screens, hats, sunglasses and silly voices. It became popular on the urban music portal worldstarhiphop.com and showed his talent as a personality more than a rapper.
“I could have gone to the States, potentially made that work and maybe had a four year career and shitloads of money,” he says. “Or I could stay here and really be a platform for all these artists that I so passionately believe in.”
It was the right decision. Sloth is front row centre at a great moment for British urban music, and is happy to give his station plenty of credit. “I feel that 1Xtra is the greatest station I’ve ever seen at supporting new talent. They give people like me the freedom to go and find the next Skepta and the next Giggs without fear about how many people are listening. The scene is now in the strongest position it’s ever been in,” he says. “It really is a lifestyle now.”
The Plug is released today on Grimey Limey. Charlie Sloth broadcasts on BBC Radio 1Xtra on weekdays 4-7pm, and presents The Rap Show on both Radio 1 and 1Xtra, Saturdays 10pm-1am.