Until early 2003, UK urban music had a very limited number of platforms to work with.
Imagine a time, pre-social media, streaming and YouTube, where artists relied strictly on radio and TV to promote their tracks. It wasn’t until April 2003 that iTunes launched, revolutionising the way in which music was consumed and bought, and even that would take a while to catch on completely. The existing TV platforms were extremely hard to access for new independent artists, and before Channel U there was no TV where we could broadcast without the big corporations. It meant that small-budget independent music videos had nowhere to be showcased.
Channels like MTV Base, Kiss TV and The Box catered for a mainstream audience and although they were starting to support more new acts, you pretty much needed to be in a record deal and releasing high-quality videos for tracks that were being played on commercial radio, and 90 per cent of UK artists didn’t fall in this bracket. Pirate radio was doing the job of showcasing unsigned and up-and-coming MCs and rappers, but if the artists were to ever build real fanbases that enabled them to compete with bigger acts, they would need to have music videos that fans could connect with and, just as importantly, somewhere to have them aired.
That platform arrived with the birth of Channel U in February 2003.
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Channel U founder Darren Platt launched the channel in a bid to provide a TV platform for urban music that supported up-and-coming and brand-new artists as well as playing videos by the bigger UK and international acts. The channel was launched onto digital satellite TV via Sky channel 385, broadcasting twenty-four hours a day, with videos running on a jukebox type system – viewers called in and gave the three digit code of the video they wanted, and that video would be added to the rotation.
From the beginning, it was obvious that the channel didn’t have the budgets of its competition. It was raw and street, and in some places looked cheap, but the aim was to highlight fresh talent in the UK allowing them to build a fanbase, and that’s what it was about to do. The channel spent the first year establishing itself as the place for new urban artists to be able to showcase music videos while encouraging the new grime wave to take their music to the next step and create visuals.
During the next couple of years, Channel U helped launch the careers of many UK artists. It had previously been next to impossible to have a low-budget music video played on national digital TV, but now you could have your video added to the rotation pretty easily. There were quality-control measures in place, but a video would have to be particularly bad not to be added. After that, it was down to the viewers to request your track over and over and make it big, which put everybody on a level playing field. If something was popular, it would be clear to see.
Early standout tracks like ‘I Luv U’ laid the foundation of what was to come, but it wasn’t really until 2004 that Channel U started to make a real impact on the industry. Wiley’s ‘Wot Do U Call It ?’, Lethal Bizzle’s ‘Pow !’ and SLK’s ‘Hype Hype’ were just three of the tracks on heavy rotation that year. Inner-city school kids from around the country were flocking to Channel U for their own taste of the UK’s raw urban music scene. More and more artists were now shooting videos, knowing they had an accessible platform to aim for, and the scene’s infrastructure was growing with budding directors and cameramen, stylists and video models.
We had all seen what had happened in America with the massive growth of hip hop after years of being fought down by the powers that be, and it started to feel like we too had a shot at building this into a real self-sustainable industry, although we had a long way to go. Channel U was placing some of the power back into the artists’ hands, allowing them to independently showcase their visuals while building a fanbase at the same time. It wasn’t just grime artists that were making the most of Channel U. UK rappers, singer-songwriters and producers of all genres were hard at work delivering new videos weekly, giving Channel U a very diverse and raw playlist.
Videos, often with council estates as backdrops, were shot for as little as £100, but as new cameras and software were constantly being released, the creatives grew in talent and capability. You no longer need a major record label with a fifty-grand budget to have a music video. The game was changing forever. Record labels were now also having half of their work done for them, with artists creating a buzz, releasing tracks and videos independently and gaining huge fanbases among Channel U viewers all themselves, with no help. This meant it soon become an A&R tool for labels looking to sign the next hot act. By simply keeping eye on the Channel U chart, label reps were able to monitor who had the biggest buzz. The onslaught of music videos that followed was a seminal moment in UK music and was the start of the self-sufficient revolution.
Video submissions were growing weekly at a rapid rate. As far as grime went, new artists who had emerged from across the country were now side by side on the playlist with huge inter¬national artists. A Fifty Cent video could be followed by Crazy Titch’s ‘I Can C U’, then followed by Lethal Bizzle’s ‘Pow !’ and then a Ja Rule video or Destiny’s Child. For the first time there was no separation. There was no small ‘UK urban’ section, the whole channel was an open playing field. The other channels were starting to take note and support more independent artists, although they couldn’t match Channel U’s undiluted represen¬tation of the culture.
Early grime records had become popular when the channel first launched, with Dizzee and Wiley both having major spins on their first album projects. Dizzee returned with ‘Stand Up Tall’, which was number one in the Channel U chart before going on to be a Top Ten national hit. Our first Roll Deep video ‘When I’m ’Ere’ had started life on Channel U, as had the rest of our videos, and other grime artists were following in our footsteps.
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DJ Target will release new book Grime Kids on June 14th.
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