Who We Be: Austin Daboh Interviewed

Spotify’s senior editor discusses a new era in music discovery…

For decades now, rap music has been at the forefront of progress and change in the music industry. While the majors were complaining about free downloads, mixtape rappers were becoming global superstars, making their money from live shows and endorsement deals, and now in the streaming era artists like Drake, Lil Uzi Vert and Cardi B are at the forefront once again, as playlists like Spotify’s Rap-Caviar become the most important platforms for new music discovery.

South London’s Austin Daboh knows this. As senior editor at Spotify UK, the 33-year-old has been working in music for over a decade, with a particular focus on UK MC driven music. He’s watched his favourite rappers struggle against the system for years, and is glad to finally be able to witness their success in this new playlist paradigm with platforms like Who We Be.

Spotify UK’s flagship urban music playlist – curated by Daboh and his team – is focussed on reflecting listeners habits by serving up the best of UK MC driven music alongside the cream of what the US currently has to offer. After a hugely successful year for the brand, Daboh and his team are preparing to take it outside of the streaming platform and into the live sector, when Spotify presents Who We Be takes over Alexandra Palace next Thursday 30th November, with a line-up that includes Bugzy Malone, Cardi B, Dizzee Rascal, Giggs, J Hus and Stefflon Don.

Ahead of what is set to be a monumental event for the brand, Daboh took some time out to explain his role at Spotify, discuss how playlists are changing the game and offer some advice for artists looking to secure placements on playlists like Who We Be…

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For those who are unfamiliar, could you explain your role at Spotify?

I'm a Senior Editor of Spotify in the UK, which means that I sort of have editorial oversight from a curation point of view. If you are a user of Spotify you can go and search for whatever songs that you want, albums you want, whatever playlists you want, and consume them, when you're consuming a British owned and operated playlist – that's a playlist that's been run and is looked after by me and the team I work with.

We’ve been seeing the Spotify playlist continue to increase in cultural importance over the past couple of years, could you tell us a bit about that? I think that one of the reasons why Spotify has done so well from a playlist point of view is globally we’ve hired the right people at the right time to look after each market. In the UK [team], we’re good at taking brave decisions over when to support artists.

I think historically – with underground urban music specifically – there's been a feeling that you have to go above and beyond what your peers in other genres have to achieve before being supported on a mainstream level. Spotify has brought a level of risk-taking to the market, in terms of “We like this artist, we like the music, we can see that it's reacting well”, and we take risks off the back of that: that's why so many acts now are being supported on the mainstream level.

I think the other thing that we've got, is a level of data on music consumption that hadn't really been available before. When people are consuming playlists across other mediums, the people that are creating those playlists using their gut feeling way more then they're using empirical data. At Spotify we’ve had the right balance between gut feeling and this vast amount of absolutely brilliant hard data that allows us to make the best informed decisions across any platform in the world at the moment.

How do you find the right balance between data and feeling?

Every playlist has at least a couple of people that are constantly talking about what songs should be going in, what songs could be coming out. I relate it to being like a DJ ultimately: you listen to the music, and before you try it out on a playlist you have to use your own gut feeling as to whether it will work, because often when a song is new on the system there is no data for you to look at.

So, gut feeling is super important at the start of a record. Once you try that on a playlist, every single record will have a different journey. You can look at a record like Giggs’ ‘Linguo’ for example, and straight away you knew that that was going to work. Every single data, sort of piece of data showed that that record was going to work instantaneously.

Whereas, if you look at something like Stefflon Don’s ‘Hurtin' Me’ with French Montana, that record took a couple of weeks before it started to really kick into gear. But even once the records are on the playlist, and we have a hell of a lot of data, to look at that anecdotal evidence is still really important. Because even though its performance was OK in those first couple of weeks, it was the reaction I was actually seeing outside of Spotify on the streets and in clubland that convinced me that initial gut feeling was right, let's stay on this record. And of course it turned out to be one of the biggest hits of the year.

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So do you think it’s important for the curators to be outside of the office, emerged in the cultures that they’re curating for?

Any curator has to really live and breathe the genres that they’re tasked with programming. I think that's the reason why Spotify has been able to put ourselves in a position where if you look at what's happening in America, you’ve got Tuma [Basa of Rap-Caviar] and his team who are leading the culture.

Spotify has employed people, that are sort of absolute flag bearers of the culture in that scene; people like me who have a lot of history in this genre and is definitely a flag bearer for the culture and everything that surrounds it. I wouldn’t be able to do my job effectively if I wasn't out in the clubs and listening to the youngers, my nieces, nephews, the school people in the back of the bus and on the train going home.

You have to absolutely make sure that you’re trying to sit and stand in every piece of the culture as possible. Because otherwise you end up on the outer circle and you can’t tell the difference between what’s authentic [and what’s not].

With such a long history in this genre, what keeps you passionate and motivated to hear new music?

I think it’s the energy level and the business acumen that I see. When I first joined the scene around ten years ago it was around the middle of the recession in grime music UK MC culture, which is one of the main genres I grew up on in South London.

For the best part of that ten years it was a real slog for MC's coming through, whether it be Lethal Bizzle, Giggs, Skepta – they had a hell of a lot of barriers to overcome in terms of mainstream brands and mainstream media outlets supporting them or doubting them, and in some cases like Giggs, actively trying to stop them performing.

So what gives me pleasure now is seeing the legends winning on a global international level, and also seeing the new artists that Who We Be represents – such as Hardy Caprio, Stefflon Don, Jorja Smith, Not3s, Stormzy of course – all win, and all win on their own terms. That's the key thing, that this batch of artists are absolutely winning on their own terms: they’re signing deals when they feel it’s right for them and they’re releasing sounds that they believe represents their audience. I like the fact that MCs no longer feel as though they have to bow to the corporates in order to gain a level of success.

Are playlists changing the way that people are consuming music?

Historically you would listen to an album all the way through multiple times, but at the same time I would argue that when I was growing up you’d skip out the tracks that you didn’t like. You’d pick out your favourite tracks and you’d skip the rest. I believe people are listening to more music now, people are more open to different sounds because of the playlist culture.

Consumption habits are how they’ve always been: people don't listen to the songs that they don't like. Previously I think that the music industry was able to hide behind smoke and mirrors and fool people into saying that an entire album was 'all killer and no filler'. And obviously now it’s a little bit more exposed because Spotify has brought transparency to the market. I think what’s changed is the public being able to see what’s working and what isn’t, as opposed to consumption habits.

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Do you think playlist culture is going to influence the way that music is created?

I think that it will affect the way that people are making music, and I think we’re already seeing that with projects like Avelino's ‘No Bullshit’ or Giggs’ ‘Wamp 2 Dem’, and Drake's ‘More Life’ as well. If you compare it to sport, 15 or 20 years ago professional footballers and boxers could take days and weeks off in between matches. They could go to the bar and get drunk, they could eat whatever they wanted to eat. Now if professional footballers and boxers have to be on point 24/7, and all year round they have to be putting in the work.

I think there’s a lot of similarities in music: historically an artist could take off two or three years between projects and it wouldn't really affect them. They didn't always have to release their best material on an album. Whereas now, because of playlist culture they have to absolutely make sure they’re putting their strongest foot forward at all times. Because now artists are up against the entire recorded music history, they're fighting against 40 million other songs. So they have to be absolutely better, because this is a world class sport that they're now in.

What is your advice for artists trying to get their work playlist?

If you look at Dizzee Rascal, Giggs, Hardy Caprio, Bugzy Malone; none of those artists ever reached to me, or to the industry. The industry reached out to them, after we saw the noise that they were creating on a street level. And I would say to any artist coming through, that it's all about creating your own fanbase and creating your own hype. Once you've locked in a fanbase and that becomes physical, the industry takes notice. They always do, they always have done and they always will.

It goes without saying that the music’s got to be good. That’s something that often gets overlooked; is your music actually good enough? And then it’s the things that you can’t control; luck, timing. The amount of people that have been added onto playlists, live events or festival slots just because of luck and timing, is in the hundreds. It's all about hustling, making connections with the right people, making good music and building a strong fan base. If you want to get onto the Who We Be playlist, that’s what it’s about.

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What is the goal of Who We Be?

When I joined Spotify just over a year ago, we sat down as a team and looked at what our offer was for fans of UK MC driven music.

If you were a fan of drill then you know you had Rap UK, if you're a fan of grime you had Grime Shutdown, if you were a fan of Afrobeats then the Afro Bashment playlist is there for you. But what we noticed is that if you go to Wireless Festival or you go to Reading Festival, if you turn on the radio and you look at Spotify consumption habits; people actually like a little bit of all of that mixed in. It’s not a case of, “I’m just a drill fan and I only listen to 67 and Section Boyz.”

So with Who We Be, we said “Look, we’re going to create a playlist that is the crème de la crème of UK rap, grime, afro bashment and also the the best of U.S. rap as well." So looking towards our cousins in the States, and what was working over on Rap Caviar, and what would have the potential to work over here: we wanted to make sure we represent the best of the US in a UK playlist, and that’s how Who We Be was formed.

Why do you think it’s important to take it beyond the playlist and bring Who We Be into the live sector?

I think that Spotify as a whole has done really good job of bringing playlists to the fore. We've changed the way people listen to music in the same way that Netflix has changed the way in which people consume movies and drama. In the same way all the biggest and best startups innovate their products, whether that be Facebook ,Google, even Apple, we’ll give them credit for constantly being innovative in their product design, so does Spotify have to do that: whether that be changing our interface, integrating lyrics and graphics into the user experience and experimenting with video.

We recently had our first ever integrated video in a UK playlist with Sam Smith’s latest single. We have to go beyond the playlists, and make sure we bring them to life. Because we believe this is what our audience potentially could and do want. So with Who We Be specifically, where that’s grown so far, we felt it was a good candidate to take live.

We felt that with Who We Be we could get a mixture of everything that Spotify Urban UK has brought to the fore this year; from the best of the US with Cardi B, the legends of the UK that Spotify will always pay homage to such as Dizzee Rascal and Giggs and then the best of the new stuff that’s emerged in 2016, 2017 and beyond like Stefflon Don, Bugzy Malone, and then there’ll be one or two surprise guests that turn up on the night as well.

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Spotify presents Who We Be takes place at London’s Alexandra Palace next Thursday (November 30th) – check out Who We Be HERE.

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Interview by Grant Brydon

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