The word “legend” doesn’t apply to just anyone, but DJ Semtex is an exception. A true GOAT in his field, you know you’re doing something right if Semtex is playing your song.
For over three decades now, Semtex, real name John Fairbanks, has dominated the radio airwaves in the UK, spending 15 years on BBC1Xtra before transitioning to Capital XTRA, where he has his Friday night show now. But besides his talents on the microphone, his unwavering love and passion for hip-hop resonates the most.
Growing up in Manchester, it was Semtex’s older brother who first introduced him to the genre in his early teens. Eventually, Semtex established himself as the go-to tastemaker whenever a hip-hop artist was in his town in the UK, sitting down and interviewing all the biggest superstars from Jay-Z to Drake to Kanye West. In fact, Ye has even gone on record saying Semtex was the DJ who “helped him launch his career.”
Talk about full circle, Semtex went on to release his own book titled Hip Hop Raised Me, which would also become the name of his new podcast.
And if that’s not enough, he’s even stepping into the music-making process as a producer. His most recent release, “Floor Shake,” is a fusion of drill and Afro-Trap, tapping BackRoad Gee with Ghana’s own Kwesi Arthur, giving us the disclaimer that he’s got much more bangers in the vault.
The Source caught up with DJ Semtex via Instagram Live, for our latest Hip Hop Convos. Read below as we discuss his love for festivals, his new single, his early days with Kanye, how he preps for his interviews, shaking before Jay Z, Drake DMing him, sharing moments with Mac Miller, booking Pop Smoke, his book being inspired by a line in Macklemore’s song, and more!
I know you’re coming out to Rolling Loud. Do you like festivals?
Listen, I couldn’t live without festivals. As far as being a DJ, it’s the best experience. Clubs and shows are dope, but festivals? Oh man, those are the biggest moments. DJs, that’s what we live for. Any DJ who’s locked in right now knows exactly what I’m talking about. I’ve been very blessed to do some of the biggest in the world. I need festivals man.
I’m coming out to Rolling Loud, I know I’m going to be inspired. By the time Sunday, I’ll be back on the plane Monday morning. Whether it’s music, I’ll be plotting something new. It inspires me to go harder. I love festivals, can’t get enough.
How does the crowd react to your new single, “Floor Shake”? It’s so uptempo, you got African artists. It’s not the typical Hip-hop record.
What is the typical Hip-Hop record? I’ve heard people say the same thing about Kanye West records, Jay Z records in the past. You’ve got to do different things. I could’ve done the same regular shit that everybody’s doing, I find that boring. I don’t think there’s any point in doing that. It’s mundane. You really got to push the envelope and try to do something different.
Festival season hasn’t really started in the UK yet. But last year, I was playing the instrumental at different shows. I did the Lil Tecca tour out here in the UK. Doing shows helps me A&R the track, to make the track bigger. With the “hey’s” in the background, they weren’t on that before the show in Birmingham and the crowd started chanting “hey!” I thought, I need to put that on the track.
It’s invaluable insight. Every artist, every DJ, anyone making music, you have to test them at shows. You have to play at festivals. I played it at the Joey Badass show, same thing. It goes up man. It’s already been well-tested, I’ve been playing it on my show every week. It’s a monster, I’m just waiting for festival season to kick him out here. It’s the first thing I want to play at Rolling Loud. I know it’s gonna go up.
I saw Kanye had said you helped launch his career. How exactly did you do that?
That sounds absurd right? That sounds crazy. There was a point when no one really cared about Kanye. Take it back to when Jay Z’s Blueprint 2 came out, he was on the album. He wasn’t even credited. Out here, first there was mixtapes. Before College Dropout dropped, there were a lot of my DJ friends and fans. We’re nerds. Anything of a Kanye beat or verse, we were on.
I connected a lot with him back in the day, early. I DJed at his shows, worked with him in different capacities. I interviewed him six, seven times. I was just helping to break the music.
Before College Dropout, I used to work at Def Jam at the time. I worked on those albums: College Dropout, Late Registration, and Graduation.
What were you doing at Def Jam?
I started out in the game doing street promotion. I used to have the streets lit with stickers. I had the illest sticker campaigns throughout London. I did radio promotion. I’ve done everything at a record label, every facet. I’ve been very very blessed to work with some great people, I’ve never taken it for granted. I’ve never been mad at the game or thought the game owes me. It’s a beautiful game, just get involved. Everyone has to participate and do some dope shit.
Back to Kanye, that was showcased in the documentary right?
Yeah. When he went into the office and he was playing tracks like “All Falls Down” and nobody was listening? In the UK, it was the total opposite. “Yo, have you heard this? This shit is banging!” Most rap takes off over here first. No disrespect to anybody, anywhere else in the world. But there’s a real passionate audience for Hip-Hop, real thirst. Always has been.
Take it even further back, Public Enemy, Chuck D always says he got his first real fanbase in the UK before anywhere else. Out here, all you gotta do is keep coming out. Come out four times a year and your fans will be loyal. Your fans will turn up and see you every single time, they’ll stay with you your whole career. It’s dope out here.
Talk about your plaque collection behind you.
[laughs] These are all plaques for Dizzee Rascal, I used to tour with him back in the day. He’s pioneer UK rap, grime. I was his tour DJe for eight years. We did a lot overseas: South American tours, European tours, everything.
Were you doing that while you were on radio too?
Yeah. You have to do everything. You gotta make it work. Because otherwise, you’re not gonna make it in life just doing one thing. No disrespect to anybody who’s doing that. But what I found as a DJ, you’ve always had to evolve. You’ve got to be on radio, touring, do clubs, do festivals, do mixtapes. do podcasts. You’ve got to make some bangers, you gotta do it all. That’s it.
Is this a good time to talk about your Hip Hop Raised Me podcast?
My first podcast was 2009, it was at the G.O.O.D. Music showcase at the Fader Fort at SXSW. I had backstage access so I was walking around. It was too much to put on a radio show, so let me do this thing called a podcast. That was when I first did it.
I dipped in and out of it, because I get tedious. I couldn’t have done it every single week since 2009. I like to keep moving from things to things, keep the excitement going. I like talking to artists man. I want to find out how things happen, how it works, how they did this, how they got that with that. Projects and so forth.
I’ve had some amazing episodes, did one with DJ Khaled on the last season. Talking to Joe Budden about the whole situation just as he got into Spotify at a time. I’m about to start again, a new season moving forward. I like podcasting, it’s dope.
How do you prepare for an interview?
I just have one question, and everything leads up to that one question. I find that if you write things down… I stopped doing that. I’ve done it once. I only do it if it’s a really, really big one, but I hadn’t done it for years. When I first interviewed Jay Z, I had to do it. I was actually shaking the first time. As you see him walking towards me, it’s Jay Z man. Oh shit, it’s Jay Z! It kicks in.
The second or third time was cool. He’s like, “oh we meet again.” He’s almost like an English guy, some of the things he said. He’s like “oh yeah, we’re both doing something right. Right?” It’s different.
Most of the time, I just have one question. One time I interviewed Chance The Rapper, we did an hour talk. I asked him four questions throughout the whole time. He had so much to say and it was around the time that Donald Trump was elected. Everyone was a bit shaky about what was going to happen. I got him at an Interesting point in time. One question I wanted to ask him is: is music all we’ve got, and why? He broke it down. It’s really, really fascinating to hear him break it down.
I find that if you’re a fan of the music and the artist, you don’t need to write shit down. You don’t need to prepare because you’ve been preparing your whole life. You’ve been listening to all of the albums, there’s things you’ve always wanted to ask. When you get icons like
Kanye, Wayne, and people like that, it’s easier than a new artist who still has a story to establish.
So did you not write anything down for Drake’s More Life interview?
I didn’t, because I do sections. What I do is I break it down to 10 points. There’s 10 points that I need to talk about. Quite interesting, I’m going straight to the point on everything. I knew he wanted to do the interview, he clearly wanted to talk. I knew I just had to talk to him.
Even when I said, “who’s Quintin Miller?” He’s like [sighs] It’s a simple question. Of course I know who he is, but you need to open it up and everything comes from that. You have 10 key points in your mind, and as one gets answered, don’t process what he said. Don’t get gassed, don’t give your opinion on it. It’s not a discussion, onto the next section. Because if you don’t do that, you’ll forget the cycle of what you need to ask. When you get that answer, next question. You keep it moving.
How’d it feel when Drake DMed you?
I thought someone was taking a piss in the UK. Because it was 7am, I was on the toilet. I was going through my DMs. Drake? Who the fuck’s doing this? Oh shit! It woke up, it’s Drake. You don’t expect that. The beautiful thing about that: it’s always dope when the first thing you do means something. Seven years later, they remember and they want to go back to that.
That’s the dream. I feel for any journalist or DJ, that’s why we do it. We do it so things are remembered, you maintain that relationship. So that was dope.
How important are relationships in our line of work?
Relationships and reputation are imperative. Those are the two most important things in life, in any role you do. Any job, any career. Whether you’re a rapper, a DJ, a manager, a lawyer, a mastering engineer, relationships and reputation, you have to maintain them at all costs. Never jeopardize them for anybody or anything. Never fumble it, it’s not worth an argument over money or anything like that.
I can set off any show, any festival. You can’t talk to me about radio, I’ve done my 10,000 hours. I’ve done a Friday night rap show every week from 9pm to 11pm for 20 years, I’m doing something right. When it comes to making music, it’s hard. I’ve done it before, but because I focused on everything else, it was always in the background. Now because the barriers to entry
have been removed, and also evolving as DJs you have to do it.
People like Calvin Harris, DJ Khaled, DJ Drama, they’ve shown the way. You have to do it, it’s the evolution of what happens next. All the producers said “Yeah, I’ll give you some beats and put your name on it.” I’m not doing that. I can’t do that, that’s cheating. You have to do it yourself to get your point across, so it’s a great challenge. It’s a great mountain to climb, I’m going to get that #1 record in 62 countries around the world. I just gotta work for it, that’s all it is.
I saw you were booed because the Wu-Tang Clan were late to the show. How late were they?
That was in Glasgow, one of their farewell tours. [laughs] They’re incredible but as we all know, there’s no rules. There’s no order around what they do. The Wu is the Wu, it happens when it happens. It might have been late. Yo Glasgow, they get down. That’s a high school crowd, they just start booing.
I’ve never been in that situation before. I said “stop the music.” The thing I learned from toying with Dizzee is the showmanship. Even when things go wrong, you turn it into a positive. I’m like “what are you booing for? They’re late. I’m here to see the Wu as well, don’t boo me!” [laughs] I was trying to flex it. Fuck it, I’ll get some MCs on stage. It turned into a cypher, it was dope. It’s good. I wasted another half hour doing that, then they turned up. Everyone forgot what happened. Great night in Hip-Hop.
Did you know Takeoff as well? Rest in peace.
Yeah, we did their first show in London. Incredible, amazing night. It’s sad man. We’ve lost so many great artists in such a short space of time. It’s upsetting and it’s alarming, because I’ve never seen it like this. We’ve never lost so many rappers in such a short space of time. When I was growing up, it was Biggie and Tupac, then it was a gap. It was years before someone else significant passed away like that, but it’s almost every couple of months now.
I love reading how Mac Miller told you “hey, we don’t always have to do an interview.” What’s your relationship with him?
Mac was dope, mad cool. Anytime he’s in the UK, he used to check me. “Yo I’m in town, come to the show.” Whether I make it or not, he was just cool. He’s always passed through the show, did a freestyle. He was the essence of Hip Hop, he embodied that. He was about
One time, he had a show in Brixton, he was cool. He said “come backstage.” We met, hung out. After that, we went next door to a place called Nando’s, which is one of the main spots in the UL for dope chicken. It’s really surreal: it was me, Mac Miller, and some UK fans chillin’ on the table. We made Nando’s stay open and eat more chicken. Just another night, you couldn’t make it up.
It’s one of the things you talk about years later, like we are now. I witness crazy moments like that, very very fortunate. With Mac, same thing. Gone too soon. It’s horrible.
What was it like booking Pop Smoke early on, then seeing him blow up?
Pop, we tried to do that show for a year. All of these artists, we’ve been chasing them for years. Same thing for the Nipsey Hussle, Migos, Young Thug. We spent 12 months trying to book them. When you get them, it’s just magical. With Pop, he was a mad cool guy. He was going to be that bridge between cultures around the world. The way he embraced UK drill, the way he embraced other artists.
I was on stage with him at the soundcheck, first time I met him. His first ever London show, he was cool. In between talking to him, he was on the phone with UK rappers. I’m not gonna say the name, but he said “Yo, I’m here. Pull up.” He was organizing it himself. It wasn’t get the manager to make something happen or get the label, he took a genuine interest in our artists and our scene out here.
He would’ve done some major things. He’s one of the great ones, but he was gonna get to that point where he was gonna go. It’s a real shame.
How was it writing your book, Hip Hop Raised Me?
I was very fortunate. I wanted to do-self help book originally. There’s so many stories in Hip-Hop, they’re more likely to listen to these stories than the self-help books out there, which can be a bit jarring to me. The book company said “nah, we want you to do the book on Hip-Hop.” I said I can’t do that. No, I’m not doing that.
What happened was Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, I love those guys man. The track “Can’t Hold Us” is one of my favorite jams. You play that at a festival, you look like a god on stage.
You play the track the whole length, people clap their hands every single part of it. There’s a line: “but that’s what you get when Wu-Tang raised you.”
I was raised on Public Enemy, and that’s how I came up with a title. Yes, I can do the book from that perspective. As a DJ who’s worked artists, interviewed artists, performed with artists, I can do it. I worked with a great team who sourced some of the pictures. I already had the stories, the interviews and perspectives. I wrote every word myself, 50,000 words. No ghostwriter, nothing like that. I learned doing the book, I need to do that in music. I need to have that same commitment and that same ethos.
It’s dope Every week, I see DMs from around the world with the hashtag. They put it as a coffee table book. Every artist has it. Drake, Big Sean, Chuck D, Jay Z… everyone’s got it.
Your brother introduced you to Hip Hop early. Who were the first initial artists you listened to?
Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick for sure, that was it. It was the House of Def Jam: LL Cool J, Public Enemy, all of that. Then I found out my own artists I liked and put my own taste on everything. Nonstop listened.
I met Slick Rick recently during Grammys week, when he got the Lifetime Achievement Award. He’s so legendary!
Yes, biggest UK rapper in America. He’s from Mitcham, South London. Technically, he was the first. He was that guy who inspired DJ Paul, he inspired everybody. As a guy from London, crazy.
What’s your relationship with him?
Mad cool. When I was doing the book, he was one of the first people I reached out to. There was a point where it looked like he was going to have to live over here. Def Jam reached out to me like “we might have to relocate, can you help?” So I caught up with his family, I said “welcome to London” type of thing, just in case. I met him in New York, I bumped into him several times in different places. He knows what I do, I know what he does. He’s the greatest.
Anything you want to let the people know?
Yeah, just take me in. [laughs] I’ve got bangers coming, check out the music. Check out the podcast. Check out the book. I’m on Capital XTRA every Friday night. I’m here, I’m not going? nowhere.
How’s Capital XTRA treating you?
Dope. They leave me to it. They’re like, “need any help?” Nah I’m alright. “Alright cool.” They’re always ready to support. It’s a great station, the biggest in London on a Friday night. Again, very privileged. I never take it for granted. It’s a very dope duty to be able to broadcast to the whole world live and play music that you like, or music that you hope people will be interested in. It’s great.