Kenny Allstar is sweating. He’s just come from the gym. “I’m just getting my regime together, staying healthy,” he tells me. “We’ve got lots of studio sessions, it’s really busy; we’ve got a lot of artists passing through today, so I wanted to be alert by working out.”
There’s a reason for his vigilance. The studio Kenny’s referring to is his brand-new space in Stoke Newington, a communal hub for artists that’s home to his VOTS label. Kenny is its master, the captain of his ship. “I’m just allowing more creatives into my home to build with me,” he says.
It’s been a long journey for the DJ, BBC Radio 1 Xtra presenter and Mixtape Madness host to get here; one that’s been propelled by the rise of UK rap and grime into mainstream culture, which he’s shone a spotlight on.
A “Lewisham boy through and through,” Kenny explains he had a tough start in life – something that has in fact helped him in some respects. “If you make it out of Lewisham, you can make it anywhere. There’s nothing I’ve not seen that will shock me because I’ve seen it all. And I love the place. I love the culture. I’m very proud of the people from there.”
Humble beginnings also meant Kenny didn’t have a TV growing up. Instead, he would turn his attention to that more audible of outlets: radio. Deja FM, especially. “You’d shut your eyes and visualise what was going on. How can you not as a young kid think ‘I want to be there’?”
Combine this with a childhood memory of Notting Hill Carnival, viewed from the top of his dad’s shoulders, and Kenny knew what his life would be dedicated to. “I couldn’t see properly, and my dad just slapped me on his shoulders. I saw everything; the whole of West London, right down to Portobello.
“And it just looked beautiful. It was culture. It was one of the most emotional things for me as a kid because that’s when I really fell in love with it all. That’s when I knew: whatever is happening here, I’m involved.
Perhaps Kenny’s involvement in music was inevitable. After all, he explains, with one of those jokes that are actually true, “No one that grew up in Lewisham between the years of ’04 to around 2014 wouldn’t try to rap.”
Yet at house parties and radio shows, Kenny’s attention would shift from the man on the mic to the one behind the decks. “Everyone used to spit bars. The difference between me and a lot of others is I knew when to stop… As much as I was passionate about sounding great, I was always meant to be a DJ.”
Like many success stories, there was a chance moment to be seized on. At one event for an online radio station one of the DJs fell through for a set where Kenny’s mate, Rick, was MCing. Kenny taught himself within a day or two and stepped in behind the decks.
I thought, ‘fuck it, I’m just gonna learn.’ We’re talking about an all-in-one Maplin deck, no jog wheel, just a reverse wheel. Play. Pause. Record. It was one of the most old-school Maplins. But I got to the point where I was tight enough to get everything together. When the set come around, everyone was shouting, ‘Kenny on the decks.’”
Kenny on the decks. It has a ring to it. His story, however, transcends beyond the turntable. Kenny was also one of the key figures uncovering and filming emerging rappers in London. Starting, of course, with his beloved Lewisham.
“I wanted to start a platform where I could just showcase my ends first, because when SB.TV – God rest his soul, Jamal [Edwards] – and GRM [Daily] were taking off, I wanted to document people around my area because we weren’t really getting on those channels.”
A sign of his struggles once more, Kenny would hold back his £3-a-day lunch money to try and buy a camera. That is until his mother’s instinct noticed he wasn’t eating. “I remember saving up money for a camera. I would have had to save up for three, four months and not eat. The £3 was for me to get lunch. Then my mum would make these observations – that’s why mums are superheroes. She could tell I wasn’t eating.
“She would use her credit card or whatever she had and put the money down [to buy the camera]. Even though we didn’t have it. She bought me a camera for about seventy quid – a little Panasonic, early HD… I held it like it was my baby.”
Thus would begin Kenny’s recorded journey, capturing the lyrical explosion of his area and forming the chummily titled Ken’s TV. “It picked up some steam. It picked up so much steam where now I was getting hit up by people outside of Lewisham.”
The biggest call of all would be from Sneakbo’s team. “We’re talking around 2011, 2012, so this is Sneakbo when he’s really taking off; to get a Sneakbo freestyle [around this time] is legendary.”
Indeed, Ken’s TV was making a name for itself – and making its camera-wielding founder something of a local celebrity. However, given some of the content, YouTube would pull many of the videos; couple this with Kenny’s golden rule of removing videos from anyone involved in scraps and the channel would eventually cease.
We’ve all seen archive footage of SB.TV, with videos of young Dave, Stormzy and countless others making their early initiations into the scene. Unfortunately, after Ken’s TV was shut down, the account and its footage disappeared – which, Kenny admits, is his “biggest regret”.
What couldn’t be lost, though, was Kenny’s knack for finding talent, which would help him immeasurably in his transition from DJing to radio shows. “When I started noticing I could make a couple of bills a week through DJing” – as opposed to skrimping on his three quid lunch money – “I realised I might not even have to go Uni.”
“I could stay on the straight and narrow, keep doing these house parties, whilst trying to get in the radio game, perfecting my confidence in public speaking – another thing that helped me get into the radio world.”
“Before I was confident to talk on radio, I was talking in house parties with hundreds of people in it. So when I got to radio I thought, ‘If you can talk to people live in the flesh, you can kind of do it on the radio.’”
These kind of experiences imbibed Kenny with a sense of fulfilment and, whisper it quietly under the mic: destiny. “Without sounding cocky, I felt I was special; because there’s no way I’m going to all these house parties and events with people going mad when I’m playing, just for me to be a mediocre DJ. I felt a certain energy and it felt right.”
“I started listening and learning more. This is why dancehall’s integral to my come up as well. A lot of people don’t know how important dancehall is, and the culture of sound system; the ability to tell stories from music and use that as transitions. It’s an art.”
Kenny would take this artform, following stints on radio with Reprezent FM, and eventually form Mad About Bars on the Mixtape Madness channel in 2015. This was born in part out of frustration at the amount of people he would bring onto his radio shows – J Hus, AJ Tracey, Stormzy, Naira Marley – without the station having the means to document them.
Since then Kenny has showed his Midas touch for promoting talent – only this time in the full-throttle world of social media. Having showcased some of the biggest names in UK rap, including Central Cee and Digga D, the show is now in its sixth season and has raked in more than 255 million views across its videos.
Kenny’s modus operandi had eventually reached its goal. Now, instead of a young Kenny trying to get young rappers to build his platform, emerging talent comes to him to try and be spotlighted.
“When I came in the game, I never wanted to be an influencer. I just wanted to do my work because I’m passionate about this; people don’t understand that. This is all I ever want to do. This music game and everything – honestly if you take it away from me, I’m dead. I enjoy listening to new artists. I enjoy having iconic freestyle moments that you can look back at.”
“Aitch doing his first ever radio freestyle with me – when I’m gone, they’re gonna remember that freestyle… M Huncho’s Mad About Bars, that’s gonna live forever… Skengo & AM’s Mad About Bars, which I play in the clubs and festivals and it still fucks it up today – that’s gonnna live forever.”
“And that’s all I ever wanted. Just to have a footprint.”
“Again, to go back to Jamal – God rest his soul – he’s left a footprint. We will always remember him as being the guy who paved the way for every other platform. You can never take that away from him. He’s the G.O.A.T.
“When it comes to freestyle culture, if you’re gonna put a Mount Rushmore of DJs or people that have helped pave the way in UK freestyle culture, I want to know I’ve left this earth with my big head on that mountain. I never thought it was gonna get this big.”
Since then, Kenny has continued to push himself to another level, taking over from DJ Semtex as the host of the Friday Night Rap Show on BBC Radio 1Xtra in 2018.
“A black youth from South East London, Lewisham is never thinking they’re gonna make it as a Radio 1Xtra presenter. It just doesn’t happen. It didn’t happen before, so why would it happen now? It’s crazy, this is actually mad.”
Despite this headiness, his mindset remains constantly refreshed. “I’ve only been [at BBC Radio 1] for three and a half years – four in October. So you can imagine how much more I’ve got to do. The way I see it, my radio journey begins now.”
Kenny terms this forthcoming summer as “the summer of pain.” With residencies, festivals, continual radio shows, executive production projects with “a lot of your favourite artists,” he pledges “you’re going to get sick of hearing me, seeing me; I’m going to be that jarring guy and that’s what summer’s about.”
With so much ahead, and so much been, no wonder Kenny wants to be alert – and fit in the odd gym session where he can.