Beats 1 DJ Julie Adenuga on Subcultures' Endurance, Radio's Future & Advice for Young Women in Music

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Courtesy of Apple Music 
Julie Adenuga

“I’m not an A-list person. I’ve never even been to Glastonbury before. The majority of people in the U.K. wouldn’t say they know me very well.”

As one of the three lead DJs for Apple’s 24/7 radio station Beats 1, London-based Julie Adenuga has interviewed artists across the spectrum of celebrity, from rising grime icons MIST, Dizzee Rascal and Stormzy to mainstream stars like Pharrell Williams, Cardi B, Britney Spears and Liam Gallagher.

But Adenuga -- who, prior to joining the Beats 1 team in 2015, worked double-duty in sales at an Apple retail store and as a drive-time DJ for pirate station turned underground mainstay Rinse FM -- holds her low-key, scrappy roots close to heart. “I’m not an A-list person,” she tells Billboard. “I’ve never even been to Glastonbury before. The majority of people in the U.K. wouldn’t say they know me very well.”

Not to say that her low profile demands any less credit or respect. Her unconventional upbringing as well as her deep roots in grime -- aside from engaging directly with the genre at Rinse FM, her two older brothers are grime MCs Skepta and JME -- present a welcome contrast to fellow Beats 1 DJs Zane Lowe (former host for BBC Radio 1) and Ebro Darden (co-host on the Hot 97 Morning Show). Moreover, while some worry about music subcultures losing their definition in the streaming era, grime is a notable exception, attracting its own popular playlists and exclusive documentaries on Apple Music and, more recently, official genre recognition on Spotify.

In addition to elevating new sounds and cultures, Adenuga is also passionate about engaging with other women in similar fields and paying it forward to the next generation of creators. On Tuesday, ahead of Women’s History Month, the DJ hosted an intimate roundtable discussion at a sunny luxury loft in New York City's Tribeca neighborhood, highlighting female success and empowerment across creative and technical fields.

Featured speakers included Pei Ketron, an accomplished iPhone photographer with over 800,000 followers on Instagram and campaign credits with the likes of American Express, Mercedes and Turkish Airlines; Storm Smith, an art director and first-ever deaf employee at global ad agency BBDO; Marisa Hordern, founder and creative director of jewelry company Missoma; and Molly Proffitt, CEO of game design company Ker-Chunk and an outspoken advocate for building games that empower women as players.

Much of the discussion centered around actionable guidance on improving diversity and inclusion in creative roles. Hordern discussed the importance of making gender a more prominent component of corporate social responsibility, citing her own desire to involve more women behind the scenes in the jewelry-making process. Proffitt brought up not only the swift democratization of learning opportunities online -- one of her employees learned a new tech skill in 30 minutes off a Medium post -- but also the need for more empowering female game characters that accurately represented player demographics and the diversity of women's experiences.

Ketron, who participated in Apple's Shot on iPhone 6 campaign in 2015, discussed how previously overlooked platforms like Instagram have not only helped immensely with her own career, but have also become widely accepted as valid channels both for expressing oneself creatively and for sourcing professional opportunities. As a deaf executive in advertising, Smith spoke on her passion for applying lessons from her everyday encounters with accessibility to the stories she tells through BBDO and making those story arcs as visual as they are aural.

Like all the other speakers, Adenuga herself is also actively involved in mentorship, currently serving as a mentor at East London Arts & Music (ELAM), a music college co-founded by Will Kennard (one half of English drum-and-bass production group Chase & Status). Back in March 2016, Adenuga also ran a media mentorship and workshop series with BBC Radio 1Xtra DJ Sian Anderson called One True Calling, which accepted open applications from anyone online. Oftentimes, Adenuga's approach to mentorship is even more unstructured: “It’s sometimes literally someone just sending a private message on one of my social media accounts,” she says.

Such spontaneity also infuses her work at Apple, where she stays open to any new opportunities and relationships from the world over while remaining focused and grounded in a strong sense of self and purpose. And as a surefire testament to how she's approaching her personal and professional development today, she reports that the latest book on her reading list is The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck.

Ahead of her roundtable discussion, Adenuga sat down for a chat with Billboard about how she stays in touch with subcultures as an Apple DJ, why she doesn't believe radio is dying and what advice she would give to young women in entertainment. An edited version of our conversation follows.

Billboard: What do you think about the relationship between streaming platforms like Apple Music and the health and sustainability of music subcultures like grime?

Julie Adenuga: I think that’s why I got my job, because of that relationship. I could tell when I was working at an Apple retail store that the company loved music and really cared about it -- even going back to the first iPod adverts and the fact that they were making iPods when their core business was in personal computers. And I think Apple knew that if they wanted to create a memorable radio station, it wouldn’t make sense just to play the same top-10 hits all the time like everyone else.

What’s really great and important about the Apple Music team today is that they don’t pretend to know everything. They really care about getting things right and understand that just because a certain genre or culture is not important to the masses doesn’t mean it’s not important to the small group of people who are really passionate about it. People on the New York team are also turning to me as the expert on issues like the difference between grime and hip-hop. Ebro [Darden], who’s grown up in hip-hop his whole life, is asking me about MCs like AJ Tracey and Donae’o. It feels quite nice, that people respect and are seeking out my opinion and expertise.

Now that streaming platforms can break artists' careers like never before, there’s a delicate balance between the potential to amplify culture globally and the desire to preserve what made it so precious and unique from the start. How do you try to approach and achieve that balance?

Whenever we have interviews with artists signed to bigger labels, they’ll come in with their radio plugger and the whole thing is very organized and punctual. But I come from a culture where people show up late all the time, or just cancel the day of if they feel like it. Part of me wants people from that culture to operate on a more professional level in order to get the types of opportunities that the bigger artists do, but at the same time I love how authentic that attitude is. You can book an interview with Wiley and spend thousands of pounds getting furniture and researching venues, but he just won’t show up, because that’s who he is.

Even though that laid-back style is a big negative for some people, to me that just shows that these people will be who they are and that’s the part of the culture I want to keep showcasing as much as I can. If everyone just turns into pop stars, it gets a bit boring.

How would you describe your interview style? What would you call a successful interview?

I don’t know anyone who would meet someone for the first time and immediately jump into a conversation as if they were best friends, but that’s essentially what you have to do in an interview with an artist. Specifically, I’m aware that artists do millions of interviews all year and my worst fear is either going in and asking the same questions they’ve been asked before, or having them walk out of the room and thinking, "I don’t ever want to do an interview with her again." Sometimes my producer Sam [Skitt] will get upset with me because I’m not sticking with the plan of questions we worked on together, but I just need the artist to really like me and I want to develop the right rapport so that we have an engaging and comfortable conversation.

I pray for that bit in the interview when the artist says, “That’s a good question.” That means they haven’t been asked that question before and they don’t have a stock reply for it and now they have to think. And I’ll let them think.

What has been the biggest obstacle you’ve faced in your career so far?

Myself and my way of thinking. You forget how powerful the brain is and how if you think about something long enough in a certain way, it actually makes that thing come true. It took me a long time to explore willingly beyond my comfort zone and not to be so scared of failure. There’s more to be learned when you get something wrong than when you get something right. I’ve learned all of my most important lessons to date by allowing myself not to overthink things and just to jump into the deep end and try my best to swim.

We're in the middle of a contentious, transformative moment in history for diversity and gender issues in music and entertainment. What has been your experience with workplace diversity and gender throughout your career?

For me, music has never felt uneven. I’ve never walked into a room and consciously counted the sexes -- like, "here are three women and 10 men" -- and I’ve been fortunate to work with amazing women as much as I’ve worked with amazing men. Back at Rinse FM, I was working with both Gordon Warren [aka DJ Geeneus], who started the station and always had a vision and passion for what it represents, and Sarah Lockhart [managing director, Rinse FM], who’s such a headstrong woman and who fought for a legal FM license while Rinse was still a pirate radio station, all while she was pregnant and helping her husband DJ Zinc with his own career. She’s a true superhero.

You have the same balance with Beats. There are amazing people like Frances [McCahon] [creative producer, Beats 1] and Julie Pilat [operations, Beats 1], who hired me, alongside my producer Sam [Skitt] who used to work with me at Rinse. And of course Zane [Lowe] is just an incredible person to learn from. He has years of radio experience that I can only dream of picking up as I continue my career.

It’s hard for me to speak about gender imbalance issues from a personal standpoint just because I never felt it directly in that way, but I definitely try as much as I can to hear from and engage with people who are experiencing that imbalance, who are going to work everyday as the only woman in their office. As you spend more time with them and listen, the effect that that environment has on them becomes really apparent and tangible. I hope to converse with them more and maybe give them an understanding of what a more diverse environment feels like, as well as guidance and tips on how to deal with their current situation. The only way you can truly understand these issues is to listen.

What advice would you give to young women trying to break into music and entertainment?

Be as realistic as you can with yourself. Things always look nicer than they are. A career in radio or TV can look really nice in your head and in pictures, but is that what you really want to do? What is your why? Don’t just lock in on a certain path simply because others think it’s a good idea or because the fruits of the profession seem glamorous to you. It’s important to actually put in the work and see if that career is something you’re willing to suffer for.

There seems to be a new report every few months that radio is dying. As someone working directly in the space, how do you respond?

Nearly three years ago, I was offered a job that completely changed my life. If I had read those articles and thought that radio was dying, I would have never taken the job and that would have been one of the biggest mistakes of my life. So I don’t take those claims seriously.

That might change if someone comes forward with scientific proof saying people won’t have ears anymore and don’t want to listen to anything, at which point all communication would have to be visual so there would be no point of keeping radio around. People will always want to hear things: they want to listen to great music and they want to hear great conversation. In this climate, why would we want to get rid of the one medium that is tailor-made solely for listening? That sounds strange. And all headphone companies would go out of business! Nobody wants that, either.