— Joe Walker —

Part One of a special two-part interview with Joe Walker — Here he is on South London, music, football, Crystal Palace FC, identity, RWD Magazine, Reprezent Radio, social media, self-improvement and finding his voice.

(All photos submitted by Joe Walker)

Some people might know the name Joe Walker from RWD Magazine. Some from Reprezent Radio, where he broadcasts a Monday evening drive-time show and co-hosts The Sunday Roast alongside previous Polymer interviewee, Scully. Others from Beats 1 (now known as Apple Music 1). And some for his social media commentary on Crystal Palace, for whom he’s been a long-suffering fan since he was a small boy. But whatever he’s known for, one thing is consistent — people love Joe Walker. By his own admission, he might not feel the most polished, from-the-book broadcaster nor the most willing to toe the line, but the music industry is a far better place with him in it. As we catch up for the first time in over a year on two consecutive week nights, our Zoom window opens to Joe, complete with uber professional podcast mic setup, beaming into the camera lens. But his tone is pensive. 

“Right now I’m in the middle of a process of self-improvement”, he says quite openly. “The last year has made me realise that I needed to address some things, like the value I put on myself in my career, self-esteem stuff and even not dealing with grief properly … various things that have happened along the way. Now I’ve got the time to focus on it all, mainly because it’s been forced upon me. I’m not there yet with it, but I’d say I’m a work in progress.”

For someone who wears his heart on his sleeve, whether via his Twitter feed or his broadcast segments, Joe’s opinions on music and football specifically — and the humour with which he shares them — often deflect attention away from the person behind the musings. Is it difficult to separate the broadcaster from the broadcast? “For me, yeah it’s hell”, he says bluntly, “but I know it’s quite easy for other people. I feel like if you are gonna navigate sharing more of yourself, particularly on Instagram more so than Twitter, then it has to be done a very particular way and I don’t know how to do that without feeling like I’m moaning. I don’t want to feel pitied, I just want to get on with stuff. Sometimes though, especially when I’m not on form, I do feel like letting out this massive banshee scream … and that can be brought on by people sharing excruciatingly positive opinions 24/7, or even just by the overriding sense of anxiety in a pandemic. Half the people on my timeline don’t have a job, do you know what I mean?”

“Sometimes though, especially when I’m not on form, I do feel like letting out this massive banshee scream”

It feels a far cry from the fond memories of his childhood and the familiarity that came to structure much of his early life. Born in Thornton Heath to parents of Scottish and Indian heritage, Joe went to a church school in South Norwood — “my auntie worked there and I think my dad fixed the church hall roof once” — which totalled only 200 children. “It was one class to a year, absolutely tiny”, Joe recalls. “I didn’t know anything different to that but what it meant was that everyone was a big cheese. There was no real hierarchy there at all. I then moved to Annerley when I was about eight years old, which I guess is where I’d say I grew up properly. I stayed at the same primary school and the distance between the school and where I lived was probably a 10 minute walk, but it was on the border of two boroughs. When you have to go secondary school, that’s an absolute nightmare to deal with. I was getting turned away from a lot of Croydon schools and equally, all the Bromley schools were like ‘you’re not in our catchment area’. In the end, for a kid who was you know, told to ‘aim for the stars’, I ended up going to this all boys secondary school called Kelsey Park, where it was 200 kids to a year and considered one of the worst schools in the area. I was the only one from my primary school who went, so going from a place where I knew everyone to knowing nobody was tough. You’re running for your life essentially, there’s kids from other schools rolling up with baseball bats, there’s fights in the playground. It was an awakening but I enjoyed it. I wouldn’t change it.”

“My dad is half-English, half-Scottish”, he says, as our conversation turns to family. “My grandad was Scottish and actually played football for Raith Rovers. My mum was born in Battersea but her parents were Anglo-Indian. It’s only later in life that I’ve started to ask more questions about that stuff actually. Essentially, there was a generation of people from India who would mix with British ambassadors, soldiers and traders during the days of the empire. I think, because of that, they’d find themselves rejected by other Indians. My grandma for example, she was born in India but was raised as a Catholic that only spoke English and so it felt natural for her to come over to England later in life. I guess, because of that lack of me having any exposure to another language or religion or anything like that, I’ve never really felt part of the British Asian community. It’s only as I’ve got older that I’ve started to think about it more and ask questions about my roots.” 

Did the notion of identity affect his experiences growing up? “I mean, not really”, he reflects. “It’s definitely not a violin thing or anything like that. I do remember being called the P word by someone at school when I was 13, 14 but it was never something I paid much attention to outwardly. Any issue about race for me growing up was all internal, it was all in my head … it was rarely projected by anyone else. I did feel a little bit different to everyone around me but because I didn’t have an Indian name or even a name that was vaguely ‘exotic’, I dunno, I never saw myself as Asian in a traditional sense. I mean, my middle name is Lee. Joseph Lee Walker … it’s the most fish and chips name. That said, music and football were the two things that made sure I’d talk to everyone at school. That was all that mattered back then. Drifter (grime MC), was actually in the same year me at school. I wouldn’t say we were close friends, but we both cared about music deeply.”

“I dunno, I never saw myself as Asian in a traditional sense. I mean, my middle name is Lee. Joseph Lee Walker … it’s the most fish and chips name.”

Joe’s obsession with music started early, specifically with Chris Tarrant and the Capital FM breakfast show that he’d listen to religiously on the way to school. “Everyone listened to music the same way when I was a kid”, he says intently. “The same two, three radio stations, the same four TV stations. We were all just inhaling everything and it’s kinda comforting to have those same base level memories that are consistent with everybody else. My cousins were older though and when they got to secondary school, they’d use their pocket money to buy stuff that was a little bit more left field. I remember them buying Justin Timberlake – ‘Justified’ but also a load of other hip-hop and RnB records. As I got older, there were probably two defining influences or memories. One was being at my friend’s house and him playing Eminem’s ‘The Marshall Mathers LP’ … the novelty of hearing so much swearing as kids wasn’t lost on us … and then just going off recommendations and trying to catch the videos on MTV Base, The Box and KISS.”

“I inhaled so much music through Limewire too”, Joe continues. “Downloading music and playing Football Manager was all I did for a spell as a teenager. I can’t remember the exact route but I think sometimes I’d scroll through iTunes, find the top 10 songs by an artist I liked and then revert to Limewire to download them. Considering where I lived, I wasn’t someone down at Big Apple in Croydon every weekend or anything like that. I knew stuff on Channel U and what was passed around at school, that was basically it. There’d be a bit of South London grime … the type of stuff that if you knew, you knew … L Dot Man and people like that. Limewire is definitely where I came into my own because I stared to realise I had this ability to just recall a huge amount of information about artists and songs. I wasn’t writing about music but I was becoming the guy people would look to at house parties. People would ask for my iPod.”

“Limewire is definitely where I came into my own because I started to realise I had this ability to just recall a huge amount of information about artists and songs.”

Alongside music, football also dominated Joe’s early life. A match-going Crystal Palace fan since from as far back as he can remember — he holds a season ticket and still attends games with his dad and a troupe of other father and son duos — Joe’s grandmother also worked at the club for over 20 years. “I’d be at all the football in community events during half terms”, Joe recalls, grinning. “I’d get all this club merchandise, I was just that kid. I remember in 1999, maybe 2000, my nan was working at the hospitality front desk at Palace and basically, I’d end up in my own box for the day. The club were in administration, they really didn’t have a pot to piss in, but I’d be sat watching games from a private box while she worked. People would sometimes see me and bring over a plate of chips or whatever during the game, it was great. Palace was my playground basically. I’d get the autograph of everyone who walked through those corridors where the boxes were, I’ve still got more match day programs than I know what to do with. It was just my life.”

“There’s a members club at Palace called The Golden Eagles right”, Joe continues, broad smile suddenly etched on his face. “They’d do a monthly draw that you could enter, with a few prizes … third prize was like winning a hundred quid or whatever … but the first prize was always a holiday to La Manga in Spain. It’s this beautiful resort where the England team go to do warm weather training and stuff like that. Ron Noades, who was Palace’s chairman at the time, had a massive house out there … I’m talking 10+ people, a huge pool … and if you won, you’d get to stay at his place for a fortnight. Surprise, surprise, we won this draw one month and got to go to La Manga. I was a mascot three times in the end too. By the time I was realised I’d been brainwashed, it was too late.”

With music and football now regularly meeting at the intersection of culture, albeit often through a brand marketing lens — see Stormzy launching Manchester United’s away kit with Paul Pogba in 2016 as a key watershed moment — this cultural meshing was entirely alien to Joe during his teenage years. Although obsessed with both, music and football felt like very different, separate passions. “The crossover between the two is massive now”, he affirms, “especially post-FilthyFellas and Poet & Vuj. I could write an essay about the impact they’ve had on it all. It’s become very much a part of youth culture now, but in my day growing up, there was no crossover whatsoever. Nothing.”

After leaving school, Joe would head off to study Communication & Media at Bournemouth after ‘cruising’ his GCSEs — but not before deferring a year of his A-Levels at Kelsey Park to join a different sixth form college. “I had an awful first year and decided that I was gonna move”, recalls Joe, “and my school were not happy, particularly because I was about to be made Deputy Head Boy and whatever … wait, shit yeah I really was gonna be Deputy Head Boy, wow. Anyway, I applied to this all girls school in Chislehurst which had a mixed sixth form, and when I say mixed sixth form, there were about 14 boys there. I had a few mates who had gone the year before and said they enjoyed it. I just knew I needed to get out of my comfort zone and away from just fucking around all the time. When I started there, they let me know that my AS levels from Kelsey Park were run through a different exam board, so I basically had to write those off and just do my best with the one year I had left. Long story short, I didn’t smash my second year and started all over again.”

Although still undecided about where his future lay, Joe eventually made it to Bournemouth University, where he studied Communication and Media — a degree he felt would help him utilise a natural flair for English Language and Literature. Unbeknownst to him at the time however, it was his ‘ramblings’ on a friend’s student radio show that would first stoke the fires of a future career in broadcasting. “I had a friend called Nav in Bournemouth who wanted to start his own radio show”, he says. “There were two student radio stations at the time, the university station and the student union station, but it was probably two old men fighting over a comb in terms of listeners. Nav was a garage DJ and he used to mix on vinyl, so he wanted to host his own UKG show but needed some help. All he wanted to focus on was the mixing so I said I’d go along with him to host. He couldn’t actually fit the decks in the studio, so I’d be in the studio running the desk and he’d be mixing from outside. I’d butt in every so often to make it sound more like a radio show, but I honestly didn’t have a clue what I was doing really. I’d love to find some audio, although it probably doesn’t exist because I don’t think any of it was ever recorded. It was just a shame that it came during my last six months of university, because I really enjoyed it.”

On his return home to London after graduating, it was journalism rather than broadcasting that felt like the natural next step. Joe felt there was a gap in the market for knowledgable young music writers who were born ‘of a scene’ rather than those trying to cover all bases, particularly as so little writing on rap and grime was being commissioned at the time. Outside an impassioned UK blogosphere, it felt like slim pickings. “Ah, there was nothing really”, Joe says, leaning forward and letting out a sigh, “nothing whatsoever. I’m not just talking about UK rap or grime stuff either, rap from the US too. You’d get one journalist who’d go and review a Rick Ross concert at The O2 or whatever in about 400 words that’d go online if it wasn’t in the paper, and that’d be your lot for the week. I just remember I wanted to be the person that’d tell that story.”

Although music was his focus, football was still a constant — and it’d be his relationship with Crystal Palace that’d see him make his first in-roads into writing. “Purely from chatting shit about Palace on Twitter, I started writing for a few fanzines to varying degrees”, Joe recalls. “I loved writing and it felt exciting to be a part of something, but music was still what I wanted to write about if I’m brutally honest. Football is actually the reason I got my job at RWD though, which is funny when I say it like that. I joined RWD just after Hattie Collins had left and Tego Sigel had just become the new editor-in-chief if you like. They’d had a big changing of the guard and they were reassessing how they operated as a business. About six months before I started, Tego had helped setup RWD Football as an arm of the magazine and they had a contract to run a football blog in partnership with JD Sports. I got the job to oversee that blog off the back of the football writing portfolio I’d built up through my work for the Palace fanzines, but because I was now inside the building, RWD gave me the freedom to work on the website too. I was allowed to feature what I wanted, interview whoever I wanted, it was mad really. As much as I didn’t focus on football writing, without it, I’d never have got my chance.”

Joe’s breakthrough at RWD came after two entry-level positions at music PR / plugging firms — firstly, The Hub, where he worked alongside Wired PR founder, Rachel Campbell, and secondly, Sian Anderson’s SighTracked PR — which both gave him a first taste of the inner workings of music publicity. “I was never particularly good at PR but I didn’t feel comfortable with it either”, he concedes. “After The Hub went under in 2014, I got a shout from Ra’ed Khan, (now digital executive at Capitol Records and founder of non-profit charity, Road To Freedom), about joining SighTracked. At that point, I was thinking PR just wasn’t for me, but he said I should come and help out and see how I got on with it. I remember saying to Sian like, ‘I know I’ve worked in PR for the last eight months but please don’t expect too much from me, there’s a lot I still need to learn’. She took that onboard and we struck up a good rapport, the clients were good and I started to see the benefits of proper guidance and training. There’s a long list of people who went through the Sian Anderson school if you like and they’ve all gone on to kill it. You could see why even then. She taught me the ropes properly and I’ll always look up to her for that.”

“There’s a long list of people who went through the Sian Anderson school if you like and they’ve all gone on to kill it. You could see why even then.”

Joe describes getting the RWD nod as a ‘massive relief’. Never a natural fit as a PR — he struggled with the ethics of the publicity economy — the chance to help platform the music he cared about was one he relished. “It was nice to write about music properly”, he explains, “and particularly from a position of knowing how things worked. I tried to reply to every email I got about new music, even if a lot of the time I’d be repeating myself, just because I knew what the struggle was like from the other side. At the same time, I resented favours. As I got more familiar with events and the industry, I did start to notice people start to try and lean on me for support on RWD and even if I did feel like I’d have to play along for a bit, I always resented it. I was almost too pure in my heart. Away from that side of it, RWD was a nice tonic for me. There were no rules, I was covering music that I liked and amplifying people that I rated.”

“The majority of music being covered at RWD at the time when I joined was mainly US stuff”, Joe continues. “I think that’s purely because that’s what the staff at the time liked, aside from the odd Giggs feature or maybe K Koke or someone like that. I remember just thinking, ‘I listen to all this stuff, but we’re a year into post-‘German Whip’ and there’s a lot we’re not covering’. I made the decision to focus on the UK stuff and never looked back. A lot of grime artists in particular were just really welcoming and grateful for the support, even if it was someone new to it all like me. You could really feel their appreciation and it felt good to be one of a small group of people involved in covering grime at that point. I never wanted to be influenced by how many people were reading what I was posting at RWD either, I never once looked at the WordPress backend or traffic stats or anything like that. I was blessed to have that freedom, to not feel any pressure coming down on me from above. I think that was the engine that drove me for a while, just ensuring that the music I loved was covered properly and in the right way. Every time an NME or someone like that posted a piece about Kano’s album being called ‘Man In The Mirror’ or whatever, I just hated it. It made me burn inside.”

“I never wanted to be influenced by how many people were reading what I was posting at RWD either, I never once looked at the WordPress backend or traffic stats or anything like that. I was blessed to have that freedom, to not feel any pressure coming down on me from above.”

Despite only working on two print issues during his tenure at RWD, Joe’s legacy was already solidified by his work on the website. He was a reliable outpost for PRs plugging grime — which at this point was booming post-‘Shutdown’ — but more importantly, he won the trust of the artists themselves. Calling things as he saw them, the honesty in his writing was refreshing and drew praise from all corners of the industry. But was it enough? Concerned by the walls “closing in” on the print media industry, Joe started to think about new ways of covering the music he loved. 

“And that’s then I thought about that radio experience at university”, Joe says, eyes lighting up. “I mean, I was literally just interrupting someone’s mixing every 10 minutes but I did really enjoy it. Because of my role at RWD, I was starting to get sent a lot of grime stuff early, releases ahead of time, the odd exclusive and bits like that. I thought to myself, ‘why don’t I start a radio show to play all of it?’. I decided to fill out a contact form on Reprezent Radio’s website and just hoped for the best. It turned out that Reprezent were going through a huge transition phase and had big gaps in their schedule when I got in touch, so I got an invite to meet the station manager and was asked me to come down and record a test show. By this point, and we’re talking the end of 2015, I was well aware of the last pirate radio generation who were making noise at Radar Radio … AJ Tracey, Big Zuu, Jammz, Mez … but I was just playing it all. I wasn’t trying to DJ, I was just presenting this music in the way I wrote about it for RWD, just blurting out everything I’d taken on board writing about grime Monday to Friday. They must have heard something because I’ve listened back to some of my early shows and they were horrendous, but I got offered the 1-3am slot on Friday night, every week. I had to pre-record it but the slot was mine, so I went for it. RWD were really hospitable about it and let me record my show in the morning and then come in afterwards. I found it really weird waking up and heading to pre-record early in the morning, groggy and a bit knackered but trying to amp up the energy to replicate the fact that it was supposed to be a Friday night show.”

“Aside from Kid D asking to come down to record a set with Slickman Party one time, the show was just essentially two hours of me playing new grime music”, he continues. “There were no features, nothing. Aside from maybe rounding up the three best releases of any given week, it was just me introducing tracks for six months. I hung around because I loved the energy of the place and Reprezent felt like a great place to be, there was definitely a buzz. I stuck it out long enough to be offered a new show time of 9-11pm on a weekday … it might not have been a Friday but I can’t remember … and that in itself felt great. A little while after finding out, I remember being in the Reprezent common room area where a lot of radio staff work and chill and overhearing Naina, who had already worked her way up to management level, and the station manager talking about the new schedule. They were still looking for someone to do the 7-9pm slot on a Thursday night and I was stood literally behind them, so I leaned in, put my arms around them both and said, ‘I’ll do it!’. They both looked at each other and were cautiously like, ‘…alright’.”

“That slot was live too, so it was quite a bit of pressure, but suddenly I found myself with way more of an appetite for making my show more of an event, opening it up to sets and whatever. The format would be basically be a five minute chat and then I’d just let people get into a set to close the show. The first set we did was with Jay Amo and Spitz in June 2016 and they had Jammz come and DJ for them. The only issue was that it meant that I didn’t have much control over the last quarter of my show, so I fixated on learning to DJ for a while and bought a load of equipment. But it just so happened by more of a happy accident than anything, that after interviewing P Money on the show one night in 2016, I realised all we’d done was chat. We didn’t play a load of music or get into live bars or a set, we just spoke. It dawned on me that nobody else was really doing that across specialist radio at the time. So there I was obsessing over trying to turn my show into this all guns blazing mix show, when I was actually presenting grime music as it would be on daytime or evening radio. I just thought, ‘why change it?’.”

“It was a format I enjoyed and I guess I established my own little island with it. I always thought it was mad that people would spend six months working on a project and then their idea of promotion would be to jump on a set and shout ‘EP out tonight!’. That was literally it, that was where it ended. Before long, artists cottoned onto the fact that they could come onto my show to have a conversation. I took pride in knowing that. Inadvertently, it was doing things my own way on Reprezent that lead me to Beats 1.”

Part Two of Joe’s interview goes live next Monday (March 29):

https://polymerzine.club/

(Joe Walker w/ Julie Adenuga on Apple Music, FKA Beats 1)

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