‘A massive game-changer’: how Channel U brought grime to satellite TV

Don’t touch that dial … Channel U stars (from left) Tinie Tempah, Chip, Lady Leshurr, Tinchy Stryder, Wretch 32 and Novelist.
Don’t touch that dial … Channel U stars (from left) Tinie Tempah, Chip, Lady Leshurr, Tinchy Stryder, Wretch 32 and Novelist.
Don’t touch that dial … Channel U stars (from left) Tinie Tempah, Chip, Lady Leshurr, Tinchy Stryder, Wretch 32 and Novelist.

Launched in 2003, the TV channel – which returns for a one-off special next week – was a hotbed for future UK rap superstars such as Chip and Giggs

Yomi Adegoke

Last modified on Thu 12 Nov 2020 07.45 EST

If you haven’t heard of Channel U – the defunct UK rap and grime music channel that launched in 2003 in a blaze of anarchic, DIY spirit – it may sound hyperbolic to call it one of the biggest influences on Britain’s current music scene. But its importance is undisputed among those who know it, heightened by its success outside of typical mainstream gatekeepers. “It’s had a big impact on the people that had nothing and was no one and wasn’t a part of the machine,” says grime artist D Double E. “Just like YouTube, it didn’t matter who you were. It just mattered that you were trying to be creative.”

Throughout the 00s, it became one of the only platforms within the media where black British culture was depicted – and, most importantly, depicted accurately. Aside from films such as Kidulthood and series like Dubplate Drama, black, working-class experiences were not represented on TV other than to be demonised on the news. The music channels that did play anything remotely “urban” – MTV Base, Kiss, The Box – focused on the American rap and R&B dominating the British music scene in a way homegrown talent couldn’t. As the only TV station that aired the debut offerings of upcoming grime and UK rap artists, Channel U was responsible for turning many a hood star into a household name: Tinchy Stryder, Tinie Tempah, Chip, Ghetts, Wretch 32 and Giggs.

“Seeing [someone] who looked like me, with the same voice as me, MCing and not in an American accent, was inspiring,” says the grime MC Novelist, who grew up watching the channel. “I always wanted to be a part of whatever that was when I got older.”

With virtually no competition at first, Channel U struggled to compete in the early 2010s as UK rap and grime platforms such as SBTV, GRM Daily and Link Up TV emerged on YouTube. Things were not helped in 2009 by an unsuccessful rebrand as Channel AKA, before it was eventually sold to a subsidiary of Universal. After 15 years on air, the plug was pulled in 2018.

But, after a two-year absence, the pioneering channel is back: it returns to its original home on Sky channel 385 next Friday as part of the premiere of the “first grime film”, Against All Odds, directed by Femi Oyeniran and Nicky “Slimting” Walker. It is their second stint co-directing after the 2018 British crime thriller The Intent 2: The Come Up, which starred a host of UK rappers including Ghetts and Lady Leshurr. Eschewing the usual streaming platforms, Afryea Henry-Fontaine, marketing director at Motown records, suggested they air their independent offering on the Universal owned station.

As channel 385 still exists under the free-to-air dance music channel Clubland, Oyeniran and Walker decided to pitch a week-long takeover where they’d bring the station back. Universal agreed to six hours, with all the Channel U content also appearing on Link Up TV’s YouTube channel. It has culminated in a jam-packed schedule brimming with nostalgia: duo Ace & Vis are back presenting The Ill Out Show, and the weekly Top 10 has been revamped with a countdown of the Top 10 Channel U videos ever (as voted for by viewers online), hosted by the chart show’s original presenters, Jazzie and A Squeezy. There will be live performances, interviews with grime veterans, and all will be streamed on the Link Up TV YouTube Channel. As part of the rollout, there’s also a soundtrack EP featuring the likes of D Double E, Novelist and Jammer.

Grime writer: Novelist performs with Chase & Status at London’s Wireless Festival.
Grime writer … Novelist performs with Chase & Status at London’s Wireless Festival. Photograph: Ollie Millington/Redferns

It’s a roll-call of artists that reiterates the platform’s importance. Channel U was distinctly black and British in an era when blackness was considered synonymous with the United States. This was not just in its music but its programming; since the media was so lacking in diverse representations of working-class culture, the station provided on all fronts. It recreated the iconic MTV series Cribs with grittier iteration Yards, in which comedic rapper Mr Wong showed cameras around his mother’s house in Peckham. The Booo Krooo comic strip from youth lifestyle magazine RWD was reimagined as an adult animated sitcom for the network. It also documented the misadventures of three cringy wannabe MCs, relatable to the majority of boys with a voice box and a mobile phone during that period. Everyone in “ends” wanted to be a grime artist and part of Channel U’s magic lay in the fact anyone could be, for a bit.

It thrived with its mishmash of actual musicians and part-time MCs whose aspirations appeared to begin and end with their video airing on the channel. In 2015, I tracked down a handful of the channel’s lesser-known legends, famous in their own right, for a documentary called The Lost Stars of Channel U’. It was greeted with hysteria, with fans demanding a further spin-off series, updating them on those we hadn’t covered. The channel has never been given its due credit by the industry, but when its founder Darren Platt died in 2016, many cited his station as instrumental to their careers. Lethal B named him “a visionary”: his song Pow! (Forward) was banned elsewhere. “Channel U was a real blueprint,” says Cat Park, the former station manager. “I remember walking in there the first day. I was young, but the team were really young, and I thought: ‘I’ll be managing it within six months!’” And she was. Even behind the scenes, a scrappy, DIY youth culture flourished akin to the one that became notorious onscreen. In grime’s heyday, MCs were recognised primarily by their names and voices, via pirate radio stations, club nights and songs Bluetoothed by Sony Ericsson.

Even in a post Mercury-winning Boy in Da Corner landscape, mid-00s music channels continued to sideline the scene, so aside from clashes recorded as part of the Lord of the Mics or Risky Roadz DVD series, fans were more likely to see artists in their local area than on screen. The channel democratised music videos years before YouTube: a tech-savvy generation, who were already honing graphic design skills on social media sites such as Piczo and Bebo, turned videographers for equally amateur artists.

Testing times … a scene from Against All Odds.
Testing times … a scene from Against All Odds.

“Sometimes people take the mick of the level of [production] quality but that’s exactly what defines Channel U,” says Park. “It was reachable, it was achievable. It wasn’t MTV, so you didn’t have to have thousands of pounds and a label budget – it was like: you can go and get your video together and do it. We don’t have to go down the pirate radio path and keep within our bubble – all of a sudden it kind of broadened out into a national level. The audience changed.”

Its understanding of youth culture even translated into how its playlists were curated. Viewers requested songs via text, and in the spirit of mid-00s social media (which was then all about “top friends” Myspace lists and shout-outs) sent in personalised messages to be displayed real-time in a box alongside the music videos. Pioneering moves such as this made the station’s failure to make the move online all the more disappointing. Had it done so, it would undoubtedly be an industry leader. Channel U is returning to a landscape very different to the one it left two years ago, and even more unrecognisable compared to the one it landed on in 2003. Today, the charts and airwaves are dominated by those it inspired. At one point, the Channel U Top 10 was considered the official chart equivalent for those the UK Top 40 eluded. “I put one of my first videos on Channel U, The Link Up, which made me kind of famous,” Walker reminisces. “It was a massive gamechanger; if you made it into the Channel U Top 10 countdown, you felt like you could accomplish anything.”

While the country continued to vilify the soundtrack of black youth (in 2006, the then leader of the opposition, David Cameron, claimed that BBC Radio 1 playing hip-hop and grime “[encouraged] people to carry guns and knives”), Channel U depicted our peers as we knew them: as kids. Acts such as Ice Kid, Age Iz Nuffin and SBD – a rapper who couldn’t have been older than 12, lamenting the absence of his father in the infamous single Where Are You Now – showed the street smartness and charisma we grew up alongside.

Grime thrillers … Against All Odds directors Femi Oyeniran and Nicky “Slimting” Walker.
Link up, look sharp … Against All Odds directors Femi Oyeniran and Nicky “Slimting” Walker. Photograph: Tabatha Fireman/Getty

“What people don’t talk about is the intersection between being black and being working class; the first time I saw that was Channel U,” says Oyeniran. “You’re seeing these guys, they’re wearing black tracksuits like your bredrins and Air Max 90s and baseball caps – and they’re on TV. For me, that was mind-blowing. Before your Kidulthoods and all of those films, Channel U was doing that in bite size with the music videos.”

Despite YouTube views often dwarfing television viewing figures, its undeniable prestige, combined with a heightened need for nostalgia, makes Channel U’s return feel like a proper moment. With conversations surrounding black British history at the fore, its relaunch is coming at exactly the right time.

“There’s not that much preservation of black British heritage and black contribution to what it means to be British,” says Oyeniran. “We need to do a lot more to preserve black British culture. And I feel like Channel U is part of that.”

Against All Odds is out next Friday, 20 November; on the same day, Channel U returns to Sky channel 385. You can watch it all online via aaomovie.com