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Tiffany Calver: ‘When doors don’t open for you, just build them yourself’

10 Feb 2019

Image via BBC

I first met DJ and presenter Tiffany Calver in the middle of the summer of 2015. I remember queueing up for one of her first ever Tiffany Calver & Friends events – she was so busy because it was completely rammed, but still she managed to say hello to everyone and navigate the space so effortlessly with a smile on her face.

At just 24 years old, Calver has already made history in so many ways. Born and raised in the small town of Telford, Shropshire, she was the youngest woman to host a national hip hop radio show on Kiss FM. She was the first woman to curate a mix for Drake’s OVO Sound Radio show and since working at the BBC she’s become the first woman to host the Rap Show – one of the biggest shows in hip hop, previously presented by Charlie Sloth and Tim Westwood. Just to top it off, she will also be the DJ on Drake’s upcoming European tour.

I visited the media mogul in her new home at BBC Radio 1 and 1Xtra just before she embarked on the biggest new chapter of her career. As I waited to interview her, I could see she simply radiated happiness as she chatted and laughed with urban music legends like Kenny Allstar, Trevor Nelson and Yasmin Evans who she can now call her work family. During my time with Calver she revealed her experiences and exciting journey through the industry so far.

gal-dem: How does it feel to break so many boundaries in music?

Tiffany Calver: It’s definitely a very surreal feeling. It’s an incredible mark just to show things are progressing but it’s never been my goal to be that person. I didn’t necessarily want to be the first. I was just so focused on working that now it’s happening it’s very surreal – but if you think about it too much it becomes a lot of pressure and it’s like you’re literally carrying all of this on your shoulders.

In a way, you’re carrying rap.

[Laughs] Yeah, and being one of the first women on this side of the pond to do that is a lot! But I’m happy that I’ve kind of got the ball rolling.

“What makes great radio? Specialists. People that are unapologetic about what they like and what they don’t like.”

Who are the women who have helped pave the way for you?

I definitely have to mention Angie Martinez (and her book). A lot of women in hip hop thus far have been from America: people like Angela Yee and how she holds her own in The Breakfast Club with Charlamagne tha God, also Laura Stylez on Hot 97. In the UK, the people I look up to would be the Annie Macs – I always used to say when I was younger that I wanted to be the Annie Mac of rap, just because she’s such a tastemaker and so respected. I always wanted to be known for my opinion on music and my ear. I think that’s what makes great radio: specialists. People that are unapologetic about what they like and what they don’t like and they’re real. There’s a purpose, as opposed to just presenting from a screen.

How did you make a name for yourself in London, coming from somewhere so small?

I literally knew no one when I moved. I applied for the BRIT School and didn’t get in. I thought “fuck, what do I do now?”. I think that’s everyone outside of London’s thing, it’s like “omg I’m going to go to the BRIT School and become Adele!”. I googled “colleges in London”, and ended up going to City of Westminster in Edgware Road and watching people get stabbed and stuff, which is great…

Did you always know you wanted to branch into creative industries?

Yeah – especially writing. I always wanted to be a journalist. The first way I thought I could get out of Telford and Shropshire was by going to university. I’d always been commended on my writing and pushed by teachers. There’s a singer from Birmingham called Jacob Banks who was my only friend when I moved here. He basically adopted me as his little sister and every weekend he’d hang out with me. I already started networking in the scene because I was blogging for the usuals like SBTV, MTV, The Rap Up and so on. I would go to industry events but I was way too shy to talk to anybody and then one weekend Jacob said, “So what do you want to do?”. I was obsessed with Georgia Lewis Anderson at the time, she was on SBTV and I was like, “How do I get there?”. He said, “You know, I think you would be really good at PR”, and he went on to explain how he has this friend who owns Wired PR . I started interning for her and doing social media.


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Calver opening up for Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s ‘On The Run’ tour

Did you have to do a lot of work for free in beginning?

Working for free is a major one to create your network, 100%. I think it’s important to be an asset. I put everybody before me so that I was the go to person, and that’s how I made a lot of my contacts. With time when you constantly go to the same things and see the same people, you end up talking, it was never a forced thing. I was never like “I need to be friends with this person”, it all happened naturally!

“I think people – myself included – waste a lot of time waiting for acknowledgement from other people, but you should just be focused on elevating yourself.”

What advice do you have for aspiring DJs and presenters who live outside the capital, in regards to finding your feet?

When doors don’t open for you, just build them yourself. I think people – myself included – waste a lot of time waiting for acknowledgement from other people, but you should just be focused on elevating yourself. Also I would say to use the internet, a lot! The internet was literally my salvation when I lived in Shropshire. Nobody in my town listened to TDE or Ab-Soul. I was obsessed with them and I didn’t have anyone to share that with so I literally found my community on the internet and I think everything I’ve done sprung from me just becoming… not shameless, but just being unapologetic in regards to promoting myself and staying tunnel-visioned.


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Calver interviews Future on her 1Xtra Rap Show

Your Tiffany Calver & Friends events were an example of you building your own door. Can you tell us a bit more about that era?

Tiffany Calver & Friends was born from when I had no commitments in life and would go to America a lot and stay with my friend for like two, three months at a time and go to every gig possible. The one thing I always admired about the States was that as soon as an artist was breaking they would travel all around America doing small shows, performing and creating their fanbase. I used to always hate the fact that over here we have to wait.

So did you just ask club promoters if you can put on a night?

Yeah and they were so not on it at first, but then the night came and the queue went through the venue, out the door and down the road. So I used to get into [East London nightclub] Birthdays for free all the time. It was high risk but I think that’s the one great thing about being young, ignorant, super-broke and having nothing to lose.

What’s the worst that can happen?

Exactly! So I made friends with Father over pizza actually, he’d just done a show at [New York venue] SOB’s and ‘Wrist’ had just come out. I realised I wanted to be that person who brings these really fresh, underground artists over to the UK to build their fanbase here too. When I brought Father here for the first time it was literally called Tiffany Calver & Friends because I couldn’t afford to pay them, it was always a mates thing.

“[Underground radio] is a great training ground.”

How did broadcasting from an underground, uncensored radio station like Radar differ to broadcasting from a national station now?

Places like Radar and NTS are very DIY. It’s getting to know yourself as a broadcaster, because you’re producing the show pretty much by yourself – especially at Radar. I went into Radar Radio without knowing how to DJ, so I was spending every week clanning! So bad! Practising how to DJ, finding my voice, finding out how I wanted to sound and who I was.

So you got to really hone your skills before moving to a national station.

Yeah, it’s a great training ground and it’s so unfiltered – do whatever you want. However, the one thing I love about national radio is that I have a team, which I’ve never had before! I’m a Virgo so I find it very hard to let go, especially with my dream radio show. When you’ve wanted it for so long you hold it very close, but I have three amazing women on my production team and I trust them – and that’s a big thing for me.

You don’t feel like you’re on your own?

I don’t feel like I’m on my own anymore. I’d also say a big difference is not swearing [laughs]. Dude, I swear so much. It’s gonna be a tough one. Internet radio is a great training ground for figuring out who you are as a broadcaster, so when you do come to a bigger network like national radio you know what your core values are for your show – you know who you are you, what your personality is… and you don’t swear!

Gender inequality is still a global issue. How do you think we can go about making the playing field more even and inclusive?

There are so many talented women that I just don’t feel like it should be a conversation. It should just be the norm. Sometimes people shine so much light on this whole situation it can almost take away from the talent aspect. I’ve had comments from haters like, “she’s only on this line up because they needed to fill a space” – and nobody wants to feel like that. I just hope that in the future it’s less of a big deal and it’s just done, it’s just like anything, it’s just like breathing. It’s talent and strength in numbers too. We have so many talented women, men, everything. There’s no excuse. I believe equality and diversity are so important, especially in this day and age. We are a generation of activists. People aren’t afraid to speak out or call things out, which is amazing. I feel like it should just make people switch on a little bit more. In ten years time I just hope there’s nothing to be called out on.

“I’ve never looked at a woman or man as competition, it’s always been about competing with myself.”

How do you manage to be an unapologetic, uncompromising DJ in an industry dominated by men?

I have always had such tunnel vision on myself. I’ve never looked at a woman or man as competition, it’s always been about competing with myself. My main focus has always been the talent, and developing myself. I support everybody else and give love to everybody else because there’s no room to hate on anyone – I want everyone to do well and I feel like that’s how everyone should be. Life is way more fun when you live like that. Of course, people get jealous and it’s not like I’ve never had moments of jealousy, but it’s something you have to learn with time. When I was younger and I’d look at all these amazing things happening while I was in Shropshire thinking, “how am I gonna do it, man?”. When I actually started doing it I was such a perfectionist. I always had to be perfect, and as soon as I stopped and just went with it I became fearless and took a jump.

How do you go about preparing yourself for such an important step in your career?

I’m in a very militant routine where I’m literally stalking my producers everyday. I’ve said to them, “I need to be in everyday practising because I want to make sure I really know my way around the boards” – and I’m trying not to swear this month, that’s a big one! I think I’ve gone through all of the motions. I’ve just come out of the complete freak-out phase like, “fuck, I’ve really got this show”, to feeling like it wasn’t real. Now I’m very at peace with it so I’m in a position to go into it professionally and really start to figure out what I want to do. It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever done in my life, so I’m just practising every single day. I have many notebooks, I’ve made a group chat and introduced all my producers to Whatsapp where I’m like, “what about this sound effect?”. I’m so passionate about every element, like I’m literally fine-tuning everything.

What can we expect from the Rap Show?

Lots of rap! There are a lot of people out there trying to figure out what my show should be like and who I should sound like and the boots I’m trying to fill. I just want to be myself and it’s going to have elements of everything I’ve grown up around and loved from radio. I guess it’s just a more developed, better-produced and less “swearwordy” version of myself and my taste in music. [It’s] a very unapologetic reflection of my taste because I look up to people like Benji B, Annie Mac and Zane Lowe and people who came before me who did that. Even Tim Westwood is a legend, so it’s a lot of pressure. I think there has to be that connection with people so that you want to tune in – for example, with Kenny Allstar I want to tune in and listen because I want to know what he listens to. Today’s radio is about taste-making, so that’s the main focus of my show – just being myself!