DJ ACE was positively glowing, as we sat down to lunch in central London. Why wouldn’t he be? The south Londoner, real name Ashley, recently celebrated a major career move; being promoted to the coveted, week-day 10-1pm slot on BBC 1Xtra, home to the station’s ‘Live Lounge’. Ace took over the reins from the legendary Trevor Nelson at the beginning of this year.
The charismatic radio host has played a prominent role in the UK music scene for over a decade. From his early partnership alongside Vis to the inception of BBC Radio 1Xtra, The Illout Show on iconic TV station Channel U through to MTV Base and beyond, Ace has been an activist and ambassador of the thriving UK music scene, particularly R&B.
We spoke bout his musical beginnings, many creative ventures and how streaming has changed the face of radio.
Q: How did you get the nickname Ace?
A: (Laughs) I went to New York when I was nine and was out playing with my cousins. Back then, out there, Ashley wasn’t a unisex name and my cousins refused to call me that in front of their friends. They called me Ace and it stuck.
Q: After you graduated from the BRIT school, you went to Greenwich University for a bit and landed a slot on 1Xtra. A short timeline – how did the opportunity come about?
A: It was literally right place, right time. I really hated university (studied Media Production and Technology) and it was my first time away from home. My mum and I are very close, I’m a mummy’s boy and an only child. I dropped out and came home.
After that, the BRIT school called me back to teach a radio course for a while. It was then that I heard about 1Xtra, at the time it was called Network X. Straight away, I just sent them a demo of the best parts of mine and Vis’ radio from show from the BRIT school, they liked it, called us in and I’ve been there ever since.
DJ Ace with Salt ‘N’ Pepa (image via Instagram)
Q: You’ve been collecting records since you were 7 years old.
A: Yeah; from my mum’s collection and then, when I got to a certain age, all my pocket and lunch money would go towards records. I use to get money for the week, for lunch, and always spend it on records then end up scrounging from my mates for a little change or a sandwich, or something, at lunchtime.
Q: On the whole, what kind of music was in her collection?
Every Sunday morning, my mum would be listening to old school reggae, making food. She’s Ghanaian but has been in the UK since she was 7 and grew up with a lot of West Indian people. She’s very much into reggae, Motown, rare groove – so I grew up on a lot of that.
Q: How’s the UK R&B scene doing over here?
A: Creatively, it’s amazing; but I think you really have to go and look for it. It hasn’t really been given the platform, over the last ten years, to show what it can do.
We have some really amazing artists that just need some light shined on them. In some form, radio has let our R&B artists down, online has let them down but I think it’s changing and they’re getting more airplay. I definitely want to help champion UK R&B specifically because they need to be heard by the masses.
Ones to watch on the UK R&B scene?
Barber, a male singer from North London. He has a record that I’ve been playing called ‘Worship’. He has a really, super soulful voice.
A lot of these artists are huge on Soundcloud because they didn’t really have any other platform to get their music out.
DJ Ace with J Has (image via Instagram)
Q: That’s the beauty of the internet – its accessibility!
A: Definitely. Soundcloud has this community where people are on there all the time, trying to find new music. We may have no idea who a lot of these artists are, but they’ve got a quarter of a million listeners on their song.
Q: Speaking of streaming; how, if at all, does this compete with radio?
A: The job of radio has changed so much because people don’t really listen to radio to find out what’s popping any more. For me, my job is to be as entertaining as possible and to try and give people what they want to hear.
I think that day time radio is something that’s there for comfort and entertainment; as long as people are comfortable and entertained, day time radio is always gonna be there.
Q: You’ve clocked that the role of radio has changed, but has the industry? Is there still the expectation for that institution to function in the way it always has?
Yeah! I get emails all the time, asking me to play certain songs. Sometimes I’m like ‘but what are you doing?’ It might be beneficial for the artist to have one million streams on Spotify than it is for me to play your record. I understand that it is a source of promotion to have a song played on the radio, but there’s other ways. Radio is not the be-all and end-all.
Streaming has changed it a lot and it has made presenters really up their game and give listeners a reason to tune in.
Q: What’s your reason?
A: That’s a very good question. I thoroughly enjoy entertaining people. I really get off on making people have a good time; I love making people feel happy.
A DJ is really important in a night out. Someone could’ve had the worst week and, come Saturday night, they just want to let loose. That’s in the hands of the DJ. Musically, putting people onto good music that they need to hear is important to me.