The New Statesman Profile - The white DJ in black culture

He is Norman Mailer's white negro: hip, materialist and a guru to poor youngsters. Tim Westwood prof

Playing records for other people is something every music-lover does, often to proselytise on behalf of something we feel isn't getting its due - even if only among our own circle of long-suffering friends. The professional disc jockey does nothing different but he or she does get paid for it. Some of them get paid a lot of money - so much money, in fact, that a profession which was once full of mere servants to the music business has spawned its own elite of superstars. As dance music has moved from specialist taste to mainstream, generating a huge slice of the industry's earnings, its players have come to relish their kingpin roles.

For some of them, such as Pete Tong and Judge Jules, the pay-off has been staggering. With their radio shows and record labels and personal appearance fees, they are among the highest-paid figures in a business that has always created overnight millionaires. As in any bull market, this boom is fuelled on a sense that the ride is unstoppable, fail-safe. What harm could, indeed, come to anyone from simply playing records? Tim Westwood, sometimes called the "Gangsta of Rap", may have a rueful answer to that question, following his shooting on a London street two weeks ago. Westwood is one of the most high-profile of British DJs, corralling a vast following via his Radio 1 shows and one-off appearances. His own production company earns money from other radio programmes. He has been a consultant to major record labels and hobnobs with the stars of his favoured music. Yet Westwood walks along an awkward track of his own making. He seems like a white man who feels he has to be black.

Dance music as a whole has long since assumed the status of a world music. The prominent names - be they DJs, remixers, producers or even musicians - are as likely to be European as American, and dance capitals such as Ibiza present a polyglot face of ebullient hedonism. But the dystopian alternative to dancefloors of democratic good cheer is the brutal message-mongering of hip-hop and its principal language, gangsta rap. In rock's search for ever more outrageous postures, the taste for violence that began to underpin hip-hop in the 1980s seemed little more than the latest trend, no more "real" than heavy metal's sword-and-sorcery fixations of the day before.

The trouble was that people actually started to feel threatened, even if such a premier hip-hop group as NWA (Niggaz With Attitude) didn't actually use any of the guns they were constantly photographed carrying.

The mood was changed somewhat by the more peaceable groups such as De La Soul and P M Dawn at the turn of the decade; but hip-hop has recently become more violent than ever in its imagery. This time, people have actually been dying in ways that seem to suggest life imitating art. The deaths of major rappers Tupac Shakur and Notorious BIG have been well-enough documented, and plenty of less dramatic incidents have offered bountiful evidence to those who would condemn the whole area as the ravings of homicidal maniacs.

For Tim Westwood, born in 1957, the son of a clergyman, the hardcore language of gangsta rap is about as remote from his own experiences as a walk on the moon. Westwood may have been hugely influential, but many in the business find him a laughable figure. Unlike, say, John Peel, a well-educated boy who never made any pretence about his true background, Westwood goes into character when he works. He speaks in a kind of Jamaican-American hybrid, dressing in the appropriate style ("The jacket comes through the door first," says the BBC's Matthew Bannister, who poached Westwood from Kiss FM) and mimicking the manners of a culture that is increasingly reliant on stereotypes designed to increase its visceral appeal. If Westwood feels he can identify with the concerns and ambitions of hip-hop, he has clearly moved a long way from the mean streets of Norwich, where he quietly took his exams at comprehensive school. He more or less drifted into the music business and became a DJ by accident when standing in for a missing colleague. In the grand old days of the Light Programme the record-spinners were old-school BBC broadcasters, who were overtaken only when the corporation hired all the ex-pirates to start Radio 1. That route to the top has not changed since: Westwood first gathered attention through working for a pirate station himself in the eighties.

The DJ, though, has become a guru, not a simple turntable man. Old-school names such as Peel, who seems to have heard every record ever made, and the late James Hamilton, with his peerless mix of enthusiasm and erudition, are still respected, but the DJ today is a blend of selfish entrepreneurialism and mass-market elitism. Someone such as Tong has made himself into an invincible brand, driving attitudes to particular musical styles as surely as any hard-nosed marketing strategy.

Westwood has his stake in a less sunny side of the business. Bel Mooney suggested in the Daily Mail that he might be an "unlikely hero" for speaking out against the violence in hip-hop, but there has been precious little evidence of such campaigning in his work. If anything, the everyday thuggery of hip-hop mythology seems to be creeping closer to the everyday menu of radio music. The white Detroit rapper Eminem has already sold two million copies of his album The Slim Shady LP in America, and a track from it called "Guilty Conscience" has had daytime play on Radio 1.

Important exposure for this kind of record would have been unthinkable in the pre-Westwood era, and he is widely credited for pushing such artists into UK prominence. Yet the record is a disturbing fantasy in which the artist muses on murdering a liquor-store manager, date-raping an underage girl and executing an unfaithful wife. It ends with two shotgun blasts.

"Hip-hop is about trying to make the most of limited means," says one music writer, and Eminem, a self-confessed product of the underclass characterised as trailer-park white trash, must know something about deprivation.

But the aspirational qualities of hip-hop are about nothing more than obliterating those roots with a hungry materialism: a ferocious hankering after jewellery, cars and girls (women are seldom more than objects here), along with a very big gun to ward off anyone else who wants to cut in.

Twenty minutes spent watching MTV will prove the point: every hip-hop video is a hallelujah to these glittering gods. Whether he buys into this dubious mythology or not, Westwood has himself drifted into the untenable position of cheerleader for the good, bad and dangerously ugly aspects of hip-hop methodology. Like Norman Mailer's white negro, he has invested in a fundamentalist hipsterism that may be no more than a lucrative and fashionable stance for him but speaks of easy salvation to a generation of the dispossessed which might previously have seen only the boxing ring or the football field as the way out of a dead end.

Plenty of theories have been advanced about Westwood's shooting, most of them ringing with exotic fears about Yardie gangs. The most likely scenario is that Westwood fell foul of some hard people in a business where an awful lot of money is sloshing around. Under Blair's boom, the freewheeling rave culture of the 1980s has become a complex, multi-levelled business, in which some players have few misgivings about enforcing their own codes of practice. Door money or drug money, protection racket or merchandising spin-off, proper and improper ways of doing business thrive alongside each other. Real gangsters don't need the credibility of gangsta rap. They've been doing business all the time.

Nor do they worry much about the politics of playing the game. In a famous spat on one of Westwood's radio shows, the veteran American rapper KRS-1 told him that "the political moves you have to make to survive in this business, the medium you're coming through, it's obviously making you dirty". How dirty can a man who plays records for a living be?

Perhaps Westwood has been musing on that question as he recovers at his secret address.

Words such as "nigger" should have been profitably lost from the language by now, yet hip-hop has brought that sobriquet back as an ironic term of black dudgeon. If, as he reputedly does, Tim Westwood uses it as a term of respect to a fellow citizen, he might do well to ponder on his country's history of respecting black music, from the coon songs of the music hall to The Black and White Minstrel Show, which was still thriving in the 1970s. He might then realise that the days of blacking up are over.

This article first appeared in the 02 August 1999 issue of the New Statesman, America says: never again!