Like most great things, it all started with a simple question: “Who would beat Drake in a clash?”
When Bola Adisa, founder of The Language Podcast and now a producer on No Signal radio, first posed the question on Twitter, he couldn’t have predicted that within a few short weeks the scrappy online station would be reaching hundreds of thousands of listeners in countries all over the world.
Founded by Jojo Sonubi -- the scene-shaper behind the Black In The Day archives and Recess, a London-based party pushing everything from hip hop, to Afrobeats and neo soul -- No Signal was a way of keeping in touch with the community of young black Londoners that had coalesced around the Recess events. Lockdown in the UK exacerbated the need for a virtual place for this community to gather. A natural extension of the ethos behind the parties, the online station was initially used to platform mixes from regular Recess DJs such as AAA, Donch, and Super Midzie, as well as airing recordings of sets from the parties for those who might have missed out.
But in Bola’s request for worthy Drake challengers, Jojo saw the seed of a perfect show format for his nascent station. He reached out to Bola, and ‘NS10v10’ was born.
A game show styled as a clash, NS10v10 pits artists against each other with gladiator-like representatives to fight their corners -- and only 10 tracks to prove their artistic supremacy. “No Signal was running quietly for a year, and when Jojo reached out we thought 10 tracks would be more concise and more difficult,” Bola explains over the phone, “because so much depends on the selection.” The format is inspired by the ‘Verzuz’ clashes on Instagram Live between American songwriters, producers and singers, but according to the No Signal team, NS10v10 should be seen more as a game show than a pitched battle.
The scores for each round are tallied via a simple Twitter poll, with listeners following along with the ubiquitous #NS10v10 hashtag, and the hosts throwing out banterous barbs about each other’s track selections. Indeed, the pairings to date have ignited conversation across the social media platform: Kano vs Dizzee Rascal, Beyoncé vs Mariah Carey, and Burna Boy vs Popcaan have all sent the hashtag straight into Twitter’s trending topics.
This element of listener engagement has been key to the success of the show -- and the station more broadly. Voting is only open for 10 minutes and, unlike most broadcasters, there is no option to listen back to the shows after they’ve aired. This means that come 9pm, when the show airs, Twitter fingers must be at-the-ready to get some of the action.
Jesse Bernard is a music and culture journalist specialising in Black British culture through a multi-generational lens, and hosts a show called ‘Spot The Sample’ on No Signal. He notes how the engaging and interactive nature of shows like NS10v10 and the station in general is “reminiscent of old school radio, when we would text in for a shoutout.” Indeed, hosts Henrie Kwushue and Jason ‘Scully’ Kavuma -- both of whom cut their teeth on south London’s youth-focused Reprezent FM -- use the interval breaks to shout out consistent listeners and online commenters.
This communal spirit amidst uncertain times is what has seen the station go from strength-to-strength. “Where other radio stations or shows are exclusively hosted by DJs or people who work within the music industry, there can sometimes be a gatekeeper mentality,” explains Jesse, pointing to the station’s broad church, “when in fact, music, and the nostalgia it brings, is truly universal.”
The ease with which the station has gathered a dedicated listener base is due in part to its inclusivity of black talent at all levels and highlights, significantly, how these young broadcasters are connecting with an audience that can often go underserved. Jamaica and Nigeria are two nations that have become cultural powerhouses on the global stage, and an early clash that pitted Portmore’s Popcaan against Port Harcourt’s Burna Boy stirred a friendly rivalry between the two. The clash helped break new ground for No Signal and its flagship show, but this small step would become a giant leap when Jamaican and Nigerian pop royalty went head-to head a few days later.
Henrie, having donned her headphones that evening expecting to broadcast to perhaps a few thousand listeners, found herself speaking to more than half a million people around the world -- including the clash’s subjects: Wizkid, and the incarcerated Vybz Kartel (who made his presence known with a tweeted-then-deleted rallying cry to his fans). “I had expected us to grow naturally and knew it was a big one,” says Bola, “but thought that realistically we would reach 25,000 listeners.” Such was the engagement that the No Signal servers crashed, forcing the team to put together a YouTube livestream within minutes.
As the station’s audience continues to grow, industry types are vying for a piece of the action and social capital that Jojo and his team have effortlessly accumulated through authenticity and genuine inclusivity of an entire network of young talent. Such was the popularity of the NS10v10 show that songs re-entered music platform charts, Spotify clambered to establish playlists to run in tandem with the clashes, and artist managers and label reps started sliding into the station producers’ DMs to find out how they could grab a slice of airtime. Hosting and producing the clashes remotely from their homes, a group of young black people have managed to shake up the music industry from their bedrooms.
The usual model wasn’t working and labels had to quickly adapt to how they were going to plug their artists to this grassroots, DIY station that seemed to pop out of nowhere.
Patricia Odje, who has worked on campaigns for Hardy Caprio, Darkoo, and Krept & Konan whilst at Virgin EMI, explains the value of No Signal’s engagement from a label perspective. “Where a lot of our ‘urban’ artists build their fanbase through live shows, the current situation means that has been taken away as a means of exposure,” she says. “[No Signal] not only provides a means of platforming artists but also for cultural expression that has been taken away due to the lockdown.” Patricia says her focus has “shifted from servicing the usual radio and PR outlets” onto “this unregistered radio station that’s being run out of bedrooms [and] bringing in all the listeners.
“The usual model wasn’t working and labels had to quickly adapt to how they were going to plug their artists to this grassroots, DIY station that seemed to pop out of nowhere,” she explains.
Indeed, the likes of Tiana Blake, M1llionz, and NSG have all eschewed traditional broadcasters in favour of premiering singles on No Signal; and as well as showcasing known talent, the platform has served as a base for new and emerging acts too. No track has bounced off this platform into worldwide virality more than IPDizzle and his infamous “Billie Jin Billie Jin” refrain on Dior (Remix). The ‘rumba drill’ track was played during the Vybz vs WizKid clash and shot up the charts, since notching up more than a million YouTube views -- without a video or any other promotion. It’s become the lockdown anthem, demanded by listeners and eventually played during every NS10v10 season one interval.
But to label No Signal an overnight success discredits the hard work and consistency displayed by the team over the years to establish the Recess community -- even if it was the magnified success of the NS10v10 segment that made brands, labels, and platforms sit up and pay attention.
With shows now airing seven days a week and the station broadcasting 15 hours a day, the No Signal team are determined to provide the masses with entertainment. As well as Jesse Bernard’s Spot The Sample, there’s NS Super Album where host Paula Abu sits down to dissect discographies, everybody’s favourite agony aunt Oloni has her very own 0800-ASK-OLONI helpline where listeners ask for advice, and the DJ sets don’t stop with multi-genre mixes from selectors from Canada, Ghana, Nigeria, in addition to the usual Recess favourites.
This is a real community, and hopefully it's the quality and the integrity within our work that draws people here.
On Sunday May 24, season two of NS10v10 launched after a pre-planned two week hiatus. The episode line-up reflects not only how far the station has come, but its aims for even wider domination. The new clashes span across genres and generations, and familiar faces are taking on hosting duties -- a recent ‘90s R&B vs 2000s R&B battle was headed by Richard Blackwood and Ray BLK. Elsewhere, Roc-A-Fella goes up against Ruff Ryders, and a grime vs garage clash will revisit old scene tensions.
Despite the unexpected station’s explosion into the wider music world’s consciousness, presenter and producer Scully (who is also looking after No Signal’s brand partnerships) is adamant that No Signal will stick to its original stated mission. “Everyone worries about keeping momentum going,” he admits, “but our mission is to keep representing a group in Britain that, for too long, has been underrepresented.” Key to this, will be maintaining the authenticity on which the station is grounded. And while recent NS10v10 clashes have seen established broadcasters and famous faces like Julie Adenuga, Ian Wright, Ray BLK, and Richard Blackwood going in to battle, the station's founders are keen for No Signal to continue to grow organically. “If big names want to come to the station, we have no problem,” says Scully. “But this isn't something built on big names, or using other people's clout to further our ting. This is a real community, and hopefully it's the quality and the integrity within our work that draws people here.”
Not short on ambition, Scully says that No Signal will “grow and evolve to become the premier black media company, first in Britain, then the world.” With a global community of passionate fans rallying around the station, there’s little to stop this signal in its tracks.
UPDATE (01/07/20): The No Signal crew are now crowdfunding to cover the cost of establishing a studio space for their operation -- more details, including how to donate, can be found here.