Stories of All the Best Channel U Memories from Its 15 Years On-Air
We spoke to people about the now-shuttered TV channel that launched a load of grime and rap careers, and why it’s still important.
Lead illustration by Esme Blegvad
After 15 genuinely pioneering years, Channel U, later known as Channel AKA, has hung up it’s proverbial mic with the announcement that it will cease broadcasting.
From its inception in 2003, the channel was essentially the most widely recognised champion of grime and UK rap – up until the internet got good enough to make music telly obsolete. It was basically our answer to MTV Base, and gave credence to – if not launched the careers of – artists like Dizzee Rascal, Skepta and Wiley, who are now considered mainstream. It put Lethal Bizzle’s “Pow” on one million tinny Motorola Razr speakers at the back of any given bus, it gave us the Hectic Squad, it gave us Mr Wong, it gave us the greatest R&B pop group the UK has ever seen in N-Dubz, don’t @ me.
As a result of Channel U’s unswerving dedication to UK music – grime in particular – you could say it made talented, underground voices not just heard, but accepted. Channel U and its 24-hour stream of unashamedly lo-fi music videos (which you could request by voting for them on your phone), went on to define a genre that has done things on its own terms ever since – with a few exceptions – rejecting major labels and glossy videos for vigorous self promotion and handheld cameras. Of course, after Channel U bigged up grime, the industry followed suit. In that respect, grime grew in recognition as our generation grew in age, and ended up reflecting how, in the face of rejection from mainstream support, people who grew up in the millenium have had to do things ourselves, or they just wouldn’t ever get done.
So to commemorate it’s passing, we chatted to those who grew up watching Channel U to see just how it shaped, influenced and enriched their lives.
“It was raw, aggressive and addictive”
For me it represents nostalgia, man, nostalgia in its purest form. I remember Channel U became part of my daily routine from early. You would get home from school, and the first thing you'd do would stick it on, before your mum started moaning about getting your homework done or your mate texted you to get on MSN because a group chat was popping off. Any spare moment and you would draw for the SKY remote.
Obviously back then you were too young to reach dances, so your front room became the rave and Channel U the DJ. Brocking out in front of the TV to your current fave grime banger (it used to change weekly) with your cousins or mates – that's what it was all about. Also, jumping on Limewire to try and download said banger so you could play it off your Sony Ericsson at school the next day.
My absolute percy is P2J Project “Hands in the Air” and I'm sure anyone reading this will remember it as one of the all time Channel U classics. It was everything the channel represented – a group of proper yutes from south, given a platform to spit over the sickest sino-grime beat, with the most amateur visuals, editing and graphics. They weren't even that good! But it didn't matter: it was raw, aggressive and addictive. That's what it was about – giving young people a chance to express themselves. Ashley.
“Channel U gave my generation the freedom to be heard and seen”
Channel U was my first look into the UK grime scene. I’ve been in love with the culture ever since and I think I became more myself because of it. I remember being at a mate’s house watching all of these basic music videos over and over again, trying to see if we knew anyone in them, or spending my weekly credit allowance voting just so I could feel like I was part of it. What was great, though, was that in between these videos you would find absolute gold and it was amazing to see these young kids actually going out and putting it all together.
One of my favourite memories was actually being in one of the videos. I’ll never forget rocking up to an abandoned garage with a bunch of other young teens and we all had the slicked back hair with baby hairs glued to our face, long-ass nails, velour tracksuits, big gold hoops and dummies. We all felt like we were part of something big.
I feel like Channel U gave my generation the freedom to be heard and seen. The fact you didn’t need to be signed to some big label to be on TV was quite a major thing back then. We owe a lot to Channel U and it’s a real shame teens today won’t experience what we did in quite the same way. Frederica.
“Every house party you went to from 2005 to 2008 had it on the TV”
Up until Channel U I'd only ever seen American music channels and videos – I'd never seen garage or grime on TV, aside from So Solid and maybe More Fire on Top of the Pops and The Brits – so it opened me up to a whole new world of music that was accessible in a different way.
I'd always loved garage but was too young to go out raving the first time around, but Channel U came about when we'd just started drinking and going clubbing and definitely shaped the kind of nights we wanted to go to, music we wanted to dance to and clothes we wanted to wear. Channel U still had that excitement around it like MTV Bass and American music channels, but it was familiar and I think people in London liked that – I don't think girls my age could quite relate to those US video vixens like Melyssa Ford and Lauren London, but you could probably just about see yourself on drinking alcopops at a house party with The Mitchell Brothers.
We used to watch it at my mate Alice's house at lunch in year 10 or 11. We'd go to hers because she lived close to school and her parents wouldn't be home so we could smoke and have boys round and watch music channels for hours But my best memories of it were how pretty much every house party you went to from 2005 to 2008 had it on the TV, volume up full blast instead of playing music through an iPod or laptop. No AUX cable bullshit, no pissed up dickheads putting on fucking Jamie Jones. The good old days.
I think Channel U helped our generation to find their place in rap and hip hop culture. I think it really helped to inform the UK's identity, and we've created our own culture that's totally unique and separate to the US sound, but is still just as glamorous and exciting in its own way. Gemma.
“It captured leaving a shitty place and following the bright lights”
Channel U reminds me of the golden period of my youth; a carefree period of the 00s when watching the same four music videos all day was great. And with Channel U it was a specifically London version of US-based stuff like MTV. I live in Kent but I always idolised London, so the channel represented where I wanted to be and experiences I'd never have so long as my classmates had double barrelled names and lived in big ass cottages.
I used to watch it whenever I was off school or when I didn't have to spend my weekend working in my dad's shop. I don't think it shaped my musical tastes in that I gravitated toward emo music, but it definitely added variety. Wild that there was a time when people thought you were weird for listening to BBK and Slipknot but it sort of represented being part of two worlds that I wasn't ever present in, but also really wanted to be part of.
For me, a chubby Indian kid who used music to make friends, Channel U opened up possibilities of leaving my small town in Kent and having experiences in the city. Devlin’s “London City” was amazing because it captured leaving a shitty place and following the bright lights. But more importantly I think, for a lot of suburban kids it made us realise that life was complicated, violent and could also be incredibly dark – and that leafy Kent had protected us from that. But it was also about appreciating that it's British and that it represents where you are, rather than finding meaning in America. Hussein.
“Ultimately, It was the beginning of the visual DIY generation”
Channel U connected me not only to grime, but parts of London culture and fashion that I didn’t have easy access to at all. Growing up in St Albans – although not that far from London – hearing this visceral, amazing music and seeing the guys who were making it was like a telescope into a completely different world and I loved it. Without it, I probably wouldn't have become a Grime Kid turned Grime Uncle.
It gave visibility to artists that I might have only heard on mixes, the stuff some of the older guys used to play in their cars, like Kano and Wiley. I religiously plonked myself in front of the TV, rotating it with MTV Base and Kiss, until dinner time when I would have to relinquish control of the TV to my parents.
In terms of memories, Mr Wong's MTV Cribs-style Yards episode was, honestly, some of the best television I've ever seen. I loved all of the tunes which had about 20 different man spitting their best eight bars: stuff like “Southside Riddim”, “North Weezy”, “Straight Up Realion” and, of course, “Hands in the Air”. So sick man. “Gash by the Hour” was also such a tune. I remember being gassed when Carlton Cole did the dance as a celebration and I don't even support West Ham.
Ultimately though, it was the beginning of the visual DIY generation. People forget that grime was literally invented this millenium – it's so young. It democratised a genre of music that was already the soundtrack of inner city London and its youth culture. That's carried on today into YouTube with Link Up/SBTV/GRM Daily but it all started with Channel U. Also quick shout out to Risky Roadz and Lord of the Mics who also had a massive influence with the DVDs. But the ability to have your video seen by millions at that time, before YouTube, really can't be underestimated. Nyasha.
“Channel U had such an impact on me as a youth”
Channel U means a lot. It represents my childhood and its aesthetic. I used to rock Akademiks tracksuits because of Crazy Titch and I remember when I wanted Airforce Ones that had spray paint on cos of Bashy. Dizzee Rascals’ “Jus A Rascal” video always looked like the boat party I want to be on. I think I’m still chasing that boat.
Channel U had such an impact on me as a youth. In terms of tracks that made my teenage years, it was “Gash by the Hour” by Nu Brand with Flirta D at the end of the video. Also “Free Yard” and “Wifey Riddim” by Tinie Tempah. Grime is a very popular genre as of late, but having cable TV channels dedicated to that genre alone was very empowering for artists at the time and laid the foundation for the success of Skepta, AJ Tracey, Stormzy and all of those guys today. Nick.
“Everyone has a different kind of love for Channel U”
Honestly it was mad. You'd hear a tune on Channel U – next thing you know everyone's going mad among your group tryna find out who can Bluetooth it to you or you wouldn't have any other way to hear it. It was that or you had to sit around, waiting for the tune to come on or use your phone credit to request it. There was a real thrill and sense of accomplishment in finding new music back then – now it's just super accessible and maybe doesn't spark conversations like it used to. We didn't have proper social media, so you’d all chat in the corridors at school, gathering round someone’s phone to listen to music.
My biggest memory is of Imperial Squad “Just A Link”. Do you understand how much of a bop that song is? We were all there, so young just singing along, knowing it was utter trash but the tune just worked so... here we were. That bar where she's like "got any condoms? / nah man bring nuff” still makes me laugh at how casual the whole thing was.
Whether it's two people beefing, a jokes video, Mr Wong being an absolute angel or all the girls in school listening to Tinie Tempah's “Wifey” on repeat, everyone has a different kind of love for Channel U. From its comedic value to the freedom and great platform it gave to so many artists that are still going strong like Giggs, you can't deny that it's shaped a generation. Rhyanna.