Zane Lowe on Why UK Music is Stronger Than It's Ever Been

In an exclusive interview with Hypebeast, Apple Music’s creative director and flagship anchor opens up on the evolution of UK music.

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For so many people growing up in the UK, Zane Lowe was the “voice of radio.”

When it comes to broadcasters who have helped define the musical zeitgeist over the past three decades, Zane Lowe is up there with the very best. A former musician who made his way onto local radio in New Zealand, Lowe moved from Auckland to the UK in his younger years, craving to feel the buzz emanating out of the country at the time.

At Radio 1, he was an essential figure for a new generation of young listeners, introducing new sounds, genres and movements with genuine, child-like excitement. Lowe was on his music discovery journey with you, the listener, and his love for new songs was something he shared gleefully. You’ll probably know Loewe as the hottest brand in the world in 2023, but for over a decade back in the early 2000’s, Lowe’s Hottest Record in the World segment on Radio 1 had an inter-generational impact, soundtracking the lives of millions across the nation.

After his formative stint at Radio 1, Lowe is continuing to redefine radio as creative director and flagship anchor of Apple Music. While his enthusiasm for unearthing new artists and sonics has never been in doubt, at Apple, his knack for discovery has moved from the music to the musicians, where he looks to understand the world’s biggest artists with a level of intimacy, empathy and vulnerability incomparable to any other broadcaster.

As a former artist himself, Lowe channels his inherent creative drive into meaningful conversations with musicians. He’s not only discovering new talent and championing great music but sharing it with the world in a way that feels like he’s in your living room alongside you, cup of tea in hand.

Despite now being based in Los Angeles, Lowe firmly believes that the UK has the hottest music scene anywhere in the world right now. Having been immersed in the scene for over three decades, Lowe is adamant that 2023 is the healthiest UK music has ever been, waxing lyrical about Central Cee and Dave’s “Sprinter” dominating the charts, or his obsession with King Krule’s song “Flimisier.”

Hypebeast caught up with Zane Lowe at Apple Music Radio’s London studios to learn more about his original move to the UK, his evolution as a broadcaster, and why the country’s music scene has an identity unlike any other.

The Zane Lowe Show airs Monday to Thursday and New Music Daily airs every Friday both from 5pm BST on Apple Music 1.

Zane Lowe British London UK Radio Interview Feature

Hypebeast: What first inspired to you to make the move from Auckland to the UK back in the day?

Zane Lowe: I had been trying to achieve as much as I could in New Zealand, talking to as many artists as I could, producing my own shows, directing things and collaborating with my friends. I was getting restless and I felt like I wanted to travel see what was out there.

I’d interviewed a lot of artists already by then… the likes of Radiohead, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, Garth Brooks and Katie Lange. Out of those interviews, I’d made this long, elaborate show tape that was almost more like a 20-minute TV show. Most show tapes come in at about a minute, or two minutes. That one was like 18 minutes long! I mean, who’s gonna watch that thing?

I’d sent out the show tape to this lovely Kiwi bloke called Brent Hansen, who was working for MTV at the time. He responded and was like, “Look, I ain’t got a job for you… and you got to do this on your own terms, but if you decide to make the jump then I’ll meet up with you and have a coffee.” After doing that – and connecting with what they were doing – I knew deep down that I was going and I had to take the plunge to move over back in 1997.

Did you always feel this need to gravitate towards somewhere at a bigger scale, where culture was being shaped at a faster pace?

Being from somewhere like Auckland, where I wasn’t as connected, I always just wanted to chase something different. I never wanted to feel like I’d arrived at that point where I had all the records or felt complete or comfortable. I think we were already immersed with music growing up. We just weren’t immersed within it. There were probably only two or three music related websites I used growing up, uploading one or two new stories each day. I just wanted the journey to carry on, perpetually as long as it possibly could. I think the best way to do that is to go as close to the centre of it all.

“The UK is probably having the greatest summer of music in recent memory.”

You’ve worked at the forefront of celebrating UK music for decades now, but I don’t think it’s ever been as strong across the board as it is right now. Where do you think UK Music sits within the global music conversation?

UK music’s identity is incredibly strong right now. The community that is creating the music is broad – and it’s coming from lots of different parts of the world that all coexist in this amazing place. If you live in London or anywhere in this country, you know the sounds and cuisines and conversations and families all coexist with each other to create something special.

I think what you’re hearing now is all of that starting to work beautifully together, like never before. I was talking to Burna Boy about this about the about the success that his friends are having right now. You know, J Hus and (Little) Simz and Dave and Skepta… there are so many examples of this where it’s a real family connection for UK artists. They’re all in it together and very proud of the fact that they can contribute and collaborate within that environment.

 

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Why do you think streaming has really helped elevate and connect UK music on that level, globally?

Streaming has definitely helped UK music. The competition has helped breed choice. You can dive into any culture in any music that was available to you. I’m a big fan of allowing yourself the time in investing in something organically and not be told what to listen to anymore, is to listen to people give you advice and guidance. You can dive into any culture in any music that was available to you. The UK’s identity is now the strongest it’s ever been – and it doesn’t have fear that the rest of the world isn’t going to be able to understand what the heck’s going on, on this side of the world.

“(The UK just needed the right generation of artists to get to a point where their confidence matches their creative thrust.”

I think life at the moment, everyone always tries to live by efficiency and effectiveness – like how quickly can I do something and how much can I do. I think we forget that actually, the the lasting effects happen from a deeper investment in something – and that’s happened due to our increased understanding of streaming.

That’s why you’re seeing a song like “Sprinter” doing what it’s doing because everyone’s just drawn to the the excitement and the charisma of the music. It doesn’t matter where you live in the world… you want to dance and rap to it. The UK is having probably the greatest summer in recent memory.

Is that to do with so many UK artists having built up to this moment? Where there’s now an ecosystem of really strong acts all doing amazing things at the same time?

I think it’s, it’s right on time. Stormzy has been putting in the building blocks for a long time, Fred Again.., Disclosure, Pink Pantheress, and Nia Archives in the last two years, just kicking doors down. J Hus coming out with this album, Dave still doing his thing. All of a sudden, you’ve got the hottest table on the planet in the UK. It just needed the right generation of artists to get to a point where their confidence matches their creative thrust.

Is there anyone else on your playlists really moving the needle for you in the UK?

I love the new King Krule record. I just took “Flimsier,” and I just built from that track onwards and is added and added and edited but it all started with “Flimsier”. Bakar is another incredible talent. My wife and I and our two kids trying to get into see Bakar at this tent at Coachella and we got there… we just looked at each other like “good luck.” There was about three or four thousand kids just locked in and not moving. That shows the power he has right now.

Blur’s new album is incredible, too. I’ve never met anybody I don’t think in my life and music who has the same level of just insatiable curiosity and drive as D (Damon Albarn) does for the creative arts. I mean, it’s, it’s incredible. There are others who have the same intensity of curiosity in the creative arts, but they’re not doing three or four things at the same time every single year.

Back in the day, Hottest Record in the World was a formative part of many people’s upbringings in the UK. Did you understand the scale of its importance at the time?

It’s funny, I don’t really understand the impact of anything I’m involved in, while I’m in it. I think there definitely were moments, you know, when I’d say sort of, toward the end of the radio one time when, you know, I knew that that was a was a sought after slot to put a record into. We’d hear stories about I think it was when my friends in the record industry were like, “This is really exciting, but please don’t make it the hottest record yet… and of course, my instinct was like, “I’m gonna play it 10 times”.

I learned early on, it was never about about me. It was always very collaborative. No one else had the records – our job was to make them sound exciting in the time and amplify them in the best way possible. The honest truth is, when I started doing the Radio One show, the biggest concern I had was whether I was going to have a positive impact.

 

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Did you feel a lot of pressure in your position there?

I was acutely aware of the pressure, and so was my team, that we were stepping into what’s considered like a legacy slot. Like if I did’t find artists and turn people on to exciting things, I was gonna get given a “Big F”. It comes down to to how you play the records, not when you play the records or who has the records. I think there’s elements of that this will exist if you’re a DJ and you’re playing in clubs and you’ve got the dubplate… there’s definitely moments when I get a sense that we’re we’re right on the edge of something exciting and it hasn’t landed yet on larger scale.

But now, everyone can now exercise their taste on a much bigger scale. It’s been broadened through social media and through access to music. I mean, you go on Tik Tok now or whatever there’s young tastemakers everywhere that are talking about cool stuff.

Staying informed and ahead of the curve is a core tenant of your role. Is that a collaborative process for you?

Well… I didn’t find Yeat. My kid found Yeat!

That’s hilarious. Yeat is in his own lane right now. The energy he brought to Wireless recently was insane…

He puts five or six hooks in every song. It’s funny, you know, I think if you don’t understand it, or try to belittle it or minimize it, you’ve got to at least respect the numbers. Yeat is amazing, the music is insane. He’s also come up and had a moment where the numbers are as big as they are and your first project or two, but to get bigger and bigger every time so quickly? Crazy.

But I was shown Yeat by my 14 year old kid. He was like “listen to this”, I heard it… and then that’s when I really do my job. I put my ears on it and just try to feel where the authenticity comes from – and it didn’t at the first listen. Each time I listen, I’m trying to find something that I can connect to. My boy played like five or six songs and I was hooked. I always try to stay open to new sonics, even if I don’t “get it” the first time around.

 

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What are the most exciting elements of radio, as a medium, that you’re seeing unfold today?

I don’t look at radio necessarily as being something of the past, or something of the future. Radio brings me very much into the present moment. I think that’s why it still continues to connect with people. I think what’s exciting about what we’re doing and Apple Music is that we are really creating a an experience that runs alongside the algorithm and intertwines them together.

If I can’t be in the moment with the music, even for just an hour a day, then I’m not getting what I need in order to stay close to the experience. It’s not enough for me to reflect on it, or program it or, you know, even just talk about it or talk to artists about it. I have to play a song. I have to know what it feels like next to another song.

I have to know what it feels like in the room to see people react in the room to get a sense of how people feel outside the room to get the energy when I know people are listening. It is tangible. Radio still continues to be to be with the way we’re improving our malleability with inside the streaming experience.

Is the trick to stay curious in your position, to maintain your longevity in the game?

I like learning about music. I love listening to it. I love sharing the whole experience. The longer I go on in this life and doing this, the more magic I realize is out there. It’s a magic experience between an artist and releasing tracks for the first time. I need to immerse myself in that magic as much as I can – and so I can’t do that, I’m uninspired.

I have friends of mine who get to places much faster than I do. It’s never been the way I work. I don’t know why that is, but I don’t over-analyze it. I think I get paces by just focusing on what I love doing the best possible job I can to share that with the world.

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