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Tiffany Calver: Living the dream

Host of 1Xtra’s Rap Show and tour DJ for the likes of Drake and Beyoncé, Tiffany Calver’s meteoric rise has seen her become a household name in the UK in recent years. In conversation with Tara Joshi, and with an accompanying mix celebrating the women who inspire her, Calver reveals the passion and hard work that have helped her achieve her childhood dreams, and that still drive her now

As a teenager in England’s West Midlands, Tiffany Calver was frustrated. Life during the first year of her A-Levels was proving depressing and unfulfilling. The thing that was keeping her going was her love of music — and so, she started to blog and make YouTube videos reviewing artists like Wretch 32 and Dom Kennedy.

She has rediscovered these videos in the midst of 2020’s lockdown, she tells DJ Mag with a smile: “I unlisted them, but I was showing them to my boyfriend and we were laughing because my accent is so West Midlands. And my boyfriend was like, ‘Who is that girl?!’ But I had a proper emotional moment because I remember who that girl was and everything she wanted. There’s this one video where my friend is doing a Q&A and she asks me, ‘What do you want to do in the future?’ and I say, ‘I love music, I’d love to do, like, radio or something’.”

To say she achieved this aspiration would be something of an understatement. Fast forward to the present day and 26-year-old Tiffany Calver is one of the premium hip-hop selectors in the country, most notably the host of BBC Radio 1Xtra’s Rap Show. The first-ever woman to lead the programme, she’s interviewed the likes of Cardi B, Future and more on the show. Before that, she was the first woman to host a hip-hop show on UK national radio with her slot on Kiss FM.

She has toured as opening DJ for Fredo, Jay-Z and Beyoncé and, famously, Drake on his Europe run of shows last year. The Canadian giant had seen her DJing at a mutual friend’s birthday party before and sent her a message to ask if she’d be up for it — she agreed, thinking it would never actually happen. The next day her phone crashed because Drake had named her on the tour flyer on Instagram. The pair curated the UK talent who made viral surprise appearances on that tour, like Digdat, Unknown T and, most memorably, J Hus. Over summer, she also made a cameo appearance in the video for Drake and Headie One’s ‘Only You Freestyle’, because she was the person who brought the pair together in the first place.

It feels safe to say that Tiffany Calver has come a long way since making those YouTube videos up in Telford. We’re sitting on a members’ club rooftop in West London, the last drops of the summer’s sun pouring down as bougie media and advertising types socially distance from one another in the nearby pool. Sipping on a ‘picante’ (essentially a spicy margarita), Calver is every bit as affable, passionate and full of straight-up knowledge as her radio persona suggests — her gold Louis Vuitton hoops glinting in her ears everytime she lets out her warm laugh.

Calver, who is of mixed-race heritage, decided she had to move to London for college aged 17, as her depression up in Telford became more and more pronounced. She moved in with her dad in Putney; after living somewhere “very white”, suddenly being in a city with so many other Black people and people of colour was surreal, she says, though it meant finally “feeling comfortable in my skin”. While studying, she threw herself into the music industry, blogging for everywhere from SBTV to MTV while also interning for Wired PR, the publicists who look after the likes of Stormzy, Kelela and Jorja Smith.

She learned to DJ in the practice room at now-defunct London station Radar, something she is grateful for given the inaccessibly expensive costs of equipment: “I only bought my own CDJs this year, because Drake paid me for the tour!”

At the same time as all this, she was running a now- legendary night called Tiffany Calver & Friends, which saw her bringing the hottest names in rap to the stage. (Lamentably, she notes how almost all of the London venues that hosted Black music nights back then are now closed.) It means she has some pretty amazing stories: throwing an afterparty for AJ Tracey and Dave in New York; Travis Scott turning up to her first ever night at [now-defunct East London club] Visions; André 3000 appearing at [East London pub] the Old Blue Last to catch the show she was hosting.

It’s clear that Calver’s got a work ethic that’s close to Beyoncé levels. That’s partly down to understanding the doors she is smashing down — “If I had said no to the Rap Show, when would a mixed-race Black woman get an opportunity like that again? For a massive primetime Saturday slot; for a rap programme.”

Calver has understandably never cared much for talking about her career in terms of what’s it like being a woman in a male-dominated industry, but she’s aware it’s meant having to prove herself to a lot of the general public. “People used to say, ‘She must have done this, she must have done that to get this job’ when I took over the Rap Show,” she says. “I almost feel sorry for them. I empathise that people have never seen a woman in this space before, so they don’t know to take her seriously as a broadcaster or a journalist. But that doesn’t happen as much anymore, because now people see me and my work and they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s Tiffany Calver’.”

Her ambition is also rooted in a genuine love for music. We talk at length about our generation growing up alongside Odd Future, about how exciting UK rap is right now, about French MCs, about how she used to DJ for £50 and take three night buses home afterwards, and how she discovered American music she’d never heard of buying bootleg CDs as a kid living in St Vincent and the Grenadines. This passion is something she largely owes to her family, she says: “My dad was a music head, my grandma had figurines of Michael Jackson, my other nan now has a tattoo of Drake...”

It’s her mum, though, who seems to have played the most influential part on her taste. “She was 19 when she had me, we were best friends. She opened my eyes up to music. Her and her friends were still young, they were party girls so there was always music on — so music has always been a happy thing for me.”

Calver remembers going on roadtrips to a pub in Wolverhampton called Cider House with her mum, playing on the slides with other kids while the venue played UK garage. She also recalls how, sometimes when her mum couldn’t get a babysitter, the two of them would spend Saturday nights dancing around at home to The Rap Show. “In the West Midlands we didn’t have a lot, so we listened to a lot of radio — and I used to listen to that show religiously. So knowing that I’m now the host!? Nah.”

While she is already fulfilling a whole bunch of childhood dreams, Calver is still busy lining up the next steps in her journey. She’s starting a label, putting together a mixtape, and exploring how to advocate for better mental health provisions and legal support for artists.

Over the last decade, Tiffany Calver has been consistently flying the flag, doing so much for rap, UK and beyond. Doesn’t she want a bit of a break? “It’s so funny, people will be like, ‘Oh, your work ethic is crazy’, ‘Oh, you work so hard’. Yeah, I do. But you know what’s different now? I get to Uber there now, I can eat or I get to sleep in a five-star hotel. Before, I was crashing on floors, I was taking coaches to Paris, I was sitting next to people smoking crack on the night bus. I was working a lot harder back then! So now when people are like, ‘How are you gonna handle everything?’” She laughs, “I’m like, you have no idea. I’ll be fine.”

Tiffany Calver has made a special mix for DJ Mag, celebrating the music of "all of the women I grew up on, grew up with, and continue to grow alongside". Check it out below. 

Tracklist: 

Aaliyah 'One In A Million (Acapella)'
Princess Nokia 'I Like Him'
Cardi B ft. Migos 'Drip'
Flo Milli 'In The Party'
Queen Key 'My Way'
Tommy Genesis 'Tommy'
Nicki Minaj ft. Lil 'Chiraq' 
Tierra Whack 'Clones'
Ivorian Doll 'Daily Duppy Freestyle' 
Miss La Familia 'Hardest Bars Freestyle' 
Young MA '2020 Vision' 
Shay 'Jolie' 
Princess Nokia 'Tomboy' 
Shawnna 'Gettin Some'
City Girls 'Jobs' 
Stefflon Don 'Lil Bitch' 
Megan Thee Stallion 'Captain Hook' 
Lil Kim ft. Remy Ma 'Wake Me Up'
The Roots ft. Erykah Badu & Eve 'You Got Me'
Lauryn Hill 'Ex Factor' 
Missy Elliott ft. Da Brat 'Sock It 2 Me'
Foxy Brown 'Oh Yeah'
Rah Digga 'Imperial' 
Lil Kim 'Crush On You'
Eve ft. Gwen Stefani 'Let Me Blow Ya Mind' 
Missy Elliott 'Get Ur Freak On' L
Lil Kim 'Put Ya Lighter's Up' 
Nicki Minaj 'Itty Bitty Piggy' 
Mulatto ft. City Girls 'In N Out'
Rico Nasty 'Countin Up' 
Lauryn Hill 'Lost Ones' 
Lil Kim 'Woah'
Eve 'Who's That Girl' 
Rubi Rose 'Big Mouth' 
Remy Ma 'Conceited'
Shaybo 'Ya Dun Know'
Stefflon Don 'Move' 
Khia 'My Neck, My Back'
Saweetie 'Icy Girl'
Little Simz 'Venom'