Mary Anne Hobbs is the kind of globally influential musical tastemaker who can inspire slavish fangirl (and -boy!) admiration. As a female working in two heavily male-dominated spheres — broadcast journalism and underground electronic music — she has risen to the top of both by fiercely championing what she truly loves.
The survivor of a childhood in a small northern English town, Hobbs got her professional start in the '90s as a rock journalist for publications such as NME and Loaded Magazine, the latter of which she cofounded. Eventually, though, she discovered that her true calling was radio. And soon after that first life-changer, she had another, falling in love with dance music.
Though she began her broadcast career hosting the BBC's Radio 1 Rock Show, she eventually took over the station's freeform Breezeblock program in 1997. Its experimental format and 2 a.m. slot allowed her to take chances with risky new tracks while also regularly welcoming a varied cast of characters for live, on-air mixing sessions.
Hobbs's 2006 special, Dubstep Warz, was a defining moment in the genre's climb to crossover success, as was her compilation, Warrior Dubz, that same year for the Planet Mu label. And through all of it, she also championed new artists from the United States, helping to break internationally names such as Flying Lotus and Gaslamp Killer.
But after 14 years of hosting Breezeblock, Hobbs announced her departure from the BBC in order to pass on her knowledge to students at the University of Sheffield. As most fans could predict, however, that wasn't bound to last. And recently, she revealed her return to the UK airwaves, this time with a coveted prime-time Saturday-night show on the commercial station XFM. There she'll continue to push what's new and next — something she's also doing on her Road Warrior U.S. tour, which will land at the Vagabond this Friday.
Hobbs recently spoke with New Times about the importance of radio, the relevance of dubstep, and the next blast of underground beats.
New Times: How did you end up getting started in radio as opposed to starting off as a club DJ, like so many people do?
Mary Anne Hobbs: Originally, I was a music journalist in the UK. And I always, as a child, had great aspirations to become a writer. I thought it was a really noble art. But I always struggled like mad doing written journalism, whereas I found that my first experiences with radio were completely extraordinary. I found a natural affinity to it.
I was obviously also a huge, huge fan of [the late BBC broadcaster] John Peel. He was one of the greatest mentors of my life. When I was a little girl, my dad banned music from my house and used to smash up all my records. But he never found this tiny little transistor radio I had. It was only about the size of maybe a tuna fish tin. I used to listen in the dead of night with all my blankets pulled over my head, scrolling across the dial to find John Peel.
These were times before the Internet, and I grew up in a tiny, very isolated little village in the north of England. There was no media whatsoever. All I had was John Peel's radio show as evidence that this incredible utopian world existed beyond this little village. He was so much of a primary influence in my life. And I was always very, very excited by the notion of radio.
Actually, I've only been DJing in clubs for maybe four years or something like that. It was around about the time that I released my first compilation album, Warrior Dubz, that people started calling and saying, "Do you want to play out? Do you want to play a show?"
Somebody threw down the gauntlet to see if I could learn how to beat-match. So I've done that over the last four years, and I've really, really enjoyed it. It's been such a high hurdle, a massive challenge for me to begin DJing at this point in my life. But yeah, I really love it now. It's fantastic.
You announced not too long ago you were stepping down from your radio show to take an academic job. But now, obviously, you're going back to radio. What prompted both the break from and then the return to radio?
This, in a way, harks back to my great love of John Peel. I always felt that when he died so prematurely at 65, it was such a great tragedy that he never had an opportunity to really share this enormous, massive knowledge that he'd accrued over all his years as a broadcaster. Even his book, he was only halfway through writing it when he died.
It made me think that it was important for me to take a little time out and give something back to the younger community and try to influence them in the way that Peel influenced me, and show them that there's a different causeway, if you decide to tread it. You don't have to be sucked into the mainstream. There really is a different way to operate, entirely. I've really, really enjoyed my year at Sheffield University. It's been absolutely incredible.
But then XFM rolled up and offered me a platform of my dreams, if you will. It was all about the time slot for me, I guess. I had 14 years of freedom at Radio 1, and I'm really, really grateful to the BBC for everything they did for me. But there was no opportunity there to break out of the 2 a.m. dungeon.
I think XFM understood the value of all the work I did at the BBC and offered me a prime-time slot on Saturday night for all the music I care about.
The other big question is what you'll be playing on tour. In Miami specifically, a lot of people know you for championing dubstep. Are you still playing a lot of dubstep in your club sets?
It's kind of interesting, really, because dubstep's almost become sort of a metaphor for sonic freedom in many ways. It's really hard to identify a core dubstep sound now. If you really put a gun to my head and said, "You have to name one artist that still represents a core dubstep sound," I would have to say Mala.
But beyond that, I think the genre is so splintered now. There are so many different kinds of trajectories that were all originally influenced and inspired by what happened around 2005 and 2006 at clubs like Forward and DMZ, which were the primary homes of that dubstep sound.
I guess my sets have always been multitextured electronic sets, not just pure dubstep sets. I know America's got a very different interpretation, as well, of the dubstep sound. There are a lot more midrange frequencies in there. And it's much tougher and probably testosterone-fueled. Whereas I tend to err more towards the high-art, experimental side.
But the challenge is to try to come with something that's more unique and very, very multitextured, but will also move people's bodies, because that's primarily why they're there. They want to dance and rave and sweat and share that energy and jubilation with one another. So I'm very conscious of that: In a club environment, it's different than what you simply play on the radio.
Of all the different trajectories you're talking about, which one should we watch for next in America?
UK funky is finding some incredible momentum now. Again, it was a sound that started off as a really raw, basic, primary, stripped-back beat pattern. But now there are so many producers who are making absolutely phenomenal music. The difference is in aesthetics, but also in tempo. Dubstep is built at 140 bpm, and UK funky is slightly slower at 130.
But I think there are some incredible moves being made in that area now. It's something that's taken a little bit longer for America to really seize upon. It's not as immediate as dubstep. It's a more exquisite sound. But it's really, really on the rise.