What difference does a decade or two make in the worlds of music, kids TV and poetry?

Grandmaster Flash, 61, hip-hop pioneer, and AJ Tracey, 25, MC

Grandmaster Flash born Joseph Saddler on New Years Day, 1958 is often credited as one of the pioneers of hip-hop, but his achievements are as much in the field of engineering as they are in music. It was Flash who invented the slipmat that allowed records to be manipulated by DJs; who used solder and Super Glue to give decks a separate headphone channel, so they could hear the record they were cueing up; and who invented the quick-mix theory, allowing small portions of tracks to be looped. Those innovations formed the basis of modern DJing.

Hip-hop has gone through many iterations since Flash debuted his skills on the wheels of steel (a phrase he popularised) at block parties in the Bronx. AJ Tracey, the London MC, tries to embody them all, combining grime, UK drill and trap in his music. An outspoken supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, he is one of the leading lights of the UK rap scene, registering a No 3 album and selling out two nights at Londons Alexandra Palace. The pair immediately hit it off and talk constantly during the photoshoot about love, their roots and Nandos, sometimes to the dismay of the Guardians photographer. How can you photograph us having a talk if were not talking! shouts Flash.

Grandmaster Flash So what would you do if it wasnt music?

AJ Tracey I dont want to say something incriminating! I was at university, so, hopefully, I would have got a job. I was doing criminology.

GF Criminology? So which side of the coin were you working?

AJT Ha, both sides. Studying their side, but doing my side. I love learning about history. I thought criminology would give me a bit of an insight into how cities work.

GF Did your parents want you to stay at college?

AJT My dad was born in the UK, but he actually got sent back to Trinidad for a while for misbehaving. He was impoverished and obviously black people had it hard it in the UK. He was a rapper, too, but my grandma told him, I want you to go to school and bring some money to the family because you should be grateful for the British education.

So when it was my turn, he said I should go to college. Any parent who cares about his son would say that, especially any parent from Trinidad. And when I told my gran that I wanted to do the music thing and leave uni, she rolled up her sleeves, got the spoon and just whacked it.

GF I used to get my ass whacked, too! My father was an avid collector of vinyl records. The rules of the household were: never to go in the closet where dads records were, and never to touch the stereo. But as soon as I heard his tools go over his shoulder, and the door slam, I would grab a chair, play music and dance around the living room. Whoever was home would say, Dad will take your head off if he sees this, and he would kick my ass, but in a way that made me know the records were really valuable, so Id do it again.

After a while, I had to start diagnosing the vinyl. My mother was a seamstress, so I took one of her needles and put the tip inside the black tunnel and felt a vibration. Im like, Holy moly the music lives in the black tunnels! Then it was on: me going in the closet, him beating my ass, me going in the closet. My dad was the brother of the 1948 featherweight champion of the world, so he had hands of stone.

AJT I can identify with that. My mother was a pirate radio DJ. Being a white Welsh woman spinning hip-hop was unheard of my dad obviously fell in love with that. She used to spin NWA. Shes got NWAs first vinyl, and she has two copies: one to spin and one thats sealed. She knew it was going to be crazy valuable. Thats the record I wasnt allowed to touch. But actually my mum was the one saying: Go for it, do music.

GF Oooh, thats interesting. It was mom saying go for it.

AJT What would you have done if not music?

GF I think I would have been an electronic technician, because I was always unscrewing the back of amps and seeing how the circuitry worked. Thats what my people wanted me to be. I actually had to stop hanging around people

AJT who were telling you that its not going to work out [in music]?

Grandmaster
Photograph: Janette Beckman/Redferns/Getty Images

GF Exactly. In my teenage years, when I was trying to figure out the quick-mix theory, I had a crew. They would knock on the door and say, Can Joe come out and play? Id say, Ill be right there. After months and months, they realised I was never coming out. So all my friends left and my audience was my miniature doberman pinscher named Caesar.

Later, when we would play in the neighbourhood parks, my problem was there was no place to plug in, because if you asked a person in the nearest apartment, thats a lot of juice! By this time I had knowledge of electronics, so I worked out that the lamp-post turns on at dusk automatically. I had to break the lamp-post door, find the electronic timer, cut the head of the extension cord and wire it so the electricity was going all the time. These were the challenges.

AJT I wouldnt go to the park, but I would go to pirate radio stations to try and get the microphone. You almost have to fight your way in there. Its really a hood thing you need to be built tough, because you need to go in there with your people and say: Its my turn. Often it was 2am in Enfield not many listeners could hear me, but I could hear me.

GF Exactly! Its about that practice. For us it wasnt pirate radio, but we did deal with the cops. Early on, they would shut us down. But what would happen is that all the big-time drug dealers and hood rats and killers would come into the park and jam with us what we were doing just brought the best out of people. Drug dealers were going to the shop and buying 300 bottles of pop and 300 bags of crisps for the audience. And the cops would just sit around and be happy they had nothing to do.

AJT Man, I cant imagine British police saying its a good thing, but one day they will. UK rap is a baby compared with the US were still new to this. We need some more time for everyone to become accustomed to black culture.

GF Are you a perfectionist?

AJT Absolutely. Im my worst critic.

GF Me, too. Ill come off stage and people will be cheering one more tune, and all Ill be able to think about is 15 minutes into the set I fucked up a mix.

AJT Me too, bro. My tour manager will say it was a great show, but I wont be happy, because I know I fumbled. Theyll say no one noticed. But I notice.

GF So whats the biggest difference for us? The internet.

AJT That would be the defining thing. You were in the Bronx, and I was growing up in west London but with the internet were half a second away from everyone. I was recording music in a trap house, pressing a button and uploading it to SoundCloud which means its in peoples bedrooms, in white households in America, in Japan. Its much easier for me to sneak around the powers that be, and the gatekeepers, and get my sound out there. I still wanna rap about things that are close to home. You cant tell me I should speak on Trump or Brexit, just because its two big things that are happening. Thats not how it works. I will speak on Grenfell or the Labour party things that are close to home.

GF Right. Its got to be something that affects the artist, their family or their neighbourhood.

AJT I wouldnt say we had the same struggles, but theyre similar struggles. Our parents, being black and from black heritage, the struggles of being a perfectionist. I feel like thats within every artist the struggle that led you to excel, and that in turn leads you to want to give perfection.

Janet Ellis, 64, writer, actor and television presenter, and Will Lenney, 23, YouTube superstar

Will
Lenney and Ellis: I think its important for the ideas to come from you. Photograph: Pl Hansen/The Guardian

In 1983, Janet Ellis was looking for a new challenge. Having previously only accepted acting roles, she initially felt offended when it was suggested she audition to be the new Blue Peter presenter; she was only persuaded after betting her agent 5 she wouldnt get the gig. She lost the bet, and became one of the shows best-loved hosts.

Her four-year stint was followed by regular BBC presenting jobs and occasional TV appearances with her daughter, the singer Sophie Ellis-Bextor. Her main focus is now fiction; her second novel, How It Was, was published in August.

Childrens television has changed a lot since Elliss day, not least in that little of it is watched on television. Half of children over eight say they prefer YouTube, and the majority of 12- to 15-year-olds say they regularly watch content made by vloggers. Will Lenney, better known as WillNE, is a 23-year-old YouTube superstar with more than 3 million subscribers. His posts are mostly first-person looks at internet culture: These Life Hacks Are Beyond Useless or Remaking The Worst Tik Toks I Could Find, for instance. Hes often joined by other popular YouTube personalities, although Lenney brings a sense of humour and self-deprecation to his vlogs. The channel began as a bedroom exploit in Whitley Bay in North Tyneside, but has now made Lenney rich enough to move to a flash London apartment, where his videos are recorded.

Today, Ellis and Lenneys 41-year age gap feels immaterial; they josh and banter as if they have just been announced as two brand new Blue Peter presenters, assuming boy-band poses and swapping stories of their most disastrous links (Lenney just rerecorded his, whereas Elliss went out on TV to millions).

Janet Ellis This is a question you must be endlessly asked: how do you become a YouTuber?

Will Lenney Theres no follow this first step, no path. You give it your all and hope for the best. I think thats probably one of the biggest similarities between our careers.

JE Yeah, I had no career plan. When I was little, I wanted to act, but when you go, I want to be an actress, people just go, Well, did you know, 75% of the people in the profession are out of work? And I have to say, I just went: Well, poor them.

WL Sod yous, yeah? I like that. The one thing Id say is that if you start out wanting to do YouTube as a job, youre finished from the get-go.

JE I get that. When people say, I want to be a presenter, I think: what do you want to talk about on camera? Why do you want to be there?

WL For me, it started as a hobby just making daft comedy videos maybe once or twice a year. I failed my A-levels spectacularly and had to retake them, but I used all the spare time I had to give the YouTube thing a really good go.

JE I got my provisional Equity card early and did loads of theatre, and then four episodes of Doctor Who. Along the way, I had Sophie and then went straight back to work. I did a kids series called Jigsaw just weeks after she was born.

WL That must have been hard.

JE I didnt know any different. I had her when I was 23, so the same age as you. I felt clever, you know: I can do all this and Ive got a kid. Also, in real life, if somebody says: Right, youre going to get up at six in the morning and go parachuting, Id say no. But presenter-me says, Oh yes! I suppose what makes a good presenter is allowing people to see that actually, you would rather be in bed, or that youre scared.

WL Totally especially on YouTube, when people will go, I got up, I ate breakfast, you know, I went to John Lewis. If you bring people into that, they feel like they know you as a mate.

JE I wanted to ask you about ideas, because the stuff Ive done, theres been an office full of people whose job it was to find something to do. On Blue Peter, 75% of it was viewer-suggested. Do you have people who suggest content?

WL I think its important for the ideas to come from you, because its your channel. But we get immediate feedback with analytics. You can see the number of people watching your channel over the last 60 minutes, then for each minute, how many times someone clicked on each video. When shows like Love Island are on, theres no point in uploading, because I can see the huge drop-off. No one is on YouTube at that time.

JE Yeah, we owned them: the audience had nowhere else to go. Not just the kids, but the parents, because everyone understands the words Blue Peter. Its been on now for 60 years. Even by the time I joined, it was 25 years old, and if parents went into the room and their kids were watching they would probably stay, for reasons of nostalgia. I have grandsons now, and theyre all fully YouTube conversant, but its not that thing of getting home from school and its there, and mum might come in and watch, too.

Do you like the fact that it enables young people to have this thing that has nothing to do with us?

WL Parents should always be aware of what someone is watching but yes, we specifically target who we think is our demographic. Having said that, I would never put something in my videos that I wouldnt say to my mum.

JE That is an excellent rule.

WL That usually helps me walk the line pretty well. I find it liberating. I quite enjoy the responsibility, or burden, of knowing the buck stops with me.

JE I left the BBC years ago, but you become a spokesperson for it. I have lost count of the number of times Ive been asked to defend childrens television, and you will be asked to defend YouTube.

WL Yeah, I get that quite a lot. YouTube is very strictly regulated now, whereas maybe it wasnt seven or eight years ago. There are dos and donts. Now, if you say certain jokes, YouTube are not going to put any adverts on your video. I just have to make the decision: is this worth the risk?

JE With live telly, people always assume that youre desperate to swear or do something wrong. But I wouldnt ever do that. I joined Blue Peter when I was 28, so I wasnt going to be living a nun-like existence, but the first responsibility was always it sounds so prissy to the viewer. I dont want to be the person they see falling over pissed and being horrible to waiters, or something. But this was way before Twitter, paparazzi; I suppose its harder now.

WL It can be very volatile. There was a big YouTube scandal in 2017 when a lot of advertisers pulled out over concerns about what their adverts appeared on. It had just become my full-time job. Id moved down to London, I was paying rent, and suddenly you go from getting paid, say, a pound for 1,000 views to 10 pence.

JE When the News Of The World published an expos of Richard Bacon, 22, taking cocaine, it was horrible. Hes still one of the best presenters they ever had, and he was immediately sacked and the then head of childrens programmes, Lorraine Heggessey, sat in front of a bowl of daffodils and did this sort of Queen-like speech before the programme went on air, you know: very disappointed in the behaviour. They dragged some of us out of retirement because they were suddenly one presenter down. So I went and did a few programmes. But it was ridiculous.

WL Thats a horrible existence that, innit? On the other hand Ive been doing these live shows and its been such a lovely experience and privilege just to speak to people on the street who enjoy what you do.

JE YouTube makes people scared, so you have to hold their hands and tell them its fine. My 10-year-old grandson has started talking into the camera completely unaffectedly, wandering around the house using entirely the wrong angle.

WL Youve got to start somewhere.

JE Well, he always starts with: Hey, guys.

WL Thats so sweet. Ten is young for it, but by the time hes 15, he could get bloody good. I havent even been doing it for five years. I hope he keeps doing it.

Alice Oswald, 53, Oxford professor of poetry, and Yrsa Daley-Ward, 30, Instagram poet

Yrsa
Daley-Ward and Oswald: Now I am happy to sit or walk, waiting for a poem. Photograph: Pl Hansen, Gareth Iwan Jones/The Guardian

Alice Oswald was elected Oxford professor of poetry in June this year, succeeding Simon Armitage and becoming the first woman in the role. It follows a string of prestigious poetry prizes, and acclaim from her contemporaries: Carol Ann Duffy hailed her the best UK poet now writing, bar none, while Jeanette Winterson said she was making a new kind of poetry, bringing the countryside, myth and nature to life.

Oswalds career has centred on traditional published collections and literary magazines; by contrast, Yrsa Daley-Ward self-published her debut collection, Bone, in 2014, but rose to prominence after publishing excerpts and new poems on Instagram (she has amassed more than 150,000 followers). These were initially interspersed with photos from her modelling career and videos of live performances. She bristles at the label Instagram poet, but the way she posts poetry, sometimes as a screengrab of her Apple Notes app, or scribbled down in a notebook, feels especially urgent. Modelling has mostly been replaced by acting, and shes currently appearing as Connie in World On Fire, Peter Bowkers new BBC drama about the second world war.

Daley-Ward, who was born in Chorley, Lancashire, and raised in part by strict Seventh-day Adventist grandparents, now lives in New York, from where she spoke on the phone to Alice, who was in her cottage in south Devon.

Alice Oswald I think its fascinating that poetry has found its way on to Instagram. I wonder whether it might then grow into a form where its not so autobiographical, and maybe the images are not personal that it might create a form thats more like Chinese poetry, which tends to be both visual and verbal at the same time.

Yrsa Daley-Ward You know, on social media, we cant hide from the fact that a lot of things are very self-centred. They just are. And if we think about things generationally, as well, people [of my generation] are almost obsessed with our journey, our feelings about this, our trauma. I dont think you have to be like that to do well on social media. I always hear this thing Instagram poet, but often people are using excerpts from much longer works.

Do you ever split poems up in that way? Do you see four or five lines from the larger body of work as standing alone, and maybe even meaning something else?

AO Yes. I like the notion that the poem is a very intense, airborne thing. One only captures a little bit of the poem you get in a book just a trace of some actual alive poem thats always elsewhere.

It does feel as if people are talking more about poetry now, and Im delighted by that. I was always frustrated that it only ever seemed to put people off when it was taught in schools. Its exciting that, suddenly, performance poetry and social media poetry have changed that.

YD-W I think theres been a huge surge. People are going into prisons and care units and facilitating the writing of poetry. Im from a very religious background, so I grew up on biblical text. Also, Im Jamaican and Nigerian, so I grew up on knowledge of the ancestors or oral storytelling, fables. When that meets this modern way of processing, understanding and speaking about things in a very simple and succinct way, you almost, as the writer, dont have to make it happen. Its already there.

AO For me, poetry is all about expressing the fact that I dont know whats going on. Does that have any resonance with you?

YD-W Im interested in what I do know and what I dont know. I think I found poetry because I wanted to talk about things that were in front of me. But I dont always understand a feeling before its on the page. So I think the genesis of it is still what I dont know. Then somewhere in that process, it becomes very personal.

AO When I was younger I used to suffer from that panic of, Oh Im never going to write again, this has gone. Now I am happy to sit or walk, waiting for a poem. Its not really up to me I just have to do the listening.

YD-W I know I want to be very serene, and not that intentional. Which is why I write in the morning because then everything still feels possible. I feel open and not too much has happened in the day to make me distracted.

AO I, too, love the early morning to get up before anyone else is awake, drink strong coffee. That does offer a kind of clarity that isnt always there in the rest of the day. But I do notice that, however much I try to say to myself that its a daily discipline, probably the more inventive poems emerge at times when things arent manageable.

YD-W Yeah, I agree I think because the mind has to go somewhere.

AO Thats exactly it. If you reach impossibility, then thats when the imagination kicks in, I think.

YD-W Theres a passion that comes during those times. Where you put your energies is particularly surprising and important.

AO Yes, I remember when I was 20 or so, and I decided to try writing so-called free verse. I remember feeling physical panic as I was doing it, which was exhilarating. But I think the things poetry summons up are quite terrifying.

YD-W Absolutely. But I think we can always rest in the knowledge that the work stands alone. When somebody is there with your book, youre not there in person. Its no longer about you.

AO Theres a difference between Alice and Alice Oswald, and I spend most of my time trying to escape Alice Oswald. I hate her. If she is anywhere near me when Im trying to write, thats a disaster. So I have good ways of getting rid of her. I find her entirely fictional and redundant. I like the thing you say somewhere: You know youre writing the truth when youre terrified.

YD-W I think that whenever you are nervous that youre revealing yourself, or that youre saying something you havent said before thats when youre striking something important.

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