Duane ‘Vis’ Jones, Still Paving The Way For Black British Creatives 👑

Words: Jude Yawson

Duane Jones, popularly known by his stage name Vis, sits on two decades of creative work collated over a career working in music, radio and television. From the pirate radio era to the legendary Illout Show on Channel U and then The Ace & Vis Show on BBC Radio 1Xtra, Duane has hosted, produced and provided opportunities for some of the most talented people of an era—the foundational years of grime and road rap—and he still contributes in various ways. Naturally, times change, things move on and roles evolve, and while investing in movements that acknowledge the importance of bridging people and ideas together, this South Londoner has continued to thrive.

Duane’s latest venture acknowledges the interconnected nature of Black British culture, as well as the expanse of interest and creativity itself. As one of the founders of Renowned Group, which then led to the founding of Renowned Films, Duane Jones has utilised his experiences and taken up the role of a TV executive. Masterminding great work for the small screen, on shows such as The Modern Game for Otro, Copwatch America for BET, Generation Grime for Sky One, plus many other shows and documentaries, he has submerged himself in the TV industry with aplomb. In a rare interview with Mr. Jones, we picked his brains about his creative journey thus far, his future endeavours, and how the game has changed over the years (for the better).

“I need to feed my mind creatively. If I cannot wake up and create, what else am I going to do? What else is there to live for?”

When I think of Vis, my mind takes me back to Ace & Vis, Channel U, and more recently Not For The Radio. Plus now, moreso behind the camera, your work with Renowned Films. To take it back to the beginning, what made you want to work in the entertainment industry?

It started from a very young age. It’s all been about creativity, which isn’t measured by monetary value. My creative journey started in my first household through my uncles, grandmother and mum. All of them are heavily into music and fashion. My uncles were into sound systems, pirate radio, and even released music themselves. selling White Label vinyls. Even though I left school with no qualifications whatsoever, I ended up applying for and passing a BRITs School For The Performing Arts test. I didn’t understand how I got it—especially when I got in—but my mum said to me what I have been doing is studying all around: listening to radio, watching TV, reading magazines, going to pirate radio, going to concerts, fantasising about my own rap group or radio station, and I was constantly writing down notes on everything. I was self teaching myself to be creative, to take on any opportunities that might arise.

Back in the day, looking ahead then, there wasn’t really a format for young Black creatives to replicate in most of the areas you worked in. And it was pretty normal for parents from certain generations not to understand how creative endeavours can set us up for life. Last night, for example, my mum was watching the Kanye documentary, Jeen Yuhs, and as you were explaining your beginnings to me, it reminded me of Donda and the faith she instilled into Kanye.

Funny you say that, my mum reminds me of Donda. My friends who were close enough would say, “That’s how your mum treated you,” in terms of being really supportive. My mum watched Channel U intensely. She’d say stuff like, “Dizzee Rascal and Kano are going to be the biggest things.” She even said that Jay-Z would be bigger than Puff Daddy. She was making calls from early while watching TV and listening to the radio with me. In that household, surrounded by uncles that were invested in music inspired by my mum’s encouragement—that’s where my creativity started. My family had an open mindedness on not being too restrictive on my career or interests. It was all about expressing myself, as long as I wanted to and as long as I wasn’t getting myself into trouble. But in terms of being on Channel U, MTV, 1Xtra, partaking in partnerships with Channel 4, I would say none of them were more significant than the other as it all stems back and started in my first household.

I wanted to share a quote I got from one of my olders who was very much invested in the cultural impact of work in and around the scene: “Ace & Vis provided a seamless bridge between the underground and mainstream, and they did it in a sophisticated way. It wasn’t rough; it was very professional and it showed.” In which ways do you find your work back in the day still helps you now?

When I think about being on Channel U—R.I.P Darren Platt—it was the perfect place for me to cut my teeth in terms of understanding how to put a show together, producing and presenting a show, and managing artist relations. It was also about being able to identify what’s important for the audience to see, who to place my bets on, and how to provide a wide net of opportunity. It wasn’t just about who can sell the most CDs, or whether they had a right to be on this show. It was mostly about who is the sickest creatively? Who can be introduced to the world? A lot of the clips you’ll see from back in the day will be the first time you see some of the legends we have in the scene—the first time they appeared on TV, ever! I think it’s a good accolade for me to have. It also came full circle, because I never used to see myself as a TV producer back then. We used to call it Pirate Television because we saw ourselves as having this rebellious vibe. We got the licence to do that through Darren, only because he saw the potential in the culture and us as people who understood it. And like you said, we had a good understanding of a fresh way to present the culture, a different way to cut through. We weren’t media trained, it wasn’t polished, it didn’t feel manufactured, and it was definitely edgy—a pure representation of what was going on in the streets. We knew we had to maintain a level of professionalism; I don’t even think we really knew the word at that point, it was just about maintaining order. Which wasn’t easy, because you’re straggling the street, and the TV industry, which we didn’t have experience in. It was perfect timing. That’s what helped, I think. The biggest trailblazers in the scene respect me for that, so I still work with them in various ways.

We live in such a vocal time, we get to comment on and acknowledge the threads of our culture so much today. But that hasn’t always been the case. How have you found that transition of it being a closed-off space to a pretty open one?

Freedom of speech is great. There was a time where only a certain few people would get to say their thoughts on an album, for example. We’d have to listen to what a few key DJs would say, where they talk about it for a week or two on the radio. You had to listen to them, no matter what they say, their agenda or personal takes. I’m originally a DJ, by trade, but I prefer now where there is no listening party. Whether it be through TikTok, Instagram or Twitter, everyone’s a commentator now. Whereas before, there were listening parties; as great as that time was, it was less inclusive. It wasn’t wholly negative—it was great, and that’s how culture can build—but now I prefer it to be wide open. Your work speaks for itself, and the people speak on you directly. I was one of the few fortunate people to be able to go to those closed-off listening parties, or have a platform on radio. But when I sat in the radio suite, I always knew the future was in the hands of the public. It seemed, for the most part—on screen and on radio—everything I was doing seemed upbeat, and it reflected my happiness. But I don’t want people to think there hasn’t been a Black music struggle here, as in resistance to creativity and Black music being played in certain places, on TV, on radio, and in venues. For example, every TV show that I’ve worked on or presented, with the exception of the MOBOs and The Illout Show, I had to fight to play or present these sounds. I wanted to do so much, but there were people in positions trying to appease the record labels, the bigger corporations, and it’s all been a huge fight. Now, the fight is marginally easier. But not entirely. Saying so would be undermining what Black creatives are still going through.

Some people look at my journey and think, “That’s wicked, man. You’re lucky to do all of that,” which I am, but trust me: it’s a fight. It’s a struggle to be on radio for 11 years and play purely UK Black music. Nobody was doing that as consistently as we were before that. Nobody had a show on television that was all UK Black music—that I could remember, anyway. You had MTV, but don’t forget when Usher, Mariah Carey and Busta Rhymes were in town… As much as I loved them, it became all about them. My show was never that—it was road rap, grime, dancehall, you get it? That ain’t easy. Rave promoters as well. For them to find venues was a complete struggle, with mainstays shut down or simply not putting on the same nights anymore through police and public pressure. The Deja Vus, Rinse FMs, Delight FMs, dodging Ofcom and the police—we were fighting! It was a battle. Man were on rooftops—with no harness—getting the aerial up. I come from the battlefields of this and now we’ve got more armour, and that armour is technology and knowledge. I like it now—you don’t have to go on a roof—you can just upload your thing to YouTube, to Spotify, to some radio service, to TikTok even. You don’t have to go into a room with nine other men, thinking: “If I grab the mic, are they going to box me down?” [Laughs] That’s what these people had to go through. I love the progression. Before, it was a beautiful game, but it was undeniably hard—and for a lot of people. In conclusion, it’s progression and I am all for it because there’s less of a battle. It means that those kids who weren’t prepared to climb on the rooftop, or go into a room and clash an MC, who doesn’t want to go through the politics of facing corporations trying to tell them they should be playing a certain genre of music, or going into a record label and being looked at disposable, they don’t have to go through that anymore.

Witnessing many cultural and generational shifts within the scene, what inspired you to keep your creative endeavours going?

A natural instinct to evolve and the appreciation of being able to have a creative mind. I need to feed my mind creatively. I can appreciate just creativity. What else is there to live for? If I cannot wake up and create, what else am I going to do? That’s just how I am. I’m inspired by it all. I’m inspired by my music, actors, fashion, and technology. I’m inspired by working with people—I love to achieve and create with people, and everything I do has a community base and feel to it. Of course, with my own TV production company, Renowned Films, I’m documenting or creating some form of entertainment within different communities. Sometimes it’s misunderstood communities, other times activist communities, and entertainment-based content. That’s what keeps me going, really. There’s so many people doing fantastic things, I owe it to them—the older generation and the younger generation. The younger generation is doing fantastically well, and the older paved the way. I can’t say there’s anything specific, as in one shift that’s inspired me. I’ve seen many; pirate radio turn into digital radio; terrestrial TV turn into cable and satellite TV; DVDs turn into YouTube. I’ve seen different milestones of achievements, in terms of actors, musicians, and execs. So it’s not one specific thing, it’s just a natural thing of working with people and wanting to create. Everything that I’ve done is with and for people.

What is the beauty of our creative scene at the moment? What makes you feel charged?

Less boundaries for young people makes me feel charged. I love to see them walking through the door with their own vibe. I love seeing that collaborative spirit too, like Tobe and Stormzy, Zeon and Wretch [32], Buck and Giggs, Benny [Scarrs] and Dave—people setting up companies and doing business with their friends. These are people that have changed the country and people’s lives through their work, whether it’s inspiring people or directly having a hand in providing people with opportunities, or doing some record-breaking things through their work.

What’s next for you?

At the moment, with Renowned Films, we have some programmes in America on Bravo and BET and I want to expand on that. Lockdown stunted our moves in America, but from what I’ve seen and been told, I have the most hours on TV in recent times as a young Black TV exec from this country. I want to build on that, build on more opportunities for upcoming producers. I also want to move into scripted, as I do unscripted TV shows at the moment. I want to move into films, and I’ve already had a few conversations to direct some. There’s another thing I want to do: build an ecosystem, connecting the dots of music, audio and visual, sourced directly by the individual and this system. An ecosystem that aligns and compiles all the things I care about.

Posted on July 13, 2022