Monday 22 January 2018

How Tinie made it big

Tinie Tempah
Tinie Tempah

Ailbhe Malone

Only 21, Tinie Tempah is the owner of the biggest-selling single of the year -- the indomitable Pass Out. A bass-heavy party track, with a pulsing beat, it showcased not only Tinie's witty lyrics (sample: "I live a very very very wild lifestyle/Heidi and Audrina eat your heart out") but also his ability to meld an underground genre with a radio-friendly sound.

It comes as a surprise then, when Tinie states that: "I had to listen to Dolly Parton for the majority of my life, because my mum is hot on country and western music."

We're in the back of a car, driving through London. Tinie's busy schedule (he's the support act on three major tours) means that this is the only time we could meet. Talking in the backseat of a taxi can be awkward at the best of times, but Tinie (born Patrick Junior C Okogwu) is keen to chat. A wonderful communicator, he speaks quickly and fluidly, keen on eye contact.

Let's start at the beginning then. Where does he come from? "I'm originally from a place called Peckham, in South London. When I was 12, I moved to Plumstead. Peckham is a lot more built-up, and, what's the diplomatic word -- it's a lot more 'urban' than Plumstead.

"Everyone knows everybody, but not in a good way. So when I was about 12, my mum didn't want her kids growing up somewhere a little bit rough."

He pauses, and asks: "I don't know -- where in Ireland would be the equivalent of somewhere like that?" I offer a suitable example. He notes it, stores it and continues.

"So, I moved to Plumstead where there weren't as many high-rise buildings, it was a lot more leafy, a lot more multi-cultural as well." He pauses again, and asks: "So, in Ireland, what would be the opposite of [here he uses the example I'd given]?"

I answer, and he seems pleased, and continues to use the two Irish examples for the rest of his answer.

Engaging, he's dressed casually in a red hoodie, jeans and box-fresh trainers. That is, until you glance at his hands. On the little finger of his right hand, he wears a platinum and diamond ring; and on his left wrist, a large gold watch. Upon mention of these adornments, Tinie clams up for the first (and possibly the only) time. Bashfully, he explains: "I kind of get shy when people ask me about my jewellery. I'm not really a jewellery person, but I kind of wanted to treat myself.

"And I think that once you reach certain milestones in your life, you should definitely mark them with something material. I know that sounds kind of weird, but whenever I look at this ring, I remember when I bought it.

"This was just before the photoshoot of my album. It's a frontal shot, so obviously the hands are in sight. I thought I should accessorise and put something on there.

"My watch came when I signed my record deal. I was like, I'm going to get myself a watch that can never lose value. It's heavy, I only take it off to sleep -- it's a diver's watch."

He's a hot prospect at the moment. Aside from the number-one single, and the support slot on the Rihanna, Mr Hudson and 50 Cent tours, Tinie has also been approached by P Diddy to do a remix.

"The one thing I love about Diddy is that he's so hands-on. He made it very clear on Twitter that he wanted me to do the remix, and then he said 'thank you' on Twitter. I think that's a big deal. He's somebody that I've looked up to for a very long time, and it was a great honour."

Plus, he performed at the Cannes Film Festival after-party -- and that's not the half of it.

Recently, Tinie was approached by the Tate Modern gallery to comment upon a new exhibition by former Young British Artist Chris Ofili. Hang on, commentary on modern art through rap? That seems at odds with a 21-year-old in a hoodie, whose next single is called Frisky.

Tinie enthuses about the project, explaining: "When they opened the Chris Ofili exhibition, they wanted what's going on right now in terms of music and arts to get involved.

"Obviously, Chris Ofili is a young artist and he's cool, and they wanted similar from all different aspects of art -- like music, poetry, all that. So, a few people, including myself, had to come up with a piece about the exhibition. I just went to look at the exhibition one day and I was pretty amazed. I went home and wrote a little 16 bar."

I comment that it might be difficult to rap about modern art to a young audience without sounding a little bit, erm, pretentious. He quickly counters, arguing: "Well, obviously music is art. And art is creative. And I heard about an exhibition recently, I don't know what the actual term is, but they were talking about creating a sound for certain spaces; it's like a blank canvas, a white space and you make a sound for it.

"That was something that really grabbed my attention straight away. If one painting can inspire me to write something, I don't see why other paintings can't inspire me to write more -- do you know what I mean?"

Well, then, is art a theme that he'd like to carry through to his newer work? He leans back and answers: "Art is something that I'm really trying to develop. It's definitely something that I want to venture into a bit more.

"With the theatre, a cousin of mine goes to Rada [Royal Academy of Dramatic Art], so he's always dragging me to things. He's given me some techniques. Not stuff that's very noticeable, but at Rada they've got this process where they give them a weekly massage to neutralise the body, so that people don't have any bad posture, or the things that make you 'you'. For example, Tinie always sits like that [slumps]. They kind of massage it out of you. So yeah, when I get a minute free, I do that."

With all this talk of work in the US and branching out into art and theatre, how important is his personal identity to him? For example, new single Frisky hangs on the couplet: "Would you risk it for a chocolate biscuit?" Is he willing to change his persona and his accent for a shot at international stardom?

Not bloody likely.

"I think a big part of who I am is that I'm English, this is where I've grown up, and this is what I sound like. I don't think that being British is my only selling point, but I think that cultural identity is something that should be important in a time when music is a bit incestuous.

"You could get in with a writer from Sweden, and then an American producer, and just write a track that sounds the exact same to everyone else. I like to hold on to the fact that I still keep my slang and my accent."

He laughs, and shrugs. "People say to me, 'if you go to America, you'll have to change the words'. I'm like, 'no, they're going to have to do their research'. I don't know where 138th St in Harlem is, but I still enjoy the song."

Tinie's debut album The Disc-Overy is out on Parlophone in August

Irish Independent

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