You might not have heard of Tinie Tempah yet, but chances are you will soon. The British rapper—repping South London, to be exact—has been making waves back in the mother country with his recently released debut Disc-Overy. The record, which debuted at number one on the British charts, includes hit singles “Pass Out,” “Written in the Stars,” and “Frisky,” the latter of which earned him two MOBO awards. His signature blend of grime, pop and electro has set Tinie apart from his peers, and snagged him coveted spots touring with G.O.O.D. Music’s Mr. Hudson and pop princess Rihanna. And, in addition to Tinie’s songwriting skills, may we just mention what a gracious, handsome, impeccably dressed charmer he is? Cheers!
Serial Optimist: You’ve had a bit of a whirlwind year, haven’t you?
Tinie Tempah: It’s been crazy.
SO: How crazy?
Tinie: It’s been absolutely mental. I’d just say that all of my wildest dreams, everything that I could’ve possibly imagined that could happen within the space of a year, have. I’m very grateful. Grateful to the fans especially, and we’re gonna go twice as hard next year.
SO: What’s it been like on a daily basis?
Tinie: Pretty hectic. When things happen so quickly and when things are so new, you don’t tend to take on board how quickly things are happening, or how much work you’re actually doing because it’s new. You get to go to a new place, you get to meet new people, and you get to perform to a bigger crowd. It’s all wow, wow, wow. I only realize it when I get to the middle of the week and people ask, “What day is it?” And I think, “Hmm, that’s a good point.” I don’t even know what day it is or how long I’ve been doing a certain thing for. That’s basically how it’s been.
SO: You used to it yet?
Tinie: Yes, I am used to it, surprisingly. The first couple of months were crazy. You’d wake up at a mad time and just be like, “What the hell? How am I supposed to function?” But you get very, very used to it. Your body just adapts.
SO: You’re pretty young. You’ve been doing this for pretty much your entire adult life. How would things have gone if you hadn’t met this success?
Tinie: You know what? I probably would’ve just gone to university, done a course that I probably wouldn’t have wanted to do, ended up in a job that I probably didn’t really want to be in. I would’ve made a certain amount of money I probably wouldn’t have wanted to make.
SO: Lucky you. That’s what most people end up doing.
Tinie: Yeah. And I guess that’s why I’m really happy with the sort of music that I have and the sort of people that are attracted to my music. I feel like I’m indirectly showing people, not that there’s another way, but just that if you really have a dream, you should try and give it a go. Because you never know, right?
SO: One of the things you’ve been known for is challenging the stereotypes of what are typically considered to be urban artists, black artists, British hip hop artists.
Tinie: Yeah, people are pretty much spot-on. However, it’s never a conscious thing to challenge a stereotype. I’ll take it back to the other day: The other day I did this interview—I won’t say with who or where—I went into the establishment and the guy said to me, “Well, you’re awfully well dressed for a rapper.” And I let that one slide. And then we were speaking, and he was like, “Hmm, you’re awfully well spoken for a rapper.” And I was like, “Hang about, mate. A rapper is not a species. It’s not a type of person. A rapper is a like a job title.” It’s like me saying, “You’re awfully well spoken for a presenter or for a cleaner or for whatever.”
At the end of the day, I’m a human being and I just think that’s what it is. Challenging stereotypes by just being who I am. The fact of the matter is I’m not really trying to be anybody I’m not. I was well brought up, my parents are still together. I lived in a council estate, but I don’t anymore; I saw my parents buy a nice house and move me to a nice area. And I represent that, because when people listen to hip hop, people get this ideology that everybody’s from a broken home, that they only appeal to people that are from broken homes and people on drugs or whatever. However, the majority probably do live with their mum and dad, their parents probably do earn quite a good bit of money, they probably do go to good schools, and I just want to represent that.
SO: That’s something that’s been happening in American hip hop as well, with artists like Kanye West, Kid Cudi, and the Cool Kids, people that have been getting attention for being middle-class, suburban hip hop artists, as opposed to people from more inner-city areas.
Tinie: Yeah, exactly. That’s exactly what’s happening in England as well. I think whereas that stereotype was so predominant in America for such a long time, it’s gonna take a while to be eradicated in England. When people think of rap even in England, they straightaway think of America. And when people think of American rap, American hip-hop, they immediately think of a big diamond chain, a gun. D’you get what I mean?
But obviously with artists like myself and those people you just mentioned, hopefully that stereotype can be eradicated. Because the fact of the matter is hip-hop has been around for decades now. Naturally, and inevitably, that stereotype would officially die out. If those rappers went on to have kids, inevitably their kids wouldn’t be in the same situation. So it’s more of a common sense thing. I just wanna make those ignorant people use their common sense a little bit.
SO: When people think of UK hip-hop, they tend to think of grime, music that’s a bit grittier. What you’re doing, though it has elements of grime, is a bit more pop. It’s a bit more accessible to people who aren’t traditionally into hip-hop. Is that a conscious thing?
Tinie: I’d say conscious in the sense that I feel like that’s what the 21st Century is. Gone are the days when you’d have to tune in to a mad illegal radio station late at night to be able to hear the rapper of your choice. That’s all changed now. That’s all gone out of the window. And I feel like I represent that change. I represent the era of iPods and shuffle and things like that. And I think that’s exactly how I make my music. I always bear that in mind. We are in a day and age where we probably all have Jay-Z and Coldplay in our record collection, that’s standard. I’m just the amalgamation of the two, I think.
SO: Your parents are of Nigerian origin. How does that impact your music and your career?
Tinie: I’d say my career more so than my music, in terms of the fact that I like to put 100% in everything I put my full attention into. D’you get what I mean? I saw my parents work hard, not being originally born in a place with a lot of opportunities, and make it for themselves. They’ve set a minimum benchmark, which is pretty high and I bear that in mind with everything I do. If my parents could come from a completely foreign land and make something of themselves, then I’ve been given all the opportunities in the world to be the absolute best at whatever I want to be. I’d say that’s how it’s probably affected me.
SO: I saw a preview of your Newsnight interview, which I guess airs tonight.
Tinie: I still need to see it! How does it look?
SO: I only saw a couple of minutes, but it looks good. In the interview, you mention being into British heritage in terms of style. What’s that dynamic like, being a second-generation immigrant?
Tinie: What do you mean?
SO: Do you feel a sense of British identity?
Tinie: Definitely. I was born in England, so as much as I’m from an African household, when I step out of my house, where am I? I’m in England. When I go to school, English people teach me. When I go anywhere, to any institution or establishment, I come across English people. So as much as I feel very African, I also feel very English, which is exactly how it is in America. If not a little bit more. From what I’ve seen in America, a lot of people tend to feel more American than anything else. I definitely talk about being British.
When I talk about being into British heritage in terms of fashion, I talk about it because that’s what I like. I see it and I think that looks really, really good. So I try it on and it fits well, I just run with it. So, yeah, definitely. Whatever you’re into is whatever you’re into. I went to Australia the other day and I got some Coogi, but that doesn’t mean…
I think when you go for fashion; it’s good to go for the exact reference point. So, for example, when I buy a plaid shirt, I always try my best to buy the authentic plaid shirt. Or if I get a body warmer or a warmer’s vest, I like to get a Moncler. Or the Canadian Goose jackets, which are exact reference points. I just think it’s better.
SO: That’s a conceptual thing as well, something that you don’t find in music, for the most part. That’s a part of your character that isn’t necessarily related to music.
Tinie: Yeah. Yeah. But I think both of things have sort of lent themselves to each other. At the end of the day, I haven’t always thought like that. Sorry—are those glasses Cutler & Gross, by the way?
SO: No, they’re Paul & Joe.
Tinie: Oh. Well. With music being able to get me into certain places and see the world a bit more, I can go to Australia and be like, “Why’s there so much Coogi around?” And they’re like, “Because this is where Coogi is from.” And I can be like, “Wow, that’s crazy. If I’m buying Coogi, I want to buy it from Australia.” And it’s music that’s gotten me into that situation. If it wasn’t for music, I probably wouldn’t have gone to Australia as soon as I have. So I’d say the both kind of complement each other, to be fair.
SO: I often think of the British music scene and the Canadian music scene as being pretty similar, because they have their own niches and are successful in local terms, but often have a hard time coming across to America. How true is that?
Tinie: I definitely agree with you. But I think Drake is a good model, in terms of any style of music. Drake is definitely Canadian. He’s very Canadian. You can tell by the way he raps. Drake has come from a situation and circumstance that is not stereotypically hip-hop. However, he’s cemented himself in hip-hop culture, more so than anybody else can right now. D’you get what I mean? Considering his circumstances, it’s definitely a model to look at and emulate.
I think that’s all a British artist needs to do. I’m not trying to come over here and be Lil’ Wayne. I’m not trying to come over here and be Jay-Z. That’s not what I wanna do. I just wanna be Tinie Tempah, but just make people in America be aware of that person. That’s all it is. I don’t ever plan on changing my style or anything like that, but I definitely think it could work over here. I just want to show people and see what they think.
SO: The Internet has been a big part of Drake’s career, and yours as well, in your ability to be more accessible and have a wider audience. You interact really strongly with your fans on Twitter and on your blog. How much is that part of your marketing, and how much of it happened naturally?
Tinie: It just happened naturally. In 2009, which is pretty recent, I set up the blog called Milk & 2 Sugars. And I just thought that it’d be kind of cool to let people know a little bit more about me. I think nowadays especially in popular culture, there is no correlation between the artist’s real life and their music. Mostly because a lot of artists don’t write their own music. But, also, you listen to these songs and they’re just generic pop songs. It could be sang by someone black or white, male or female, Australian, English, Canadian, and the song would sound exactly the same, and you’d probably still get the same feeling. I just thought that wasn’t on, so I wanted to let people know a little bit more about who I was, what I was into, and show people that there’s a correlation between what I talk about and who I actually am.
Leading on from that, a lot of my friends started getting record deals and a lot of my friends started getting major record deals. So when Jay Sean came over to shoot his “Down” video, he was like, “T, do you wanna come along?” And I was like, “Yeah, of course.” So I brought my little camera around and filmed Jay Sean bigging me up, saying, “Tinie’s the next big thing.” Obviously, when Mr. Hudson signed to G.O.O.D. Music, done exactly the same thing. It was just a habit, I just kept doing it. You could clearly see it. It was weird, people would start running up to my manager on Oxford St. and being like, “You’re Dumi, innit? You’re Dumi!” And Dumi would be like, “How’d you know me?” And they’d say, “Tinie’s blog, Tinie’s blog.” So it was through things like that that I realized how powerful the blog was, and I just maintained it. It was definitely a coincidence. It wasn’t a conscious thing.
SO: How did the idea for the Claridge’s High Tea come about? That was brilliant.
Tinie: Thanks! Well, basically, I love tea. I LOVE tea. I drink tea a lot. And there’s a tradition at EMI, and at Parlophone, to be specific, where when you sign your record deal, you can sign it anywhere you want. If you wanna bungee jump off of a cliff and sign it like that, you can do whatever you want. However, I’m not brave enough to bungee jump. So I just thought, it’d be nice to sign my first record deal with a fan as a witness. Being a big music fan, I was learning about deals very early on. When Dizzee Rascal signed his deal, it was such a big deal to me. I was like, “I wonder what a deal looks like. Is it on a golden paper? Does it say 1 million pounds on it? What is it like?” So, I wanted to give someone else that opportunity. I wanted to do it in their house, drinking a cup of tea with their family. However, health and safety regulations and getting the whole record label over to Manchester, which is where the girl was from, was a little bit long. So someone suggested Claridges, which I had heard of but never been to. So I was like, yeah, sounds good. I’ve made a habit of going there regularly after that.
SO: And what’s next for you?
Tinie: What’s next for me? Hmmm. After I leave America in about a week’s time, I’m gonna spend Christmas with my family, then I’ve got to go to Australia for New Year’s. I’m supporting N.E.R.D. out there and I’m doing a festival with N.E.R.D. and David Guetta and Armand Van Helden. And then I get back to England, and then I do my own tour in February, which is gonna be crazy. That’s already sold out! What happens after that? I have to go to Australia to support The Script. You know the Script? The Script are pretty major. Then festivals, then hopefully by the end of the year, I would love to release my second album. And hopefully sell out an arena tour, which would be pretty crazy.
SO: Awesome, sounds busy! Well, good luck with all of that, and thanks for your time.
SO Note: Get all things Tinie on his site tinietempah.com.