EXCLUSIVE: Straight outta lockdown with Tinie Tempah
A twelve-year old boy is sitting on his bed in his parent’s house in East London. The British-born son of Nigerian immigrants is leafing through, of all things, a Thesaurus. He’s not studying, but instead looking up words as a way to fill his head with vocabulary that could potentially come in handy somewhere down the line. He finds the page he’s been looking for, runs his finger down the page and stops at the word ‘Angry’.
“Irate; Annoyed; Cross; Indignant;” he mutters aloud. He keeps going: “Furious; Incensed; Resentful; Bad-tempered…” and suddenly stops. That last one sticks out. He’s not sure why, but he likes the sound of the word ‘temper’. Compared to the others it seems less violent, and, apart from the usual does of normal pre-teen angst, he is not a violent kid, heck, he’s not even an angry kid. Little Patrick Chukwuemeka Okogwu Jr. is just obsessed with music. Rap music to be precise.
His research into finding his rap moniker ends. He’s found the word he’s looking for, but he can’t shake the slightly uncomfortable feeling that it doesn’t quite reflect his personality. He adds the word ‘Tiny’, and then purposely misspells both to give it both an element of street cred and to make it sound less violent. It’s a decision that will forever impact his life.
Today Tinie Tempah is a household name. In fact, he’s so known that he recently decided to drop the ‘Tempah’ from his name altogether.
The 31-year-old singer boasts more number one singles than any other British rap artist, and has been a mainstay of the music industry since storming the charts with his first two albums Disc-Overy in 2010 and Demonstration in 2013.
Tracks such as ‘Pass Out’, ‘Written in the stars’, ‘Girls like’, and ‘Not letting go’ are not only dancefloor fillers, but the distinct style and embracing of his own sound (rather than trying to mimic the much more-known US style) he helped changed the game. Credited as being one of the founding fathers of the Grime genre, Tinie played a crucial part in modernizing musical culture in the UK, and exporting it globally.
Tinie has all the swagger of a serious rapper, but it’s his big toothy grin, distinct lack of snarl and thoughtful sense of style that often makes him stand out. His musical success opened doors for him to being embraced by the fashion community —regularly taking his place on ‘Best Dressed Men’ lists, and sitting alongside the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Kanye West at fashion shows—and even starting up his own entertainment company Disturbing London, which operates both as his own record label and also produces events around the world, including in Dubai.
Tinie wears: Jacket, by Vivienne Westwood; Glasses, by Lindberg; Rolex Day-Date watch; Jewellery, his own
By his own admission, Tinie is a workhorse and likes to keep moving. A rocket-propelled ascent to the top of your profession will do that to you. After ten years of non-stop grafting and growing his portfolio of accomplishments, not even getting married and having his first child was going to slow him down. And then came Covid-19 and, like the rest of the planet, the brakes on the Tinie express auto-engaged.
With all gigs and festivals across the world cancelled on health and safety grounds, normally the busiest time of the year began to look very different for Tinie. As lockdowns and social distancing measures took hold, a forced slowdown was imposed and, with it, a period of introspection and a chance to switch off.
As Tinie took a break, Patrick came to the fore, being able to spend some serious quality time with his wife and one-year-old daughter, while also able to dedicate time to a self-improvement regime that involved working out, eating right and connecting with his fans via a newly christened TikTok account.
But those who know Tinie, know that any period of pause is only momentarily.
Ever the optimist, as soon as the lockdown measures relaxed, he was already lining up ways to help bring some much-needed positivity back to people. With a newly minted song, ‘Whoppa’ (featuring Sofia Reyes and Farina) dropping this month, Esquire Middle East was straight on a call with Tinie, discussing the best ways we could collaborate to spread the message.
The answer comes straight out of lockdown, with us spending ‘Day One’ of a post-lockdown world tearing around East London with Tinie, getting up to mischief and back to all the things that he was unable to do for the past few months. Social distancing permitted, we packed up the bizarro world that we are all too ready to leave behind, and restart anew.
ESQUIRE: As a performing artist, how did you cope with your time in Lockdown?
Tinie Tempah: Artist have always survived. Picasso used to paint in exchange for food. We will always do what we do regardless of how much the situation changes. It is about innovating and trying to come up with something revolutionary.
ESQ: You did a couple of gigs on IG Live. How was that?
TT: Yeah, I did a gig in my house on IG Live, and it was a vibe. Jess Glynne was one of my guests—it was the beginning of something, not quite there, but certainly something. I wanted to help entertain people who were having a really crappy time at home, so I did things like using a disinfectant bottle as a microphone! Just trying to make it fun.
The thing is, music is a live art. Part of being an artist is thriving off the energy of other people. When you’re in the studio for ten hours making a record, you are not making it to be listened to in isolation, you want to perform it and see how people react to it. As soon as people can return to things like going to gigs again, it will be great for the mind, heart and soul.
Tinie wears: Denim jacket, Jeans, Boots, all Saint Laurent; 18k Gold watch by Rolex; Glasses by Lindberg
ESQ: Speaking of innovation, when you started creating that Grime sound, did you ever expect that it would develop into a whole genre?
TT: Yes, and no. Yes, because I saw the potential it had from looking at American culture. Even though our sound was a completely different thing, we were all inspired by the likes of Jay-Z, Eminem, Snoop, Wu Tang Clan etc. Because it was all going on over there, it was big and it looked to us like an entire industry—people were gigging, releasing mix tapes, there was merchandise, people were launching their own clothing brands like Sean John, Roca Wear and Phat Farm etc. It was a world of its own. I always believed that we could get there, and I had the ambition to try and make it happen, to create something that represented people like me.
ESQ: Is it weird that at just 31 years old, you are already considered as an elder statesman of music?
TT: Ha! I’m not sure I’m an elder statesman, but it is exciting to see how things have evolved. Today there are like, ten times more rappers than there were ten years ago—and that is a great thing because people are starting to believe that it is possible for them to make it to the top. To be honest, I’m not even sure that the new breed even identify with the word ‘Grime’ anymore. The term was coined by some journalist, anyway, but this new generation is doing what they want to do and calling it whatever they want to call it.
ESQ: Any particular names we should be listening out for?
TT: ‘Drill’ is a big genre of music now and the people I like in that space are AJ Tracey, TeeZandos—a female rapper who is really exciting at the moment—Aitch and Unknown T.
Tinie wears: Camo jacket, by Saint Laurent; Glasses by Lindberg; Grills, his own
ESQ: You’re a dad now. Congratulations! Has that changed your idea of what success is?
TT: A thousand percent! I am a workhorse type of person. Like, when I get home, I’ll start washing dished or mopping the floor—I always have to be doing something. When I see my daughter, it makes me want to work even harder to provide the best life I can give her. It’s been strange in lockdown, because the world seems to have slowed down. Normally there are a thousand things going on every minute, but during that time I had loads of time at home to spend with her, and thinking back to how different life was when I was her age. They are two completely different things. Com-ple-tely. I joke that when she’s older she’ll ask me: “Daddy, did you grow up with a larder in your house?” [Laughs] I didn’t even know what the hell a larder was when I was growing up!
ESQ: Is there a lesson you want to teach your daughter from your experience?
TT: Yeah, avoid the music industry! [Laughs] Na, she’s not going to be in the music industry, she is going to be way too smart for it. I would teach her that time is a beautiful thing. It helped me early on knowing what path I wanted to take. I started trying to achieve success early in life and that put me in good stead for the future. I’m 31 now and I have achieved a good level of success, with most of my life still ahead of me. I hope she takes that quality from me.
Tinie wears:Top, Trousers, both by Prada; Glasses by Lindberg
ESQ: What do you think it was in your upbringing that gave you that drive?
TT: The older I get the more I realise the impact of where you’re from has on your life. For me personally, living in London is great, because the two opposite ends of society live very close together. It is so diverse. If you live in a council estate, just down the road you’ll probably find a lovely row of Victorian houses. I would take inspiration from things like that, asking myself ‘what do I need to do in a legitimate way to take me and my family from here to there?’.
ESQ: Did you always see music as your way out?
TT: I’ve wanted to rap since I was 12 years old, so it’s not like I masterminded this whole plan! [Laughs] My upbringing wasn’t a terrible hardship. My parents were immigrants but managed to work multiple jobs that allowed us to go to school and have normal lives. Although it’s not like we did any extracurricular activities like skiing or badminton. Apparently that is ‘normal’ these days! For me, music was the thing that I did when I wasn’t in school. I would hang about with my friends, listening to rap instrumentals. That went from a hobby into a passion and from a passion into love.
ESQ: That ‘love’ has led you to have not just an impact on the music industry, but also the fashion world. What is the next big unturned stone for you?
TT: That’s a good question. I want to focus on being a good dad, a good person and continuing to be better at what I do. In the fashion world, you have some big brands that are run by some don who has been doing it for 60 years, and they just keep getting better and better at it. Unfortunately a lot of things aren’t like that, but I am able to work with some really exceptional talent around me and I feel that I’m getting better the older I get, and I have to keep going. We talked about British rap from ten years ago, back then it was only seeing a small glimpse of what it can truly be. Now it is great, but it can keep getting better. We haven’t even seen a British version of Beyoncé or Rihanna yet.
ESQ: Well, Adele has done all right...
TT: She’s done all right! She does way more than all right! And I love Adele, but as a dad now, I think in terms of a positive black female role model for my daughter. As she grows up she will want to look up to people who look like her. Mabel is doing well, Georgia Smith is doing really well, but not at that
ESQ: Do you believe that there is a racial bias?
TT: Being part of the BEM [Black and Ethnic Minority] community, regardless of all your achievements, means that you are still a minority, and so your community still faces the same trials and tribulations. I think of myself as a humanitarian and we should all be equal in terms of colour and gender.
When I say, that “there is no British Beyoncé”, I mean that there is no one who has come from the UK as a black woman who has the same level of adulation, celebration, and statistical success as her. But there will be in the future. It is inevitable. For me, I am just trying to work, and be the best
I can in helping to sharpen tools. If I can have a hand in trying to help talents reach their potential—or even if I can’t help—I just want to be around to experience it, because I think it will be amazing.
Tinie wears: Jacket, Trousers, both by Vivienne Westwood; Glasses, by Lindberg; Rolex Day-Date 18k watch; Jewellery, his own
ESQ: Have you ever felt burnt out?
TT: Oh, a million percent. I definitely have some early grey hairs! I remember when I was in 21 or 22, ‘Passout’ was charting in America, and ‘Written in the Stars’ started to be played there too—so I went there to tour because I really wanted to bring my music to a new territory. That country is huge! It’s like six hours driving to the next gig every day, during that time, I remember thinking, ‘this is nuts, I don’t know if I am going to be able to survive this’.
It is something that a lot of people don’t talk about much, but it is actually quite difficult as an artist to constantly be ‘happy’ when you are out on the road meeting people and playing gigs, especially when you are physically and mentally exhausted. But, in saying that, I always knew that it was never going to be an easy thing, and you have to continue to work hard for everything you get. I try to live my life with discipline so that I have the energy, strength and focus to keep going.
ESQ: In ‘Passout’ one of your lines was about living a “very, very, very wild lifestyle”. Are you saying that you have swapped that out for a healthier one now?
TT: Ha! Yeah, but within reason. I still enjoy myself, but I’ve read the stories of where it all went wrong for people and I am trying to be savvy enough to not make the same mistakes.
Tinie Tempah’s new song ‘Whoppa’ is out now
Esquire now has a newsletter – sign up to get it sent straight to your inbox.