Tinie Tempah: Movin’ on up
Tinie Tempah has come a long way from his grime roots of old. Ahead of his forthcoming arena tour, he talks to Jim Carroll about going large – and looking back
The time is nigh for Tinie Tempah to go large. The days of grabbing the microphone in a small club and being able to see the eyes of everyone in the room staring back at him are well and truly over. Two hugely successful albums and several massive hit tunes tend to have that effect on an artist. You move on, you move up, you prepare for the big-time.
For the man born Patrick Okogwu to Nigerian parents in south London, going large means calling in the pros – and not just to give him a dig-out in the studio. The move from clubs to arenas means a step-up in terms of what people want from a show, and Tempah knows exactly what he’s after in this regard.
For his upcoming tour, which arrives in Dublin this month, he’s working with the set designers who’ve put on the glitz for Beyoncé’s live shows in the past. Tempah has become a student of the arena show game and he counts off the artists whose set designs have caught his eye.
“Kanye West definitely, he did a show in London after My Dark Twisted Fantasy came out which was pretty amazing. Simplistic, but beautiful. Drake’s show is pretty decent, Rihanna always does a good show and I saw Beyoncé recently in Poland and that was mind-blowing, of course.
“For me, Jay-Z and Kanye on Watch the Throne was one of the best hip-hop performances ever. It was a world-class next-level thing, hip-hop at its height. You’d never seen hip-hop performed like that before.”
Hip-hop has certainly left the old days behind, he reckons. “The old game, where you’d just a rapper and a DJ onstage, is definitely over now at that level. You won’t get away with it at this scale. That was something I did when I was coming up as a kid, doing shows in clubs, and it works there.
“But when you go into proper venues or arenas, it becomes all about a band and theatrics. When you look back at my evolution as an artist and British rapper, you can see I’ve been doing the big show sets for some time.”
There’s a pause before he adds a wicked line. “But it’s nice to see the Yanks have started to do that more now, too, and have followed us.”
Tempah will talk a fair bit today about moving on and moving up. The lad who came out of the grime scene was initially simply seeking to emulate what his boyhood heroes such as So Solid Crew were doing. But all those hits, from Pass Out on, means he has gone much further than them; he now has a far different set of concerns to the others who came up with him.
Of course, he naturally still glances back at where he came from. He uses an interesting verb to describe his relationship now with that scene. “I wasn’t running away from grime in any sense, it was more about transcending it,” he explains. “Once you come from any underground genre of music, be it dubstep or punk rock, there are certain ties to it which are always there.
“As you develop as an artist, there’s a battle. Some people always try to fit you into the box you’ve came from – people still refer to me as a grime artist or grime rapper – and it’s a super big deal to them when you succeed because you’re supposed to be an artist from this small genre of music.
“On the flipside, you have the gatekeepers of that genre who look at what you’re doing as being so far away from what they are doing and they get quite irked. You really do reach a fork in the road.”
It was always quite clear which option Tempah was going to take. This was someone who was going for the big score.
“Once I started, my manual for dealing with my career was to look at people like Dizzee Rascal or Chris Martin or Jay-Z or Pharrell,” he says. “In order for you to get to any next level, you have to be able to be able to go for it. Often, when you’re from a cool underground scene, you shy away from that because you’re afraid of having some kind of stigma attached to you.
“Dizzee was one of the best examples I could relate to in going from grime to pop. The way my career was going, I was finding myself in environments which had nothing to do with grime or were not because of grime. But these were opportunities to get my music to many more people so, yeah, let’s go for it.”
He just wishes other artists were as honest about their ambitions. “If you ask most artists to look down deep in their heart and tell you how big they want to be, most will say they want to be as big as they possibly can. Sometimes, though, people may consider doing something as simple as a photo-shoot or being in a tabloid paper as a compromise. I don’t think it’s about a lack of ambition, but more about being too worried about what others in their scene might think of them and their actions. That didn’t worry me.”
His latest album, Demonstration , is about showing just how far he has come. Featuring a range of guest vocalists (including Emeli Sandé, Paloma Faith, Laura Mvula, Ella Eyre, Labrinth, 2 Chainz and others), it was also noteworthy that Tempah hired a wide range of producers to give him a dig-out. So what did he learn from producers such as Tom Rowlands from The Chemical Brothers and Diplo?
“They’re so forensic and detailed about getting it right,” he says. “When you work with someone like Tom or Diplo, everything is better, from the sound to the mix to the way the kicks come in. They don’t need guidance, they know what they’re doing. It’s always interesting to work with people from a completely different background to you who are perhaps more experimental.”
Tempah admits he was tempted to use acts who were already signed to his Disturbing London label such as Sasha Keable or All About She (who featured on his debut, Disc-Overy ), but went for some football manager-like mind-games instead.
“You have to motivate artists by sometimes not giving them certain opportunities,” he reckons. “They need to realise how much it takes to get to where they want to go. Sometimes, and I’m not talking necessarily about Sasha or Ella here, they might think ‘cool, I’m in with Tinie, I’ll be on his record now’. Sometimes, you have to give the opportunities to other artists so to motivate your own acts to work harder and be hungrier.”
Tempah himself appears to never stop with his expansions and other projects. “The older I get, the more pies I want to get my fingers into,” he remarks. But he’s also careful to make sure this doesn’t mean doing things which may jar with the image portrayed by the main job.
“It has to be natural because it’s initially about people who are interested in me and my music. I’m good at creativity and it keeps me excited and passionate as long as it’s about a creative field like music or fashion or TV or film. I want to excel in those areas. Over a long career – and I do want to have a long career – some of the things I do may not be so good and some of the things may be all right, but hopefully some will be amazing.
“I just don’t want to be confined to any one area. I don’t want people to go ‘he’s just the rapper’. The further I go in my career, the more I can naturally break away from that identity. I’ve already got Disturbing London and it’s got a great roster full of potential. Then, there’s the fashion brand and all the British Fashion Council stuff. I don’t think any of that is about doing something which isn’t natural or normal.”
Tempah is also keen to point out that he’s flying the flag. All his influences and inspirations are British, which is something he feels needs to be highlighted.
“I accepted from the start that being British was one of my USPs,” he says. “With Damon Albarn and Chris Martin, it’s the fact that they’re British that makes them stand out to me. If you don’t know where you come from or who’s gone before you, how are you supposed to know where you’re going?
“Because the genre of music we make has been heavily inspired by America, a lot of UK and Europe rappers are constantly looking towards America in terms of achievement and success. And yeah, it’s a good thing because some of those Americans have achieved incredible things that some of us didn’t think were possible.”
Of course, you know there’s a “but” coming. “But as a British artist, I do believe there is a British way to get it done. Look at The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, there was a thing which separated them from everyone else, this gene, this difference. I’m fascinated by those people who have gone before me and I always watch them, and if I get the opportunity to get to know them, I’m always asking questions and looking for advice.
“If you look to emulate something which is very far away from you culturally, you may not understand why it’s not going the way for you that it did for them. You have to accept that you’re different and work on that.”