Originally published in The Irish Times, October 29th 2010.
THERE’S just no getting around it: Tinie Tempah is what you might call a charmer.
At 21, the UK’s newest urban star is already well versed in schmoozing journos, offering a double-cheeked kiss, a glass of water, and a polite enquiry about how our morning has gone so far. Add to that his impeccable grooming and his dapper dress sense, and he’s the kind of young man that most fans would be only too happy to bring home to mother.
Tempah puts his likeable demeanour and good manners down to his own mum. She had considerably less influence in his musical education. “It was non-stop Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, loads of people like that around my house growing up,” he grins, flashing a dazzling set of pearly whites.
“I feel like I was raised a pretty good lad, though. We’re a very close family. School was really good as well. People always tend to say that school is a rubbish experience, but for me, well, I guess adolescence is one of the most insecure stages of your life. But I feel like I had teachers and friends who were good enough to nurture that, and bring out the best in me.”
It was during his schooldays that Tempah – aka Patrick Okogwu, a south Londoner of Nigerian parentage – first realised that a life of grime was for him.
“At about 12 years old, I saw So Solid Crew’s 21 Seconds music video on TV, and my life just changed there and then. When I did my research, I found out that they were a British act, and my head just went crazy. Up until then, I’d seen people like Eminem and P Diddy and Nas, and it always seemed so far away. But these guys were from, like, Clapham in south London, so I was like ‘Whoah, man. I wanna do this’. I used to take this big, ugly, off-white folder of my lyrics out to the playground and start reading them out to everybody.”
It only took a few years of playground education to pay dividends for Okogwu. At 17 he released his first single, Wifey, which became an underground hit and kick-started his recording career. The subsequent years were spent honing his craft, but he says his musical development was one that went hand-in-hand with a teenager becoming a man.
“Over the past four years, music has changed. Obviously, I changed a lot as a person from the age of 16 to 21. I started going out clubbing, started seeing England a little bit more, knowing what the world is all about, to a certain degree. Life experience, being out with mates, hearing a certain rhythm in a club and thinking ‘that’s nice’.
“I started writing my album last year, so it probably took me about 13 months to make. I started it as a relatively independent artist, and halfway through the process I had a No 1, which was really, really weird.”
The success of that single ( Pass Out ) led to Tempah being signed by Parlophone for his recently released debut album, Disc-Overy . The album is packed with smart club beats, smooth vocals, guest appearances from Kelly Rowland and Ellie Goulding, and lyrics that are, well, let’s just say memorable.
Take “I’m an extra-terrestrial/Came up out the fucking dirt like a vegetable” from Intro. Or “ I got so many clothes I keep ’em in my aunt’s house” from Pass Out. Or the one that most people go gaga for: “Would you risk it for a chocolate biscuit?” from Frisky.
“That just came off the top of my head,” he laughs. “Usually, if I get a light bulb going off in my head when I’m writing, I’ll get the voicemail on my BlackBerry and quickly record it. By the end of the week I have 20 different voicemails. I’ll listen back to ’em and compose a lyric off of that.
“Coming from where I come from, there’s no such thing as pop-star diva – you gotta write wherever you can. So whether that’s on the tour bus, on the plane, in the studio, it’s always full of guys making noise. But I see that as a benefit, because I can write in any scenario now.”
Such idiosyncrasies set Tempah apart from a multitude of artists floating in the same grime sphere. His contemporaries N-Dubz have already made the leap across the Atlantic by signing a deal with Def Jam – is that something on the Tempah agenda in the near future?
“Definitely. But I’ve just always wanted to do it just by being a British artist, you know, like Lily Allen or Coldplay, just by making good music that crosses over. And so far so good.
“Obviously Snoop Dogg jumped on the Pass Out remix, and I’ve done remixes for Diddy and 3OH!3 and a few others. We’ve got to a point where music is just global. With the internet, there’s nothing restricting music from travelling around. And I just believe that if your music is good, it’s not gonna go unnoticed.
“Sometimes I cringe at the term that I’m going to ‘crack America’, that I’m leaving Great Britain to crack America. You haven’t even fully cracked Great Britain until you reach, like, Coldplay status, or Blur, or Gorillaz. So why bother to be in the public eye for two years and then just disappear? You could fade out of existence by making that mistake. I want it to happen naturally, not because I’ve gone to America with some big marketing campaign behind me.
“When I was writing this album, I had a lot of people come to me and say, ‘You do know that this is very English. You’re saying things like biscuit and stuff.’ But I grew up listening to American artists like Eminem talking about a trailer park in Detroit, or someone talking about West 33rd Street and Broadway and Harlem. I didn’t know what any of it meant, but it didn’t matter.”
Writing about relatable scenarios is surely what attracts most young people to Tinie Tempah and urban peers such as Chipmunk, Ironik and Tinchy Stryder. Yet having a young fan base must bring with it a sense of responsibility. Does he feel under pressure to set a good example to his fans?
“If I’m being honest, no, not really,” he says. “At the end of the day I want to make music for me. It’s funny: I was talking about this with my manager the other day, and we talked about Will Smith’s daughter Willow, who’s just signed this massive deal with Roc Nation, and she’s nine. I was like, ‘Listen, the song is fucking amazing, but do you think it’s right? What’s gonna happen when she does a show? Who’s gonna be there? Is it gonna be full of nine-year-olds?’
“Obviously, she’s grown up and seen her mum, Jada Pinkett-Smith, as her role model. So if her mum has a $1,000 Louis Vuitton bag, is she gonna want one as well? And if she gets one, are all the nine-year-olds across America gonna want one? However, she can’t control who she influences, or who she becomes a role model to. She doesn’t have any choice over that, which is why I don’t feel any pressure about it either.”
Tempah seems like a balanced, down-to-earth and subtly shrewd character. Still, being hailed as the UK’s biggest urban artist of 2010 can’t be easy. How is he coping with his steadily rising levels of fame?
“Fame is something I try my best not to think consciously about,” he says. “I’m quite a polite guy in general, I think, and I appreciate the situation I’m in, so sometimes I find myself saying hello to people unnecessarily. I’d see someone, and just because they look at me for more than a split second, I’m just like ‘oh, hi!’ People must just think I’m some weirdo,” he giggles. “And when I go to all these lovely fancy shops and I see a security guard following me around, I’m thinking, does he recognise me or does he think I’m gonna steal something?”
Nevertheless, with a No 1 album and a sold-out UK tour under his belt – and a second planned for next year – celebrity is something he’d best get used to. Mum must be so proud.
“Yeah, she worries about me,” he says with another of those dazzling grins. “I don’t get to see her that much any more. But what can I say? I love touring, I love seeing the world. Life is good. Yeah. Life is real good right now.”