Words by Mr Alex Bilmes, editor of British Esquire
Two weeks before my interview with Mr Tinie Tempah I happened to spend an afternoon at Soho House West Hollywood, in a penthouse 14 floors above Sunset Boulevard. Mr Hugh Laurie was there, eating en famille. Cross-legged on the floor, taking her lunch from a coffee table, was the aggressively kooky sitcom star Ms Zooey Deschanel. The actress Ms Elizabeth Banks was in the bar, as was the director and screenwriter Mr Paul Haggis. It's that kind of place: quinoa salad, sunglasses, box-office goss. And there, in a corner, as chilled as my Pellegrino, was Mr Tempah, the British rapper - remember when that job title was oxymoronic? - whose hit song, "Written in the Stars", has sold almost two million singles in the US. Suffice to say MC Tunes never came so far, or climbed so high.
The next time I see Mr Tempah he's standing on a mantelpiece in a high-ceilinged central London townhouse, having his photo taken for MR PORTER. The Smiths' "This Charming Man" is playing, which is appropriate to our subject in so far as he is extremely personable, but inappropriate in that when he inevitably does go out tonight, he will have more than a stitch to wear. There's the shark-print T-shirt he keeps on for our conversation, for starters. "It's good to do a photoshoot occasionally," he proclaims. "It helps keep you up to date on trends." Yes, I tell him, I find that too. If I don't pose for a fashion shoot now and then, I feel so out of the designer label loop. Mr Tempah giggles. Told you he was a charmer.
I'm a friendly way for people to embrace hip-hop. It's not all about how many people you've shot. When I come off tour I go to Asda. I clean my house. I do the ironing
So what was he doing in LA? Jay Leno, of course. It was his third time on the show. (Mr Tempah can report that Mr Leno does a better class of goodie bag.) But he's there all the time. "It's like a second home," he says, with the nonchalance of the club-class nomad.
The most exciting British male solo artist in years (we're good at girls, but of late the boys have been tiresomely insipid), at 23 Mr Tempah, real name Mr Patrick Chukwuemeka Okogwu, has the potential to overhaul his contemporaries and collaborators - Messrs Dizzee Rascal, Tinchy Stryder, Labrinth - to become the biggest UK rapper to date, the man with the most universal and international pop appeal. He knows it, he appreciates it, he's excited by it, but he doesn't feel overawed at all.
"Every couple of days I have a pinch-myself moment," he says, "but I've decided to just embrace it. This is one of those once in a lifetime chances and you can't be walking around overwhelmed all the time. You're never going to get anything done if you're always flustered. And I'm quite good at adapting to situations."
A product of the less than salubrious streets of southeast London - Mr Tempah lived on a famously tough estate in Peckham until, when he was 12, the family relocated to slightly leafier Plumstead - he is the son of striving Nigerian parents who arrived in England in their twenties and instilled, he says, a serious work ethic in the eldest of their four kids.
"It was about discipline in everything you do," he says. "I was always told that because I am of Nigerian heritage I'd have to work 10 times harder. You take a bit of what you want from [what you're told as a child], and you get rid of the rest, but I really believed that, and you've got nothing to lose if you believe that. If you work 10 times as hard as anyone else, you're going to do well."
The Nigerian background, he says, might also explain the desire to look sharp. It's not the case, he says, that Mr Tempah is always suited and booted, but whether he's in Savile Row or sneakers - or Savile Row and sneakers - he does like to look his best. "Being Nigerian we like opulence," he says. "If you go to any Nigerian home you'll see red carpets, leather sofas, china plates. And the influence of the British, because Nigeria was a colony: speaking properly, behaving a certain way, making sure your tie is straight, your cuffs and your collars are clean."
As for the modest background, that was inspiring rather than frustrating. "I was that kid in Peckham living opposite those two-million-pound houses," he says. "I could see that family with the 2.4 children and the Range Rover and the dog from my tower block. From as young as I can remember I was like, 'Mum, how come we live up here and they live down there? What did they have to do to get that house? Why do they have a driveway and we have to go into a lift?'" One of the great advantages of London, he says, is the proximity of great wealth to those less fortunate. "If you don't see those things, if they don't become real to you, then you don't believe it's possible and that makes it a lot more difficult to attain."
I knew then that I can't be wearing the same Nike sweats as the guy in the crowd. It's show biz, you've got to make it a little more premium
Mr Tempah could have gone on to university but at 16 he was performing in clubs and experimenting with making music at home, and he knew he had an entrepreneurial streak. By 19 he had made a name for himself on London's grime scene, and was releasing music on his own label - and now multi-purpose brand - Disturbing London. In 2009 he signed to Parlophone, home to leading British artists including Coldplay, Radiohead and Ms Lily Allen. He was still living at home with his parents but he was about to conquer mainstream UK pop.
In February 2010 his first single, an irrepressible paean to hedonism called "Pass Out", went straight to No.1. When his mother called from work to congratulate him on the news, she didn't neglect to mention that there was a congestion charge letter downstairs that needed his attention. "That's how real it was," he says. Three months later he was supporting Ms Rihanna on tour and in June of that year he performed "Pass Out" with Mr Snoop Dogg on Glastonbury's Pyramid Stage. Disc-Overy, his debut album, went to No.1. The boisterous sound of a young man having a seriously good time, it showcased his shuffle-style skipping of genres, fusing hip-hop, grime, drum'n'bass, House and pop with witty lyrics and a heavy dose of bathos to offset the braggadocio. Mr Tempah was, he announced, "about to be a bigger star than my mum thought". Then there was the fact that "I've got so many clothes I keep some at my aunt's house." In February of last year he won Brit Awards for best single, for "Pass Out", and best breakthrough act.
It's his exploding of the stereotype of the angrily boastful rapper, he thinks, that has endeared him to the public. "There's humour in my music," he says. "I'm a safe friendly way for people to embrace hip-hop. It's not all about how many people you've shot and stabbed and killed or how much money you've got." And even though he now has his own place to keep his clothes in, as well, one imagines, as girls and cash on tap - Mr Tempah doesn't dispute this point when I mention it - he doesn't feel he's lost touch with his USP: the people's rapper. "When I come off tour I go to Asda," he says. "I clean my house. I do the ironing."
Stealing the Show
From left: Messrs Labrinth and Tempah performing at the Brit Awards in
London, February 2011
the front row
From left: Mses Lana Del Rey, Pixie Geldof and Azealia Banks; Mr Tempah; and Mses Leigh Lezark and Lou Lesage at the Mulberry AW12 show at London Fashion Week, February 2012
the dapper rapper
Mr Tempah attending the RAKE AW12 show at London Fashion Week, February 2012
By the time you read this he should have finished recording his second album, Demonstration, scheduled for release in October. It is, he says, the product of his ongoing musical education, of touring the world, taking advice from new friends including Messrs Chris Martin and Damon Albarn. "It's very loud and hard and heavy," he says, "and there are some very beautiful moments. It's very personal. I felt a duty to let people in a bit more. I'm 23, I'm living the dream, it's a hell of a ride and I just want to let people know what is going on in my life."
One of the things going on is a developing interest in clothes. He started really caring about the way he dresses, he says, when he began to perform live in his teens. "I knew then that I can't be wearing the same Nike sweats as the guy in the crowd. It's show biz, you've got to make it a little more premium."
He's often pegged as the latest example of the straightforward English dandy, but that's another stereotype he's keen to subvert. His style is more nuanced. It has grown out of hip-hop's sportswear label fetish, the tradition of London football casuals, his visits to hipster style capitals such as Stockholm, as well as a respect for the traditions of British tailoring. Eventually, out of all those influences, he says, "you find you've got your own little thing going on."
In fact, so influential is his look - the thick-rimmed Harry Palmer specs, the natty bow ties, the box-fresh trainers - that he is on the committee for London Collections: Men, the three-day British menswear showcase that kicks off on 15 June. Will we see Mr Tempah at the shows? Definitely, he says, and Disturbing London will be having a party to celebrate. It's hard to think of a more appropriate representative for the best of British men's style, his tastes at once cutting-edge contemporary and fogeyishly traditional. "I feel as if London is so popular right now," he says. "So much great talent is here. This is the place. It's the epicentre of a lot of cool." Then, in pleasingly Mr Tempah fashion, he brings us back to earth.
"Right, let's get out of these damn clothes."