Tinie Tempah’s Next Chapter
The UK’s most successful rapper on building his empire (and his wardrobe)
It’s high noon in Ibiza. Whatever madness is happening in the world feels a million miles away from the Hard Rock Hotel on the Playa d’en Bossa. Beautiful bodies perspire under the Balearic sun. Mellow house spills out of a sound system. And Britain’s most successful rapper Tinie Tempah is sitting under a parasol, sipping mango juice, talking about his next move.
“Everyone knows the American dream,” he informs me from behind his Saint Laurent shades in his resonant south London baritone. “I want to be the British dream. I’m as much British as anyone else, but I don’t have any barriers on myself. You can’t hide the fact that I have the most number ones in this decade. I was born in London, I bring money into this economy, I pay tax, I’ve gone to Downing Street, I’ve gone to Buckingham Palace. I was playing football with Prince Harry the other day…” The man born Mr Patrick Okogwu clinks his mango juice to my Diet Coke.
This summer, he is living it up in Ibiza before the September release of his third album, Youth, which marks an end to Phase I of his career. By some measures, he’s already the most successful British solo star of the decade (give or take Adele). His seven number one singles put him on a level with Mr Michael Jackson, Ms Kylie Minogue, U2 and Mr Robbie Williams; he has enough awards to keep at least a few at his aunt’s house (including Brits, Mobos and the choice songwriting prize in the UK, the Ivor Novello); he’s toured with Jay Z, Rihanna and supported Beyoncé on her recent UK shows at London’s Wembley Arena, played Glastonbury and Coachella, and is now in the middle of a summer residency, Disturbing Ibiza, at the Ushuaïa superclub. It’s his night, too, with guests including Will.i.am, Krept & Konan, Katy B, and the latest signing to Tinie Tempah’s Disturbing London label, Wizkid, the Nigerian MC who recently collaborated with Drake and now appears on Tinie Tempah’s new summer anthem, “Mamacita”. Oh and he’s just built a studio in Greenwich. “I don’t just want to be an employee of the music industry. I want to be the music industry”.
For all his grandiloquence, for all his braggadocio, there is something about Tinie Tempah that makes me smile. If the British specialise in ironic self-deprecation – “Oh, this old thing?” – Mr Okogwu subverts the conventions. He offers a 21st-century update on the knowing arrogance of the great football manager Mr Brian Clough (“I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the business. But I was in the top one”) or Mr Noel Gallagher of Oasis (“We’re not arrogant, we just believe we’re the best band in the world”).
It’s there in his rhymes: “Now I’m with the mandem at the polo/ I could make a honey give away her last Rolo” he brags on his recent hit “Girls Like”. But you sense he would have calibrated his wit to achieve success in whichever environment he found himself in. “If I decided at 16 that I wanted to get on to the board of directors at GlaxoSmithKline, it wouldn’t have mattered how educated I got, it wasn’t going to happen,” he says. “I was born in a tower block and it was like: bang. Make it out of here. These are the cards we were dealt. I know who I am, I know where I need to be, I know who I need to empower, I know how to do that.”
I first met Mr Okogwu in 2010, shortly after his debut single, “Pass Out”, reached number one. It was clear then that he was playing his cards adroitly. Instead of summoning me to some downbeat urban backdrop or record company office, he invited me to champagne tea at Claridge’s. He turned up in a finely tailored Paul Smith suit and disclosed his ambition to become the UK’s answer to P Diddy.
Now 27, he’s dressed down for the beach in grey Maison Margiela shorts and a black Acne Studios T-shirt – “I got it on MR PORTER,” he reassures me – along with a Nike cap. “Sometimes I look back to the pictures of the ‘Pass Out’ days where I have short hair and I look really young. I didn’t feel young at the time, but I look it. Do you know what it is, though?” he says as we reminisce about that prophetic pot of darjeeling we shared six years ago. “When I started out, there was definitely a few people – including yourself – where I could feel they were rooting for me. They wanted it to work. I like to think I’ve done them proud by making it all happen. It was almost my duty to those people who talked me up at the start.”
Tinie Tempah peppers his speech with Batman-style sound effects – “Bam! Pow! Chuk!” – his favourite word is “empower” and his signature phrases is “if I’m being honest with you”. Press him, and he’ll say the secret to his success comes from keeping his family close to him so he’s “grounded as fuck”. His manager is his cousin, Mr Dumi Oburota, with help from his sister, Ms Kelly Okogwu; another cousin runs his social media accounts; and when he couldn’t accept an invitation to Kensington Palace recently, he sent his sisters instead.
“You have to think about your style in music these days ‘cos it’s such a visual culture.” Tinie Tempah is someone who knows how to use said style to open doors: he is a regular on the international fashion circuit – he was on the front row at last month’s Dolce & Gabbana show in Milan and attended the London Collections: Men event – and from his Instagram, the enthusiasm for the finer things is unfeigned. He posts images of the (up-to-six-figure price-tagged) Audemars Piguet Royal Oaks and Rolexes he collects, as well as Nike Air Mags, and his custom-made walk-in wardrobe in his grand Victorian townhouse in east London that he bought off the Alexander McQueen estate, with interiors by architect Mr David Adjaye.
There’s a strategy behind dressing as he does. “Every time a black rapper from south London was represented before, it was as a kid on a council estate, selling drugs, shooting people. My reality is different. I come from a great family. All of my sisters have gone to university, my brothers, too, my parents are educated, we come from Nigeria, which has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. I’ve always wanted to change the perception.” He feels that in Britain, people are keen to place their stars into easy compartments, to put a ceiling on their success. “They’re like: ‘Is he still that rags-to-riches kid or is he hanging at the polo too much with Prince Harry?’”
So if his employers need him to make “sexy, lush, clean, expensive-sounding UK rap”, that’s precisely what he’ll do. “I’m gonna keep doing that and I’m gonna keep all of my integrity at the same time and have total control.” The tunes on Youth – including the Ms Jess Glynne collaboration “Not Letting Go” and Katy B/KDA collaboration “Turn The Music Louder (Rumble)”, both number ones – show that he’s adept at reading the market. Or maintaining his form; like Drake, he talks about himself a bit like a high-level athlete.
But there’s also a growing appreciation that there’s more to life than platinum records. “It’s only now that I feel like I’m in control of my own mind as an adult. I’m just getting started in my adult life. Like just the other day, I went on Top Gear! I’ve always wanted to be on Top Gear.”
Travel broadens the mind, too, and his visits to Nigeria with Wizkid seem to have left a lasting impression. “He’s driving in his [Mercedes] G-Wagen, encased with cash. Kids around him. He stops the jeep, throws the money around. Kids go crazy, he speeds away. Festival with 100,000 people. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I’m bringing it back in the same way that we brought back spice and tea.”
So you’re like the East India Company of British rap?
“Exactly! I look at The Sunday Times Rich List and I think why the hell shouldn’t I be on there. It doesn’t have to be a billion. To be honest, I’m a bit scared of the whole billion thing. But £100m? Definitely. Why the hell not, man? And then my kid can be the one with the trust fund.”
And here we begin to get a sense of Phase II of Tinie Tempah’s career, both personal and professional. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a rapper of good fortune must be thinking about his legacy – and Mr Okogwu feels that at 27, it’s almost time to fill the world with tiny Tinies. “I’ve always wanted kids, but it’s only this year that I’ve figured out how to actually do that.” You’ve only just figured out how to make kids? “I mean, I’m thinking about the responsibility, the sacrifice. At the moment, my life is crazy, but when I do settle down, I wanna have a big family, man. I wanna have loads of kids.”
He has a long-term girlfriend – but he’s doesn’t want to reveal who she is. “I’m not interested in us trying to be like David and Victoria Beckham. The moment you start to display your relationship as a rapper, it’s the beginning of the end.” It sounds an ambitious match, though. He lets on that she’s currently in Mustique, her father is a “sir”, and he has thought about marriage, but not yet. “I’m asking her dad for advice, and I’m thinking, ‘Ah wow, one day I’d love to be a sir. Do you get what I mean? Why can’t I be a sir?’ He said: ‘Surely this won’t last forever. What’s your plan?’ Maybe because it’s his daughter. To hear an older, successful guy say that, really made me think.”
If anything is the key to his success, it’s this openness. “Anytime I’m around people who have long illustrious careers, I always ask their advice. P Diddy, Jay Z, Elton John, Chris Martin. And out of all them, it was J-Lo who gave me the advice that stuck: ‘Never complain. Never complain in this industry because there’s always someone who’d kill to be doing what you’re doing right now’. It’s so easy to get caught up in your First World problems – your flight is delayed, you’ve been waiting for ages, whatever. But you got to remember. There are literally people who would kill to be where we are right now. I always knew that this would be the most intense point of my life, so I don’t rest. But I’m 27. I have a lot of time ahead of me to chill.”
Mamacita is out now and you can watch the video here. Tinie Tempah’s new album, Youth, is released on 16 September