With such an oversaturation of music from “up-and-coming” rappers these days, it’s a constant struggle to differentiate the rookies with potential from the mediocre flashes in the pan. Every day, it seems, there’s a new solo artist, duo or squad that you’re compelled to listen to, and just keeping track of the influx of talent calls can be exhausting for listeners. If you’re a rapper or emcee trying to penetrate “the game,” it must be intimidating, right? Now imagine you’ve got an extra handicap: You’re British.
With an alley-oop assist from Eric Turner’s booming “Written In The Stars” chorus, the Capitol-drafted English import rapper Tinie Tempah is gaining early momentum on this side of the pond, and remains determined to do something that very few UK spitters have done before: “break” in America. Tinie has done quite well for himself in his native U.K., as his most recent album Disc-Overy debuted at #1 on the British charts and launched four Top Five singles (including two number ones), and was England’s top-selling debut album by a Brit in 2010. Two BRIT Awards, a recent BET Award for Best International UK Artist and a well-reviewed performance at Glastonbury later, it appears the young rapper is getting on the board fast. But even with those accolades under his belt, finding quick success in America isn’t a given, and Tinie knows that. Between breaking the barriers at crossover radio without getting “too pop” while also getting acclimated with our snooty, regionally-structured hip hop scene, it would appear that his path is a bit steep.
When we sat down to interview Tinie earlier this month, he told us all about his transitional journey from overseas thus far. Lucky for him, some friends of ours helped him mentally prepare for this moment. While supporting The Script on tour in Australia, Tinie received a much-needed pep talk from the band that had experienced some tough American crowds of their own when they first made the North Atlantic journey. “Just brace yourself,” they told him, “some of the shows are going to be a little bit gun-wrenching.” The coached warning was helpful and wound up serving as an airbag when Tinie performed before crowds of ten to twenty thousand people one night, and then under one hundred the next. “It has been fun, and more than anything, it’s a humbling experience ‘cause is just shows that, you know, that you’ve never really made it until you’ve made it, and there’s always something more you can be doing, so, yeah, I like it… it’s all part of the game.”
Ah, the game. Even though he’s making a name for himself at pop radio, Tinie still fancies himself an emcee first, battling to get officially plugged into the American hip hop matrix. And like most rap aficionados before him, he’s been guided by rhymes from veteran artists who caught his ear as a youngster. Only 22, Tinie’s hip-hop influences are culturally mixed and by no means span the conventional “old school” canon; growing up in London, UK collective So Solid Crew’s “21 Seconds” first made him want to rap, and Dizzee Rascal, who he calls a “pioneer” for first “commercializing grime music OUT of the UK,” serves as a continuous reminder of what’s possible. Stateside though, it was the impactful verses on Eminem’s early albums that really hit home for Tinie. DMX’s Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood spoke to him too: “It was party music but, you know, he was rapping hard bars.”
Ten years later, and the music industry is in a drastically different place than it was when DMX’s star was rising. Hip hop, especially, is engaging with the online world in unique ways, and a cavalcade of niche subcultures is emerging from all over the country. “A lot of pockets in America have their ‘native,’ sort of original version of what they consider to be rap, or hip hop.” notes Tinie. “In NY, it’s very ‘big breaks’ you know? – very big break beat, lots of bass, and stuff like that. Lots of snares. And in the south, it’s 808s, and in LA, they’re a little bit more experimental with it. Everybody’s doing dances and stuff like that. But, I’d say, even amongst all of those people with all of their original music, you still have that, you know, blog culture, and people who kind of know what’s cool and know what’s going on around the rest of the world. Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve been able to attract those people, as well as people who like their original version of hip hop, and [they’ve all] come [to me] to hear something a little bit more alternative.”
For Tinie, whether they’re hip hop heads or 12-year-old girls, the US listeners have begun arriving. But can he get them to sign up as fans and cheer him on in the arena each night? “I think that now that the world has become a lot smaller, everybody’s just curious to hear where other people are coming from, and you know, London is another major influential city where people are starting to hear – overhear – more and more about every day. Even with little things that have nothing to do with hip hop, like the royal wedding and how blown up that was out here. People want to know like how’s a guy coming from where there’s kings and queens rapping, like what’s he rapping about? Do you get what I mean?”