Theophilus London – Back to Birth
My love affair with Theophilus London began in 2009. Granted that he dropped his first mixtape “Jam” in 2008, I was a bit late to the party, but it was still swinging when I arrived. Pumping music that keeps you dancing, Theo isn’t your average rapper. He’s an innovator on the microphone, mashing musical genres together to create a sound that is new wave and pop.
You’d think someone who got booed off BET just about three years ago couldn’t be described as such, or you could (depending on what your views of BET are). However, having worked with creative forces like Mark Ronson (who he’s also in a band with), and Damon Albarn (Gorillaz frontman), he’s being touted as a breath of fresh air to urban music, and rightly so.
Many know him from the Brooklyn, indie scene, but this Trinidad-born innovator has been holding a burning desire to reconnect with his motherland. On his third, and latest mixtape “I Want You” (he’s released one annually since 2008), he raps about going overseas, openly claiming his heritage, with lyrics like “Let your hair down, go take a trip to Tobago… Spices for me I’m a Trini” on the song “Julia”. Named after his grandfather (yes Theophilus London is his real name), he left Trinidad at age one, and was brought up in Brooklyn, returning once for Trinidad Carnival when he was ten.
With influences like Michael Jackson, The Smiths, James Brown, Fela, Prince, Marvin Gaye, Kraftwerk, Radiohead and Morrissey, and drawing near to the completion of his highly anticipated debut album, he’s going to be introducing the world to new wave mixed with the classic soulfulness and melody of calypso (he’s a big Lord Kitchener fan). Eleven years since his last visit, and a few days fresh off his European tour for “I Want You”, he’s back with Vashtie Kola – friend, fellow collaborator, video director, designer, and fellow Trini – for Antillia’s “be” Fashion event. With travel, as one of his main inspirations, his visit to Trinidad is not just a return home, but also a key part of the creative process for his album. He’s that guy who connects with people all over the world, touring intensively. It’s only natural then that he finds himself back home.
Ever progressive, while retaining his signature sound, Theophilus meshes body-moving beats with raw emotions and witty lyrics, bringing it straight to you to sweep you up in soulfully stirring ways. Some of my absolute favourite songs include “Ultraviolet”, “Computer Love”, “Soles of Fire” (Chauffeur), “Accept the New”, “Light Years”, “Hey Wonderful”, “Cold Pillow”, “Grey x Sage”, “One for Me Freestyle”, “Late Night Operation”, “No Answers”, “Sorry to Interrupt”, “Give it Up Dad”, “Want you for myself”, “TNT”, “Humdrum Town”, “Epitome”, “Invisible Man”, “Julia”, “I Want You”, “Flying Overseas”, and “Pull My Heart Away”. These are just some of his over 50 songs created in three years. Such is his prowess so early in his artistry, as he lives up to his statement, “Artists are starting to become who they are and not falling into the hole of their environment”.
He’d offered to meet up with me, when he landed (yes, I asked first), and he pulled through, proving that he’s always there for his Day One fans. Check out Outlish’s interview with Theophilus London, as he talks about completing his debut album, and how Trinidad and Tobago inspires him.
O: How does it feel to be back home in Trinidad?
TL: Aw man, it feels so good to be home. I’ve been spending a lot of time doing things like drinking coconut water, trying to find the best roti shop, going into town and walking through the markets, seeing the culture of my people, interacting with a lot of people, and asking a lot of questions. I’ve been asking about the early, early culture of Trinidad… like how did it all come together. It’s been a lot of fun out here.
O: You left here when you were one, right?
TL: Yes I did. I came back when I was ten for about two weeks for Trinidad Carnival. That was an amazing experience too. That was like my real, first look at the country. My mother is Trini. My father is Trini. I grew up around the whole Trini culture, the whole family, so we do the same thing in the States. We’re just Trinis in the States.
My dad was like a big, big DJ out here in the 80s and 90s. His name was DJ Moses, and his partners were Wax… another guy Chow. He used to make mas…
O: So you have the music in the blood. How did you get into music?
TL: It was more like an independent thing. I said I wanna do my own thing. I just wanted to do my own thing. I just wanted to find my own niche, research my own music, hang out late at different clubs, do new music and just go to underground scenes and be a part of the culture that was around me.
O: So you were one of those guys we used to see rapping in the corridor at school …
TL: Yeah. A lot of rapping. Big battles. Sometimes I won. Sometimes I lost. Sometimes I got beat up.
O: You mentioned going on BET and the crowd saying to get you off the stage. They want a donkey. That was on Day One Fans. Was that a joke or for real?
TL: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I performed on BET and they booed me offstage. That was three years ago.
O: That was right before “Jam.”
TL: Yeah. “Jam” was like my speak-out on being pissed about it. When I came off the stage. I was like man Lauryn Hill got booed off stage. I was like man these guys aren’t ready for it. I went home and I’m not scared to share this, but I went home and cried. My girlfriend at the time was like, “It’s alright baby (talks in high voice and mimics patting), you’re never gonna make it” (laughs).
O: So how would you describe your sound because people call it hipster rap, indie rap, electro rap etc. I call it a mash up.
TL: It’s very independent (indie). It’s just popular music… pop. I’m making popular music at the end of the day. I’m using all my complexities to my full extent you know. I’m very free when it comes to music. We live in a day and age where the iPod has been invented over what seven or ten years, right? And you no longer just need one CD with one genre and that’s all you’re going to hear. You have music from all over the world on your iPod and I’m one of those people who search and seek far, and I sample a lot of African music and French music in my stuff. It’s just a new wave thing. I think you just got to call it new wave cause like I said, kids now have their choice to have all these different genres in their iPods.
And if you start listening to all this different music and you wanna make music yourself, sometimes you listen to music and it influences you to make music… but make music in your own way. I mean like watching Michael Jackson and James Brown, you felt what they wanted to do and so I kinda study a lot of people and take little things from them and I kinda bring it to my realm, and it’s new and never been done before. You know no one can do it the way I can do it… you know. No one can do it the way you do it… unless they really watched you (laughs). I just kinda study my craft. Sometimes I’m up two in the morning and I get in front of the mirror and write songs and try to envision myself on stage. I wake up with melodies in my head and I just got to get it out so I go to the studio. Now I have a home studio. It’s been fun.
O: You’ve accomplished a lot at a young age. Some people get stuck in the go to school, get a job…
TL: It’s something you have to have in you from young. Some people don’t know what they want to do yet. So they take these opportunities. So they go to school and figure they could meet somebody to help them figure it out. But once I figured all that stuff out you know like… A wise man told me it’s all about networking. You’ll never be anything without connecting. Like a light will never turn on if it doesn’t connect. I just couldn’t do school anymore. I didn’t feel creative enough. I didn’t go to art school. I went to a small, little business marketing school where you raise your hand, talk and it’s just… I can’t be free. I just had to stop and went into the real world and do what people would do in school, but just do it on the streets. Staying alert. Always ahead of the curve. Forward thinking. I’m really a big critic of myself and I get down on myself a lot. But sometimes when I snap out of it, like I’m so hard on myself… too hard on myself that I push myself to be excellent and sometimes I think that’s what works for me. Then I’m like I’m so hard on myself. I didn’t have to be so hard on myself.
O: What do you think causes people to connect with your music so much?
TL: I feel it’s like… it’s real to them. It’s something they could relate to. Sometimes I do make music for myself. I’m being honest. I have an idea. This could be a good idea, let me try it. Somebody around the world… you make a song like “Blindfolded”. That was a situation that happened I my life, but it doesn’t mean that the guy next door hasn’t gone through that as well. I find that I have the gift to come up with something and make it accessible for people to hear it… for people to be into it.
O: Yeah, cause for me “Accept the New” was my anthem for 2010 from the get go.
TL: Aww man. I’m so happy to hear that. I woke up one morning and I was like ‘man fuck this’ like it’s all about some new shit… accept the new. And I was with my girlfriend at the time and she’s laying in bed and the chorus just came to me and I played it for her. And I was like I just want to make music that women can just wake up and listen to in the morning, you know. I’m happy that “Accept the New” came out the way it did.
It’s like not living in fear. It’s like if you get evicted from your apartment and you still haven’t had a plan yet like still don’t live in fear.
O: To go back to the Caribbean heritage, do you think that influenced your music in any way?
TL: It definitely did because I always kinda shied away from the fact that I was from Trinidad until like a year ago. I never really put it in my music or let people know. I just been like, “Yo I’m from Brooklyn, you know what I’m sayin”, but like I said. I think music is just so much bigger than being from Brooklyn or New York. I wanna just travel and expand. I’m very proud of being a Trinidadian.
O: Yeah cause it’s only a while after I realised you were Trini, and I was like I been following you for the longest while, all this time and I didn’t know that!
TL: Yeah the first time I said it was on MTV and it didn’t make any sense to what I was doing with Jam. And I was like yeah I’m from Trinidad and I’m trying to put some calypso into my music now, and they were like we haven’t heard any calypso music from you. Why you talking about this right now? You see it didn’t make sense, but I’m happy that I put it in there. Yesterday I met someone at a mall and they were like, “Yo I seen your thing on MTV”. It’s like yeah I’m from Trinidad, so that’s awesome.
O: Yeah so you’re starting to put soca in your stuff now?
TL: Yeah, I’ve already started incorporating it. I can’t wait to share it. I wouldn’t say like soca like (makes fast noises).
O: Like more calypso…
TL: Yeah. It’s a bit of calypso. And I’m taking it and putting some nice guitars to it, and you can dance to it, and its jammy and I’m singing like how I would sing by myself, but with a nice tropical beat… so it sounds new wave-ish.
O: You said you want to start writing a song in every single country. I don’t know if you’ve started writing anything in Trinidad as yet but if you had to write something based on your Trinidad experience, what would be your inspiration?
TL: I already thought about this. The first lyric would be about bake and saltfish.
O: Bake and shark?
TL: Yeah bake and shark. Like she ordered a bake and shark and I’d start a story around that.
O: Cool, they’d love that. So from “Jam” to now “I Want You”, three years, three mixtapes, what’s the difference between the TL then and the TL now?
TL: I’m just like wiser and smarter. I’ve travelled so much between each mixtape. It’s so new wave, so punk that a mixtape can get me where I’m at today. Before it wouldn’t get an artist anywhere. It’s really all about the album. I mean only my personal friends know this. I put so much work into this, like the album I’ve been making for the last year. But the mixtapes got so big, and this label stuff takes a long time. So now I’m signed to Warner Bros, which is a huge, major record label and you know I’m 70% done with the album and I’m so psyched for it cause it’s gonna be next level. You know everything I’ve done so far is like another chapter… growth. It’s like I never want to put out the same thing again. But the mixtapes are fun. I’m happy people think of me kinda like a mixtape craftsman or a curator. That’s what my story has been so far, so I’m good with that. But I’m more like about being a songwriter. I think a mixtape is the most accessible way I can get to my fans across the world through social media. We live in 2010. Every minute the market changes.
O: When you started “I Want You”, what was the thought behind it?
TL: So I was like okay this album is going to take longer than I thought it was cause I wanna make it the best ever. And I said my fans will be pissed if the only thing they have to hear is “This Charming Mixtape”. I mean I got to the point where I couldn’t even hear that anymore. So I started working on songs for them. I started working on it in September. Started travelling. Went to LA. I was listening to a lot of Marvin Gaye at the time and I came across his album “I Want You”. Like every mixtape I do I dedicate it to someone… so the first one “Jam” was (Michael Jackson, Prince), “This Charming Mixtape” (Morrissey, Costello, African music, and all these other things), and this one is Marvin Gaye, kinda new wave. I still rap, I’m still me. I was more approachable on this mixtape. I showed my singing abilities more. So it’s kind of like a growth thing, like a chapter. I want people to grow with it. “I Want You” is like an ode to Marvin Gaye and about my desire for women. I wrote a lot of songs about this one girl I was dating and we kinda broke up before the mixtape came out. So yeah a lot of that had to do with my personal life, and just putting it into songs. Taking my personal life and making it commercial. Instead of making it sad, like “I’m so sad”. Making it fun. Making a movie.
O: I think it’s like you said, your fans are looking for something new. I think because you’re so accessible and so on the ball, and cause of social media it’s not like with an album we’re waiting two years. As you drop something, it’s like dude what’s next? Two months have passed!
TL: A minute has passed (laughs). It’s like the mixtape is out, and five minutes later it’s like dude when is the next one coming out? I’m like fucking hell. I’m saying this again, said it on tour last week. Media doesn’t really stick with people. Like Twitter, a tweet lasts a minute, a blog post lasts a day, Facebook… just one status. It’s so quick, nothing sticks to kids anymore.
O: So you tour like crazy. What are some of your favourite experiences?
TL: Going to cities and eating different foods. What I love doing is making friends cause I know I’m gonna come back. It’s always good to have friends who are pat of culture. I think I have a good knack for picking out who’s who and who I want to be my friend. So like friends and being in front of my fans. This “I Want You” tour, the mixtape has only been out for a month and they’re singing my tracks. Sometimes when I go to Europe it’s like reintroducing myself. This time they’re singing it. And I’m like messing up my lyrics cause all of the girls in the front row are singing the wrong lyrics and I’m like “Oh God I gotta concentrate, what are you guys doing?” (laughs).
O: So what’s next when you leave Trinidad?
TL: I’m gonna be in Miami in June. Gonna dj one night. I wanna play in Miami like two nights. I wanna go to Jamaica, write and finish the album, go to LA and record it, and bring in the choirs. Solange (Knowles) is gonna come in, Sam Sparro (who’s on chauffeur), Andre (leader of Mike Snow), he’s gonna come on. I got a couple more people I wanna bring on it. I’m bringing all the pieces together. I wanna put out an album with about ten tracks. I’m gonna tour all over the world. I’m definitely gonna come set up here (Trinidad). I’m gonna make sure I have the right hits to hit off radio, but nothing cheesy. I’m gonna stay true to my fans. I been around so many big producers this year (think Lady Gaga, Black Eye Peas), but I gotta stay true to my fans.
PS: Hey TL. Thanks for the moonwalk 😀
Photography by Mark Lyndersay. Trivia fact. Mark photographed Michael Jackson – who Theophilus is a huge fan of – when he visited Trinidad in 1978 with the Jackson Five.