Chipmunk - A level headed player
Rapper Chipmunk boasts three Top 10 hits, two Mobos and a headlining tour – and he's only just taken his exams. By Emma Love
Friday 09 April 2010
Over the past few years, Chipmunk has been living the life that most teenagers can only dream of. At 19, the young MC has already had a No 1 single, with "Oopsy Daisy"; several Top 10 hits; a platinum-selling debut album, I Am Chipmunk; won two Mobo awards, for best newcomer and for best hip-hop act; and in February, finished headlining his first sell-out UK tour. "On the first day of the tour, I had to drink a little. It was mad thinking the building was full because of me. I never thought it would all happen so quick," he says, chewing pink gum and sipping water, when we meet in a Caribbean restaurant in Camden, north London. "The London date of the tour was my high point so far. It's my home town so you never know how it's going to go down; these people can just see me in the chicken shop. They say London's a tough crowd, but London was a blast."
Now, Chipmunk (whose real name is Jahmaal Noel Fyffe) is releasing a new single, "Until You Were Gone", which features the Dutch singer Esmée Denters, and a repackaged album, with a further three songs on it. As we've come to expect from Chipmunk, these new songs continue to tell "the story of a north London kid with ambition, whether it's him rhyming about wanting to be the best of the best in "Superstar", carving his name in the history books in "History", or putting two middle fingers up to his haters in "Uh Ay". A huge Twitter and internet presence, his collaboration with Denters happened after he tweeted about her and she saw it. "I used to watch her videos in school; I've always been a fan. We tweeted, she came to London and I went to an N-Dubz show she was at with my laptop. I played her the song, she loved it and the next week we recorded it."
Chipmunk looks even younger in real life than he does in his videos, sporting a hint of a 'fro along with plenty of designer labels. In past interviews, he has said that he's named Chipmunk after the Alvin and the Chipmunks cartoon, but today he assures me that it was really just a bad nickname that stuck. "I change what I say but the truth is that I used to be short and a bit fat. Braces helped me out a lot," he says, smiling cheekily, so that I'm not totally sure whether to believe him even now.
He started rapping when he was 13 – "about ignorant, foolish stuff that wasn't relevant to my life. I was a normal school kid rapping like I was 50 Cent" – writing rhymes during lessons at Gladesmore Community School in Tottenham and putting out his own mix tapes. "I would catch the train to Uptown Records and Rhythm Division, putting my own CD in the stores. It was sale or return. I kept coming back and they were gone," he recalls.
His second mix tape, League of My Own, caught the attention of Wiley, who called him up during a maths class. "I didn't believe it at first and hung up. He took me on [Tim] Westwood's show on Radio 1 for the first time and that was the turning point for me. It was just me and Ice Kid rhyming away. That day, I was nervous and we were even arguing about who was going to go first. A couple of months later, I had over a million views on YouTube and things started getting heated," he recalls, laughing at the thought.
This is a rare admission from Chipmunk that he ever gets nervous; the rest of the time, he has absolute confidence in himself and his talent, saying, "I actually think I'm really good. When it goes back to beats and bars, I'm good for years. I've got flows for years. I can rhyme for years." At first, record labels questioned whether he was marketable, but "Chip Diddy Chip", his first single release which he put out independently, charted at number 21. "The labels were like, 'This kid's got street heat but can he sell music?' 'Chip Diddy Chip' was my blackjack. I knew what it was and what it was going to do. Then I had every label begging."
Often cited as a role model because he still finished his A-levels while making music, he says it was his childhood on a council estate that motivated him. "Growing up in a negative environment, you see the best come and go, you see people make millions illegally, you see people die, and it gives you that vision of what you want to do with yourself. If you come from where I come from, you've got to be something, man," he explains, rolling up his sleeves to show me his tattoos and pointing out one, "sacrifice" with a music double clef, which symbolises that he's giving up everything else for his music. "The other students remember when we were 14 and we used to have a Friday night hub, just MCing our lives away. They're happy one of us came through."
Talking to Chipmunk, it's clear that music really is his life. If he's not in the studio, he's recording for MTV or on the radio, popping up in a cameo to sing on Hollyoaks, or putting out new mix tapes "to exercise my vocab" (his most recent, For the Fun of It, included his version of Rihanna's "Rude Boy"). His own music taste is eclectic – the last albums he bought were Florence + the Machine, Jason Derülo, Sugababes and Cheryl Cole – and he names Kanye West as an inspiration and someone he'd love to collaborate with. "He changed hip-hop culture itself; I don't wear skinny jeans, but he does and gets away with it. I respect that," he says seriously.
As for the future, there's another tour in June, a second, very different album in the pipeline for next year, and even plans for a clothing line ("just some fly shit") at some point. He likes to play football – he used to play for QPR's youth team – and is on a bit of a health kick, going to the gym and trying to eat well, although he's struggling to stay away from those chicken shops. He'd like to act, too, making use of his drama A-level, and perhaps go to university one day.
And as for those haters, people who still doubt him even after all his success so far, understandably, he's not bothered at all. "Some people think, he's making pop songs now because he's signed, they changed him," he says, putting on a gravelly, scary-man voice to make his point. "No, bruv. I wanted to make some pop songs, so I made them. If you want to hate me, hate me; for every 10 that hate me, 10,000 love me. It's like a packet of salt on a portion of chips."
"Until You Were Gone" by Chipmunk featuring Esmée Denters is out on 19 April. The repackaged 'I Am Chipmunk' album is out on 3 May
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