Master Shortie looks anxious. Inside the monthly Hard Knock Wife gig at The Social nightclub in London's West End, a fidgety bunch of cool young somethings (and a few old ones) dressed in all things Eighties, have just lapped up nearly two hours of squelchy electro, hip-hop and grime.
So far, earlier acts Tic Tac and Nu Brand Flexxx have gone down well, yet it seems the crowd have gone all reserved now Shortie has arrived. Some people sit down. One man crosses his arms, looking bored. Within moments, the 19-year-old has grabbed a mike and he's leaping and spinning along to melody of Adam Ant's "Prince Charming" as his nimble high-pitched flow elicits a few whoops from the crowd.
He commands everyone to wave their arms in the air. Some oblige, others continue to stare. "There's still some people with frostbite," jokes Shortie, nervously. A few bouncy tracks later, and an impromptu encore of his underground hit "Rope Chain" finally breaks the ice. "I've got a rope chain, you got a rope chain, we rock a rope chain..." he spits. "Yeah, man!" scream the crowd in delighted response. Judging from his face, it looks like he's just exhaled.
"It's a weird situation," a softspoken Shortie explains a week later. "I'm slowly but surely growing and I'm in the spotlight now. I came from The Social crowd so they're like 'cool, let's see what he's got'." It's both a gift and a curse of critically-acclaimed hype, but already Shortie, aka Theo Kerlin, has been willing to straddle that thin line, since emerging as the latest saviour of UK urban. With a reverence for multiple genres and wacky fashion, he's been seven years in the making without a label deal and 2008 has finally seen the pay-off.
With more than 17,000 chums on MySpace, a whopping 200,000 plus hits of his latest single "Dead End" on YouTube, and a myriad of glowing magazine and internet blurbs, Shortie has obviously taken lessons from the Lily Allen/Arctic Monkeys school of DIY, developing a viral strategy that pips any record label efforts. And to top it all, he is in the BBC's top 15 poll of "ones to watch" next year.
In fact, he's bemused anyone would want to get signed these days. "Why do you need a record label?" he asks. "Everything else like distribution, marketing, plugging, PR ... a record label will put you on to those companies, but that's not what a record label does. So why would I sign to a label when I can get all those other bodies as a part of my project without signing to a label who will take my money?"
He seems quite business savvy. "Of course, man," he says. "My dad, he owns a bar, he's got the business head in the family." He adds: "If you're a good artist and you're very talented the music business should be simple. But there's so much politics that stands in the way of becoming successful. I don't really like the politics, so I do things my own way."
Meanwhile his music has won early acclaim for swiping a range of musical influences such as Eighties electro throwback, indie, grime, R&B and hip-hop, which has resulted in a unique pop sound capable of crossing over and even getting to the top of the charts. The concept seems to be retro pop, in the same vein as Kanye West, The Cool Kids and Gnarls Barkley. He would prefer to call it "eclectic" and says it's a marked difference from the hip-hop and grime tunes that have been floating around over the past few years and have given the rap game a bad name. "A lot of it is very negative in a way, in what they talk about," he says. "Eighties and retro music is an excuse to talk positive and have a fun kind of lifestyle, without being seen as a kind of pussy. It's fun and cool. Not fun and stupid."
So far, he's built his following around the tunes and his personality (although he's a touch shy in person). He'll be the first to admit that not everyone gets him. He's pug-nosed and baby-faced with manicured brows and a lip stud; a pretty boy and punk rebel, his quiddity likely to make narrow-minded grime heads a little twitchy.
He admits he's found it tough going against the grain. "Up until a year ago, coming from south London I was around people from a negative background, they didn't understand why I was different," he says. "People were a bit stand-off towards me, intimidated." What would he do about it? "I was confident, I was never really scared to be different," he shrugs.
Seven years ago, Shortie had his first taste of fame when he played Simba in The Lion King in the West End. Afterwards, he says he went straight into rapping, writing and recording. He did OK at school. "I was just a crazy kid, very hyperactive and always on my music," he recalls. "It wasn't until I finished school that I thought, 'I wished I'd focused more on my academics.' But everything happens for a reason. Obviously I got the 5 A-C's, but it wasn't all As."
He enrolled in the infamous Brit school, but later dropped out. He had already rubbed shoulders with hip-hop mavericks such as Rodney P and Estelle and found it difficult to adapt. "It was bitchy. They were young with their talents and they didn't know how to portray themselves, so I found it hard getting on with people."
For the past two years he's been taken care of by veteran music mogul Kwame Kwaten, the man responsible for the UK soul crew D'Influence. It's a good move and further evidence of how Shortie possesses a maturity beyond his 19 years. It also explains his nickname, which he says means he's "the master of a new generation".
He's still young enough to dream big and rapidly outlines his strategy which includes releasing his album, ADHD, next year, gigging, and releasing more material. He wants to be pop and highlights the many men who've done it before him. "50 Cent, Papoose, Busta [Rhymes], they're all pop artists. People over here don't understand. [In America] they know what they're doing and they're doing it well. They make commercial pop music. And it sells. We're too 'oh my God, I've got to keep it real'. And we don't really get anywhere."
He's certain he'll blow up on these shores and wants to become one of the first UK black artists to make a long-lasting career out of rap music, even if it comes in a package that might ruffle a few feathers at first.
"The fact that it's never been done before is a statement," he says firmly. "I've never lost my ambition and my eagerness. Once I make it, I'm not going down without a fight."
MTV presents Master Shortie House Party at The Roundhouse, London NW1 (0844 482 8008) on 12 DecemberReuse content