Tinie Tempah interview: The discovery of the media mogul inside

The British rapper is following Jay-Z and Kanye West in building a business empire, one that has seen him invited to Downing Street and become part of the polo set

Tinie Tempah eases into our meeting just an hour late, though his excuse brooks no complaint. “I’ve just been to No 10,” he coolly explains as the hip-hop artist swaps pop-star shades for businesslike spectacles. “We went there to talk about a few things – men’s fashion. It was to do with everything we’ve been doing,” he explains airily, unwilling to reveal yet what could be another coup for his expanding business interests. “We” is the company Disturbing London, including management (now with Jessie J), record label and clothing range, for which Patrick Okogwu, aka Tinie Tempah, is the figurehead.

Tempah remains one of the UK’s highest-profile rappers: this spring he completed his latest arena tour and his second album, Demonstration, has gone gold. While best known for 2010 No 1 hit “Pass Out”, the 25-year-old’s profile seems bigger than ever. He is the dapper, unattached style icon gracing glossy mags and fashion websites; a role model praised in the industry for his hard work and politeness.

Fittingly, we meet in a London private members’ club’s meeting room that, with its bottled water and fruit bowl, could host a creative firm’s board, to discuss why so many high-end brands want a piece of the action. The latest is Veuve Clicquot, which has attached his name to an Airstream caravan hosting a champagne/DJ bar touring alfresco events. Tempah adds credibility, while picking the DJs helps him promote lesser known names from the Disturbing stable. All About She, a trio of female singer/two male producers, have played Goodwood Festival of Speed and Tempah himself will do a DJ set at prestigious polo tournament the Gold Cup.

Tempah’s on-tour DJ Charlesy is set to play out at Festival No 6 at Portmeirion, Wales, in September, while, to avoid charges of nepotism, he has selected fast-rising production duo Billon for Polo on the Beach at Watergate Bay in Cornwall (after an impressive series of remixes, watch out for their major label single “Something Special”, set to drop in August). Even with Tempah’s well-groomed appearance and charm, croquet on horseback seems a step too far, but the lad from south London reckons we should join in more.

“There’s so many things about being British that the average Brit doesn’t get to enjoy enough, because of the means or exposure or access, but there’s a festivity behind it – people get dressed up, it’s a lot of fun.”

Tempah has form in this regard: on Demonstration’s lead single “Trampoline” he boasts about taking high tea at posh London hotel Claridge’s. He seems to actively enjoy such experiences, though there is a quiet pride in going where other south London kids rarely tread.

“You’d be stupid not to take these opportunities, especially if it means you get to do something cool or learn a new skill that’s transferable. Everything we do is to impact the culture and give hope to the next generation. Sometimes I see my nieces and nephews, some of them are 10 and 11 and I’m, like, ‘what are they going to be watching when they’re 16? What are they going to be listening to? Who from England are they gonna want to be like?’”

To achieve his aims, Disturbing, the company headed by Tempah’s cousin Dumi Oburota, is building relationships with high-end brands. For apparel, they have collaborated with the likes of Nike, while Tempah has done business with eye-wear specialist Prism. Rather than forensically examining potential partners, these ventures develop – along with Disturbing – in a more “organic” fashion, he explains. The caravan jaunt grew from early connections that built mutual trust, going back to Disturbing’s first collection launch in 2012. “We’ve been good friends for a little while. They’ve been very supportive of stuff we’ve done fashion-wise, they jumped on board when we did our first launch at Selfridges.”

Also developing nicely is Disturbing’s record label arm, which secured a breakthrough last winter when All About She secured a Top 20 hit with the two-step garage-reviving “Higher”. Now they are signed to major label Atlantic (via Disturbing) and Tempah is still plotting their continued rise. He describes Disturbing as a “creative hub” where artists can be nurtured through label and management deals before, as with Tempah, major labels hopefully carry them to greater success. “The next step for them is live, they work best there,” Tempah reveals. Charlesy, meanwhile, hosts a show on Capital Xtra, though Tempah sees him eventually putting out his own music in the manner of the stars of the EDM scene. Next up will be 20-year-old singer/songwriter Sasha Keable, another south Londoner whom Tempah spotted six years ago as a callow teen in an N-Dubz-style group. Such patience is key to the Disturbing model.

“Where you make something and it’s immediately out, and even majors are trying to catch up with how fast technology and social networks are developing, artists aren’t given enough room to grow.” What Tempah describes sounds similar to the networks built around US rappers such as Jay-Z and Kanye West, though the rapper claims Disturbing grew in a vacuum.

“We didn’t have any know-how about the music industry, just followed our understanding of a certain element of culture in England, London, Britain, that not all record labels understand.”

In the past, Dizzee Rascal and The Streets’ Mike Skinner have tried a similar strategy with underwhelming success, though Tempah reckons he has learnt from their experiences.

“Don’t try and take on too much and work with artists who you believe in and believe in you, because sometimes it’s hard. Even in my career there’s been times when I’ve felt: ‘What’s going on, man? Is this even gonna happen?’” Ultimately, though, Tempah is striding confidently into a future where an artist’s stature is measured less by sales than by their own brand strength. The hip-hop star notes how Jay-Z gave away his last album to owners of various Samsung devices.

“Technology and people are constantly changing the way we consume things. Being a musician has been great and has given me an opportunity to get into the fashion world, but that’s opened up my music to more people.”

Tempah himself has his own run on the festival circuit to look forward to, though he is also thinking ahead to his next musical steps. For fans used to seeing him collaborate with everyone from Ellie Goulding and Emeli Sandé to Dizzee, there may be surprises in store.

“I’m trying not to think about it as much, unlike previously. I’m one of the few artists that can get away with making lots of different kinds of music, so I’m gonna do a bit more of that.”

If he does follow dance music, he won’t need so many starry hook-ups. “Stars of the past year or so have been faceless. I probably will end up doing one or two collaborations, but people don’t necessarily care. They’re not essential.” Tempah hopes to have new music out before the end of the year – single, EP or album – though, as Charlesy’s DJ-ing lessons provide another string to his bow and he heads off on a summer tour of Australia, you wonder where he will find the time. Yet even without fresh sounds of his own, Tempah will never be far from the public eye.

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