Tinie Tempah - The rapper as a role model

Youngsters can do community service to earn tickets to see Tinie Tempah, who tells Charlotte Cripps why he likes the idea
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The Independent Culture

The British rap star Tinie Tempah, 21, exploded on to the music scene in March with his debut single, "Pass Out", which remained at the top of the UK charts for two weeks. He has just released his second grime-pop single, "Frisky", which is currently in the UK Top 10, and he made his Glastonbury debut last weekend to join Snoop Dog on the Pyramid stage to perform a version of "Pass Out". The US rapper, who has officially remixed "Pass Out", says: "Tinie is dope and I'm open to working with him."

I meet Tinie Tempah in north London, where he is eating pesto pasta at a cafe, and hoping that his latest single, "Frisky" doesn't come on MTV, which is blaring above us. "It would feel awkward," he says.

On 8 July he is to perform at a concert at Manchester's Apollo (with Snoop Dogg, Mr Hudson, and Vampire Weekend) for which young people have done four hours of community service to earn a ticket. Large screens at the concert will show footage of the 3,000 young people, aged between 16-25, doing voluntary work, including bat-box building, clearing woodland and repainting football changing-rooms. Tempah even went down to a local skate-park in West London to help volunteers repaint it. "It was fairly straightforward," he says. "I had stencils and spray paint."

As part of the Orange RockCorps scheme to effect social change through music, young people are being urged to "Give, Get Given" tickets to one of the concerts. And later this month the programme, which began in the UK in 2008, is expanding in partnership with Ticketmaster, giving young people the chance to work for any charity of their choice and earn tickets to any gigs or festivals in return for four hours work – not just RockCorps concerts and their designated projects. But would the South East London rapper from Plumstead have been as keen to work for his local community to earn a ticket?

"I would have done it for Dizzee Rascal," says Tinie Tempah thoughtfully. "When you work hard for something, you appreciate it all the more. I have worked hard for the position I am in now. It didn't come easy and I hope every person who comes to the concert feels the same way too."

After years on the underground scene Tinie Tempah has successfully crossed into the mainstream. His first single "Pass Out", which innovatively mixes grime, pop, house and dubstep, is the biggest selling single this year by any UK artist. The equally catchy electro-grime-sounding hit, "Frisky", which reached 90,000 sales in its first week, only narrowly lost the No 1 spot to Dizzee Rascal's unofficial World Cup track, "Shout For England", featuring funny man James Corden. He also features on the remix of the hit "Hello Good Morning" from rap star Diddy – (formerly P Diddy) with Tinchy Stryder, and which is storming up the UK charts. And Damon Albarn was so impressed by "Pass Out" that he allowed Tinie Tempah to remix "Stylo" by Gorillaz earlier this year, after the pair met at an EMI party.

Looking clean-cut in long camouflage shorts and a black T-shirt, Tinie Tempah is very calm and wise for a 21-year old. "Considering six months ago I'd never ever charted, fussing between No 1 and No 2 to Dizzee in the UK Charts isn't a bad thing at all," he says. "My reaction was, 'oh well'.

Well educated, having done GCSEs and A-levels at school while juggling a music career, he now wants to inspire kids to work hard and reap the rewards just like he has. "I don't want to be one of those patronising musicians who tells you to work hard at school but I want to show that instead through my actions."

Success hasn't come on a plate to Tinie Tempah, whose real name is Patrick Chukwuem Okogwu Jr. But by the age of 13, he had invented his stage name. "I looked up 'anger' in the thesaurus and I was starring at 'temper'. I thought, 'this is a little bit aggressive'. I didn't want to scare anyone off. So I added Tinie. By playtime, Tinie Tempah was born," he says.

He worked in double-glazing telesales to fund his first music video for promotional single '"Wifey", which became an underground smash hit in 2006, holding the No 1 position on the Channel U urban chart for ten weeks. He enlisted the help of his cousin and now manager, Dumi Oburota, a former youth worker who sold salvaged cars to finance his music projects. Tempah set up his record label, Disturbing London, and built up his fanbase over the internet.

His debut album, Hood Economics – Room 147: The 80 Minute Course, was a grime symphony with 28 tracks, released in 2007. It was well received for its cacophony of dysfunctional sounds. He was signed to Parlophone Records (a branch of EMI) in October 2009, and celebrated the deal by taking a fan to high tea at Claridges.

Now he feels a responsibility to be a positive role model to young people. "I wanted to go down to the skate park. They could see me getting stuck in as well. It makes it a little more real to them. Do you know what I mean? Money doesn't fall from the sky – you've got to get out there and make it happen," he tells me.

Tempah wishes a scheme like RockCorps had existed when he was 16. "In my summer holidays, there wasn't anything to do. We had to create our own fun. I think this is cool and a good opportunity to meet new people and to keep yourself occupied. It teaches good skills, like teamwork and socialising in a working environment." The rapper recalls in his childhood that "trimming the deaf next-door neighbour's hedge, as well as our own, when we were in the garden" was second nature to him. With three younger siblings, he was always "expected to care for them" too.

"My parents, who are still married, instilled these values in us, so helping others comes naturally to me. My background is not comparable to somebody like Snoop Dog's." He helped out again when he sang on the 2007 single "Put the Knives and Guns Down" with vocalist Meresa MacBeth. It marked the verdict of murder at the trial of 15 year-old Kiyan Prince, the young footballer who had been stabbed to death outside his school gates in North London, with all proceeds of the record going to the Kiyan Prince Foundation.

Now, with superstardom within reach, he puts his success down to "having that little five-year plan" – and "sheer hard work". But the secret ingredient in his music is his trick to rap over all genres of music.

"You couldn't really tell the difference in the Top Ten charts – it was all pop/R&B. I saw that as an opportunity," says Tinie Tempah. "So I got in the studio with my producer Labrinth and said: "Let's bring drum'n'bass into the charts and let's do some crazy stuff." He continues: ""Pass Out" was the only track on the radio that was longer than four minutes. "Frisky" has got loads of weird sounds in it. It stops halfway and then comes back in. I mix every genre of music – electro, ska, reggae, grime, drum'n'bass, and hip-hop and I've made it into one."

When Tinie Tempah performs at Manchester's Apollo on Thursday he will treat fans to never-before-performed material from his forthcoming album The Disc-Overy as well as his next single "Written in the Stars", both out in September – as well as his Top Ten hits.

"If everybody has worked so hard to earn this ticket, I might as well give them something a little bit extra special," he says. Does he have any tips? "The world is a big place – try and meet new people. Your life could change in an instant. Get out there. You get out of life what you put in."

Orange RockCorps Manchester is at the Apollo on 8 July (Orangerockcorps.co.uk; 0800 954 7625) . "Frisky" is out now