"I hate the word alternative," says Ty. "I hate the word off-key, I hate the word jazzy and I hate the word laid-back. I'm not a laid-back person." That's for certain. A frown adds a touch of finality to his mini-rant. Ty has never been a fan of anything that suggests his unconventional existence in British hip-hop should paint him with the "alt" prefix. "I'm probably more disobedient with regards to what is acceptable for a hip-hop artist to do," he concedes, "but I don't know whether that should be titled with the word alternative."
Ty, aka Ben Chijioke, is still a conundrum in and out of hip-hop circles. Since releasing his telling 2001 debut Awkward, he's become known for spitting rhymes about the woes of the world and condemning hip-hop's demons over funky, jazz-inflected tracks, deservedly earning recognition from the Mercury Music panel in 2004 by receiving a nomination for his second album Upwards. On the underground, he's built up a reputation as a loveable rogue, part hip-hop geek, part charming antagonist, which all explains why the likes of Blur's Damon Albarn and Lily Allen count themselves as fans. But despite the cult following, going against the norms nowadays isn't working the way he would have imagined – and it's not like he's getting any younger at 35 years old. A core of UK hip-hop's next generation might reference the rapper because of his appearances on Sky's urban outlets Channel U or MTV Base, but in the industry's popularity stakes, the grime and trendy indie kids still rule.
He's also now officially unsigned. After the release of his last album, Closer, he cut ties with Big Dada, Ninja Tune's hip-hop imprint and his home base for the last seven years, which makes being an artist a more challenging reality. "I felt like being with an independent label, there's a time when you have to kind of acknowledge that the people either have lost faith in what you're doing or are no longer interested in what you're doing," he shrugs. "I think that was one of the two that had happened and I had no animosity towards them... I just think that I've built a lane for myself in music, so it's for me to continue that."
The rapper's diplomacy falls into that category of optimistic responses you get from label-free artists, especially when they're not entirely sure what their future holds. Luckily, Ty still finds himself in demand. He recently featured on the Apples & Snakes Twofive: Vinyl To Download spoken word album, and among the gigs he's set up this summer, he'll be returning to the Big Chill Festival, as part of the Words in Motion programme. He says he's looking forward to performing at the eclectic fest for a third year because they've always shown him love. "I really like this idea of thousands of people who specifically want to hear your music," he says. "There's no more backhanders or favours from DJs to play your records in order to make people think about buying it. These people are here. I remember doing the concert and driving in and you can hear people performing on the radio. It was just amazing. It was like an Oompa Loompa land of music."
He points out that his inclusion in this year's programme, which brings together noted writers and poets from London's Apples and Snakes organisation, is a return to his poetry roots – he used to be involved in London's Ghetto Grammar spoken word workshops in the mid-Nineties. "The spoken word audience is the most diverse, most open-minded, most up-for-a-giggle audience you can get," he smiles. "I'm coming in to be a distraction from the tea and coffee spoken word, jumper and sandals spoken word. I'm coming in from a different angle and I'm representing a particular ethos inside this mini-culture that some may be aware of, some maybe not." But there will be nothing "un-hip-hop" about his set either. "I'm coming to do my rap as poetry; so I'm not toning down the hip-hopness of my hip-hop experience," he says. "I'm rapping. I'm not doing spoken word in a traditional sense – I'm doing the rap sense of it."
In light of his new-found freedom as an artist, would he consider committing to the spoken word scene for good? It's an organic community that can boast of not being tainted by the politics of the music industry. "I probably do approach my music from a more artistic point of view, than, say, most rappers who either want to be famous, want to get paid or want to be known to be notorious," he muses. "I'm kind of known to push the envelope and I think spoken word pushes the envelope in general. So I'm more a graduate of that school of thinking. But we've got to break away from the notion that all these different forms of spoken communication are that much different. They're not. I think Words and Motion is a brilliant opportunity to squash all these flavours together, press fry and just let it cook and eat it and enjoy it for what it is, rather than listen to Gordon Ramsay telling you, you should put pineapple with paprika and blah, blah, blah. It's like, it's all there. Taste what you want."
That said, Ty is less enthusiastic about praising present-day rap music and the very UK industry he says hasn't allowed him to gain in the mainstream. Taking veiled shots at flash-in-the pan artists, he says it's no wonder that the genre is seen in a negative light. "It deserves the cold shoulder it's getting because it's not pushed forward," he says. "And also, what people are doing as under-the-towel hip-hop is really rap music, which just focuses on the production of the music. Hip-hop is the whole thing. I think it's deservedly in bad shape because, if you look at American mainstream hip-hop, it has no semblance of culture. It's learning to play the xylophone to a really high level then throwing one stick away, chopping off an arm and then going, record that. It deserves to be looked upon as a minimal, negative influence, because it hasn't owned up to the fact that it is."
So as a British rapper himself, where does he fit into all of this? "I can be treated a certain way because of others, but I can never be tied in to actually contributing to the demise of young kids worldwide with my style of hip-hop music," he says. "I've always tried to uphold a different angle. It's not necessarily goody two-shoes music, but it is about having some sort of integrity. My integrity is in my music and that's what I push. So yeah, unfortunately I am treated like a little child in the UK because I do hip-hop music. But really, I am treated like a fully-grown man who is influencing others abroad. It's horses for courses."
Raised in Brixton, south London to Nigerian-immigrant parents, he grew up with his sister in a strict household where career choices were limited to becoming a doctor or a lawyer. But Ty wanted to do hip-hop. "They didn't take to it very well at all," he admits. "I knew that it was going to happen, but I just continued to do what I did – they just made me do it in secret." He began developing his MCing skills and fell for a broad range of music through a stint in sound engineering. As his solo career was taking off, he became the guy known for collaborating with an exotic array of artists at home and abroad, such as Tony Allen, the drummer for Nigerian Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, who featured on his 2003 Upward album.
After years of travelling around the world and picking up fans from as far afield as Tanzania and Brazil, he's still not concerned with making the kind of chart music that's too rigid for his colourful tastes. But he's now considering a number of options to take his career out of the shadows, which he's keeping close to his chest, and has already started recording songs for a new album. His present focus, however, is to keep delivering to the people who appreciate him for who he is. "It's better you just make music for the people you make it for," he reasons. "You have to stick with what you're most passionate about, and I'm passionate about samples, about chopping beats up, about making music, about performing, about whipping people into a frenzy. There's nothing like seeing people dance to your music."
The Big Chill Festival, Eastnor Castle Deer Park, Herefordshire (020-7685 0525; www.bigchill.net), 1 to 3 August; 'The Independent' is the media partnerReuse content