Award-winning performance poet Kate Tempest unleashes hip-hop album


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The Independent Culture

It is an explosive mix of W H Auden and the Wu Tang Clan. Kate Tempest, the youngest winner of the Ted Hughes poetry prize, is to challenge the literary establishment by releasing her first hip-hop album.

Ms Tempest, 27, has already been described as one of Britain’s brightest talents. She has taken “street poetry” into Holloway prison and won the prestigious Hughes award for innovation last year with Brand New Ancients, an epic, spoken-word story, which transplanted the gods of classical myth into an urban setting.

Now Tempest, who started rapping on night buses as a South London teenager, is making her move into the hip-hop world with an album Everybody Down, produced by Dan Carey (M.I.A) and released this week on Big Dada, the home of grime star, Wiley.

A complex, 12-song cycle, Everybody Down, released on Monday, is a rap narrative, following “Becky” and a group of characters as they negotiate their way through a London demi-monde of drugs, money and gangsters, to a backdrop of ricocheting beats.

An early tip for this year’s Mercury Music Prize, Everybody Down has been made the NME’s Album of the Week.

For Ms Tempest, who used to trade rhymes at underground rap clubs before moving into performance poetry at “slams”, there should be no boundary between the worlds of William Blake and Ghostface Killah.

“I started out rapping and going to underage rap gigs but I didn’t consider myself a poet for many years,” said Ms Tempest, who has written poetry for the Royal Shakespeare Company. “I never really found a poet who made sense for me until I found hip-hop. Then I realised how exciting language is and I fell in love with poetry and rhyme.”

Her album doesn’t conform to poetic conventions about metre. “It’s the same as writing a sonnet –either you know what you’re doing or you don’t. You learn through sound and feel and you pick up what you like about rhyme patterns.

“It’s all about the truth. Lyrics are communicators of truths. That multi-syllabic, machine gun style of the great rappers is the most electric feeling in the world.”

Ms Tempest, who will adapt the album characters’ story for a forthcoming novel to be published by Bloomsbury, believes poetry cannot survive purely on the printed page.

“I’m a performance poet and all poetry should be spoken. Even if it’s been in a book for 400 years it should still be read aloud. A poem is like a map, it has to be read out loud so you can see where the map is leading you. It should be spoken and felt.”

Ms Tempest will publish her first Picador volume of poems later this year but she had no aptitude for poetry at school - “I’m just reading Ted Hughes now. He’s fucking incredible”.

She believes young people must find their own path to the greats. “If you pick up Milton in your own space and time then something might click. At school it’s the worst thing if the teacher comes in and tries to do some kind of ‘rap Shakespeare’.”

Ms Tempest will perform Everybody Down at Glastonbury and hopes to take the album on a UK-wide tour. She wants to bring her style of rap-poetry into schools but on her terms. “You go into schools for an hour but I’d like to invest more time than that, maybe spend a year. Teaching is such an important job.”

She admits that “people get arsey about poetry” but won’t be dissuaded from rubbing shoulders with hip-hop heroes Mos Def and Slick Rick. “I started out rapping and fell into poetry. Now I feel really excited about both forms. They use different parts of the brain but they can co-exist.

“It’s the urgent sincerity of hip-hop that got me into it. You’re not really a rapper if you’re not telling the truth. From events in backroom bars to festivals, these are really exciting times to be a speaker of language.”