Tinie Tempah: He's going to be huge

Rap superstars are known for giant egos and turbocharged spending habits. But Britain's latest urban sensation plays to a different tune

Everyone loves Tinie Tempah, it seems. When America invented rap music, it gave us a genre that has become epitomised by the tattooed machismo and gangster pasts of Snoop Dogg and 50 Cent, the egos of Kanye West and Diddy and the menace of Eminem.

But Britain has found its new rap champion in the form of a slight and bespectacled tea drinker who thinks the best way to get on is to be nice to people.

And when his name was read out as the winner of two Brit awards this week, the cheers filled every corner of the cavernous O2 arena. His friends hoisted him into the air, where he resembled Joe 90 dressed for dinner, only Tempah is black and his tuxedo was white (setting himself apart from the crowd, as he always does).

His triumph at the music industry's biggest annual jamboree included the trophy for best British Breakthrough Act, which seems a reasonable description considering he signed to his record label only in October 2009. But though he is just 22, Tinie Tempah's career stretches back nine years and has followed a path that he has carefully mapped out himself.

He thought up his stage name when he was 13 and a pupil at St Paul's school in London (not the one attended by George Osborne but its much tougher Catholic namesake in South-east London). Picking up a Thesaurus, he came to the reference for "anger" and became transfixed by the word "temper". "I thought, 'This is a little bit aggressive'," he later told this newspaper. "I didn't want to scare anyone off. So I added Tinie. By playtime, Tinie Tempah was born."

A year earlier, he had determined his role in life when watching a video for "21 Seconds" by the south London rap group So Solid Crew. That moment, he has said, "changed my whole life", as he realised that urban music did not have to come from the other side of the Atlantic.

But whereas So Solid Crew seemed unable to escape headlines that linked them to guns and rioting fans, Tempah has attracted nothing but positive press coverage. How does he do it? Well, inviting reporters to afternoon tea at Claridge's must be the least intimidating media strategy in rap music history. But there is far more to Tempah than spotting a photo-opportunity.

He built his early reputation through the sheer strength of his personal charisma. Other better-known rappers on the London grime scene were happy to have him around backstage at their video shoots, and willing to say nice things about him as he filmed them on his handheld camera. He put those clips on his blog, which he called Milkand2Sugars – because his love of tea is not a stunt – and he soon had 9,000 unique users coming to him every day.

That authenticity is central to Tempah's appeal. "It's always best to be the person you are when you wake up in the morning until the time you go to bed," he recently told The Sun. "No matter who you are around, you've got to be consistent."

Scratcha, his former tour DJ and a presenter on the urban music station Rinse FM, backs him up on this. "He out of all the MCs is the most humble person," he says. "He's exactly the same – same number, same email. He hasn't hidden so you can't get hold of him. He's really down to earth. In interviews now he's not like some guy off the road who is trying to act like a good boy – he has genuinely always been that way.

"I saw his rise through the under-18 clubs and the crowds getting bigger and bigger. He would come off the stage and stay behind for hours signing autographs for every kid and having pictures. He would be there three hours after the show, talking to the children. It was mad."

In a world where tough guys have traditionally prevailed, Tempah managed to become accepted by his grime peers. "Because he's such a cool guy, no one can hate him," says Scratcha. "That's just how it is."

Tempah, who is of Nigerian parentage and was born Patrick Okogwu, grew up in a top-floor flat on the rough Aylesbury estate in Peckham, south-east London. His father is a social worker and his mother a human resources officer. When Tempah was 12, they decided that the family should move to a semi-detached home in the comparatively quieter London neighbourhood of Plumstead. He picked up his parents' work ethic and acquired A-levels in media studies, religious studies and psychology.

Though the media classes seem to have been helpful, he was determined to be a musician. Friends describe him as "hugely ambitious" and "focused ambitious". His first musical success came with "Wifey", a track which he accompanied with a video funded through part-time work in double-glazing telesales. A debut mixtape album, Hood Economics, gave him a reputation on the grime scene.

Dumi Oburota, his cousin and long-standing manager, says that he has succeeded because he is genuinely interested in people. "Tinie is like a sponge who absorbs information," he says. "He's really good at hearing other people's opinions and learning how he can make himself a better person and a better artist."

In an interview with the London Evening Standard last year, the artist spoke of the importance of mixing with people of different backgrounds during his teenage years in Plumstead. "There were a lot more white people, a lot more Chinese, a lot more Asians. I think that's what helped me to be as cultured as I am now."

Similarly in his music, Tempah introduces a plethora of genres which gives him a wide fanbase. Shortee Blitz, a hip-hop DJ for the Kiss network, says he has a "global" appeal. "On my travels, I play Tinie Tempah songs at 95 per cent of my club gigs." EMI took notice and beat five other record companies to Tempah's signature when he took the Wireless Festival by storm.

His publicist at Parlophone, Janet Choudry, says he makes her job easy. "He was [already] very media-savvy. He had been doing some press and had established relationships with Kiss and BBC 1Xtra. Everyone in that scene knew who he was," she says. "It was very evident when we met him that he could make it happen.

"He had a manifesto – if you believe in yourself and work hard enough you can succeed and get what you want."

His debut single, "Pass Out", made with producer Labyrinth, went to No 1 (and won him his second Brit award this week). His debut album Disc-Overy is another chart-topper. He has collaborated with pop stars as diverse as Kelly Rowland and Ellie Goulding, appeared on stage at Glastonbury with Snoop Dogg (who thinks he is "dope" – ie he approves). Jay-Z and P Diddy are fans, as are Kylie Minogue and Prince William. "He has it all right now," says Trevor Nelson, presenter for BBC Radio 1Xtra. "Guys look at him and think he's cool. Of course the girls look at him. He's the kind of guy most mums want their daughter to bring home, which is rare for a rapper." Scratcha says that was always Tempah's intention.

At the Brits, Alan Carr joked from the stage that the artist's success was going to look like "an advert for Specsavers". But Tempah is no geek. After the show, the nattily attired rapper offered his distinctive Ray-Bans to his fans. Brands are lining up to do deals with him and he plans to turn his Disturbing London clothing range into an international fashion marque. Who would bet against him? For Tinie Tempah, the kettle is just coming to the boil.

A life in brief

Born: Patrick Chukwuemeka Okogwu Jnr, 7 November 1988, London.

Family: His parents, Patrick and Rosemary, came to the UK from Nigeria in their twenties. His father set up a barber's shop but retrained as a social worker. His mother works for the NHS.

Education: Attended St Patrick's Catholic Primary School in Plumstead, south-east London, and St Paul's Roman Catholic Secondary School in nearby Abbey Wood. Went on to study A-levels at St Francis Xavier Sixth Form College, Clapham.

Career: Has been a rapper on the underground urban music scene since 2006. Signed to Parlophone in October 2009. His debut single, "Pass Out", went straight to No 1 in February 2010. His album, Disc-Overy, has gone platinum and spawned three more singles. He won two Brit awards this week for Best Single and Best Breakthrough Act.

He says: "I get annoyed by people's, almost, awe when they find out you aren't what they were expecting you to be like, when they say: 'Oh, you dress really well, you can speak well.' It gets on my nerves. Being a rapper is a career choice for me. I exist apart from that as a human being. I can be into foreign cinema. I can like to dress up as well."

They say: "I've been hearing about him." Jay-Z

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