Theophilus London performs at The Social, Wednesday, Feb 1.
THEOPHILUS LONDON: The Visual, Visceral, Visionary
Interview by Craig Chapman
Theophilus London was, and is, the vision of his own career, “I was young with no money, all I knew was DIY, I wasn’t waiting around for a label to try to buy into it and wait for a fan base to like it.” It’s this approach combined with his funky style that LX can get down with… read all about him… it was really nothing London.
I’ve read that visuals are really important to you. Were you ever on the path to becoming a visual artist?
I’ve always been a visual person, drama class, art class, and all that shit. And in life generally I always brought excitement to myself and everyone else around started seeing that. And now I’m doing it on a bigger scale, like on MTV or playing a show with Vice this weekend… including the Internet, Livestream, brands like Gucci and Nike. I’m into a lot of visual art.
Are those two rings you often wear significant?
One was handmade in Turkey. I like gold jewelry in general. I think just having stuff for so long kind of tells a story and I’m telling a story with those rings right now. They’ve been on my hand for about a year now and they’re part of my collection.
How did you gain your influence from The Smiths?
Somebody showed me a song … and I thought it was awesome so I decided I wanted to find everything there is to know about this band. So I did. I got the documentary, read about the producer, and I just became friends with the bassist. I know a lot about the band firsthand through him. If you like music you should definitely get into The Smiths at one point.
What gave you the drive to take on a DIY approach to your career?
I was young with no money, all I knew was DIY, I wasn’t waiting around for a label to try to buy into it and wait for a fan base to like it. I went and found the fan base myself and continued making music for them. And DIY is the best way to do it. It’s very personal and comes straight from the artist, it’s his voice and his vision, and that’s more interesting than anything else.
How calculated are your efforts in putting things on the Internet?
Very calculated. I’ve got a good sense for how it works. I’m into marketing and demographics, how people hear it when they hear it, if they like it, if they share it, etc. I think the Internet’s going there with these impressions and percentages, who’s liking what from what country, I’m in full control when it comes to that.
Do you think that’s important for young artists to pay attention to?
When you’re writing, how do you decide if a song is going to be a released song or just on a mixtape?
When I’m making a mixtape I make the mixtape from scratch so it’s not like “alright I just recorded a song so it’s gonna be for a mixtape.” When I’m making a mixtape all those songs make sense to the title or to the vibe when I started recording it. When I’m recording an album, I sit down for 9 months and work on that project only and I close it when it’s done.
Were your mixtapes a big part in generating buzz about you?
Yeah I think that’s the biggest thing and the only thing that generated a buzz until I was getting ready to do the album and announced that. My first mixtape “Jam!” in 2008 was just supposed to be a birthday present for kids who attended my birthday party. My rap career at that point was just giving music to my friends and performing at showcases and inviting my friends to check it out. So this mixtape was like “yo I got my own studio in my own house now, here’s mashing up music.” And I wanted to rap on this prince song and remix my friends song. I did it without having to sign any contracts and shit. I wanted to do it again, my new mixtape came out in 2009 and this one was more based on traveling around the world, (by then) record labels had already got on to me… trying to sign me. A mixtape was definitely the way people heard about me, it’s an eclectic new way to mix songs together and a new way for an artist to make his own music without a DJ attached to it. But it’s personal and it’s awesome and kids are into it. I don’t this mixtapes are the way to break artists now because mixtapes come out every day. There’s always a mixtape out. You provide a tweet but it leaves a timeline, like 5 seconds. So it’s hard for stuff to stick on kids now so I might be done with that mixtape phase, I’m making albums.
Any dream mash ups for a mixtape?
Yeah, I have a new one in the works as we speak, so that’s funny that we’re talking about it. …like bands? Some stuff that’s gonna come from Jimmy Edgar from Detroit… yeah it’s gonna be a real funky mixtape.
Your career has kind of been on a fast track… is that true?
I started when I was young, like 13, but all I was doing was figuring out who I was as a rapper, a songwriter, and an individual. 2008 was my first offering. People say 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 sounds fast but for me it was four long years of suffering, of being an artist, of performing my craft everywhere on this planet, enjoying the rise, enjoying me walking outside to get a bagel. Me walking outside to get a bagel in 2008 is different than walking out to get a bagel now. 20 kids stop me to sign their shoes and to sign their breasts, I’m selling out shows so, it’s been good.
Is there any one person in your life that you’d attribute your vast musical taste?
It was a little bit of my Dad, but not really. My cousin’s into the latest mixtapes and latest Jay Z raps but when I became a teenager I was on my own. It’s about being in the right musical circles and being around brilliant people who introduce me to stuff. I’ll just be searching on the internet all night looking at artists and I find something new, and when I found something new I’d learn everything about it until there was nothing else to learn about it. And then I’d move on to the next artist. I appreciated the whole catalogue of work and all of them lead me to learn about another artist. So I never get stuck on one person too long. But I try to stay in the right musical circles. When something hot comes out, before publications know about it and before the labels are trying to sign the kid I probably already know about it.
If you were to give advice to a young musician or emcee, what would it be?
Get the right team. Have the right people around you. Learn who you are and make sure you really have a good team, producers, managers, and the rest is kind of self-help.
*painting by Olivia Rogers
*photos by Jonathan Mannion
*transcribed by Cari Giard