Meet Me in ChinaVocal skills, sure, but how about marketing savvy, brand collaborations and a sprinkling of Yeezy? Ahead of his second major album, Theophilus London is carving an unusual path to music stardom.
Theophilus London, brand first and musician first-and- a-half, strides into a studio in South Central L.A. for a photo shoot. With him is a wardrobe that contains no more than six pieces. The brown Burberry coat looks well worn in, and there’s dirt around the collar of a white mandarin shirt. The black blazer has pinhole marks in the lapel. It was made by Halston and once owned by Andy Warhol. Lived in, authentic. This is what he wants to project. “All I have is my image” is something he says more than once. Well, image and, with the newly released Vibes!, a sophomore album that pushes his around-the-world party sound into deeper wells of musical influences.
Over beats that recall Prince and electronic soul, he lays down rhymes and the occasional R&B song. Co-producer on it is 1970s Motown writer and artist Leon Ware. Executive producer is a certain Kanye West, who taught him about using space in songwriting and contributed a verse on the album’s most infectious track, “Can’t Stop.”
That last fact won’t free the Brooklyn-raised musician from the shackles of cool-kid fandom established by his fashion bona fides and major-label debut, 2011’s Timez Are Weird These Days. But it might just thrust him further into the public consciousness. And that would be a good thing. Because Theophilus London is talented and restless—a Warholian collection of ideas and impulses and influences that go beyond music, or fashion, or even art. And the pathway he’s taken to success in a fractured music industry is instructive.
THE RED BULLETIN: You worked with brands like Bushmills whiskey and Cole Haan before you ever released an album. You said at one point you were a brand first. Why?
THEOPHILUS LONDON: What I was really trying to say was I understand the way one artist has to turn himself into a brand in the new consumerism world of the Internet. I knew I was going to use my real name, so I knew I had to make a brand out of that. I was one of the first artists, in 2009, to release music with a brand. I released my first single with Green Label Sound, a record label with Pepsi and Cornerstone Marketing.
Is that selling out before you’ve even built a reputation?
No, it’s getting music to further places. Technology goes to places music can’t go. If I’m anything, I’m an artist of progression. I’m not genre based. I’m an innovator, a creator. So whether it’s music, tech or lifestyle, I’m all of that. Music is just a short expression of my life. I’m 26. I’ve got so many ideas to express so much more.
Why did you start making music?
I thought, what’s the most attractive thing that can get ladies. When I rapped, people paid attention. By the way, shout out to Art Start [a youth arts nonprofit in New York City]. That program taught me to reach inside and grab my real inner self and talk about that. Don’t talk about the clothes and the money and the hos and all this shit that don’t matter. I’m not living that rap style. What am I living? [It] taught me how to rap about that. I wanted to be one of the greats, so I knew I had to study them, but not take what I heard. I’m not trying to do what the other guy does and be a second him. I got to be the first me.
So what have you learned that you can pass on?
Take your time, and practice. Know your art. When it’s time to perform, it should be like a second language to you because you practiced so much. I used to perform in my bedroom, thinking there’s 10,000 people on my bed. I studied every tape of James Brown. The performing arts are different. You have to be egotistical. It’s my purest form, like I’m naked. And that’s why I close my eyes all the time. I want to make people feel sadness, crying, laughter, love—all the emotions.
You’ve planned this path. But what do you think of the people out there just recording something and putting it on YouTube?
Before the kid even figures himself out he’s put out one video and it blows up, and it kills him. He starts becoming fake about it. My biggest concern was that I’d be fake to my audience. That’s why I dialed back and moved to Palm Springs [to record Vibes!]. You know, f*ck everyone—what was being talked about at the label and on the streets. I got to go away and be naked again. I got to be in the studio creating every day of my life. I’m happy now that I did something that can go into the culture and live, longer than a statue.
Was there something that gave you that realization?
I started looking at myself as a joke. And what people thought of me, I started to think that I was actually like that. I was on airplane mode the whole two years of promoting that first album [Timez Are Weird These Days], and I’d rather kill myself than be on airplane mode with my music, something that’s supposed to be pure. I’m sharing something with the world, and trying to get better at it.
So how have you done that with this new album?
I wanted to get out of my rap persona and be more of my musician self. Why did I listen to James Brown every day and study him? To be a rapper? And this electronic dance music DJ makes my beats, and all I have to do is close my eyes and make a rap? I wasn’t comfortable with that. That’s what my first album was. And it wasn’t honest. I can’t listen to some stuff on my last album, because it was pressured and pushed in places. I’m a control freak, and I wasn’t really in control. When I sleep and let the label do everything for me, I look like Taylor Swift. But when I wake up and do it, I look like Theophilus London.
You’ve found some prominent support along the way. You met Kanye four years ago. How did it go from that to him executive producing your album?
I was a fanboy. I used to write for [fashion lifestyle site] Hypebeast, and as I was meeting him, I was typing a story on my phone about meeting Kanye. I was writing it like I’ll never see him again. I’d just met my idol: the most expressive, creative guy who inspired me to be me, and not some marketing idea. I think he lied to me and said, “I like your music,” but I think he did that just to make me feel comfortable. He mentored me this whole year. I had the funniest email chains with him. When he first told me he was going to work on my album, I was so excited … I wrote this long email to him and he’s like, “I don’t read long emails.” The funny thing is, I talked about the music, the artwork [on the album cover], about the naked girls I wanted in the video, and about the marketing plan—all in February 2013. And he’s like, “I can’t read this shit, but I’m happy you’re excited. Let’s start here.” [Laughs.] All my emails with him are like one word or two words or just like “Meet me in China” in the subject line, or “We’re going to an opera tonight, me, you and Kim,” and I can’t say no. First time we met in London to work, we went shopping all day and didn’t work. And the way that he shops is he has somebody follow him to every store and see what he liked and then they go back and buy it.
Do you need input when you make music?
Yeah. I’ve got seven people working in my brain right now, but I need to test shit out: What do you think? What does the punk girl think? What do these girls who know how to twerk think? But he cares, too. We had a 20-hour meeting over a few days about his new shoe for Adidas. His albums are so A-and-R’ed before they’re A-and-R’ed. If I took any song that he made that’s in his garbage right now, I’d have a hit.
Do you think you’ll get the same input and inspiration in L.A.?
I think L.A., and California, is booming right now. There’s going to be a huge art revolution, and we’re going to have amazing kids doing stuff that’s sitting next to Picassos one day. And I want to be one of the cultural leaders of the movement; I want to push the kids and mentor, like how Kanye mentored me. At some point my generation is going to become corny and obsolete, and these young kids are going to have the answers. If we nurture them we can have a prospering culture like the renaissance of the 1920s. My job as somebody on the inside is to help people on the outside.