Aug 23, 2011 12:00AM

Theophilus London

Touring Australia in September with everyone's favourite party boy, Big Boi.

In an age of increasing cultural disposability, charmingly preconscious Brooklyn kid Theophilus London makes future sounds with an ear for black music's rich past. His debut album, Timez Are Weird These Days, has just been released, following the Lovers Holiday EP and a trio of mixtapes that made international waves. This weekend he's heading down under to support Big Boi, and has just announced his own debut Australian headline shows. In Oyster #89 - back in October 2010, before his debut album even had a title - the rapper, vocalist, songwriter and producer spoke to Dan Rule about his eclectic range of influences and his intricate new breed of rap:

Theophilus London exudes a rare kind of charisma. From the moment he picks up the phone, fresh "off a table" in a Las Vegas casino, it's almost impossible not to get swept up in the 23-year-old's tall tales, ricocheting diction and raw, unguarded enthusiasm. In fact, it's magnetic. "I think music is a universal language, you know," he urges, pausing to consider the assertion. "And I hold my music up to that statement. It's my aim that all these tastemakers around the world, who are into totally different things, are a fan of one entity: Theophilus London."

It's this sense of belief - this unbridled confidence - that has come to exemplify London's kinetic re- imagining of rap, pop, electronica, soul and all be-tween. Since emerging from the New York underground with 2008 mixtape JAM!, only to follow up with last year's divergent world-beater The Charming Mixtape and this year's I Want You, a collection of classic, soul-drenched covers, he's become revered for his encyclopaedic musical sensibilities - and it's paying off. London's unexpected surge of popularity has made him a virtual citizen of the world. "I've travelled every single week this year - I haven't been home - and translating that experience means a lot to me," he says. "Being around different cultures and being around different people and having the chance to see their expressions and their attitudes and the ways they react has just been amazing at this stage of my career."

"Artists' first albums usually just come from the perspective of their bedrooms, man. Mine's from travelling all around the world and getting myself into a lot of crazy situations."

Though he spent the vast majority of his childhood in Brooklyn, the Trinidad-born London always had something of a world view. While his mother worked locally as a nurse, his father travelled frequently. "He used to tell me stories about going all over the world and hanging out with all different kinds of girls... No, no," he laughs, "He didn't say that. But, you know, I was always curious. I kind of knew that when I grew up, the whole thing would be in my hands."

Unsurprisingly, London never shied away from the limelight as a child. "I initially just wanted to become a performer," he recalls. "I performed for my mom at a young age and when we had to present a project at show and tell in the second or third grade, I'd be so eager that I'd work overnight. I was so good that no one could top that, after a couple of years they wouldn't let me go first anymore because it would discourage all the other kids who had to go after me," he laughs.

But music was always present. He grew up listening to a swathe of divergent artists, from Rick James, James Brown, Michael Jackson and Prince, to The Smiths, Fela Kuti, Sun-Ra and Jay-Z, and by the time he'd begun to craft his own beats, he was well-versed across a schizophrenic span of musical styles and orientations.

Indeed, mining musical history has played a huge part in the development of London's sound. "Oh man, I've always done a lot of research," he says. "It has played a huge role in what I do. Like I go through a whole process of searching for new artists, talking to friends of mine who will be like 'Have you heard of this guy?' or 'You should check this guy out' and just learning, learning, learning and exploring different cultures of music. Even when I went to Korea last year, I was given all these mixtapes of Korean music from the seventies - the Korean version of beach music and rock and roll. All that stuff is inspiring to me."

It's written all over London's output. Where The Charming Mixtape saw him pinball between Elvis Costello, Whitney Houston, Aphex Twin, southern rap flavours and disco pop, I Want You 8 covers of the greats of black music, Marvin Gaye and Nat King Cole included. "People don't really know how to handle this new generation, but they've got to understand what the iPod has created," he posits. "It's created a space where you can have a million different styles of music on one device, where back then you had to buy one CD or one record or one tape, just to get that one sound. Kids like me have grown up with unlimited choices and access to all these different types of music and have our own take and our own opinions."

His forthcoming debut album - which at the time of print was still without a title - is no exception. Featuring the likes of super producer Mark Ronson, TV on the Radio's Dave Sitek and Solange Knowles among others, it will, according to London, take his melange of sounds to a whole new level. "It's going to be a new take, like bringing all my influences - Rick James, Michael Jackson, Sade, Prince - to the table, but running them through a new mind and a new process," he urges. "It's a new idea: a new way to rap, a new way to sing a record, a bold statement, you know? It's about making it more intricate, like an amazing book that you read and you want to share with a friend. Or a movie, where you love the way that the director used the script, so you want to watch the movie three times to get really inside it."

Whatever the case, one thing seems for sure. Theophilus London is one name we'll be sure to hear a lot more of. "I'm setting up my next five years right here, you know?" he quips with typical swagger. "It's this idea that maybe you're not into it this year, but next year I'll make a song that you'll fall in love with. It's all about going into the unknown."

Theophilus London (with special guests Polo Club):

Wednesday 31 August - Oxford Art Factory, Sydney


Thursday 1 September - Northcote Social Club, Melbourne


With Big Boi:

Friday 26 August - The Tivoli, Brisbane

Saturday 27 August - Enmore Theatre, Sydney

Friday 2 September - The Palace, Melbourne

Saturday 3 September - Metro City, Perth

East coast shows on sale at Ticketek.

Perth show on sale at Moshtix.

Words: Dan Rule

Photography: Mike Piscitelli