Tinie Tempah and Emeli Sandé on how they made Disc-Overy

‘I’d listen to 50 Cent rapping about the mean streets of the Bronx and knew I could never do that for Plumstead – so I pretended I was from the East End’

Patrick Okogwu, AKA Tinie Tempah, songwriter, rapper

I came from a relatively poor council estate background in London. By the time I was 12, I was looking for black male role models and wondering how to make real money doing something I loved. I wanted a name I could be known by on the street. I liked the word “temper” but it sounded too aggressive, so I softened it to Tinie Tempah. I’d listen to 50 Cent rapping about the mean streets of the Bronx and wondered how I could ever do that for Plumstead. You had to be from a certain area or with a crew, like Dizzee Rascal or Wiley, so I joined the grime collective Aftershock Hooligans, and for a time pretended I was from the East End, to make friends.

It took me four years from making my first mixtapes to being discovered, performing at the 2009 Wireless festival. British rap was not seen as lucrative back then, but I wanted to compete with white pop acts and get on the radio. I wrote Pass Out, the first single from Disc-Overy, right after signing a record deal. The lyrics weren’t about how my life was, but about how I wanted it to be. I wasn’t “driving past the bus I used to run for” – because I didn’t have a car – but I wanted to be “a bigger star than my mum thought”.

Many working-class kids never leave their surroundings, so I started referencing places I’d never been to but had seen on signs on the motorway, like Scunthorpe. And there were elements of self-deprecating wit, like the lines in Simply Unstoppable: “I like the taste of alcohol. I got wine gums.”

Disc-Overy’s guest vocalists weren’t the global stars they are now. I met Ellie Goulding at a gig in Dingwalls. We made a track with Labrinth, but he hadn’t had No 1 records then. Getting to work with Kelly Rowland from Destiny’s Child was a big deal, and she didn’t phone in her vocals across the Atlantic – she came right over here and we did Invincible together.

We used 14 producers and several co-writers because I wanted the album to sound like a jukebox playing the sounds I heard in London, from rock to reggae to electro-house. I’d have the skeleton of the song for the producers to build the tracks, but nobody ever wrote lyrics for me.

It went triple platinum. The artwork depicts me holding the major London monuments. It was my way of saying: “We’re here. We can be as good as anybody else.”

Tinie Tempah and Emeli Sandé in 2012.
Tinie Tempah and Emeli Sandé in 2012. Photograph: David M Benett/Getty Images

Emeli Sandé, vocalist, songwriter

My dad introduced me to Aretha Franklin and Mariah Carey and, from the age of seven, I wanted to be like them. Growing up in Scotland, I had no idea how to get into the music industry. I listened to Trevor Nelson’s Rhythm Nation show on Radio 1 and he ran a competition for “budding artists”. My sister recorded me at the piano and I won. Doors started opening. When I was about 17, I played with a band and got my hair and makeup done for the first time. It was really exciting.

After I did a Radio 1Xtra gig, this guy came over and said: “It felt like you were singing to me.” He turned out to be the producer Naughty Boy [Shahid Khan] and asked if I’d make some music with him. We clicked and I trusted him immediately. He had a messy kitchen in his studio and was always cooking me shepherds pie.

One day I popped into the studio and he was working with Tinie, who was really complimentary about my voice. As an unknown artist, to hear that from someone who’d had some success was inspirational. Naughty Boy played a beat and I just sang “If you could see me …”, which snowballed into the song Let Go. Tinie wrote the verses, imagining what it would be like to be tired of fame. I wrote my hookline about keeping people at arm’s length and not allowing yourself to be vulnerable.

Tinie is a gentleman and working with him opened up so many avenues. Hip-hop and urban has become the new pop, but back then what we were all doing felt pioneering. We were banging down the doors.

  • Tinie Tempah’s latest single More Life, and Emeli Sandé’s new single, More of You, are out now.


Interviews by Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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