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THEO LONDON: Theo Was Here.

Who is Theophilus London and what led him to transform himself from the Brooklyn-centric rapper Caps into a progressive Hip-Pop artist who’s managed by Mark Ronson?

Words: Anna Graizbord
Images: Jonathan Mannion

Theophilus London started out in music, inexplicably, not using his given name, and rather, was once a more straightforward rapper known as Thelonious Kapps—a sharp contrast to the melodically-inclined artist we know today. But who is Theophilus London and what led him from being Caps to working with Mark Ronson? As his former manager Ashley Sumpter put it, “…not all African-American men have to be rappers”—a sentiment that has likely informed much of London’s stylistic shifts. There is, however something of a very Pop, zeitgeist-friendly thread lurking throughout London’s current projects.

Two of London’s biggest influences during high school and around the beginning of college, when he was most heavily working with Sumpter, were Michael Jackson and Biggie. Sumpter says this actually makes perfect sense in looking at his style now. On one hand, she says he’s got a very strong connection and roots to Brooklyn like Biggie, and on the other, he’s very much concerned with being a performer and putting on a show, like Jackson.

Given the current popularity of meta-ironic performativity, or, as The Hairpin’s Edith Zimmerman put it:

“…[this current] crop of young people [like Kreayshawn and Odd Future] who look and act like cartoons, and where you can’t tell how much of the joke they’re in on and how much of the joke you just don’t get because you’re old, or if everything is just stupider but funner-looking now.”

I asked London what he thought about this particular trend, and though he concluded that he didn’t have a comment about it, the things he actually said were really more just fragmented observations like “…daring…people are talking about it…Lil’ Kim started it…I’m not surprised….” Though it’s interesting to analyze the way London presents himself now in contrast to his past, it wouldn’t necessarily be accurate or fair to lump him in with this particular trend. There is something, however, about London that betrays either a hyper sense of self-awareness and self-reflection, or a complete lack of both/either.

Sonically, London characterizes his style as, “Hip-Hop with a progressive take, mixed with Pop”—heavy with ’80s synth melodies, I might add. London says that his current influences are constantly in flux and range anywhere from The Talking Heads to Marvin Gaye, to Jay Z. I assumed that there was, no doubt, a heavy Morrissey/The Smiths influence, given his track “Humdrum Town” (a reference to The Smith’s “William, It Was Really Nothing”), and his blog called This Charming Blog (no need to explain that one). When I asked London about what drew him to The Smiths and Morrissey, he said:

“[I got into them] as a teen as everyone else does [get into The Smiths/Morrissey]—[Morrissey’s] a great songwriter [with] quirky words; a real lyricist….I learned [from The Smiths as a songwriter] how to say what you want…and [they were] a huge impact on [my] whole world for four or five years…I’m friends with the bassist…he answered all my questions—all I ever wanted to know about The Smiths—but, I moved on from that a long time ago.”

All in one idea, London goes from showing a bit of vulnerability, even a little bit of naïveté (I was left unsure on whether or not he “gets” Morrissey’s signature dry humor or whether or not I “got” London himself), to being somewhat name-dropp-y and pulling some sort of (albeit elementary) “Hipster Olympics” move in his “I’ve moved on” comment.

Sumpter asserted that London’s metamorphosis would not have been possible without his gusto for trying new things and socializing with all kinds of people and “scenes.” I asked London about his more recent collaborative work—as he’s been working with people all over the place, like TV On The Radio’s Dave Sitek, Tegan and Sara’s Sara Quin and Solange Knowles, to name a few. London replied that he “doesn’t believe in collaborating too much,” but enjoys performing with Chauffeur, a band featuring London, his producer and friend Mark Ronson and Electro-Pop-Soul singer/songwriter Sam Sparro. London describes the band as a “high-class luxury rap group.”

Though, Chauffer’s name betrays the type of sound you’ll get from them, being named after a Duran Duran song, it was started because, in 2009, Mark Ronson wanted a musical component to accompany his Gucci line of shoes. How much of that is ironic and how much of it is a completely earnest endeavor that goes so far up irony’s ass that it circles around and comes back to being ironic again? I’m really not sure. Regardless, it does appear that London is also really into the whole “putting your name on a line of shoes” business, as he has an upcoming line with Cole Haan that should be coming out soon, along with a new “mix hit” and music videos.

I asked London if he’s ever had any interest in becoming a fashion designer or considers design to be an interest or hobby. He says he enjoys “…designing custom pieces for shows” like jackets, tank tops, blazers, buttons, patches, especially anything with a military aesthetic, and that although he’s “…never considered a career in fashion design [and wouldn’t want to have a clothing line]…[he] would like to be a [consultant] in design.” London maintains, though, that what sets him apart as an artist and as a rapper is that he is a “nice guy.” Sumpter echoes this sentiment, saying, “no one deserves [to be where he is] more [than London]…he didn’t have a million fans starting out…now he’s enjoying it…. He worked at Jamba Juice and now he’s performing in France.”

Following the reality of his trajectory, is London’s whole deal really a sly commentary on the state of the music industry and the megalomaniac artists of today? Are all the Morrissey and New Wave references supposed to act as veritable Hansel and Gretel-style breadcrumbs for us to trace back to Theophilus London laughing all the way to the bank? I don’t know and I’m not entirely certain if Ronson or even London knows anymore. Whether or not that may make London a veritable David Lynch of Pop….one thing I do know is that Timez Are Weird These Dayz, which drops today, is the first Top 40-type Pop album that I’ve found sonically enjoyable in decades.

Images by Jonathan Mannion.

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