When we met up with Theophilus London in the back room of Chicago’s Lincoln Hall, he was sitting on a couch. He had a sold out show in less than two hours, but he was leaning back, looking supremely relaxed. The man was resplendent: he had so many chains on that he made the undecorated average citizen look like a peasant, and the newly-purchased gold grills only exaggerated the difference. He had taken the top row out for the interview, because he was still getting used to speaking with all that gold in his mouth. The entourage was big, as befits the major label hip-hop star that Theophilus has become, but he dismissed them all as we sat down to talk.
You’re coming off a pretty big year—2011, kind of officially blowing up. How are you adjusting to all the attention and recognition?
Yeah it’s cool man I just try to stay happy and be thankful that I’m being mentioned and talked about and kids are sharing this music you know ‘cause it’s about my lifestyle, and magazines and things if they’re appreciative of my lifestyle that’s cool yo I’m appreciative of that ‘cause it’s what I’ve always wanted. I try to stay grounded and like get back to what the original goal is, the five album plan goal, staying consistent with music with different projects and stuff like that, just challenging myself daily. That’s how I’ve been keeping up with all this shit.
So you mentioned the “five album plan.” What is that exactly?
Yeah I mean you know, I signed a deal, so we’re gonna put out five albums. I just like to stay ahead of the curve just kinda like a fashion editor or a magazine editor, you know it’s like, “what’s the next month’s issue?” So it’s like after I make a project, I’m already thinking of what the next things is gonna be? But you know it’s not like I’m like Kanye in how I’ve like named each album already. Like I don’t know what they’re gonna be called, but I’ve got five albums to do, so that’s what’s on my job right now. That’s what’s on my notes, if you don’t follow. (holds up iPhone).
[Laughs] So you’ve got some ideas and some concepts?
Oh yeah, yeah. Every album I just put my whole life and self into that album, and then like live it, be that character, be that guy, know what I’m talking about? And every time around I always like to switch the sound so it’s like, even this new stuff has a whole new sound, you know?
“It’s kinda maybe like if Dre’s bass met Bone Thugs meets Marvin Gaye meets like a rave you know, meets like fuckin’… Silkk The Shocker.”
How would you describe your new sound?
The new sound is a bit of a like a… very bass-y. A lot of my first, early music I’d written to double-time beats like [claps to demonstrate], but a lot of stuff is like, half time stuff you know? Like [demonstrates with slower clapping], half time stuff is more bass. You know so it’s me staying experimental, but it’s more heavy bass. It’s kinda maybe like if Dre’s bass met Bone Thugs meets Marvin Gaye meets like a rave you know, meets like fuckin’… Silkk The Shocker.
[Laughs] So a lot of people describe your music as “genre-bending” because it blurs the lines between some many different styles. How do you describe your music?
The fact is my music changes with each project, so you can define it within each project, you know? So Timez Are Weird These Days was like alternative pop music. I was listening to a lot of Talking Heads, a lot of David Byrne, R. Stevie Moore, all that type of stuff so that was a part of the music I wanted to make. With this album it’s more in a whole different realm, so I’m just a cultural grabber, you know, grabbing from all different cultures and eras, and I do research but my sound is not something where you can be like, “It’s this.” It’s not a look, there’s not just one look, there are so many dimensions to my sound. At least to me as a writer you know I look to myself as more of a song writer, I’m not like a Frankenstein with one sound. I’m more like a dude that can write and sing over anything. But you know I’m heavy into A&R for myself, when I do projects, I don’t try to be all over the place, I just make sure it makes sense with the vibe of the project.
You recorded Timez Are Weird in a couple of different places. Do you find yourself gravitating towards different locations because of an international sound? What drew you to Stockholm, for example?
I’d never been to Stockholm, and I’d heard the studios were nice there. I wanted to go there and be somewhere challenging. I went alone, and I didn’t know anything about Stockholm. It was around this weather, very cold, snow and everything. Um, it was fun to go there because like I said I’m a very adventurous person and a I wanted to go down there and see what I could come up with, and very beautiful girls of course over there.
Sometimes I have to record in different places because my schedule is like that, because the music I make is very international, so we go to places rappers don’t usually go. We’ll be having a show in Venice, Italy or Milan or we’re having a show in Cannes, France. We spend four weeks in Paris and then go to different places in France. Marsalis, and then out into the country and to some lighthouses and stuff like that so the music allows us to get to different places. We can play in little dirty clubs like this one, and then we can play in like ballrooms, or we can play at big festivals in France where no one speaks English, but we still have enough energy to move everyone dramatically and emotionally.
That’s awesome. So you’ve been working on this new track called “Big Spender” that features ASAP Rocky and DJ Carnage on production, how did you link up with those guys?
Well, you know Rocky is from New York or whatever, and I’m from New York so you know those guys been friends of mine for a minute and we just finally met up at New Years. I had a party in my hotel room. It was a 50 person room and they came through with like 100 people. Me and Rocky met and we’ve been kicking it ever since. Every day we call each other, you know we just talk on the phone, he comes to my house or something or we go to the studio. It’s not like “We need to record together to make this big because we’re two good artists.” It was like friendship. We became cool, you know? He’s a good friend. So it was natural. You know what I’m sayin? And Carnage, um I knew him cause of his girl Kreayshawn, and he’s a friend of mine as well, he reached out. It’s just love, and when he reached out it happened normally like that.
Is that how you came across Rustie too?
Uh, yeah everyone I come across, they’re just real nice people, everyone I come across is through love and just meeting them. Even if I sample someone without letting them know, or even if it’s just through e-mail and then that shit blows the fuck up [laughs]. It’s like, “Why is my song playing on BBC right now? Because of you.”
So you’ve actually met and talked to Rustie?
No, just e-mail.
“I think ‘Timez Are Weird These Days,’ to me, is like a teal sweater, or this very outrageous color sweater that you just can’t wear every day.”
Right now you’re doing this “Remix The Track” concept with Bing, where your fans get a chance to remix one of your hits and potentially win a chance to collaborate with you. Are you excited to see what they come up with, and is this something that you thought of or Microsoft brought to you?
[Laughs] You know a lot of their “creative people” or whoever, came up with that idea. “Like yo, we’re about release this contest and the winner can come New York and win like thirty-five hundred dollars.” I’m like, “I need to win thirty-five fuckin’ hundred dollars.” But you know, I’m excited about that because you it’s like some kids dream. I was always looking for opportunities when I was young, and I wasn’t making it like that, and I’d be looking up different stuff like “oh there’s an industry party” or “here’s this a networking party” or different bullshit. So I do something that’s real where you can actually win a prize and meet your favorite artist or something like that, hang out with me in New York. That’s cool.
So I really made Timez Are Weird These Days to just sit on the alternative section, something that’s like different, I think Timez Are Weird These Days to me is like a teal sweater, or this very outrageous color sweater that you just can’t wear every day. So it’s like I didn’t really make it for it to be played in a club or anything like that, I just made it so it could just experiment and open people’s minds, like this is a new sound wave, this is a new age, this a new beginning for a new artist. Follow this kid. Follow me.
You know, so now I’m taking Timez Are Weird These Days and puttin it in clubs. These songs, I’m gonna play some of these tonight, they’re so infectiously good to dance to. We’re flipping them into like really good dance songs with the best DJs around the world that I picked. And now they’re gonna be played in the club, next to any other song, next any other hot beat, I don’t care what it is. This shit could play there. And Bing is gonna pay for the whole thing! [Laughs]
[Laughs] That’s awesome. Microsoft is a good connection for you to make as an artist. Obviously you use the internet pretty extensively to promote yourself through the mixtapes and through Twitter. Do you view the Internet’s impact on music as positive or negative?
Yeah I think it’s impacting a little too much, but it’s always going to have an impact. If something’s good it’s gonna stick, you know? It’s so super-influenced now, everyone has a medium to say something or a medium to put out something or bother you twenty times a day saying, “please put this up!” or “please, listen to this.” But things that are gonna get listened to are the good things. It’s my job and every other artist’s job to like make sure these songs are getting in people’s iPods across the world. How can I get a certain song into everyone across the country’s iPod? How can I get it on everyone’s radar? How can I get it on the blogs? It’s fascinating.
So how do you decide what you’re going to wear on stage? Is it kind of just what you’re feeling or…?
Well yeah when I do tours and stuff I kind of design an outfit in my head or like sketch something out and then go out and like emulate that outfit. For every tour there’s kind of like that outfit I wear almost every day. I don’t like to wear like the Supreme sweater and wear like green pants, you know wear like jiggy ass shit on stage. I mean I’m gonna wear jiggy shit on stage, but if I got like a brand party I might put on some Givenchy and some random shit, but like you know I don’t just come out in random clothes. Everything has to be themed; everything has to costumed to go with the theme. Like I designed this badass jacket that I’m going to wear tonight, that I’ve been wearing for this tour.
Your LVRS stuff has been crazy by the way.
It’s super cool, I don’t even know where you get it. Everybody’s been trying to chase it down but apparently it’s like untouchable.
Man, you can get at my house! [Laughs]
[Laughs] You wanna mail us some stuff? Got a room with some extras?
Man I’m just trying to build it up like that. That’s how branding and commercializing works. So we wanna keep it like where it is and making cool exclusive pieces and putting it out to a hundred people across the globe and then when some old rich white guy wants to buy it for like a ninety billion dollars [laughs], then it’ll be everywhere!
Absolutely. We have a decent fashion scene here in Chicago. Do you trying and go shopping when you’re in places like this?
Yeah, yeah man I wanted to today we got pulled over on the way in [to Chicago] by like nine cops.
In Michigan, they pulled us over. There were like nine cops. It was freezing cold, it’s snowing, and I’m outside ‘cause they’re checking me and shit. It was weird.
What’d you get pulled over for?
Actually, it’s crazy, my tour manager quit today too.
Oh shit, what happened?
He couldn’t handle it! [Laughs] It was only three days into the tour! We got pulled over by the cops and they took him to a gas station. He quit in the middle of Michigan out of nowhere. I would have quit in Chicago and like took that fucking flight back or a train. This guy quit in the middle of Michigan like in the middle of nowhere with only like gas stations within twenty miles from each other [laughs]. I feel so bad for this guy. So yeah, they pulled us over and he opened up the car to get our passports, and we’d smoked a little bit of weed of course ’cause we were ridin’ dirty, nah well we weren’t ridin’ dirty, but we we’re smokin‘ dirty. So he smelled the joint and then got in the car and checked everyone and he arrested the tour manager. I would have quit too if I got arrested. [Laughs]
[Laughs] So you’re hiring a tour manager now?
Yeah, yeah you know, it’s a scary tour man.
[Laughs] How much longer you got? This is like the third day, so like third date.
Yeah, like 25 more. We’re just taking off.
You were just here in Chicago a few months ago opening for Friendly Fires, that was a crazy show.
That was the first time I’d heard the original version of “Big Spender” live, have you been rolling that out in all of your shows recently?
Yeah, I recorded “Big Spender” on my last Australian tour when Big Boi was there.
(At this point during the conversation there is an odd aroma of smoke seeping into the green room from underneath the door. We all noticed it, Theophilus asked about it, and sent his boy Brandon out to check on the situation.)
Those guys smoking weed out there? Yo, tell them guys to smoke weed in here yo.
Yeah I recorded “Big Spender” a couple months ago in Australia.
(Brandon returns to share that it’s only cigarette smoke. There is a collective sigh of disappointment.)
Yeah so I started performing “Big Spender” a couple of months ago. I want to try it out and test it out at the show and see if people will dig it and shit and I just keep doing it until I want to record it. That’s how “Big Spender” was you know? And I was gonna put it out a long time ago, Big Boi wanted to be on it at first, but then I didn’t wanna put it out without it being on a home or anything like that. I wanted to make it apart of something. I waited and Rocky heard it and he wanted to be on it. He actually wanted to be on like five different things. He was like, “I want to be on all of these!” So we’ll see if he ends up on all of them.
Have you thought about doing a strict collaboration album or would you rather pick and choose whom you work with?
Yeah I’m going to do that with producers. I think it’s kind of redundant for rap right now. I wouldn’t really do it with any rapper right now, but I want to do it with producers.
Do you have anybody in mind?
Um, yeah…can’t tell that though. Otherwise I’d have to stop other people from working with them you know what I mean?
(There’s a pause as London takes the last sip of a drink and rattles around some remaining ice cubes in the now mostly empty cup.)
I can’t talk very well I just got these fronts in my mouth. I’m still getting used to them.
Where’d you get em?
In Brooklyn, New York. I got both top and bottom, but I only have these in (points to his bottom row of fronts), otherwise I wouldn’t be able to talk to you guys at all.
[Laughs] How long of a process is it to get something like that done?
It took me two days. They put your mouth in some type of gel, and It freezes. It gets hard, you take it out and the guy does what he does.
Can you do a show with those in?
Oh yeah, I’ll be wearing both tonight.
(At this point in the interview, things are winding down a bit. We can tell that Theophilus is in need of a fresh drink and ready to party a bit with his crew before taking the stage in a few hours. Expecting this to be our last question, we drop the obligatory “Pigeons or Planes?” inquiry on him.)
As you know, the name of the site is Pigeons & Planes, so we want to know which you prefer; Pigeons or Planes?
Well, pigeons aka girls.
Check this one out right here. You guys are gonna be at the show tonight, right?
Oh yeah, for sure.
(Proceeds to play the beat from one of his new tracks, which is being performed live, but hasn’t officially been recorded. It’s a huge beat that samples the “Pinky and the Brain” theme song and flips it into an insane version of Theophilus swag rap.)
So what’s the new material release schedule like? You said you have something coming out shortly, are you doing more single releases or full albums?
Yeah single releases and we got two videos coming soon. Um, working on a mixtape. It’s something like 27 songs, we tried to cut it down, we have 30 something right now. It’s kind of overdue music, but it’s like 27 songs. It’s like the follow-up to I Want You, but like very more explosive you know. It’s more of an album format. I’m gonna put it in as much of a mixtape format as I can, like maybe samples and cover a lot of songs too. A lot of originals too, a lot of originals.
Right now its 27 songs and we’re gonna try to keep it at 27, but it’s very explosive. I mean at least 16 of the songs are like super huge—big beats. A lot of the stuff is original stuff, like Rusite and like three others are the only ones I kinda did my mixtape thing with. Or like I would reach out to a producer for that beat because I liked it, like I’m doing something with Dam-Funk. This one here is just exclusive original shit. It’s explosive. New sound, new bitches. Man, new everything.