Five years ago, Tinchy Stryder was crowned Britain’s highest-selling solo artist. A year later, he embarked on his second sold-out national tour. And then, he vanished.
Now 27, the man born Kwasi Danquah III is feeling revitalised. “I feel like I’m in a different space”, he says, in the midst of a hectic schedule for fourth album ‘360’, due later in 2014. “It’s been a busy few years, but it’s been worth the wait.”
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His hiatus from releasing music – he never stopped making it – sanctioned Stryder to capitalise on his newfound commercial potential, primarily drawn from a wave of national and international success. Tinchy became grime’s second artist to penetrate pop culture, after fellow East Londoner Dizzee Rascal, leading to approaches from Dixons and Japanese car manufacturer Honda. The latter venture saw him front up the brand’s European marketing campaign.
As a result, Kwasi was catapulted from underground luminary to a household name, beamed into the homes of the public via appearances on numerous TV channels. Triumph after triumph was his to enjoy – but while this period was gratifying, it took its toll. Anxieties began to play on his mind about having to eventually top that success.
“You get caught up in yourself, the pressure was on,” he admits. “The first three singles of [my second album, 2009’s] ‘Catch 22’ went top three so it’s like, okay, what do we do now then?”
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‘Number 1’ (which went to number one, in 2009)
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Instinctively, Tinchy attempted to better his first three albums – ‘Third Strike’, featuring the MC-pile-on of ‘Game Over’, emerged in 2010 – by starting work on a fourth album in 2012. But he soon enough scrapped that progress to start afresh by beginning his own imprint, Takeover Records. It’s a move that he says has unburdened the decision process when releasing music.
“It’s my own label and my choice,” he explains. “I mean, you’ve always got a choice within a team and I’m open to opinions, but I can go with the record that I’m feeling. It reminds me of working on my first album, (2007’s) ‘Star In The Hood’ – back then, I had the freedom to work.”
“I’ve been with a major label and everything, but now it’s independent,” he says, beginning to delve into the concept behind the new album. “That full creative control alone is 360 degrees, back to where you were, but in a stronger position.
“And, away from that, the music, the sound and how people are hearing it is coming full circle. People have told me, ‘You’re sounding like the fire, old you,’ and what not. It’s the energy.”
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‘Game Over’, featuring just about everyone (2010)
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The decision to follow the independent route was somewhat shaped by the changing landscape of an industry where traditional methods are succumbing to the impulsive nature of the digital age. Industry wide, record sales are declining and, coupled with the emergence of streaming and social media, some of the more familiar ways and means have become outdated.
“It’s a challenge, but that’s the most interesting part about it. Before, it was more of a formula: do this and do that, the same routine. But now it’s exciting. With music these days, you can put a song out today and in a week’s time it feels old – we’re at a stage where things come and go so quickly.
“Things have changed, so you have to progress yourself. That’s why so many different people have their own lanes and strategies. It’s great that everybody’s reaching out and trying to find their own way.”
Grime’s coming of age. Inaugurated by Wiley and the rest of Roll Deep, it was stunted by a turbulent phase of censorship where the genre drew criticism from all quarters – including Downing Street – meaning the sound was ultimately pushed back underground. Tinchy and the rest of grime’s second generation picked up the baton on the other side, and have again steered the garage offshoot to broader territories.
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It feels like sometimes you’re a bit ahead of your time in a way, but there is nothing wrong with that because sooner or later things come back around…
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“Music is like fashion,” says Tinchy, “it always comes round. Now the interest has come back to grime a bit more.” He identifies Skepta and the Boy Better Know camp as a few of the scene’s frontrunners in 2014.
“The music is connecting with people, doing well and charting, that’s always good and always a positive thing,” he says, before adding words of caution: “But if you pay too much attention to the chart side of it, you can lose focus.”
To some we’re in a golden age for grime, with acts selling out shows – when they are permitted to go ahead – and once again taking the scene to an international stage. This is momentum initiated in part by Tinchy, who was one of the first amongst grime’s new school to broaden his sound.
“When I released ‘Third Strike’ people were like, ‘Wow this is different,’ especially with the single ‘In My System’. But that sounds like a lot of the music out right now.
“It feels like sometimes you’re a bit ahead of your time in a way, but there is nothing wrong with that because sooner or later things come back around.”
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‘In My System’ (2010)
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In keeping with the era of new rules – or no rules, depending on how you see it – Stryder’s new single ‘ESG’ was available on iTunes and Spotify minutes after surfacing online, a shock tactic that has experienced high levels of success across the pond.
“It looks like I’ve been chosen,” closes out the penultimate verse on the single, the second from ‘360’. “Everything that’s happened isn’t accidental but people don’t see the level of work that goes into my career,” says its maker. “People miss the discreet things that aren’t seen by the everyday eye.”
“So much grind we’ve done, from the very start, at pirate radio stations,” he says, recalling the earliest phases of his career. “We definitely helped pave the way and open doors, but it’s not meant to be easy or we’d all being doing it.”
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Words: Aniefiok Ekpoudom (Twitter)