Different Designs: TeeZee Interviewed

“Sometimes it’s cool to be vulnerable…”

With his flamboyant sound and cross-genre approach, TeeZee is building diasporic connections that straddle the globe. Part of a new wave of Nigerian artists who are shattering the glass ceiling, his ambitions are coming real right before his eyes.

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TeeZee is the flamboyant, confident, ultra-creative face of Nigeria’s ground-breaking newgen. A key figure in the evolution of alté – the potent brew of afrobeats, hip-hop, and R&B that defines the Lagos underground – he’s been able to forge something totally individual, evading the competition by speaking from the heart.

Take his fantastic new solo EP ‘ARRESTED BY LOVE’. A dynamic, soulful journey, TeeZee invites you to walk in his footsteps, crafting an incredible aural journey that takes you from Lagos to the world. If his ambitions are global, then that simply matches his story to date – Teezee is the connecting line between Lagos and London, spending time in both cities when he was growing up.

“For me it was super important to represent both sides,” he reflects. Sitting down to chat with Clash during a rare break in his schedule, our conversation moves from politics to OutKast deep cuts, with TeeZee applying the same passion to both – for him, it’s either 100% or nothing, no matter the topic.

“Every time I create art,” he notes, “I always want a 360 kind of feeling about it, so I need the visuals to match the music, I need the creative to translate what we're trying to say. It's as abstract as possible – I want people to feel a strong relationship towards the creative as well as towards the music.”  

“It's a more visual world now, you know,” he ponders. “Now, you are your own platform.”

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These are lessons TeeZee had to learn first hand. Together with his close friends Fresh L and Boj, the trio formed the vastly influential group DRB, a trio of larger-than-life forces who helped define alté as a sound, and also as an attitude. “DRB have always been a collective,” he says. “It was always individuals who came together to make music as a collective as opposed to a band or a group. DRB – for me – we're more like BBK or Odd Future.”  

“In terms of solo material, it was always something that happened through the process,” he continues. “It wasn't as difficult as it would've been breaking out of a boyband, like Zayn Malik or something.”

Operating completely on his own terms, TeeZee’s solo statement ‘ARRESTED BY LOVE’ is a fantastically broad achievement. Purring with club energy, he’s capable of blending rolling trap snares with heavenly R&B, yet it’s all viewed through a Nigerian lens – the deep love he has for his heritage stains every note with that green and white flag.

“It's loosely based on a Nollywood film, so I wanted to create a scenario where people felt like they're in a movie,” he says. “Every song is like a character in Teezee's world. I did want to start a storytelling project but as time went on, it was more like the curation than the storytelling.”

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This narrative sensibility is how TeeZee can move from neck-snapping opener ‘FREE ME’ to the soulful exploration of his Deto Black collaboration ‘NOK’D’; it’s how he can move from beautiful affirmation ‘DRK SKN’ to diasporic discussion ‘ANCESTORS’ before closing on the political – with a small ‘p’ – ‘NEW GOVERNMENT’. “That song is what I feel like I stand for,” he says of the project’s final track. “For me it was super important for people to see and connect with these things off the bat. If you look between the lines, there's a clear message behind it.”

Citing Fela Kuti’s anti-authoritarian stance and Andre 3000’s free-thinking as massive influences, TeeZee argues that the societal viewpoints in his work are as natural as the more personal, reflective elements. “A lot of people focus on that story of being nothing to becoming something – the story of being a zero to being a hero. But sometimes it's cool to be vulnerable and say yo, there was a time of absolute nothing and now it's revolving the door and there's opportunity for me to make change. All those messages are just super important for me.”

Those ties with the UK are part of what defines TeeZee. His new project is peppered with British artists, such as BackRoad Gee, Knucks, and Pa Salieu. “Pa is one of my closest friends now,” TeeZee notes. ‘He's a very deep character. It's more than just music for him – it's culture, it’s branding, it's representing Africa and the African diaspora. Those things are so essential to us.”

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Indeed, one of TeeZee’s breakout moments came from a bona fide grime legend. A feature on Skepta’s ‘Peace Of Mind’ last year poured gasoline on the sparks of online hype that surrounded TeeZee’s name – everything since has been a blazing inferno. “Skepta's one of my idols,” he says. “He broke grime on a global scale. And that's my mission as well, for alte.”

“I used to watch all his interviews, all his freestyles, all his thoughts, and being in the studio watching him create was a really special moment. Even calling me up to put me on a song with him and Kid Cudi… that really was a blessing!”

Yet one of the reasons TeeZee feels so pivotal right now is that he’s not tied to a genre – no one would listen to ‘ARRESTED BY LOVE’ for example, and mistake it for grime. He’s embracing the methodologies of his London peers, not the sound itself. “The attention to detail, for me, and the methodology behind it, is totally key. Working with someone like that, I saw the real meticulousness to everything. How many times a song is done, and how many times you think it's finished before you go back into it and make sure it's wrapped up, making sure everything is the highest possible level… that's something I definitely picked up from him, and something I continue to implement in my work from every angle.”

Pushing himself to perfection, however, doesn’t come easy. When Clash sits down with TeeZee he’s taking a 20 minute break from the studio, slowing peeling himself away from the mic. “My next project should be out before summer,” he nods. “I've already started the skeleton of my next EP but… I also need a break. People always forget the process of making music and putting it out is actually physically and mentally draining.”

We close by reflecting on Nigeria, and it’s increasing importance within global music. With Davido and WizKid setting audience records on every continent, there’s a lingering feeling that the next truly international icon might not come from from London or Paris or New York or Los Angeles, it will come from Lagos. “I just think it's a really special place,” he says of his homeland. “There's so much going on there culturally, politically, just everything happening there right now, resulting into the production of superstars on a daily basis. It's super exciting. There's a new Nigeria I promise you! There's so much talent, it's kind of crazy. I'm so proud of where I'm from.”

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Words: Robin Murray
Photography: Jack Bridgland

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