“I knew I was onto something special, but I didn’t know I was onto something special, special. Like number one special! It’s just a blessing, you feel me?”
When he speaks on the phone to Clash, Tion Wayne is comfortably the biggest rapper in the UK, after taking ‘Body’ - his swaggering, rave-ready collaboration with Russ Millions - to the top of the singles chart and keeping it there for three weeks. No UK drill cut has come close to having such an impact commercially, but Tion is humble about its significance.
“There’s nuff talented people doing this drill ting, way before me. I was inspired by them. So this is just me carrying on the legacy. It’s a UK thing, man, this sound. I’m just blessed to be the translator to the masses.”
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Tion’s history-making with ‘Body’ is especially impressive when you remember he’s not a drill specialist, despite starring on anthems like ‘Keisha & Becky’, ‘London’ and the icy ‘I Dunno’. As an artist he’s gracefully moved between Black British sounds, from motivational, hustle-driven UK rap on his early ‘Wayne’s World’ tapes (2014 & 2016) to breezy afroswing on 2017’s ‘Transition’ EP. A lot of artists can rap, and rap well. But Tion is a proven hitmaker.
“I feel like people sleep on me, and that gives me the hunger. I’ve had hits with a lot of different people, so I ain’t fully got the credit. People ain’t put their finger on the common denominator. So when I’m in the booth, I’m thinking ‘people need to deep that man can make these hits anytime’. I love melody. As soon as I’ve got the beat, the melody will come. From there, I just tell my story.”
To understand Tion Wayne’s story, you need to understand where he’s from; Edmonton in North London, subject of Daily Mail articles demonising its young people and possessing one of the highest child poverty rates in the UK. It’s blocks and backstreets are the backdrop to the very first YouTube freestyles that created a buzz around his name and his most recent hits.
“A lot of stuff was going on when we was growing up, a lot of violence, a lot of madness. It’s hard for the average boy to come from there and not get caught up in that madness. It’s a small place, and because of that we’re always outnumbered. So everything we do, we’re at a disadvantage. We’ve always been the underdogs.”
That underdog mentality became fierce in Tion - a hustler's ambition to escape the poverty of his youth shines through on his early projects. “Got everything I grind for on my own, Counting up Ps in my zone, Those days I didn’t have Ps for a phone” he raps on ‘Back Then’ from the excellent ‘Wayne’s World 2’ tape.
“I’ve been hungry from young, man. I always wanted to find a way out. As time went on, I had trouble with the law and the opportunities for me to get out lessened. So when I’m speaking about making it out back then, it was a passionate subject because it became less likely. I only had a couple avenues I could take. I didn’t know how I was gonna do it, but I was gonna get that money and be in a better place.”
Edmonton has a very underrated musical history. Artists like Scorcher, Terminator, Black the Ripper and Dynamic - local street legends - inspired Tion to pursue music.
“They’re the reason I started rapping. They had all the man dem repping for their generation. I wanted to do the same for my generation. Seeing someone like Scorcher, who was big from early, being successful and then coming back to the area inspired me. He didn’t know who I was, and then he started to know me through what I was doing with my music.”
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As the name suggests, 2017’s ‘Transition EP’ was supposed to signal Tion’s commitment to a career in music, away from the “madness” he’d been caught up in. He didn’t get to enjoy it’s success, after being sentenced to 16 months for affray. It wasn’t the first time he’d seen the steel and brick of a prison cell, but it would be the last.
“There was a moment when I was in jail. I was on the phone to my manager Terry. He was telling me that everyone was excited for me to come out on Twitter. These times I’m thinking they forgot about me. When you’re inside, it feels like you’ve been there forever.” He continues. “I’d dropped the EP just before I went in. We had a Ditto account and I asked him how much money was in there. He’s like ‘100 bags’ [£100,000]. And he said it so calmly! I went back to my cell with a completely different mindframe. I sat down with my book and started strapping bars. To see that all my efforts before, doing music and making no Ps paid off, and that people were rocking with me independently … that changed everything.”
Now sitting firmly at UK rap’s top table, Tion is supporting Edmonton’s next generation, recruiting 3x3E1 and ZT for the all star ‘Body’ remix. There’s a sense that young drill rappers from Edmonton are overlooked by the industry at large, and he’s determined to change that.
“Some of these man coming up, I can see myself in them. I see everything they're going through and I think ‘shit, all they need is a little break’. I’ve got them fully patterned. I’m looking out for them like a big brother. To come out of Edmonton in this industry is the hardest thing you can do. A lot of people don’t know about our ends, so automatically they pick the other side and that blocks us. I’m kicking down doors and that’s making it easier for the man dem. I feel like we’ve been blacklisted for a long time.”
Tion’s support for young people in his area runs deeper than that, though. It’s about showing them a better, safer way of living. - “When I bring the youngers out and we go for food, or somewhere off the ends, or fly out of the country, they're immediately thinking ‘yo, this is way better than the ends!’ There’s more to life than your area. Coming up, I wouldn’t have noticed that. We never see these things. So when you do, it clicks in your head. Like this is the life I want, not this on the block all the time thing.”
Tion is now in a position where he can pay back his mum for supporting him through the turbulent years he spent risking his freedom and his life. In May he posted a video on Instagram of him surprising her with a Range Rover for her birthday. Her tears of joy and his pride at being able to treat her was beautifully wholesome.
“This is what I used to dream of doing. I never thought I’d be able to. Getting my mum a car, to see her reaction, to see her happy after all the pain I put her through … that whole day I had butterflies in my stomach, and I never get that feeling. I put that up to inspire the youth, man. To show them you can really come out of this ting, and make a positive change.”
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Words: Robert Kazandjian
Photography: Michaela Quan
Fashion: Shaquille Ross-Williams
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